How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Nintendo
The Wii U was the standout console of my 2014 – and with games like <i>Mario Kart</i> and <i>Bayonetta 2</i>, it should have been yours, too.
We all have a console that defines our youth. As this piece (and also this one) suggests, I was a Sega boy first, and everything else a distant second. I was lucky to grow up with two brothers who, between them, had a SNES and, later, the first PlayStation, so I could dip into what rivals were offering – but the machines in my bedroom, Amiga aside, were always black.
First the Master System; then a Mega Drive; and I even went as far as adding a Mega CD and 32X before dropping the fanboy ball when the Saturn arrived. By which I mean: I couldn't afford one, because I was 15, and they were fucking expensive. (Its US launch price of $399.99 is the equivalent of over $600 today.)
Nintendo wasn't quite the enemy, but Sega had dug its 8bit pixels in that bit deeper by the time I was finally allowed a games console of my own. I blame friendships. A best mate in primary school lived just around the corner, and he had a Master System. We'd sit in his living room playing Hang-On, Altered Beast and some game set in a haunted mansion for hours, pausing only to pour ourselves too-strong squash or, just occasionally, listening to one of his dad's Thin Lizzy LPs.
A few years later, a friend who lived even closer – literally over the road – procured a Mega Drive with EA Hockey. (His dad preferred Genesis and Dire Straits.) It was with these guys who I'd swap games and brag about high scores with – the closest NES was several streets away, practically halfway to school, and it was a rare day I visited there.
I went cold turkey on video games for a while. I was spending a lot of time with a girl (she's my wife now, so that all worked out), and college meant classes skipped for both pub visits and rummaging through the racks of my shitty local town's record stores (none of which are open today).
I spent my money on CDs and gigs; on the bitter that none of my lager-drinking companions were into; on playing pool; and, once driving licenses were earned, on bowling and the pictures and clubbing (just occasionally we'd get someone like Pete Tong come through, which felt like a really big deal in the later stages of the 1990s – enough to make me button up a shirt for the evening rather than slum it in baggy jeans and knackered Cons).
When I got back into gaming with zeal approaching – or even surpassing – my pre-teen enthusiasm, the Xbox 360 was the console of choice, and Grand Theft Auto IV the title I was most wowed by. I worked my way back a generation, picking up a PS2 off a music industry mate for a tenner, and my wife bought me a Dreamcast a few Christmases ago, to add to my Sega memories. I got a PlayStation 3 when the system had enough worthwhile exclusives to its name: the Uncharted series, LittleBigPlanet, Demon's Souls (which I've still not actually played), culminating in the generation-defining The Last of Us.
The whole time, I didn't really think of Nintendo. I'd spent time on my brothers' SNES, on RPGs like Secret of Mana, Chrono Trigger and A Link to the Past, all of which trumped any comparable adventures on the Mega Drive, but the Wii didn't appeal. It was a console for people who didn't really like gaming, thought the me of back then. It had cooking games, dancing games and countless Mario-branded mini-game collections. It had Petz and Imagine Fashion Party and Elmo's Musical Monsterpiece, for fuck's sake. Yeah, it sold a ton of units – over 100 million to date – but it was home to some absolute shit. I mean, what is this about?
Of course, I was naïve to think that the Wii was just for kids. But all the same, Nintendo seemed like a company adrift of the competition, a dwindling presence as its Wii U launched to confusion over its peripherals, dismay at its supposedly underpowered CPU and a lack of third-party support – the system's port of Watch Dogs came out a full six months after it'd appeared on Sony and Microsoft consoles both present and past gen, while versions of Crytek's Crysis 3 and Gearbox's Aliens: Colonial Marines were outright cancelled. I couldn't think of a reason to own a Wii U – not when the PS4 was going great guns commercially and the Xbox One seemed a natural progression from my beloved 360.
Then Mario Kart 8 changed everything.
The trailer for Mario Kart 8
It was a bit of a whim. The game – the first Mario Kart to be rendered in (absolutely, sparklingly, devastatingly beautiful) HD – looked like a trip down memory lane, and when I was asked if I'd like to come in and check it out, I did just that.
Might be OK – a flashback to the original that I'd been mercilessly thrashed at by SNES-owning mates. I wasn't expecting it to leave me not just eager to play more, but to rush out and get a Wii U as soon as possible, yet that's where I was as I packed away my notepad, gulped down the dregs of my Coke and set off for home. The whole journey I searched for the best Wii U bundle deals, and just a few days later I bit the Bullet Bill and clicked to collect.
