There’s an old routine that design professors love to use on the first day of class. Drawing a picture of an apple, they’ll say “Show me this.” Then, writing the word “apple,” they’ll say, “Or tell me this.” Then they’ll step back, motioning at both the image and the word together, and conclude, “But never do this.” It’s an example of redundant design. You’re worrying that only one “apple” wouldn’t get the message across on its own. That tendency can insult your audience, and it weakens your work. Yet it’s a scenario we see a lot of in modern games, with long tutorials, unwarranted hand-holding, big glowing beacons that remind the players to keep moving to the right.
Game & Wario is Nintendo’s latest attempt to sell the public on the Wii U console, and the game’s greatest success is that it accomplishes this without falling into the trap of condescending design. Like the WarioWare series of games before it, Game & Wario is a collection of micro-games, each one designed to show one or two things that the Wii U GamePad can do. There’s no button-mashing or complex thumb aerobics, just a few minutes here and there of arcade silliness.
The reason that Wii Sports “clicked” for thousands of new players when it debuted as the pack-in game for the original Wii was that the barrier to entry was low. The same suspension of disbelief that allows you to relate to a fictional character on TV also allows you to believe that a Wii Remote can be a tennis racquet. From there, you just follow your instincts. NintendoLand—the launch title Nintendo hoped would be the Wii Sports for the Wii U—did not “click” the same way because, among other things, the GamePad was…simply a GamePad. It doesn’t inspire the imagination in NintendoLand. Instead, it serves as just a fancy input device with an explanation before every game to tell you what each button does or how tilting the pad different directions will zzzzzzzz…
Game & Wario, for the most part, allows us to fall back on our imaginations again. The GamePad acts as a crossbow, or a camera, or a Game Boy. Silly gimmicks form the premise of each micro-game, like shooting down UFOs before they abduct farm animals. These novelties keep the game light, and as a result, it’s effortless to hop in and out of the game. The inherent wackiness of each scenario—like, say, leapfrogging lilypads to eat dumplings—makes it easy to focus on the one or two features of the Wii U that each game wants you to learn. And you can play free from fear of serious failure. No zombies are biting your face off if you mess it up. The worst that could happen are some aliens running off with your cartoon livestock.
Game & Wario shows us the apple. The game never says, in so many words, “Okay, now let’s pretend the GamePad is a camera!” Holding up the controller, looking through the “viewfinder” and snapping off a couple of pictures feels natural, and we don’t need an explanation of how a shutter release works in order to enjoy it. The game doesn’t rest on its laurels, either. Once you’ve gotten a grip on how to use the motion sensor, the next game might use the touchscreen, or split your attention between the touchscreen and the TV. Or bring in the dancing pirates—which are not a special feature of the Wii U, they’re just something Wario seems to like a lot.
Before Microsoft was hyping their Kinect motion-sensing camera and their SmartGlass tablet integration, WarioWare taught players how motion controls, touch screens, and even cameras could stretch games’ potential. While Game & Wario may forgo the WarioWare branding, it carries forward the series’ history of stylistic experimentation and a sense of humor that encourages players to step outside of themselves. If, every few years, game developers looked at the WarioWare series for inspiration on how to exploit novel control schemes, all these technological doodads might actually take us somewhere.
Plus, Game & Wario has bowling! And that’s what everybody loved about Wii Sports anyway.