If the Nintendo van's a-rockin', don't come a-knockin'

I got an intriguing e-mail yesterday from my buddy David Thomas, a local syndicated videogame columnist and professional contemplator of all things related to joysticks. "I am meeting the Nintendo van tomorrow at 1 if you want to come along," he wrote cryptically.

I'm not a big videogame player, but the idea of visiting some magical wheeled contraption full of pixelated goodness sounded too good to pass up. That's how I ended up in a downtown parking lot today with Thomas, knocking on the door of a long, unmarked Airstream trailer, ready to get my Nintendo on.

While the whole thing's sponsored by Nintendo, there are no logos or slogans emblazoned on the Airstream's exterior. Apparently that helps keep the vagabonds from breaking in and hauling off the considerable loot inside, like the flat-screen TVs, cushy leather seats and videogame schwag. It's all to promote Nintendo's upcoming releases for the holiday season, says Brent, a company rep and host for our one-hour visit to Nintendo-ville. Brent's a bit tired, he explains between yawns - he and the Airstream have been busy hop-scotching across the country, pimping out their wares to newscasters and videogame critics. He perks up, though, when he fires up the videogame systems. This is someone who's clearly found his dream job.

Brent lets us play through a few of the heavy hitters Nintendo's unveiling this fall. Here's my breakdown of what we tried, based on very scientific rating system I made up on the spot: New Super Mario Bros. Wii Rating: Four out of five Nintendo Airstreams New Super Mario Bros. is one of the company's biggest Wii releases for Christmas 2009, though at first glance it looks like it should've come out 25 years ago. It's a throwback to the original 8-bit Mario games - same side-scrolling action, same sprightly little dudes. That's what people want, though, explains Brent: "Everyone loves the classic Mario. And you can have all these bells and whistles in a game, but if it's not fun, nobody's gonna play it." Sure enough, the new Mario is fun - and playing it in the cozy, dimly-lit Airstream brought back fond memories of hours spent with the original NES version holed up in my neighbor's basement. Still, I couldn't shake the feeling I could get the same experience for $4.99 at a used game store.

The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks Rating: Three out of five Nintendo Airstreams Spirit Tracks is coming out for Nintendo DS, a hand-held videogame device that I'd never played before but resembles a Palm Pilot for kids. The central character is that old Nintendo standby Link, a medieval-era hero who spends this game riding around on a train and controlling robot-like soldiers marching through dungeons. Once I stopped grumbling about the historical anachronisms inherent in such a premise, the game was pretty entertaining. Then again, I think I'd rather be playing with a real train set than hunched over tiny screen, prodding at a make-believe one.

Wii Fit Plus Rating: Two out of five Nintendo Airstreams A sequel to the wildly popular Wii exercise game that came out last year, Wii Fit Plus involves standing on a balance board and having a go at different game-based exercises. I have a feeling the whole thing's about as much fun as say, real exercising, since Brent skipped over all the hard-sounding drills like running and yoga and opted to have us try an "exercise" that involved flapping your arms so an on-screen man in a chicken suit flew from one platform to the next. After gesticulating wildly for five minutes, the game announced I'd burned a whopping 12 calories. In other words, Wii Fit seems to involve all the humiliation of real-world fitness, but with none of the payoff.

Style Savvy Rating: One out of five Nintendo Airsteams Another DS game, Style Savvy is, technically speaking, a "girls game," Brent explains in an embarrassed whisper, since it essentially involves "playing dress-up with dolls." Still, it's sorta fun, he maintains, showing us how, as a make-believe clothing-store employee, you help digitized ladies pick out just the right outfits. And that's it. No cannons, fireballs or laser beams - just the mundane tedium of working in fashion retail. While there's something sadistically intriguing about a game that helps young girls prepare for a career at the Gap, this is probably the last game I'd ever want to play. I'd even prefer to flap my arms like a chicken.

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Joel Warner is a former staff writer for Westword and International Business Times. He's also written for WIRED, Men's Journal, Men's Health, Bloomberg Businessweek, Popular Science, Slate, Grantland and many other publications. He's co-author of the 2014 book The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny, published by Simon & Schuster.
Contact: Joel Warner