Tuesday, June 04, 2013


Go Vacation

Go Vacation is kind of a big deal for me.  Like, this may just be the one I've been waiting for.

A Long Time Coming

Back in the 90s, everyone was expecting that the next big thing for video games was going to be Virtual Reality.  There'll be these artificial worlds, and you'll explore them and interact with them the same way you explore and interact with things in real life -- moving your head to look around, moving your body to do things and get to new places.  And gosh, was I ever ready for it.

I was one of the few who bought the Virtual Boy.  I was even one of the fewer who actually enjoyed it.  As a Game Boy fan, the lack of colors were never an issue for me.  The lineup of games was small and, let's face it, forgettable.  But this was what we were waiting for.  Virtual Reality!  Digital worlds made solid!  Sure, we were still pressing buttons to do things, but this was the first step into the future.

Of course, the huge disappointment was that so few games were made for the system and none of them fulfilled the promise of a fully immersive virtual world.  I remember playing the Golf game, not because I was really into video golf or because it was any good, but because it was one of the few Virtual Boy games that rendered what approached a 3D environment.  It was just cool enough for me that you could move to different places in this landscape and look at it from different points of view.  But of course, the thing I really wanted was to break free of the game and just wander around.

Then came the Nintendo 64 and Super Mario 64.  Now this was a bit more like it.  Still using buttons, and the first-person point of view was dropped in favor of the standard television output, but here were those huge digital worlds I'd dreamed of, fully explorable.  One of my favorite things to do was still to just stop here and there, put the camera into first-person, and just look around at everything.

As time passed and game hardware became more sophisticated, the idea of Virtual Reality sort of dropped off.  Games would be the same things they had always been -- you sit on the couch, detached, and push buttons to make the guy move on the screen.  You'll still be playing the same old RPGs, adventure games, sports games, and so on; they'll just look different.

But as I sat there, playing Mario Golf on my Gamecube -- a radical improvement over that Virtual Boy game that had so intrigued me -- I couldn't help stopping from time to time, looking out over that gorgeous landscape, and thinking, "Wouldn't it be great if there was a mode where you could just wander around that?  Grab a golf cart or something and just have a look around?"

And then came the Wii.

Suddenly, the idea of Virtual Reality -- controlling a game the same way you control the real world -- seemed more attainable than ever, and for cheaper than we ever could have hoped.  Wasn't it interesting, those first few years?  Nintendo built their system bit by bit.  Some pieces were just props to enhance the outward appearance of things -- the Zapper and Wheel were never strictly necessary, but they looked and felt cool -- while others were more functional.  The Balance Board to track large movements of your body.  The Motion Plus to... do whatever it is that does, I dunno.  But as much as the hardware, there were also the software bits.  Miis.  It's not just the same character that everyone else plays, it's you there on the screen.  Or another character of your own design and choosing.  It's who you are or who you want to be.

And, of course, there was Wuhu Island.

The island had first appeared in a Wii tech demo, where it had just been an environment where you could fly a little airplane around.  It first appeared in a video game in Wii Fit, where it didn't even have a proper name; the instruction manual just called it "Wii Fit Island".  But I fell in love with it immediately.  Partly because this was Virtual Reality -- you jog in place, and your character jogs around.  But partly just because it was such a cool place.  Like, this was somewhere I wanted to go.  And wouldn't it be cool if you could make your own jogging route instead of following the ones they give you, and you could go around and see something else every day?

When the island returned for Wii Sports Resort, my infatuation was complete.  The thing is, video game settings tend to be pretty malleable.  It kind of breaks the "reality" when Princess Peach's castle looks totally different from one game to the next.  Bringing back Wuhu Island and having games that take place in recognizable locations around the island kind of cemented it as a more "real" place.  Shigeru Miyamoto spoke about how he wanted the island to be a recurring "character" in Nintendo games, so that people would get that sense of familiarity of seeing a place and thinking, "Oh, I remember being there before!"  And sure enough, Wuhu keeps popping up.  Wii Fit Plus, Pilotwings Resort, Mario Kart 7 -- and if there isn't a Wuhu stage in the next Smash Brothers game, then I just don't know.

So for the first few years of the Wii's life, Nintendo's been building and building this thing, and I keep getting little glimpses of the potential.  All these little minigames and experiments feel like they're leading up to something, and I'm always thinking, "Okay.  You've proven you can do these things.  Now tie a bow on it.  Bring it all together.  You've got this setting, you've got these gameplay mechanics, you've got these awesome motion inputs -- it's like you're right on the cusp of something amazing.  Now what are you going to do?"

And then they just fell silent.

For years, it felt like there was this crescendo, where Nintendo was coming up with all of these ideas and learning how to use them and teaching players how to use them, and then it just stops.  There's no denouement.  There's no huge rock ending.  One day they announce that they're making a new system with a tablet controller.  We're going back to normal games and normal controls.  The end.

