“Is there anything we can all play together?”
When a series of events conspires to assemble a gathering of friends and/or family at my house it’s never too long before this question floats to the surface like a dead body broken free of its concrete boots. And although it’s asked innocently enough with the presumption I’ll be able to produce a universally agreeable answer in the same TA-DA! manner as a grinning magician pulling a bunny from his hat, it’s never that simple. There are variables to consider.
For starters--and most important--there are the individual ability parameters of the congregation to take into account. Example: Uncle Bob had a SNES back in the day and can be considered a competent handler of game controllers and fairly fluent in game logic. Cousin Billy, on the other hand, eats toothpaste and struggles with any kind of operating device more complex than a one-way light switch.
As you can see, there is a dramatic variance in aptitude and this is problematic when trying to select that illusive, perfect group game for all.
The one game that successfully bridges the cognitive chasm between Uncle Bob and Cousin Billy (and consequently everyone occupying space somewhere between those extremes) is bowling. So that’s what we play. In fact, it’s what we’ve been playing since the tail-end of 2006, which is when Wii Sports’ geriatric-friendly approximation of ball rolling first presented itself as the most democratically satisfying answer to the “Is there anything we can all play together?” conundrum.
I’m not opposed to the odd game of mime bowling, but six years of it is a bit much for any man who isn’t moulded from the same uncompromising dedication to the sport as Walter Sobchak.
Over the course of those half-a-dozen calendar completions other games have been suggested and sampled. This list of hopefuls includes (but is not limited to): Guitar Hero, Mario Kart, Dance Central, DJ Hero, Scene It?, London 2012: The Official Video Game, and--in one particularly dark hour of drunken desperation--Carnival Games.
Each was suffered half-heartedly by the family and friends as a token distraction, but all the while a fidgeting impatience seeped through the smiles and--cue crushing inevitability--it was only a matter of time before we’d return with the homing instincts of a salmon from whence we had come i.e. back to playing bowling.
There was some relief from the monotony in 2010 when Kinect Sports appeared with its own jazzed-up, hip-for-parents version of bowling. It instantly took over from Wii Sports. But beneath the irresistible bedazzlement of flashing lights and loud music it was still just endless rounds of air-skittles. Any hope of finding a different game we could all play together seemed more distant than ever.
But then salvation came and its name was Nintendo Land and it had not a thing to do with bowling and lo there was much rejoicing.
A collection of Nintendo themed mini-games designed to showcase the multifaceted skill set of the Wii U game pad, Nintendo Land is as whimsical as it sounds and offers little long-term attraction for solo players. However, if a series of events conspires to assemble a gathering of friends and/or family at your house with any degree of regularity, it can save you from ever having to throw an imaginary ball at your TV ever again.
While each of Nintendo Land’s micro-nibbles offers something worth exploring, it’s Mario Chase which--like a Bible-wielding badass--has exorcised the insidious scourge of bowling from my front room, with its laser-focused, fully optimised, close-to-perfection design of family friendly multiplayer. Praise be.
Because it works on the same basic rules as hide-and-seek (a popular children’s game played by everyone everywhere), the concept of Mario Chase is--like bowling--easy to grasp no matter how much of a Cousin Billy you are. Likewise the controls are the definition of simplicity, consisting of ‘move stick to run’, which is achievable for anyone with the requisite motor-neurone skills to command a thumb. In other words, everyone’s welcome.
Often an open door policy can mean a game constructed with ‘the casuals’ in mind, something to be politely endured by gamers when “Is there anything we can all play together?” pierces the silence like the whistling dread of a Doodlebug. But Mario Chase doesn’t require compromise. Playing it is as fun for me as it is for Cousin Billy and Uncle Bob. It strikes a perfect balance between ‘credible proper game’ and ‘game anyone can play’. And if the breakthrough of casual gaming has proven one thing, it’s that hitting that particular sweet spot is really hard.
Mario Chase is five-players-at-once rowdiness. If there are more people in the room, they can shout as well, you don’t have to be actively playing to play. It’s fast. It’s cooperative. It’s competitive. It’s tactical. It’s easy. And, without wanting to sound too much like a cringey Nintendo sound bite, it’s exactly what playing a game together should be – a lot of fun for everyone.
Most importantly, though, it isn’t bowling.
Bowling is dead! Long live Nintendo Land!