Nintendo reached historic levels of success with the Wii, but they stumbled out of the gates with the Wii U. The console was notable for being Nintendo’s first HD console, but the biggest selling point was the inclusion of a GamePad that housed its own touch screen. Unfortunately, few games truly took advantage of the unique controller. Some titles offered creative asymmetric gameplay experiences, but third-parties were not interested in experimentation and Nintendo themselves failed to justify the value of the GamePad. This issue was further compounded by poor marketing decisions. Naming the console the Wii U created confusion with consumers and glib gaming journalists alike, and backward compatibility with Wii games and accessories only made things more confusing. The Wii U was the least successful Nintendo console since the Virtual Boy and it’s generally considered a disappointment – if not, an outright failure. Even though its features were half baked and its promise was never realized, the Wii U was still home to many of the generation’s best games. The Wii U feels like Nintendo’s version of the Dreamcast in many ways, and I had fun with the system even if most gamers and publishers took a pass on it. Production of the Wii U has ended and Nintendo’s last Wii U game has been released, so now’s as good a time as any to look back at the best games released for Nintendo’s one-of-a-kind console.
- ZombiU (2012)
ZombiU was met with mixed reviews, but it was everything that core gamers were asking for in a launch title. It was a new IP, it was intended for mature audiences, and it offered gameplay experiences that couldn’t be found elsewhere. The game is set in London after a zombie outbreak has ravaged the city, and players assume the role of a survivor who is trying to escape. If players are attacked by a zombie, their character will become a zombie themselves and players will then assume the role of another random survivor. If players track down their previous character, they can potentially reclaim all of the items that they had previously collected. Some criticized the game for being too difficult, but ZombiU captures the essence of a zombie apocalypse and the fear it would instill. The primary weapon in the game is a simple cricket bat which is slow and under-powered. At the same time, the player can be defeated with a single zombie bite and the game’s auto-save features cannot be turned off. As a result, every zombie encounter feels like a significant event, and players have to be on alert at all times since they always have something to lose. ZombiU deserves credit for its creative use of the Wii U GamePad. Players primarily use the GamePad to scan for items and to manage their inventory, but looking down at the second screen diverts their attention from the action. Much in the same way that rummaging through a backpack would make you vulnerable in a real-life scenario, looking at the Wii U’s second screen leaves you open to attack in ZombiU. The game never gives players a break, and that’s what makes it so intense. ZombiU wasn’t the fast-paced first-person shooter that some people were looking for, but it’s one of the purest examples of a survival/horror game that I’ve ever played.
- Xenoblade Chronicles X (2015)
A spiritual successor to Xenoblade Chronicles that borrows heavily from its predecessor, Xenoblade Chronicles X is an open-world RPG with an emphasis on exploration. The game follows a group of humans who are forced to take refuge on a distant planet after the Earth is destroyed by hostile aliens. The planet in question is filled with majestic sites and magnificent creatures, and it’s a lot of fun to discover new areas. The first Xenoblade Chronicles is one of the greatest RPGs of all-time, and the follow-up is cut from the same cloth in many regards. The battle system, mission structure, and expansive environments were directly inspired by the original, but Chronicles X adds transforming mecha (called Skells) to the mix that can traverse land, sea, and air. The world in Chronicles X is significantly larger than its predecessor’s was, so the importance of the Skells cannot be overstated. There are some areas where Chronicles X falls short of the original, however. The decision to focus on a player-created character hurt the narrative structure of the game to an extent, and it’s not always clear what you’re supposed to do in order to drive the story forward. Nevertheless, the premise is compelling and the environments are filled with atmosphere and wonder. You won’t always know where you’re going, but the journey is exciting even when the objectives are vague. No game on the Wii U can match the size and scope of Xenoblade Chronicles X.
- Tokyo Mirage Sessions ♯FE (2015)
Tokyo Mirage Sessions ♯FE was first announced as a crossover of the Fire Emblem and Shin Megami Tensai franchises, but the eventual game is more akin to Persona with Fire Emblem cameos. The game takes place in modern-day Tokyo and is centered around Japan’s idol culture. Every facet of the game is flowing with personality, and the environments, music, and characters all compliment each other perfectly. Rest assured, the vibrant colors are a perfect reflection of the game’s energy. The story follows a group of teenagers at a talent agency that secretly recruits individuals to fight hostile beings from another world. It’s a strange premise, but the personalities of the characters are surprisingly nuanced and it’s interesting to see them move beyond the manufactured nature of the idol industry in order to find their true selves. I fell in love with the game’s aesthetics, but the gameplay is where the game really shines. The turn-based battles are fast, flashy, and fun – it’s arguably the best battle system ever seen in an Atlus game. Combat is intuitive and easy to understand, but you’ll want to explore every move, ability, and character at your disposal. The game makes it easy to avoid enemies altogether, but I was actively looking for a fight more often than not because the battles were so enjoyable. I’m probably opening up a can of worms by ranking Tokyo Mirage Sessions ♯FE above Xenoblade Chronicles X. The game takes a much more linear approach than Monolith Soft’s epic RPG, but it still provides dozens of hours of content and I enjoyed every upbeat moment of it.