The Wii -- at least as the bearer of the ideas that it launched with -- has been on a steady decline basically since Wii Music.  In classic Nintendo fashion, they did the one or two ideas they had for this cool little peripheral they introduced, and now they're moving on.  It seemed to me like the Wii was just going to fold up and vanish into obscurity, and its potential to hit that one magic thing would be lost.

But as it turns out, in 2011, Namco did this little number called Go Vacation.

Took Me A While, But I Got to the Game I'm Reviewing

The problem with Go Vacation is... well, look at it.  The front cover looks exactly like all of the slush that's come out for the Wii over its lifetime -- big-eyed cartoon characters engaged in dozens of minigamey activities.  The title screams "You've already played this game."  It just looks like a game that was destined to be lost in the oversaturation of the Wii living room sports market.  It's not like the enthusiast press is going to shine a light on yet another of those dumb Wii minigame packs.

So I have no idea how long it's been on the store shelf and my eyes have just slid straight past it.  But the other day, it gave me pause.  Vacation, eh?  I like vacations.  I took a look at the back.  "Go anywhere you want!  Play as much as you want!"  Wait.  Go... anywhere?


I didn't believe them.  I did some research online.  Imagine my surprise when the game culled a 7 on IGN -- possibly the highest distinction a Wii game could earn from them.  What is this -- an open world?  So you could just, like... wander around?  Look at things?  What, you get a little house?  And a dog?  What the... What the hell is this?!

Go Vacation is a mishmash.  A glorious, glorious mishmash.  It is the casual Omega Game.  It is the Wii's capstone.  It's as if someone sat down with every casual game on the Wii, and as they played, they jotted down all of those "Wouldn't it be great if...?" ideas, then put them all together into one game.

I don't even know where to begin.

Yes, it is minigames.  And honestly, they're the sorts of things you've seen on the Wii before.  Sports, racing, arcade amusements -- no individual game is much of a surprise.  What is surprising is the sheer number and variety of them.  Even if you've seen these games before, it's unlikely that you've seen them all together in one package.  There's a musical wine glass game that recalls the handbell minigame from Wii Music.  There's a pie-throwing game that recalls the soccer ball dodging in Wii Fit.  There's racing -- ATVs, jetskis, cars, you name it.  There's stunt games.  There's a dancing game.  Whack-a-Mole.  Watergun fights.  Fifty games all together, many of which come with different skill variations that can be unlocked.

But the important thing, to me at least, is the open world.

There are four huge resort "worlds" with nooks and crannies to explore and things to find.  You can spend hours just looking for treasure chests or photo ops or just exploring for the sheer, unbridled hell of it.  And you don't have to do it all on foot.  Those vehicles that you use in the mini games -- the ATVs, the roller blades -- can be taken out and used to explore the world.  You can hit jumps and grind rails -- whatever you like.  There are tours you can go on -- ride an airplane or a cable car and just see the sights.  There are NPCs you can talk to.  It's like an adventure game.  You even get this little "mission" list -- basically just a stampbook to keep track of which games you've tried.  The really interesting part is that the exploration bits allow four players simultaneously on a split-screen, so everyone can explore at once, and you can come up with little impromptu games, like suddenly having your own jetski race around the bay.

And there's all sorts of extraneous stuff that you can fiddle around with.  You get a villa that you can decorate and wander around in.  You can play dressup with your character.  You can set a dog and friends that follow you around.  There's a real "kitchen sink" mentality to this game.  It feels like they crammed in every idea they could, whether there was a gamey "point" to it or not, just because it seemed like it would be an interesting decoration to their game.  It seriously feels like you can get lost for hours just exploring the little details at your command.

And the controls!

Look on the back of the box, and you'll see the icons for every controller the Wii supports.  I mean, it's nice to see Wheel and Zapper support; even if they're just shells, they're fun to use, and it's great to see games that use the way they work.  But then there's Balance Board support!  It's strictly optional, and yeah, some games control a lot more easily with just the nunchuk and remote, but I find something compelling about it.  I'm standing up in my living room, exploring this virtual world.  My avatar is skating around this city while I control him by leaning left and right.  This isn't a part of a strictly sanctioned game; I'm just exploring a digital space with my body.

My Virtual Reality is finally here.

Mileage, And Its Variability

I'm a little worried that I'm overselling this thing.  To a lot of people, this will not be a big deal.  I've read lots of reviews from people on Amazon who don't get it.  They don't like the Wii's trademark waggle controls in the exploration bits and wish they could just jump from game to game in a menu like you do in Wii Sports.  (This is in fact an option!  But it just goes to show that what I'm getting all excited about isn't for everyone.)

But I'm the only person who reads this blog, so who cares?  HEY CPFACE GO BUY GO VACATION YOULL REALLY LOVE IT OH YOU ALREADY DID OKAY GOOD.  With Nintendo changing gears and trying to win back the hardcore crowd with HD graphics and PS3 controls, it's nice to have this little last hurrah to celebrate the spirit of the Wii and to bring all of its ideas together into one ambitious package.


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