Over the past few years, a rather different Christmas tradition has cemented itself in the Everybody Plays household. While most people think of Christmas and conjure up images of Turkey, TV and Terribly wrapped presents, in our minds, if anything, we're more likely to think of Mario, Multiplayer and Mini-games, as the whole family, from the little ones through to the grandparents, take part in some of the most accessible - and fun - mini-games out there in Mario Party. With Mario himself missing out on the Christmas rush this year, though (as the new Mario Party game won't be out until next year - and even then it's a 3DS only affair), it's instead up to the distinctly plumber-free Wii Party U to try its hand at filling the festive gap.
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Much like Mario Party, Wii Party U is a collection of mini-games that follows a simple, if reliable formula. With an odd looking muppet/Mii crossover that has an abnormally shaped head as your host, it's on to a collection that bundles more mini-games than you previously thought it'd be possible to fit on a disc, for some solidly multiplayer fun. With support for up to four players, all you need is the GamePad and a few Wii Remotes to jump straight into the action, with the requirement for extra peripherals having been kept pocket pleasingly low.
While mini-game collections can often fall into a trap of providing dozens of games, yet with each following a very similar button mashing theme, there's a surprising amount of variety to be found in Wii Party U. With some genuinely inventive takes on the party game concept, the modes on offer here are surprisingly diverse, with some really original ideas that help Wii Party U step out of Mario's shadow.
As a great example, one of our favourite games in the pack (which is especially good for a Christmas party) is called Sketchy Situation, and is about as far away from a button mashing game as it's possible to get. Taking the form of a game show, it's up to you to pass the GamePad around, as each player has a go at drawing the item spelled out on the GamePad's screen - only there's two minor, teensy little fiendish twists. Firstly, you're only given a few seconds in which to do it - and secondly, one of you will be given a slightly different thing to draw. Forcing you to sketch at a speed your artistic talents simply can't keep up with (we know, we know - it's not your fault it looks less like a dolphin and more like a grinning sausage. After all, they rushed you), when everyone's had their turn, the masterpieces will be put up on the screen for everyone to see, which is where the guessing game begins. All you have to do is guess who was given the different thing to draw. Which sounds a lot easier than it is, when you're doubled up on the floor laughing at the "quality" of your designs.
And it's this idea of simple, accessible, yet incredibly fun party-style games that'll keep you coming back to Wii Party U. With more than 80 pick-up-and-play mini-games wrapped up in more substantial modes that give them meaning, it's more inventive than almost any "Party" game that came before - and a lot more fun.
The games here are divided up into three, very general categories - TV Party, House Party, and GamePad Party, although if you're looking for a specific game, you can easily go straight to it by choosing the "Minigames" option instead.
Under TV Party, you'll find games that mainly rely on the TV. This is where you'll want to go if you're looking for more traditional, Mario Party board-game style fare, as you roll the dice to make your way around a dangerous jungle on a quest to find the treasure. Although there are regular breaks for mini-games here, they don't come as frequently as in something like Mario Party, as you have to land on a specific square in order to trigger them. With less in the way of decisions to make as to which way to go, and more impassable barriers designed to keep the playing field close, it's not as good as it could be - but there are plenty of other modes here that more than make up.
We've often said that only in England would you get a TV show based on a two-penny fall machine - yet seemingly only in Japan would you design an entire mini-game around it too. Going under the much more inventive (if slightly sinister) name of "The Balldozer", this mode sees up to four players facing off in a mini-game at the start of each round to determine who gets to drop the most balls in to, what's effectively, a giant two-penny fall machine that uses brightly coloured balls instead. The idea here is to knock as many balls off as you can in a turn, whilst stacking the machine to hinder your rivals. Brightly coloured balls are worth 1 points each, golden ones are worth 10, while purple ones take off 5. Come first in the mini-game, and you'll be able to drop 4 balls in, with one less ball for each player further down the rankings. It's a simple enough concept, but one that had us on the edge of our seats, as we willed the balls to topple, or stay put, depending. Somewhat impressively, it also stayed close until the very end, with the person who'd come in last place in every mini-game (our mom) suddenly stealing it by a single point in the last round. Out of nowhere!
The House Party category is where our aforementioned favourite Sketchy Situation resides, with the games here generally involving more passing of controllers - and sometimes even getting you to move around the room. Name That Face is a game designed for maximum embarrassment, that asks you to pull a face into the GamePad, while the other players guess what expression you were intending to be pulling. Water Runners sees you having to hold the Wii Remote steady as you "walk" from the GamePad to the TV to deposit a jug of water, while Lost and Found Square is like a hidden object version of Mario Chase - only with you as the hidden object. With one player using the GamePad, it's up to them to tilt the controller around to get a view of the surroundings, and describe what they see, so the other players can find them wander round the level to find them.
The GamePad Party category, meanwhile, hosts a collection of mini-games that only use the Gamepad, and can be played by 1 to 2 players. From a simple matching game in Animal Match Up, that quickly gets a lot harder than you'd expect, to the reversi style Mii-in-a-Row, and even TableTop Football, which our Deputy Ed Sarah was absolutely fantastic at (read: she scored five own goals), there's a decent range of things to do here, even taking the constraints of the GamePad into account. Throughout each of the multiplayer games, you'll actually be sharing the GamePad here, turning it into a mini football table as you both grip an analogue stick, or working together to move pieces around in Puzzle Blockade. One of the surprises of the Wii Party U package, Puzzle Blockade would work well enough on its own as a downloadable game. All you have to do is work with your team mate to shove a load of blocks around on screen to form the shape of an animal - but it's a lot trickier than it sounds...
Meanwhile, the mini-games themselves, that make up the meat of most of the modes are as enjoyable as ever too. Meeting the requirements for a pick-up-and-play game like this of being easy to understand, simple to master, and most importantly, with enough of an element of randomness that it's not always the same person coming last, there are plenty of highlights to be found here. A personal favourite was one that saw you shaking the Wii Remote to run up to a rubber ring. All you had to do then was press the button at the right time, and see how far you went. One, two, three, we leapt into the air, and went sailing down the hill. Then, coming slightly later was the mom of the group, who sprinted to the line, pressed A and... missed the rubber ring, coming to an embarrassing stop flat on her face.
But it's the fact that things like this can happen, and you never feel annoyed, or like the game's been unfair that makes Wii Party U such a hit. While it may be missing the recognisable characters of Mario, and the board game mode (Mario Party's speciality) may not be much cop, Wii Party U makes the series feel less like an also ran, and more of a stand out star in its own right. If you're looking for the perfect family game this Christmas, this is the one to get. It'll likely be stuck in our Wii U over the Christmas break, anyway!
Format Reviewed: Nintendo Wii U