Why the Wii U Isn’t the Dinosaur Some Are Making It Out to Be

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Hey look, it’s the Wii U. It rhymes with “Wii 2,” and that probably means a whole bunch of people are going to buy one, then shelf it, just like the Wii, right?

I have no idea how well the Wii U’s going to sell, but something’s bothering me: this somewhat sullen attitude — as far as I can tell mostly from traditional gamers — that the Wii U is just the Wii all over again; an underpowered, under-designed game console that’ll be obsolete before its time. When Microsoft and Sony finally do unveil their gamma-irradiated, raging-red-Hulk-powered next consoles, probably at E3 2013, this dismissive assumption holds that they’ll blow the doors off Nintendo’s system.

(MORE: Hands On with the Wii U, Nintendo’s Next-Generation Game Console)

Anything’s possible, but we’re at a point in game hardware design where what’s under the hood matters less than at any point before. I’ll concede a few eyebrow-raising choices, like the Wii U’s smallish internal storage, but I don’t think it’s as simple as some are saying.

Let’s walk through some of the criticisms based on what we know about the Wii U, now that Nintendo’s spilled (most of) the beans on the hardware.

Processor and Graphics

Nintendo says the Wii U will use an IBM Power multi-core CPU and an AMD Radeon-based GPU, though it isn’t talking speeds or the number of CPU cores or offering anything like a benchmark at this point. That’s just as well — focusing on abstractions like frequencies or integer and floating point calculations tells us less and less about what a system’s actually capable of, as what we expect from computers has changed.

The most important visual spec is probably this one: up to 1080p support. The Wii U finally brings Nintendo into the high-definition fold. That’s important for several reasons — streaming movie playback topping the list — but above all, it means we’ll no longer be subject to blurry, interpolated video because of a mismatch between the system’s visual output and a flatscreen TV’s native resolution.

Even if, as some have said, the Wii U is only “as powerful” or “slightly more powerful than” current-gen systems, I don’t see the problem. I never hear anyone complain that iPad games don’t look as good as PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360 ones, for instance, or that PC games — now crunched by more than half-a-decade more powerful hardware than either the Xbox 360 or PS3 — are in any way superior because their visuals are more advanced.

(MORE: Nintendo’s Provocative Pre-E3 Wii U Reveal: A Tweaked Controller and New Social Network)

I think the same will apply to Wii U games when compared to whatever Microsoft and Sony have up their sleeves, graphically speaking. It’s a point I’ve raised before about contemporary visuals in games: We’re far past the point of abstraction-by-limitation, and games that want to simulate reality do such a good job of it on today’s systems that fussing over photorealism is a core crowd fetish, still stuck in the “mine’s bigger than yours” mindset.

I submit that when Sony and Microsoft’s next systems arrive, after the initial “here’s what next-gen Halo and God of War look like!” hoopla dies down, we’re not going to care much about the upticks in visual sophistication. Does Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 look better than my favorite game in the series, Call of Duty 2? Ask me if I care. These days, when I’m thinking about visual design, I notice particular style-related choices, not the graphically muscular ones.

Nothing against more powerful new hardware — I’m itching to have a look at one of these new MacBook Pros we might see next week at WWDC, for instance. And you can obviously do a lot more than crank out uber-realistic visuals with high-end hardware, so I don’t want to discount all the other things developers might (and I stress might) take the time to pull together with any extra processing oomph in terms of long-neglected design elements like artificial intelligence, which as any A.I. wonk will tell you, can be a huge drag on system resources. But if your whole investment in gaming pivots on visual output, I think you’ve let a shortsighted, increasingly irrelevant way of thinking about games get between you and appreciating games as games.


Then there’s Nintendo’s decision to put an optical drive in the Wii U — one that’ll accommodate 25GB discs. By all accounts, Microsoft and Sony plan to put optical drives in their next-gen systems, too, so I’m not sure what critics of the decision were expecting Nintendo to do.

Games aren’t getting any smaller and there’s still the question of Internet access to consider. Don’t forget that some ISPs are moving backwards when it comes to data caps and cracking down on monthly limits. If you’re in a pay-as-you-go situation, as many people I know are, the last thing you want is a game system you can’t play games on because it’s download-only — here comes the new Zelda-whatever, and you’re at your monthly ceiling.

But let’s talk about a design choice Nintendo made that really does seem odd on its face: the Wii U’s marginal internal storage.

(MORE: 11 Things to Expect (or Not to Expect) from E3 2012)

Despite everything I just said about game size growth, there’s still a substantial market for downloadable games — both indie/arcade fare as well as digital versions of retail games. The Xbox 360 and PS3 support hundreds of gigabytes of hard drive space. Laptops and desktop PCs now ship with upwards of 1TB. Even smartphones and tablets routinely come with 16GB, 32GB or 64GB of internal space.

Nintendo’s Wii U? A fractional 8GB of flash storage. Isn’t that a problem?

It would be, if the Wii U didn’t support storage upgrades, much as Microsoft did with its original no-hard-drive Xbox 360 or currently does with its entry-level 4GB model. Word is Nintendo will allow you to grow the Wii U’s storage via flash memory sticks or external hard drives via USB (the system has four USB ports). As a functional sticking point, therefore, it isn’t one.

You could argue it’s a move to accessorize the Wii U and make extra bucks off add-on peripherals…or you could argue it’s just Nintendo’s way of keeping the Wii U’s internal mechanics simple and the system’s upfront price down (we’ll see about the latter when the company finally announces pricing, of course).

The GamePad

And so we come to the final critique: that the tablet-style controller is too big and clunky-looking.

It’s definitely not your garden-variety gamepad, and it’s anyone’s guess whether it’ll be the go-to controller when it comes to this game or that one. But here’s the thing gamers balking at the controller don’t seem to understand: Nintendo is offering more controller possibilities than any console-maker in history.

As my colleague Harry McCracken notes, the Wii U GamePad can be “a Wiimote with a touchscreen,” “a second screen which may or may not mirror what’s being shown on the TV,” “a complement to the Wiimote,” “a tethered gaming handheld,” “a window into a virtual world,” “a social-networking device” and “a fancy universal remote.”

And that’s just the GamePad itself. Nintendo’s going to support all of the older Wii peripherals, as well as something new it’s calling the Wii U Pro Controller. If you’re a core gamer balking at the size of the Wii U GamePad, therefore, stop fretting — Nintendo has you covered.

One more thing: Let’s disabuse ourselves of the notion that Nintendo’s trying to edge in on the tablet market with the Wii U GamePad. It’s not, any more than the dual-screen DS was a smartphone rival.

Nintendo’s trying to enliven the home gaming experience with a two-screen angle, not trying to subvert the iPad. And don’t forget the Wii U GamePad is really just the bottom half of the DS snapped off and held in free-space.

This is about melding the Wii and DS experience, not doing a me-too tablet. Nintendo knows iPads make terrible game controllers when it comes to games that require fine motor input and precise control. And the impact of the tablet market’s growth on what Nintendo’s hoping to achieve with the Wii U will be next to zero.

If Apple ever gets serious about console-style gaming — and according to recent comments from Apple CEO Tim Cook, it has no plans to — then we’ll see, but at present, I detect nothing about Nintendo’s approach that feels anything but forward-looking.

Whether it’s the right way forward remains to be seen, and it’ll be driven by the kinds of games developers produce, but wave-off accusations that the company is just “pulling another Wii” are — it seems to me, anyway — missing some pretty obvious and salient points.

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