Compelling narrative, gorgeous visuals and classic characters have carried a strong lineup of family-oriented games offered on the Wii U since its launch in November 2012.
It's been an interesting first year for the new console, which has taken a beating in the market and in some critical circles. In reporting the Wii U's recent price cut, USA Today described "a huge slump in sales" — just 160,000 Wii U consoles sold during Nintendo's first quarter.
The follow-up system to the all-ages appropriate Wii attempted to capture a broader audience by releasing a number of M-rated titles such as "ZombiU" and "Call of Duty: Block Opps II." But in ranking the 25 best games for the Wii U, IGN's top five picks — "Pikmin 3," "Rayman Legends," "New Super Mario Bros. U," "Lego City Undercover" and "Nintendoland" — were all decidedly family-friendly titles. Four of the five (with Rayman as the only exception) are unique to the Wii U platform.
Following is a look at some of the family-friendly titles that are on the market exclusively on the Wii U platform.
Game: "Pikmin 3"
ESRB rating: E 10+ (mild cartoon violence)
Review: Unique, engaging and visually stunning, "Pikmin 3" introduces three explorers on a search for food to save their home planet of Koppai. They crash-land on a distant world, where they encounter curious little plant-like creatures that are loyal followers and ferocious fighters. Alph, Brittany and Charlie shepherd the pikmin, which help break down obstacles, swarm enemies and locate sustenance.
The mechanics of gathering, leading and tossing pikmin during exploration and combat are refreshingly novel. The beautiful nature settings are sharp and rich, and the characters are simply adorable. "Pikmin 3" is wonderfully animated with a good dose of humor. Game sessions are divided into days rather than levels, providing a sense of both freedom and urgency — because when the sun goes down, the pikmin need protection from predators, and the explorers need food.
But beyond the visuals and gameplay, "Pikmin 3" offers a good, fun storyline to follow as the protagonists explore this strange yet familiar world. "Story mode," while limited to one player, can engage the entire family.
Though cutesy and cartoony in almost every aspect, there is a good amount of fighting and violence involved, and the game doesn't shy away from the harsh realities of nature. Very young children might get spooked, but parents should feel at ease with "Pikmin 3."
ESRB rating: E 10+ (animated blood, fantasy violence)
Review: "The Legend of Zelda" likely has a good hold on the hearts of anyone who grew up playing the old-school Nintendo Entertainment System. The game introduced many to the broad new world of the epic video game quest. But for those who haven't kept up with the franchise over the years, "The Wind Waker HD" may be a good time to pick up the sword.
Wind Waker is a remastered version of a game produced for the Nintendo GameCube. Back in 2003, IGN called Wind Waker "a masterful achievement — a shining example, in fact, of how video games should be made and a case study for developers wondering what makes a compelling game." A recent Nintendo press release noted that the original Wind Waker "earned a Metacritic score of 96, ranking it among some of the most elite video games of all time."
This fantasy quest begins with a haunting and beautifully drawn story montage about the "Hero of time" who conquered a great evil. On an island where this legend has been preserved, we're introduced to a young boy who will become a new hero. After his sister is captured by a giant bird, the new Link takes to the sea, and the adventure begins.
Yes, a decade is a long time in video game years, but this game holds up beautifully, even for younger kids who would consider it "retro." The character mechanics feel polished, not dated. Link's movements are fluid and realistic, whether he's sliding along a wall, hiding in a barrel or springing into combat, making the experience quite immersive.
While a one-player game, the storyline and challenges should be enough to engage other family members and encourage collaboration. The animation leans toward the gentle and cute, and a child who is old enough to successfully play the game is likely old enough to handle the images of creatures and combat.
Game: "Lego City Undercover"
ESRB rating: E 10+ (cartoon violence, crude humor)
Review: Whether it's Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Batman or Harry Potter, Lego-themed games consistently hit their target. Earlier this year, the Wii U launched its own exclusive Lego title. However, it lacked the appeal of a major pop-culture franchise.
No matter, because "Lego City Undercover" is good enough to make fans of its own. And it's definitely its own game. For one thing, the characters talk — a lot. In fact, dialogue is one of the best aspects of this game. It's downright hilarious at times.
Undercover starts with the return to Lego City of Chase McCain, a cop who is equal parts competent and clueless. He's back because Rex Fury, the mega-criminal he helped put in prison, has escaped.
There's so much to like about this title. All the elements of the best Lego games are here — humorous animation, breezy action and puzzling challenges — along with a great storyline, big-personality characters and a lot of unique costumes and gadgets. Getting around Lego City requires a lot of travel, and the driving mechanic is terrific.
The Wii U gamepad offers an array of second-screen features that for the most part enhance the game, though a few of the uses seem gimmicky. It's also the gamepad that leads to Undercover's biggest disappointment — it's one player only. One of the best features of the Lego game lineup, particularly when it comes to kids, is the ability to play alongside someone else.
Still, everyone in the family will likely find a way to enjoy this game.
Game: "New Super Mario Bros. U"
ESRB rating: E (comic mischief)
Review: Same characters, same format, same result. "New Super Mario Bros. U" is reason enough to justify a Wii U purchase.
An updated version of the brilliant "New Super Mario Bros. Wii," the latest offering from the classic Nintendo franchise brings Mario into high definition. The worlds are revamped and some fresh elements (like squirrel power) are implemented, but it's basically the same side scroll formula with a sharper picture — and it still works perfectly.
Up to four players can play at one time (a fifth if you count "boost mode" on the gamepad), though with kids that inevitably leads to more bickering than teamwork.
Game: "New Super Luigi U"
Cost: $29.99 (disc) or $19.99 (download)
ESRB rating: E (comic mischief)
Review: This fairly new title featuring the green-hat-wearing high-jumper can be purchased on its own as a game disc, or downloaded to the system to piggyback off "New Super Mario Bros. U." Basically, it provides more levels to play and more characters (and special attributes) to use, including the ability to control Nabbit, the thieving rabbit who can run right through enemies. It also speeds up the action — each level has to be completed within 100 seconds.
If you love the Mario game on the Wii U, the Luigi version is a good way to introduce new challenges and create a longer shelf life.