Confused, lacking in direction, constructed from half-formed ideas yet shot through with flashes of inspired brilliance: Wii U couldn’t wish for a better match than Game & Wario. It’s a comedy show pilot in game form, a collection of loose sketches that never quite hangs together, but offers moments of surreal joy and design ingenuity that, with a sharper focus, could have coalesced into something special.
Its first and perhaps biggest hurdle is expectation. Players will see Wario’s name on the box and Intelligent Systems’ logo on its reverse and understandably expect a carnival of fast-paced, anarchic mayhem. Yet Game & Wario is not a WarioWare game (except during one of its 16 activities, where it all too fleetingly is). Its games are not micro but mini, a distinction Nintendo is distressingly keen to make, as if there was something wrong with WarioWare’s design. Arriving several months after Wii U’s launch, it doesn’t even have the ancillary benefit of demonstrating the console’s featureset, beaten to it by the more rounded Nintendo Land. This is an ideal pack-in title, a bundled collection of tech demos arriving far too late to the Wii U party.
Tellingly, we’ve already seen some of its highlights. Pirates is 2011 demo Shield Pose fleshed out slightly into a rhythmic challenge that sees galleons fire arrows for you to catch with your GamePad, flicking them free with a sharp jerk downwards in time with the beat. As with most of the games here, it’s slight but it’s gorgeously presented, entertaining and heartily silly, asking you to strike ridiculous poses with the GamePad in rump-shaking interludes. Miyamoto’s curious obsession with measuring everyday items became Measure Up at E3 2011, and gets a repeat airing here, in which you’re given a series of specifications – a 50-degree angle, a circle with a 5cm radius – to try to draw with the stylus. It’s surprisingly competitive with two players, but again there’s not enough of it.
The same can’t be said for Patchwork, a puzzler that walks a fine line between soothing and tedious, and has an inexplicably generous 90 stages. Slotting complex shapes into a grid to form pixel patterns has an oddly therapeutic quality, while the simple designs that emerge when they’re completed have the rudimentary charm of a completed Picross. But it’s an interloper here, a 3DS eShop puzzler that’s got hopelessly lost. It’s superior, at least, to a feeble stylus-flicking variant on tenpin bowling, and the dreadful Ashley, a ponderous side-scrolling shooter that serves only to prove that gyroscopic control is rarely a match for an analogue stick. Ski, meanwhile, is a wintry, disco-themed take on the Nintendo Land game Captain Falcon’s Twister Race, and mildly superior if only for its comparative brevity.
Novelty value is much higher in Kung Fu, a thirdperson platformer viewed from above on the GamePad screen, allowing you to gauge landings with greater accuracy as your avatar leaps through ink-and-wash obstacle courses. Shutter is a five-stage reminder that a new Pokémon Snap would find an ideal home on Wii U, though there’s little impetus to return once you’ve snapped the subjects in each level. Arrow makes similarly smart use of both screens, asking you to fire your bow at encroaching Wario-bots, which become Whac-A-Mole targets should they reach the GamePad’s touchscreen. Better still is the deliriously daft Taxi, which provides a Super Sprint view on the TV and an in-cab perspective on the GamePad, tasking you with shooting people-stealing aliens before returning the rescued citizens home. Once more, it’s too short, but it’s one of the more convincing arguments for Wii U’s dual-screen setup to date.
A stronger case is made by Gamer, the undisputed standout. Here, Nintendo obsessive 9-Volt attempts to beat his mother’s WarioWare high score under his bedcovers while she patrols nearby. You concentrate on the small screen while keeping an ear out for footsteps on the TV, squeezing the triggers to hide should the door handle rattle. The mother’s demonic presence makes her a genuinely unsettling enemy, not least when she bursts from the TV like a substitute for The Ring’s Sadako Yamamura, her eyes shining like headlights. Fake scares – a cat, an old man in a wig – only add to the tension of this nerve-racking game. And your reward for surviving the ordeal is the best unlockable of the lot: three stages of regular WarioWare.
Three of the multiplayer offerings are only briefly diverting. Sketch is Pictionary in all but name, while Fruit is a cutesy take on Chris Hecker’s SpyParty, asking TV-watching sleuths to pinpoint a GamePad thief. Disco sees two players challenging each other to a dance-off, taking turns to tap out a short series of notes that their opponent must match to avoid conceding points. All are perfectly serviceable, but it’s unlikely any will see many repeat visits. Islands is the exception, a diverting asynchronous amusement that pays tribute to Super Monkey Ball’s marvellous Monkey Target, asking players to launch small creatures from a GamePad net to scoring zones on the big screen. It’s surprisingly strategic – while you attempt to secure a decent score, you must ensure you can’t be knocked off by the next player, and a spinning multiplier and a mischievous seagull add just the right dose of unpredictability.
Beyond the obligatory late arrival of the birdlike Pyoro, that’s your lot. As a launch-day showcase, Game & Wario would certainly be worth your time – the likes of Gamer, Taxi and Islands offer something delightful and different – but six months on from Wii U’s launch, it seems too much like an afterthought, a stopgap to fill a worryingly barren release schedule. Given his rich history, Wario deserves better than this.