Look at Your Wii U, Now Back to Me, Now Back to Your Wii U (I’m on a Horse!)

The Wii U, which arrived last week then merged with my entertainment center like the Spider-Man symbiote, is doing something unexpected: teaching me how to feed my own visual cortex using cues from multiple sources.

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Knowing where to look is important for all kinds of reasons. I’m rediscovering this as my 3-month-old son learns that his neck is for more than just bobbling around, that he can turn it left or right to feed the vision center. The pleasure he takes in doing so is unmistakable as I watch him pulling at the corners of his mouth, turning that mouth into an O and conjuring broad smiles when he sees something he recognizes. A toy. A face. Mom. Dad.

I can make it happen on command now, using my face as a lure, snapping my fingers or singing, saying the sort of stuff you say in parentese to 3-month-olds: “Over here, kiddo!” and “What’s that?” and “Is Daddy silly?”

The Wii U, which arrived last week and then merged with my entertainment center like the Spider-Man symbiote, is doing something like this to me, teaching me how to feed my own vision center using cues from multiple sources. It sounds radical — two screens working in tandem like this, competing for your attention — and it kind of is, though not in the sense that it’s never been done before.

Remember these? Sega’s Dreamcast offered auxiliary-screen gaming with its pint-size Visual Memory Units, which could either act as standalone handhelds or provide supplemental information during a Dreamcast game. Sony took a stab at the concept with its PlayStation-based PocketStation, which was functionally similar to the Dreamcast’s VMUs. PC owners have, of course, been multiscreen gaming for decades. And Nintendo experimented with secondary-screen gaming during the GameCube’s tenure, allowing you to connect a Game Boy Advance to the console and download minigames or use the GBA as a supplemental screen. In Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles, for instance, multiple players with GBAs could connect to a GameCube, using the GBAs as controllers and their GBA screens to access personal status menus.

But the Wii U is the first game system to make the secondary screen the center of attention, placing a crisp 6.2-in., 854-x-480-pixel display in the middle of the controller — the Wii U GamePad — to either complement what’s happening on your TV or supplant it as the primary screen, for when you want to keep gaming while someone else uses the TV to watch a show.

At first blush, the Wii U GamePad seems like the bottom half of a Nintendo DS snapped off. But since it’s held in your hands and nowhere near the TV screen, meaning you can look only at one or the other, it forces you to make radical visual decisions: Which screen should you look at? When? Why? So many choices!

Nintendo sent over only a handful of games with my review unit, so most of my multiscreen experience has been with NintendoLand and New Super Mario Bros. U as well as the initial Wii U setup process (though we’re not allowed to talk about the latter just yet).

You’d think two screens operating in separate fields of view — one distant and at eye level, the other close to your lap — would pose significant where-to-look problems.

Like I said, you’d think.

So far, I can say it’s a design challenge Nintendo’s designers rose to, ensuring that as you play, you’re directed to look in the right place and not asked to switch back and forth in a way or at a rate that mars the experience.

Figuring out how to do this is mostly a matter of realizing there’s nothing to figure out, since it’s as simple as following onscreen prompts. This isn’t like learning to use a Wii Remote for the first or 10th or 100th time — in other words, groping in free space to find the virtual contours of a bowling throw or golf swing, fumbling mechanics that, no matter how many times you play, often rely more on guesswork than visual acuity or mechanical skill.

That’s in part because the Wii U’s screen doubling tends to be about complementary, not obligatory info, It gives you extra “oh, by the way, if you have the time to …” data when you’re not using the GamePad as the primary interface, such as a list of button presses to trigger combos in a game like Ninja Gaiden 3: Razor’s Edge. If you’ve spent any time with Nintendo’s DS or 3DS, particularly with games that use the second screen to pipe in extra metrics or display stuff you’d otherwise have to poke around in menus to find, it’s easy to see the dotted-line relationship.

But it’s also easy to see where that dotted line sometimes fades or disappears. Consider NintendoLand, bundled with the deluxe $349 model. NintendoLand is the Wii U’s Wii Sports, or Nintendo’s way of explaining how the Wii U works. It’s also a theme park with minigames that vamp on popular Nintendo characters like Mario, Donkey Kong, Zelda and Pikmin.

Take Takamaru’s Ninja Castle, a frenetic shoot-’em-up in NintendoLand in which, as you’ve probably seen in demos, you slide your fingers across the Wii U GamePad’s touchscreen to fling shuriken at cartoon ninjas. Nintendo feeds all the critical information through the TV and places referential info on the GamePad’s screen. If you have time to glance down between levels, you’ll see where your finger’s supposed to go and a kind of shuffleboard over which your fingertips are supposed to skate. But the mechanics are so elementary that you don’t need to look down to get the job done. The interface is just point-and-swipe, and the raised plastic frame around the screen is enough to prevent your fingers from getting lost.

When you’ve finished and are tallying stats like your personal best score or overall ranking, the Wii U GamePad darkens, strobing a simple “Look at the TV!” message to focus your attention. When the base station needs input from the Wii U GamePad, an icon appears in one corner of the TV to indicate that you need to tap the GamePad screen to continue. Easy-peasy; just follow the blinking indicator.

Other NintendoLand games offer comparable training experiences. In Yoshi’s Fruit Cart, you have to compare the TV and Wii U GamePad screens to determine where to draw a line that’ll let Yoshi snarf down snacks: the top screen shows the snacks laid at points on a flat map, while the bottom screen shows reference shapes and lines but not the snacks themselves. While you thus have to shift your view from screen to screen to play, using the reference points on the TV to estimate where to draw the line on the GamePad, it never feels awkward, because there’s no time limit, so you can look at either screen and dawdle all you like.

Or take Octopus Dance, a Simon Says–style rhythm game that puts you behind your Mii avatar next to a dance instructor (the eponymous Octopus) on one screen and shows you both facing outward on the other screen. It’s of course easier to imitate the Octopus if you’re watching your Mii from behind, facing the same way you are, but Nintendo periodically flips the screens, forcing you to shift your view (though giving you several seconds to make the transition). Again, the screen-flipping’s easy enough, all the while training you to follow visual cues from one screen to the other.

I’ve even played games in which the TV screen seems redundant — a way for someone else in the room to enjoy what you’re doing on the Wii U GamePad but not central to the game itself. In Donkey Kong’s Crash Course, for instance, you tilt the GamePad left or right to steer a rickety roller through an obstacle course. On the GamePad, the view is zoomed in, allowing you to see exactly as much of the board as you need to, whereas on the TV, it defaults to a zoomed-out and not really playable (yet still fun to watch) display that shows more or all of the game’s zany, Rube Goldberg–ish course.

Part of adapting as a player to Nintendo’s split-screen approach — one floating, one fixed — involves relaxing and going with the flow, abandoning the assumption that if there’s another screen with info, there must be something there worth looking at. We’ve been conditioned by video-game Easter eggs, shows like Lost and books like James Joyce’s Ulysses to assume there’s always something extra, subtextual,  tucked away somewhere, especially when your interface now has two potential outputs. And it’s not that there couldn’t be a mess of info; it’s that Nintendo’s been careful not to make the two-screen experience too busy or a dismal game of “Guess where to look next!”

Nintendo hasn’t reinvented the wheel here, but it does seem to have improved it, translating eight years of experience with its multiscreen DS into something that’s so far definitively Nintendo: quirky, kind of cool and thoroughly intriguing.