I’m no stranger to disappointment when it comes to the actual competition portion of the Nintendo World Championship qualifying round (and nothing about that has changed this year), as failing spectacularly comes naturally, but despite that the 2015 version still seemed quite underwhelming for an event that hearkened back to days when celebrating Nintendo was a massive, fun-filled party. There were no banners, no streamers at the out-of-the way Best Buy located in Maple Grove, Minnesota, a sleepy suburb of Minneapolis where it took place. No huge line outside waiting to get in, and upon entering I actually had to be directed to the small corner behind the kitchen appliances where a few 3DS’ were lined up, their screens glowing softly, waiting for the throngs that would never come.

While I’m not going to say that 2017’s NWC qualifier (this time in the suburb of Richfield, near the Best Buy headquarters) matched — or even came close to — the confetti-strewn level of hype portrayed in the third act of a certain Fred Savage movie (these aren’t the finals, after all), this effort was definitely a step up from the previous half-hearted attempt, and as a result felt more like the special occasion that it should be for fans of the Big N.

The process of enrolling was basically the same as before, but this time a nicely conspicuous red-and-white booth outside the store entrance beckoned the knowing and the curious, ready to grant them the wrist bands necessary for one attempt at racing glory, and plenty of police protection made sure that no nonsense would be tolerated from any rabble-rousing gamers. Low-level construction? A security presence? Right off the bat the whole thing felt just a little more important, even if the latter was comically unnecessary.

It was E3-lite within the walled borders of the designated area, with Nintendo logos and Switch posters lining every wall, plenty of people in organized lines (already better than E3), swarms of red-shirted reps, a life-size Mario walking around and pointing at people but suspiciously saying nothing, all while a playable remote-controlled Mario Kart zoomed through the aisles, annoying unsuspecting shoppers who have never heard of Switch and just wanted to buy a new toaster. More importantly, there was something to do other than be embarrassed at Mario Kart 7 by the under-12s in attendance (one of whom held the record for the whole store, by the way). After logging my unpracticed obligatory disaster of a run, I hopped over to the other side of the area, where long lines anxiously waited to get their hands on two of Nintendo’s biggest fall releases: Super Mario Odyssey and Metroid: Samus Returns.

Just the presence of these two highly-anticipated titles injected a level of energy and enthusiasm into this year’s event that 2015’s never came close to approaching. Beaming kids and adults were lining up, playing the demos, then heading right back to do it all over again, eager to cinch those mandatory joy-con wrist straps before exploring New Donk City one more time. The Switch is selling well, and the company is primed to get the word out with some of their most popular franchises, and giving everyone this kind of treat was the perfect way to further ingratiate fans, as well as earn new ones.

I had a blast debating with the group of teenagers at my Metroid kiosk about which route to take in the labyrinthine caverns we were traversing, gloating any time I discovered a Chozo statue or hidden missile tank (lording it over kids is awesome), and engaging in a competition to find the weirdest resident-mannequin in Odyssey‘s FBI agent-populated metropolis (what kind of boombox rooftop pool party requires suits?). In between wall-jumping and hat-throwing we chatted about all things Nintendo, all while keeping an eye on those lingering around waiting to see the final results of the competition, huddled in groups that I imagine were trading strategies to shave precious seconds off. Yes, both Samus Returns and Super Mario Odyssey play amazing, but whole atmosphere made me want to stick around and keep going, keep talking.

Eventually I managed to tear myself from Nintendo Land and headed outside into the beautiful day, but the sunny vibe inside made 2017’s Nintendo World Championship qualifiers a much more improved experience than the 2015 version. It was fun to relax, fun to talk with very friendly reps (one of whom amazingly recognized me from two years ago), and engage with fellow Nintendophiles while surrounded by some of the most beloved assets in gaming history. It was fun to celebrate Nintendo, and it was fun to be surrounded by others who felt the same way. In a word, 2017’s Nintendo World Championship qualifying round was simply fun.

Patrick Murphy grew up in the hearty Midwest, where he spent many winter hours watching movies and playing video games while waiting for baseball season to start again. When not thinking of his next Nintendo post or writing screenplays to satisfy his film school training, he’s getting his cinema fix as the Editor of Sordid Cinema, Goomba Stomp's Film and TV section.