Most things about personal technology change at a relentlessly fast-forward pace that can make your head spin. Video game hardware design is not one of them.
The three major manufacturers stretch out the useful lives of their consoles as long as possible: Microsoft released its Xbox 360 in 2005, and Nintendo’s Wii and Sony’s PlayStation 3 followed in 2006. By gadget standards, they’re antediluvian.
The Wii changed gaming forever by introducing the Wii Remote (or “Wiimote”), which let you control games by waving a stick rather than jabbing at a bevy of buttons. Then Microsoft upstaged it by introducing Kinect, which lets you interact with the Xbox 360 by waving your hands and body — no controller needed. With the Wii no longer novel and its 3DS handheld facing stiff competition from Apple’s iPhone and iPod Touch, the House That Mario Built badly needs something that’s as fresh and inventive as the Wii was a half-dozen years ago.
The company hopes it’s found that something in the Wii U.
The first next-generation console scheduled to ship from one of the big three — it’s due in time for the holidays — the Wii U got a super-early preview a year ago at the E3 gaming trade show in Los Angeles, where Nintendo showed off a prototype of its controller, which included a built-in 6.2″ touchscreen. But it saved most of the beans to spill at this year’s E3, where it held a press conference this morning. (Nintendo President Satoru Iwata got a head start by releasing a video on Sunday with some new details about the console.)
Yesterday, at Nintendo’s not-yet-open E3 booth, I got to play early versions of some of the first games and watch a few others in action. My time with the upcoming console was too brief to tell if it’ll be a landmark product of the sort that the Wii was in its time. And Nintendo is still holding back some details, including the Wii U’s technical details and price tag. But I did have a lot of fun, and came away convinced that this new platform is rife with potential.
As its name suggests, the Wii U feels less like an all-new concept than an extension of the Wii. It’s still far more focused on games than the PlayStation and Xbox 360, both of which double as general-purpose living-room entertainment devices. Even the Wiimote is back as one means of interacting with games. The big story is the GamePad controller — a means of interacting with games that’s unlike anything that Nintendo or anyone else has ever shipped with a game console.
With its oversized touchscreen, two joysticks and full complement of buttons — plus a stylus you can use instead of your fingertip — the GamePad lacks the minimalism and conceptual purity of the Wiimote. Instead, it’s a Swiss Army Knife of a controller that can be different things at different moments — or, sometimes, several things at once. Iwata acknowledges as much, quoting Nintendo’s legendary game designer Shigeru Miyamoto: “a great idea solves multiple problems at one time.”
You can use the GamePad as…
…a Wiimote with a touchscreen. As with the Wii and the Wiimote, some Wii U games get you off the couch and on your feet. In one of the games I tried, featuring a character named Takamuru who’s a long-time star in Japan, I held the GamePad in one hand, aimed it at the TV and slid my other finger along the screen to whip throwing stars at on-screen ninjas. The faster and further I dragged my fingertip, the more forcefully the stars moved then when they showed up on the TV screen. (The Takamuru game is part of Nintendoland, a Wii U title that’s a virtual theme park, with attractions based on classic Nintendo franchises, including Donkey Kong, Zelda and 10 others.)
…a second screen which may or may not mirror what’s being shown on the TV. Nintendo showed me a video of a Wii U version of the Batman game Arkham City, one of 2011′s blockbusters on other consoles. On the TV, it looks much like earlier versions — but the GamePad lets you choose and use weapons and gadgets from the Caped Crusader’s utility belt. In this mode, the experience is reminiscent of the two-display approach of Nintendo’s DS and 3DS handhelds.
…a complement to the Wiimote. In one of the examples in Nintendo’s video preview, a golf game lets you put the GamePad on the floor, where it displays a ball on a tee. You then swing a Wiimote like a club, virtually putting the ball off the GamePad and towards a hole shown on your TV.
…a tethered gaming handheld. You’ll be able to play some games, such as New Super Mario Bros. U, using only the GamePad; the TV can be tuned to something else or turned off. In these cases, the GamePad functions pretty much like a gigantic Game Boy that needs to be in close proximity to the Wii U console. (Nintendo says it’s designed to be used in the same room.)
…a window into a virtual world. Some Wii U games will let you rotate the GamePad up, down and all around to see a 360-degree view of the environment around you, as if you were standing in the center of it rather than looking at it on a TV. In the Zelda game from Nintendoland, for example, I shot arrows at bad guys, and could swing the GamePad upward to spy ones hovering above eye level. And one of the most engaging demos, Wii U Panorama View, simply lets you use the GamePad to watch 360-degree videos of scenes such as cherry-blossom season in Kyoto and Carnival in Rio.
…a social-networking device. In his video, Nintendo’s Iwata discussed Miiverse, an online service which will let far-flung Wii U users chat, share tips and otherwise interact. You’ll be able to use it on the GamePad (and, eventually, on non-Nintendo devices such as smartphones and PCs).
…a fancy universal remote. Even if the console is turned off, you’ll be able to use the GamePad as a touchscreen remote for your TV.
Whew. That’s a lot of possibilities. As with any next-generation gaming hardware, it’s likely that it’ll take the games some time to catch up with all the things the GamePad can do.
Of course, for all of this to feel like magic rather than kludged-together technology, a lot of stuff has to work perfectly. The GamePad’s wireless connection with the Wii U console needs to be robust. (Nintendo conducted pre-E3 demos in a fortified meeting room with a vault-like door in hopes of blocking out external wi-fi interference.) The motion detector and gyroscope inside the GamePad must flawlessly sense how you’re holding and moving the controller. The touchscreen should be silky smooth. Any little glitch anywhere along the way will spoil the fun and make the GamePad feel like more effort than it’s worth.
My Wii U hands-on experience was only enough to form initial impressions: I only got to dabble with certain sections of unfinished games, under the attentive supervision of Nintendo employees. Mostly, though, it all worked together beautifully. I quickly forgot about the tech and focused on important activities such as hopping over mushrooms and dodging man-eating plants. And I didn’t feel like I needed a tutorial in how to use the GamePad– I just grabbed it and got going.
The least satisfying aspect of the experience was the touchscreen. Like the ones on the DS and 3DS handhelds, it uses resistive technology, which is why it reacts to the stylus as well as your finger. It offers only single-touch input — eliminating the possibility of two-finger gestures — and isn’t as responsive as the capacitive screens on the iPhone and other smartphones. (I found I occasionally had to jab it more than once before it noticed my input.) Still, it’s far from terrible, and if you’ve used the DS or 3DS, it’ll feel very familiar.
By the time the Wii U hits stores this fall, it may be part of a general trend towards multiple-screen gaming interfaces. Some games for Apple’s iOS already use the company’s Apple TV and AirPlay technology to achieve a somewhat similar effect, splitting action between your TV and an iPhone, iPod Touch or iPad. And at its E3 press conference last night, Sony announced “cross controller” play, which will let you use its PlayStation Vita handheld as a touchscreen controller for the PlayStation 3.
For now, though, nobody else is taking the concept as far as Nintendo will do with the Wii U. Nintendo President Iwata made his video pitch for the new console while standing below a Japanese sign which he explained stated the company’s decades-old corporate mission: “creating something unique.” Judging from what we now know about the Wii U, it’s off to a solid start at doing that. Now it’s up to Nintendo and other companies to create games which deliver on its promise.