It’s been six years since a new gaming console came on the market, but the next next-gen gaming wars have finally kicked off with the arrival of Nintendo’s Wii U. It’s somewhat more complicated than its casual-audience predecessor, with a touchscreen-based GamePad controller that essentially turns the Wii into a supersized version of the dual screen Nintendo DS handheld.
It still plays all your old Wii games, and works with your existing Wii-mote and nunchuk controllers, but it's now in HD and some games, like the new New Super Mario Bros., can even be played on the controller's iPad-ish screen while parents (or, in my case, wife) are watching whatever they want on the TV. This last part is sheer genius, by the way. (If you're wondering whether the console is right for you, HuffPost blogger Tevin Mickens breaks down some pluses and minuses here.)
But if you’re picking one of this winter’s hottest holiday items — with 400,000 units sold in the first week — you’re gonna need some games, too. The console has 23 launch titles, ranging from splatterfest Ninja Gaiden 3: Razor’s Edge and dark Disney sequel Epic Mickey 2: The Power of Two to bizarre downloadable Little Inferno and exercise “game” YourShape Fitness Evolved 2013. We’ve played a bunch and these are our best bets.
Nintendo Land (Nintendo)
The premium version of the Wii U comes with four times as much memory and the packed-in game Nintendo Land. Consider this the equivalent of Wii Sports, a tech demo-type collection of minigames to help you suss out your new console's newfangled abilities. Using a theme park, er, theme rooted in decades of Nintendo nostalgia, it offers a dozen bite-size “attractions,” featuring the likes of Mario, Zelda, Pikmin, Donkey Kong and Metroid (as well as some long-forgotten obscurities). These all show off various aspects of the new technology, from the GamePad’s touchscreen and tilt features to five-person multiplayer in both co-op and competitive modes. There’s nothing in-depth here, but it’s lots of fun and if you’re buying the console you should probably see what it can do.
New Super Mario Bros Wii U (Nintendo)
It says “new,” but don’t worry, this latest Super Mario sidescroller is as traditional as modern gaming gets. There are spruced-up graphics to be sure, making this the prettiest Italian plumber yet, but ultimately this is the same essential platformer that Nintendo has been pumping out since the mid-80s. And no wonder, because for all the evolution of gaming over the past decades, there’s a primal joy to be had playing Nintendo’s ever-ingenious level design. There are some nips and tucks here and there, but as far as single-player goes, you get a pure old-school gameplay experience. In multiplayer, however, the GamePad becomes a “boost” device that makes that player something of a Dungeon Master, able to place platforms or stairs onscreen to assist (or hinder, if you’re feeling evil) other players, including little kids who could use some help defeating Bowser and rescuing poor Princess Peach.
Nintendo consoles have often been tagged as family-focused consoles — not that there's anything wrong with that — but the Wii U is the House of Mario’s biggest-ever attempt to win over the hardcore gamer market, and they’re doing so with bloody offerings like this first-person survival-horror title. Set in London after a prophesied zombie apocalypse has turned much of England into the undead, you must explore the city, including Buckingham Palace, in hopes of finding a cure that a 16th-century astronomer may have devised during the Elizabethan Era. Ammunition is limited — though at least your trusty cricket bat doesn’t run out of bullets — and when you die, you die permanently. In an interesting gameplay twist, you wake up as a new survivor and must track down your now-zombifield former self to retrieve your backpack and gear. The GamePad, meanwhile, acts as radar, map, inventory and a second screen for picking locks, reading documents or aiming a sniper rifle. So enjoy, but keep this creepy game far away from kids.
Scribblenauts Unlimited (5th Cell Media / Ubisoft)
The Scribblenauts series, which debuted a few years ago on the DS, really comes to life with the added fidelity and complexity of the Wii U for its latest sequel, including both an actual storyline and an object editor for the first time. You play as Maxwell, a boy with a magic notepad, which allows you to write down almost any conceivable object on your GamePad and make it appear — you can even add adjectives to change its properties. The goal is to wander around a cartoonish, two-dimensional open-world and solve people’s problems (ranging from rescuing treed kittens and entertaining bored boys to filling a gallery with appropriate art, helping a doctor with an organ transplant or even fending off a zombie invasion) by summoning anything you think might do the job, be it a dinosaur, heart or tidal wave. Scribblenauts’ sales pitch has always been “create anything,” and that includes a genius argument against anyone saying gaming is dumbing down our kids, since this videogame is all about creativity, imagination and vocabulary.
Batman: Arkham City -- Armored Edition (Rocksteady/Warner Bros. Interactive)
Back in the Wii days, classics like Arkham City would simply bypass the system because it was too underpowered. But no more. Admittedly, this is arriving a whole year after the original superhero sequel came out, but it includes the brilliantly executed main game and all the downloadable content, too. It also (arguably unnecessarily) brings in B.A.T (Battle Armored Tech) for both Batman and Catwoman to give you some extra oomph as you fight your way through the anarchic, open-air and prisoner-run maximum security prison once known as North Gotham. The GamePad becomes a handheld Batcomputer, hosting your map and menus while also being your communicator with Alfred and a scanner for detective mode. Is it better than the original? Not really, but it does have all the extra DLC and for those without a PS3 or 360, it’s your first chance to play one of this generation’s greatest games.