Nintendo has a storied history with multiplayer games. Back in the days of the Nintendo 64 and the GameCube, its power to get four people in a room together was unrivaled. Now, every console supports four or more controllers, and the online arena makes it easier to play together than ever before.
But sometimes, there's just no substitution for getting a bunch of people together in the same location, and rocking out some fun, old-fashioned minigames. So long as you're not expecting a life-changing experience with Wii Party U, I'd say it accomplishes exactly that.
Wii Party U (Wii U)
Developer: Nintendo (Nd Cube)
Released: October 25, 2013
MSRP: $49.99 (with Black Wii Remote Plus - physical release only)
Wii Party U is basically Nintendo's crack at a Mario Party-like IP (although Nd Cube did recently handle Mario Party 9). Under the helpful watch of the absolutely adorable Muppet-like Party Phil and Party Penny, you'll take your personalized Mii on a journey across three modes: board games, a party mode, and activities played entirely on the GamePad. Yep, just like Mario Party, there are a few boards to travel across that basically serve as a delivery mechanism for minigames.
The design feels a bit odd for sure, because in some ways the in-game mechanics are superior to Nintendo's famous party franchise, and in others, it feels more bare-bones. For instance, I love the rolling system in Wii Party U, as it's mostly based on skill rather than luck. Depending on the board, you'll either earn more dice for performing well in minigame challenges, or the dice rolls themselves are tiny microgames.
So instead of simply rolling a die and moving that many spaces, you may have to shoot a blowgun dart at a numbered balloon by blowing into the GamePad's microphone, or quickly tap a procession of numbers flying across the touch screen. But while I found that minor mechanical tweak to be a unique change of pace, the boards have a distinct lack of personality. Instead of the clever tricks and traps found in most Mario Party boards (the Monopoly and Ghost Mansion maps really stand out for me), most boards in Wii Party U are very bare-bones, and offer generic mishaps like "go back three spaces."
At the crux of the entire experience are the minigames, of which there are over 80. In a setup similar to Mario Party, you can access all of these individually from the main menu, as well as set up micro tournaments that consist entirely of skirmish after skirmish with some gimmicks involved to mix things up. The games range from luck-based endeavors like "hide from the ostrich!" to one of the most enjoyably competitive (albeit simple) Pac-Man clones I've seen to date. One really cool feature is the ability to "rate" games after you've played them on a five-star rating system, which is then collectively applied to games on the list via the internet.
As an aside, the vast majority of these games are played with Wiimotes, so you'll need four of them to accommodate a full house. Thankfully most of them didn't go overboard with waggle, and there's a decent mix of old-school NES-style controls alongside some shaking. Effectively, you could call Wii Party U "Minigames: The Game," which would be both a compliment and a slight -- but in general I was having fun, even if I've seen most of it before.
Party Mode is a bit more out of the box, offering activities like "rate your friends," to Pictionary, to a Twister-like free-for-all, where everyone is trying to grab certain buttons on the GamePad, and four Wiimotes laid out on the floor. You'll need a party of three or more to play the majority of these, and depending on how active your group is, your mileage will vary. For some of these games you'll need a special stand, which is included in the box to help prop up your GamePad. I wasn't too impressed by these, but with the right group you'll make your own fun.
The final piece of the puzzle is a small collection of GamePad-only games. This portion is restricted to two players, since each person will be taking up one end of the controller, using opposite analog sticks to control the action. These are more like tech demos compared to the rest of the Wii Party U, and include things like foosball, baseball, and marble games. It can be a bit annoying to find a perfect spot that's in range of the Wii U to accommodate two players on the same screen -- but with an enthusiastic partner, at least half of these adversarial and co-op-enabled games can serve as a minor distraction. In short, it's more like an extra than a full-blown feature.
Outside of the sheer amount of minigames and modes on offer, there isn't a whole lot to unlock in Wii Party U -- what you see is basically what you get. In terms of replay value you'd be hard pressed to be entertained for more than a week by yourself, and with two players, you may get another week or two out of it. But with three to four player engagements constantly, you're going to get a ton more mileage.
In some ways Wii Party U feels like a more refined Mario Party, albeit with a lot less heart and charm. It constantly straddles the line between tech-demo and full-on experience, but after playing it extensively, my brain tends to gravitate towards the latter. Although it isn't the be-all-end-all of party games, I'm pulling for Party Phil and Party Penny to be in the next Smash Bros. -- because after all, Nintendo could really use more Muppets.