- Splatoon (2015)
A third-person shooter with heavy emphasis on online play, Splatoon was a breath of fresh air for an oversaturated genre. Rather than destroying things with bullets, the objective in Splatoon is to cover everything with colorful ink. The main characters are bizarre creatures known as Inklings that can freely switch between human and squid forms. The squids can hide from enemies, pass through grates, and swim through ink at a much faster rate than humans can move. (They can even swim up walls!) At its core, Splatoon is primarily a team-based shooter in which teams engage each other in elaborate turf wars with the goal of covering as much area as they can with their ink. Various ink guns and special items (like paint rollers) allow for different strategies to be used, but even those who are not especially good at the game can contribute. The multiplayer component is the main draw of the game, but Splatoon has a surprisingly robust single-player campaign too. The fantastic stage layouts and creative boss battles do a great job of highlighting the finer points of the game’s mechanics. The game’s presentation is also worth noting, and the level of polish is apparent from the very beginning. The world of Inkopolis is filled with colorful characters and interesting attractions, and the game itself is overflowing with creativity. Splatoon is the most successful franchise born on the Wii U and arguably the best new Nintendo IP since Pikmin.
- Bayonetta 2 (2014)
With the exception of Tokyo Mirage Sessions ♯FE, no game on the Wii U was more shocking than Bayonetta 2. It wasn’t the quality of the game – but its very existence – that was surprising. Bayonetta was the best action game of its generation, and Bayonetta herself was destined to go down as one of gaming’s greatest heroines. The first Bayonetta had everything I was looking for in a game. The action was over-the-top, the characters didn’t take themselves too seriously, and the combo-centric gameplay was exciting. Bayonetta received critical acclaim and developed a cult following, but PlatinumGames had trouble financing the sequel and Sega themselves passed on the project despite owning the property. Bayonetta 2 would have never seen the light of day had Nintendo not swooped in to fund the development. The game was rife with violence, hyper-sexuality, and religious iconography, but it filled a void in the Wii U’s library with its M-rated sensibilities. Against all odds, Bayonetta 2 was even more ridiculous (and sexier) than the original. The first stage of the game places Bayonetta on the wings of an F-18 that’s flying above a city, and the scenarios just get more absurd from there. Whether she’s surfing through a tidal wave or humiliating her opponents with a good spanking, Bayonetta never stops enjoying herself. There’s no reason for players to stop enjoying themselves either. PlatinumGames was justified in describing Bayonetta 2 as a “non-stop climax action game.”
- Pikmin 3 (2013)
Pikmin 3 follows the same formula that its predecessors did. For the uninitiated, the series follows the adventures of tiny space explorers who recruit plant-like creatures called Pikmin to help with various tasks. The Pikmin are primarily used for the purpose of gathering resources, but they can also build bridges, destroy barriers, and defeat enemies. Players can command up to 100 Pikmin at any given time, and the game is essentially an exercise in resource management. Multitasking is strongly encouraged, and players will usually find themselves managing multiple groups of Pikmin at the same time. Some Pikmin might be tasked with gathering items while others are busy with a construction project. At the same time, players will probably want to keep Pikmin by their side to be used as ammunition against potential threats. Various control schemes are available to the player, but the Wii remote makes it especially easy to target Pikmin and give them instructions. It’s the best-playing game in the series by far, and it’s also the most balanced. The new rationing system is a perfect compromise between the first game’s fixed time limit and the sequel’s more relaxed pacing. Players can build up their rations in the game by gathering more fruit, and this essentially allows them to create their own safety net rather than having one supplied to them by default. The first two Pikmin games were released on the GameCube, so the visuals in Pikmin 3 were a huge step forward for the series. The game is almost photo realistic at times, and the depth of field effects are especially impressive. Nine years separated Pikmin 3 from its immediate predecessor, but it was a game worth waiting for.
- Super Smash Bros. (2014)
Like previous entries in the series, Super Smash Bros. for Wii U is a crossover fighting game that features characters and stages from popular (and not-so-popular) Nintendo franchises. Due to the variety of characters, gameplay styles, and special items, the battles are a lot more hectic than what typical fighting games offer. Super Smash Bros. for Wii U is the fourth entry in the series, and it’s arguably the best. It’s the best-looking game in the series (the 1080p/60fps graphics were a huge step up from Brawl), it has more than twice as many music tracks as any Smash Bros. game, and it boasts the largest roster in the series by far. New fighters like Little Mac and Wii Fit Trainer added even more variety to the roster, and the inclusion of new third-party characters like Mega Man and Pac-Man made the game feel like a celebration of the entire medium. (The downloadable content was also incredible, and I was especially surprised to see Cloud Strife and Bayonetta added to the mix.) No game in the series has more content, and the depth of the roster is beyond compare. Some will point to Melee as the most competitive game in the series, but Super Smash Bros. for Wii U went to great lengths to appeal to both hardcore and casual fans. The random prat falls that were introduced in Brawl were nowhere to be seen, an adapter allowed GameCube controllers to be used, and characters were re-balanced after the game’s launch to keep things more competitive. All things considered, Super Smash Bros. for Wii U is brimming with content and stands as the most well-rounded game in the series.