I've not looked back; the Wii U was my machine of choice for the second half of 2014, home to some of my very favourites of the year. I'd read the summaries of its meagre sales, of its struggles beside the bigger boys with their shiny shooters and resplendent racers – but reports of Nintendo's seemingly imminent death were greatly exaggerated, and the company was never at risk of " going bust". The 3DS was a solid seller, and the Wii U would, ultimately, begin to catch its rivals.
With over a million copies sold in just three days, Mario Kart 8 was the beginning of the Wii U's commercial turnaround. The posting of a net loss in its previous fiscal year seemed to spell doom for Nintendo, but come December Wii U sales were hitting new heights, with Super Smash Bros. for the system selling close to quarter of a million copies in week one, roughly representing a pick-up rate of one in ten among the console's user base. I've not been able to commit all that much time to the home version of Smash Bros. as yet – but that's only because my Wii U's been filled with other tempting attractions.
The trailer for Bayonetta 2, the best kicking-things-in-the-face game of 2014
I downloaded Pikmin 3 as part of the bundle deal that delivered me my premium pack Wii U with Mario Kart 8 – ooh, feel those whopping 32 gigabytes of storage. It's a gorgeous game, a hypnotic exploration of ankle-level annihilation. It makes decent use of the Wii U's GamePad – something not all (even first-party) titles can claim to do – delivering a really hands-on experience as you tap your finger, or the stylus, on the smaller screen to propel minuscule flower people at whatever target needs attacking. Hyrule Warriors was a minor distraction from my Karting, but its hacking and slashing was just the starter ahead of the arrival of perhaps the Wii U's very best game to date: Bayonetta 2.
Game of the year according to Edge, recipient of a 10/10 review at Destructoid and a topic of debate among those who want to see fairer representations of women in video games (which is basically everyone who didn't celebrate the return of Dapper Laughs), Bayonetta 2 is the most complete action game of 2014, a more-than-worthy successor to the 2009 original and one of the most elegantly engaging, compulsively challenging games I've ever played. It's a celebration of violence, of artistic destruction, of split-second timing and endorphin-flooding retribution. It's bloody and crude and mesmeric and just delightful – and it's the family-friendly Nintendo that is solely responsible for giving it the chance it deserved.
The first Bayonetta was a critical hit but hardly a substantial seller, more a cult classic than a cornerstone of collections the land over. Sega published that game, but as the company shrank in the wake of a 7.1 billion yen loss in 2012, it had to focus on fewer titles. So while Sega's logo does flash up when you start Bayonetta 2, it's Nintendo on publishing duties this time around – which is why it's exclusive to the Wii U. Atsushi Inaba, executive director at developers Platinum Games, told Polygon in 2013: "Would Bayonetta 2 not exist without Nintendo? The answer is yes."
Right now, I'm powering up the Wii U for Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker. Ostensibly a spin-off from a Super Mario 3D World minigame, this delightful puzzler is precisely what I want from the Wii U in 2015: an unmistakably Nintendo presentation that earns its Seal of Quality, and that makes decent use of the console's touchscreen GamePad. The player can tilt their controller to alter their perspective on each stage, poke the screen to move blocks and blow into the microphone to raise platforms. When there's projectiles (turnips) to fire the way of Para-Biddybuds and Piranha Creepers, the smaller screen becomes your sights, the A button your trigger. It's completely intuitive and terrifically tactile.
Did I envision that, at this stage of my life and with the options available across multiple formats, that the game I'd be most keen to crack on with every evening would be a barely taxing physics teaser starring a mushroom and his mate? Never. I've got Far Cry 4 to finish, Destiny to catch up with, Dragon Age: Origins to start and the PS4 remaster of Grand Theft Auto V to just soak myself in. I've left Alien: Isolation hanging, and I've still got giant swathes of the United States left to reveal in The Crew. Yet here I am, guiding Toad along a precarious pathway towards a diamond that I don't necessarily need – but I want to ace this game, damn it.
Nintendo's in the blood now, just as those Sega games were way back when – and I'm not ashamed in the slightest. Will I worry what the bigger boys with their level-30 raids are thinking when I'm buzzing around Old Russia at level 10 in a few months' time, when I finally dip back into Destiny? Will I hell. Sure, they can crack-shot a Cabal boss from a considerable distance – but can they say they just recently knocked out a giant, star-stealing bird with a freakishly massive turnip? I seriously doubt it.