The crowning feature of Nintendo’s Wii U is supposed to be its GamePad controller, but you wouldn’t know it from the games that Nintendo was showcasing at E3.
At a small event for the press, Nintendo touted six games that are coming to the Wii U later this year or early next year: Super Mario 3D World, Mario Kart 8, Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze, Pikmin 3, Bayonetta 2 and Super Smash Bros.
None of these games requires the GamePad to play. At most, they only use the extra screen for supplemental features and gimmicks.
The Wii U GamePad has a 6.2-inch touchscreen in the middle, flanked by thumb sticks, buttons and triggers on either side. In theory, the extra screen is supposed to open up some amazing new types of gaming that aren’t possible on other consoles.
But right now, even Nintendo seems stumped by the controller. In the games I sampled at E3, the touchscreen didn’t add anything meaningful to the experience.
In Super Mario 3D World, for example, you can touch the screen to interact with a certain object, like POW blocks. This makes the game slightly easier in a handful of areas, but it was essentially a glorified cheat button. In Mario Kart 8, the touchscreen includes a horn and a way to switch between controller types. You can also view a map and see which items other players are carrying, but it’s too difficult to look down at this information while driving. Putting this information on the TV screen would be more helpful.
If Nintendo can’t do interesting things with the Wii U GamePad, it makes you wonder why the company even bothered, instead of building a more traditional console like the upcoming Xbox One and PlayStation 4. The Wii U isn’t as powerful as these systems, so it’s a hassle for publishers to create Wii U versions of their games. Some publishers, such as Electronic Arts, aren’t working on any games for Nintendo’s platform.
At this week’s press event, Nintendo of America president Reggie Fils-Aime said software sells hardware. But with so little third-party support, and so few games that really take advantage of the Wii U’s unique hardware, the console’s $350 price is tough to justify, even after Nintendo gets its next Mario and Zelda games out the door.
It makes me wonder whether Nintendo is setting the stage for a low-cost, GamePad-free version of the Wii U. Given that the GamePad isn’t essential to Nintendo’s upcoming games, and that it doesn’t have much support from other publishers, a low-cost alternative to the PS4 and Xbox One doesn’t seem outrageous. Ditching the GamePad would be embarrassing, but it could be Nintendo’s best chance at turning its fortunes around.