My relationship with Nintendo is maybe not as healthy as it should be.
This realization comes to me as the year draws to a close, when one is pressed to discuss the most innovative or thoughtful interactive experiences of the year. Games such as the haunting “The Vanishing of Ethan Carter” or the whimsically lonely “Broken Age: Act 1” are some that immediately spring to mind.
These are titles that made the same sort of lasting impression as a TV season of “Orphan Black” or a movie screening of “Big Hero 6,” which was full of unexpected considerations on loss. Like the getting-by struggles at the heart of hip-hop act Run the Jewels, these are all examples of pop culture with layers, where revisiting is encouraged.
Yet there is one Wii U game in heavy rotation that I didn’t expect to be there.
That game is “Super Smash Bros.,” a button-smashing, jump-and-sock ’em extravaganza of punching, kicking and crazy moves with nonsense titles such as the “Peach blossom” and “konga beat.” There are fights at haunted mansions, fights in suburban streets and fights around space lava.
If one wants a respite from all the fights, there is a board-game mode — but if your digital character lands on the space of another digital character there are fights on the board game. Sometimes, when a fight ends, you will be told a new challenger has materialized from some Nintendo multiverse, and there will be an abbreviated post-fight fight.
“Smash” is, in many ways, pointless — ridiculous, even. And yet this fighting game keeps demanding the one thing I know I shouldn’t be giving it: time. Way more time, in fact, than someone in their mid-30s should be devoting to a game that’s little more than a glorified battlefield arena. But dang it if I don’t love watching Princess Peach swipe her arm and chirp “peachy!” at the conclusion of one of our two-minute matches.
Part of this appeal, no doubt, is nostalgia.
For anyone who was raised with one of Nintendo’s consoles acting as a backup baby-sitter, “Smash Bros.” carries with it the appeal of reminiscence. Simple things, such as seeing familiar characters — say, a more revealing Samus from “Metroid” attacking a gelatinous “Pokemon” blob — taps into the charm offensive that has long been Nintendo’s front line of attack. Even the baddies are adorable, as Bowser Jr. conducts his fights from a car that looks like a teacup.
Still, there’s more at play here than cutesy nostalgia; at least I hope so. Nintendo has reported that “Smash” was the fastest-selling Wii U game in the history of the relatively new (2012) home video game console, having moved just shy of 500,000 copies during the Thanksgiving shopping weekend. Surely it’s not just me and 12-year-old boys who find “Smash” irresistible, I say with my fingers crossed.
If Nintendo were just tossing out high-definition updates of venerable brands, its stubbornness to stick to its famous characters would be frustrating. But Nintendo’s Wii U in 2014 managed to become a fine home console. The reason: While Nintendo has largely avoided the cinematic route of its competitors, it certainly isn’t short-changing its characters.
Perhaps never before has the Nintendo stable shown as much personality as it does in “Smash.” Characters who have no business being characters in multiple games, such as the mannequin-like trainer from “Wii Fit,” is a Zen-like master of effortless gliding and yoga moves. The game rewards deep play with little touches as well — I was many weeks into “Smash” before I noticed the Mary Poppins-meets-Taylor Swift-like Princess Peach, my go-to character, would flutter her arms to maintain her balance when she was near an edge.
More important, “Smash” furthers an agenda the Wii U has had since Day 1. No other console is as suited to playing with friends, at least friends who are sitting beside you on the couch. Not every Wii U game boasts cooperative play — see the delightfully plucky puzzle game “Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker,” for instance — but the Wii U is constantly honing its thesis that the best way to play is with people you can see rather than those who are anonymous and online.
If local co-op isn’t exactly a rarity, it’s an art that had more than a little of its thunder stolen by the advent of online multiplayer games. Nintendo, however, has helped me rediscover my love of playing with friends and trying to wrangle folks to come over for game nights, even looking for these sorts of game experiences on other consoles. Early plays of the just-released “Lara Croft and the Temple of Osiris,” the Crystal Dynamics downloadable game available for non-Nintendo consoles, has shown that the attitude of one of video game’s best-known explorers hasn’t been tempered by the game’s arcade action.
And then there’s Frima’s “Chariot,” available for every major platform, which is best when two play together. The game has a melancholic underbelly — a princess and her fiancé are transporting her father’s remains for burial — but as the side-scrolling challenges present themselves, we learn that a family’s bonds are often rather complex. It looks like a cartoon, but the exaggerated actions of the characters give it an emotional core.
So on second thought, my relationship with Nintendo is as healthy as it should be. That girl who dumped me for what she said was a case of “Peter Pan syndrome” was wrong, after all.
Now that that’s settled, let’s see whether Princess Peach can’t get some more revenge on her regular kidnapper, Bowser — for the 17th time today.
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