- Mario Kart 8 (2014)
Mario Kart 64 introduced four-player mayhem, Double Dash!! allowed for two characters to ride on a single cart, and Mario Kart DS gave players a chance to hone their skills online. Nintendo takes great care to ensure that every Mario Kart game will be meaningful in its own way, but it was clear from the very beginning that there was something extra special about Mario Kart 8. It was the best-looking Mario Kart, the live orchestrated soundtrack was amazing, and the production values were unrivaled in the genre. On a less superficial level, the game’s new gravity-shifting gimmick allowed for the most creative track designs ever seen in the series. Whether you were racing up waterfalls or driving through space stations, the ability to drive on walls and ceilings gave the game a distinct F-Zero flavor. Nintendo also deserves a lot of credit for using DLC as a way to add value to an already excellent game rather than using it as an excuse to release an unfinished product. Mario Kart 8 was already the best game in the series, but the downloadable characters, vehicles, and tracks put the exclamation mark on things. Perhaps the most unexpected and meaningful update was the inclusion of a new engine class which increased the speed of the game significantly. This free update almost made Mario Kart 8 feel like a completely new game. The increased speed allowed for more shortcut opportunities, new ways to use items, and a much more competitive online scene. A Deluxe Nintendo Switch version of the game adds even more content to the game, but that doesn’t make Mario Kart 8 any less impressive on the Wii U.
- Super Mario 3D World (2013)
The Wii U gave Mario fans a lot of options. Super Mario Maker has near-endless replay value and makes perfect use of the touchscreen, but it wouldn’t feel right listing a game that relies so heavily on user-created content. With Super Mario Maker out of the running, the debate came down to New Super Mario Bros. U or Super Mario 3D World. New Super Mario Bros. U represents a high point for the series in terms of pure platforming, but Super Mario 3D World is more imaginative and fun. Every stage feels radically different from the one before it, and new ideas are constantly being introduced throughout the adventure. The game combines the free-roaming gameplay of 3D Mario titles with the straight-forward level structure employed by classic 2D Mario games, but it feels like its own thing even though it borrows heavily from past games. The Super Mario Bros. 2 influence is especially apparent, and the playable characters each have their own unique abilities for the first time in ages. (I was especially pleased to see the return of Peach’s hovering ability.) Super Mario 3D World looks amazing, its upbeat soundtrack features some of the catchiest tunes in the entire series, and its multiplayer component makes it the most accessible 3D Mario game ever released. I’ve come to expect creative level designs and responsive controls from the series, but Super Mario 3D World still managed to surprise me. The game features an unadvertised bonus character, and there were several occasions in which new stages were opened up after I thought I had reached the end of the game. All told, there are over 100 stages to play through! Whether you’re pouncing on enemies with the new cat suit or throwing your friends off a cliff for laughs, Super Mario 3D World never stops being fun.
- The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (2017)
Taking cues from Twilight Princess, Breath of the Wild was both a killer app for the newly-minted Switch and a swan song for the Wii U. The game had an usually long development cycle (even for a Zelda title) so expectations could not have been higher. Remarkably, it set a new bar for the series and open-world games in general. Breath of the Wild pushed new boundaries, but it also took the franchise back to its roots by giving players complete freedom to explore the world as they saw fit. The game is ten times larger than any previous Zelda title, and its environments are a lot more interactive too. Link can climb almost any surface he comes across and nearly everything in the game can be manipulated in one way or another. Link can create weapons and food from items that he finds in the wild, and nearly everything can be used in a variety of ways. For instance, tree branches can be used as weapons, but they can also be used to light fires. Likewise, Link’s shield can fend off attacks, but it can also be used as a makeshift snowboard. Non-linear progression and multi-purpose weapons give players more ways to approach battles than ever before, and the game actively encourages creativity. Instead of mowing down moblins with your sword, you might choose to roll a boulder off a mountain in order to squash them. In lieu of fighting at all, you might drop your metal swords near your enemies during a thunder storm in the hopes that they’ll be struck by lightning. The physics engine has incredible depth and consistency, and this allows for the best puzzles in the entire series. (Like every other aspect in the game, the puzzles often have more than one solution.) Unlike most Zelda games, Breath of the Wild doesn’t have a mentor character who holds your hand through the entire adventure. The world itself is your teacher, and it’s a brilliant one at that. Breath of the Wild is everything I’ve ever wanted from a Zelda game, and it just might be the best game I’ve ever played.