It’s not officially the holiday season for video games until the Nintendo Airbus rolls into town. For the next few weeks, the Airbus will be zipping around the country to promote Nintendo’s winter lineup. It’s one of the more cozy PR events that I’ve been privy to—the hospitable RV contains an HDTV, a Wii-U and several different iterations of Nintendo’s handheld DS systems, including the new and affordable 2DS. For an hour or so, we learned about Nintendo’s upcoming holiday bundles and peeped on some of the new Amiibo figures that will soon be hitting shelves. More importantly, we had a rare opportunity to try out some exclusive Nintendo titles, both for the Wii-U and for the handheld systems. It’s a tough job, but someone’s got to do it—right?
As far as portable gaming systems go, Nintendo’s DS line is hands down the most successful—Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow and Trauma Center rank pretty high on my list of overall kickass games. While the 3DS is still going strong, Nintendo’s newly minted 2DS is part of some pretty sweet holiday bundles this year. The 2DS plays all of the 3DS titles, but without the 3D aspect. Initially, I was curious about the purpose of this seemingly downgraded system, but at $100 plus a free game, it’s an awesome option for younger gamers. Bundle-wise, the 2DS will be available with Mario Kart 7 (and it comes in three different colors!) or the new title Yo-Kai Watch, which is where my Nintendo Airstream experience began.
Until this point, I had never heard of Yo-Kai Watch, but apparently it’s part of a Pokemon-like phenomenon that is sweeping across Japan right now. It has a similar monster collecting vibe, but where Pokemon are animals, Yo-Kai are more like wandering spirits. Taking control of a boy named Nate, players use his special Yo-Kai Watch to track down these rogue mischief-makers. Each Yo-Kai is responsible for certain emotions, whether they’re negative or positive, so a big part of the gameplay comes from finding people who are acting weird and then tracking down the Yo-Kai that’s messing with them. Also, one of them has an ass for a face—presumably the Yo-Kai that causes people to be assfaces sometimes.
During fights, the player can have six Yo-Kai queued up—three up front and three in reserve. It feels like a traditional JRPG combat scenario, except for the fact that the computer controls your team’s basic attacks. This was a bit jarring for me to see my creatures acting on their own, since I’m a bit of a planner when it comes to these things, but for a younger gamer who just wants to see weird-ass Japanese spirits duking it out, it makes total sense. The touch screen can be used for things like rotating in different Yo-Kai and purifying those who get possessed (these things happen). My favorite moments came when I initialized a Yo-Kai’s Soultimate ability, which requires the completion of a stylus-supported puzzle in order to be successfully unleashed.
Yo-Kai Watch is definitely built with younger players in mind, but it managed to scratch my itch for in-game exploration and collecting.
Chibi-Robo! Zip Lash
It’s tough not to love little Chibi-Robo. In this side-scrolling adventure, the chrome-domed do-gooder is out to save the world from aliens—and to clean up any messes they’ve made along the way. Essentially, it’s a platformer that relies heavily on physics puzzles. Chibi-Robo has a plug that dangles out of his back, and the player collects various power-ups in order to extend his cord so he can ascend to loftier heights of glory.
The side-scrolling platform gameplay presents the player with enough physics puzzles to offer up a nice challenge, but the controls had some sensitivity issues. There were several times that I was trying to set up a precise ricochet so my plug could hit its target that I made my character crouch, which starts the whole process over again. Based on my past experience with other 3DS games, I also felt that Chibi-Robo! could have been a bit more graphically polished. Regardless, it’s a fun little handheld platformer, and the game is available in a bundle with an adorable Chibi-Robo Amiibo.
The Legend of Zelda: Tri Force Heroes
Perhaps the most enjoyable of the handheld titles that I sampled during the tour, Tri Force Heroes is a blast of cooperative greatness. Following in the footsteps of Four Swords Adventures, Tri Force Heroes accommodates up to three players and thrusts them into all kinds of team-building exercises. The essential component here is the ability to stack characters on top of each other, which proved to be unexpectedly entertaining. Our fight with an electric blob boss required one person to move the tower of Links in order to avoid lightning bolts while the top-most Link shot at its weak spot with a bow and arrow. While this didn’t leave much for the middle Link to do but offer supportive feedback, it was still a blast to work as a team.
Combining the nostalgic gameplay of A Link to the Past with some thoughtful cooperative challenges is a total win here. Plus, one game cartridge is enough to support three different players through the 3DS’s networking capabilities. There’s no better way to celebrate the togetherness of the holidays than to tag team a gaggle of Moblins.
Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash
I’ve always had a special place in my heart for the golf and tennis franchises that Nintendo offers. Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash is the newest installment for the Wii U, and it is gorgeous. The danger of sports games is how fast they can get boring, but Ultra Smash has a lot to offer to keep that from happening too quickly—Mega battles, knockout challenges, mega ball rally and online matches. Mega battles are simple tennis matches with mega mushrooms—you’re more susceptible to body shots, but you’re less likely to miss the ball. It’s really satisfying when you smack the ball right into a giant Yoshi’s nose and he shrinks down defeated. The knockout challenge arena is where you can train up your amiibo to be a kick-ass doubles partner in the online matches. There are eight different stats you level up to make your best match, and there are some in-game perks you earn as you progress with your amiibo. The list of compatible amiibos isn’t very long, but the adorable yarn Yoshi’s are on there and I can’t wait to have the cutest doubles partner ever. In the mega ball rally, you want to keep the volley going as long as you possibly can. It’s a quick and easy way to earn coins, but once you get to a high score, it’s not really worth thinking about. This won’t sell any Wii U systems for the holidays like Super Smash Brothers did last year, but it will be a beautiful addition to your current library on November 20.
Animal Crossing: Amiibo Festival
After the success of Animal Crossing: New Leaf, Nintendo’s been pushing the series hard. Happy Home Designer was out earlier this year, and now Amiibo Festival is coming out for the holidays. Amiibo Festival requires the use of the Animal Crossing amiibos, so the game comes bundled with Isabelle and one other villager for you and a friend to start playing with. You’ll start off on a game board similar to the Mario Party franchise, but you can actually build on it by spending the bells you earn wandering the board. The goal of the game is to “hoard happiness”—my favorite explanation of a game ever—and whoever has the most happiness wins. Animal Crossing fans are going to love it—when you land on a happiness space, you get a small dialogue box with fun little scenes. All of the characters from the game make appearances while you play through the board—usually as special spaces that you can land on. The obligatory mini-games are here too, they come from the Animal Crossing cards that you can go out and buy right now. Amiibo Festival also has a few other modes—Desert Island Escape and Quiz Show. The names are pretty self-explanatory, but they seem like fun. You have to work together to escape a desert island by collecting materials to build a raft to escape, or shelter and the quiz show questions are occasionally obscure. It’s going to be a fun little game for everyone, but AC fans are going to have an especially fun time with it on November 13.
Nintendo’s been working on their Indie scene over the last year and it’s looking good. Runbow is a Wii U exclusive that’s been out for a few months, but I finally had a chance to play it on the Airstream. It’s a platform racer with a unique art style and feel. You can race for trophies or be the last man standing, survive all the toughest levels, fight to be King of the Hill, or take on the evil Satura in single-player mode. As you race through the levels, the color will change, which causes some of the platforms to disappear in the background, which can send you right to your death. You can collect items to mess with your opponents and, naturally, you can punch people to get ahead. With just two people, it was a blast, you can go up against up to eight other friends with a combo of Wii motes, Nunchucks, and Wii U Pro controllers. You can customize your characters with all sorts of outfits to keep you differentiated from everyone else, and I just loved the small scenes when the levels were over. It’s a fun little indie game to add to your party game repertoire.
Nintendo’s Airstream tour was the harbinger of the holidays for me this year—the Airstream was beautifully decorated with wrapping paper that I wish I could steal, and the Christmas spirit was in the air. Last year it was in early October, and that may be part of the reason that it didn’t feel as impressive. We also lost the two big IPs that were supposed to come out this holiday season, Star Fox Zero and the new Legend of Zelda to next year and maybe it’s that disappoint that’s casting a small shadow on all the Airstream had to offer. It didn’t dampen the experience, however, it was still incredibly fun to hang out with the Nintendo reps and play all the games I’ve been on the fence about purchasing—the future releases and the current ones. Nintendo has many a bundle for adults and kiddos alike this holiday season—Yo-Kai Watch 2DS bundle, Mario Kart Wii U bundle with an eshop card to purchase all the DLC were my personal favorites. Xenoblade Chronicles X is Nintendo’s big release for Christmas on December 4th, but JRPGs aren’t very mainstream so it might be a tough sell, no matter how beautiful it looks. Nintendo’s focus may be on the releases of next year, so this might be the time to pick up their consoles in preparation of what’s to come.