As for the action itself, Nintendo is counting on the idea of “asymmetrical gameplay” to sell the Wii U. While over the past 40 years, people have become pretty used to the idea of a handheld controller directing things on the television, the GamePad adds the element of a second screen to the equation. Games can therefore be split up to take place on the TV and on the controller itself. The possibilities are endless.
Nintendo Land, the software that comes with the $350 Wii U deluxe edition, is a collection of mini-games designed to showcase the controller’s abilities. All of the 12 mini-games, dressed up as amusement park attractions in the larger game itself, highlight one or more aspects of that “asymmetrical” potential.
One of the simplest cases is Takamaru’s Ninja Castle, where you hold the GamePad flat in front of you, like a book, and swipe its surface toward the TV screen. Doing so chucks ninja stars at opponents, with aim being registered by the sensor bar that sits on top of or below the TV, just like with the Wii.
A more complex example of the two-screen game system is Luigi’s Ghost Mansion, which happened to be the favourite with my group of friends. In this game, up to four players wander a maze each using a standard Wii Plus controller (sold separately) while another player controls a ghost with the GamePad. The other players can’t see the ghost unless they hit it with their flashlight beams, with the rumbling on their controllers the only indication that their prey is nearby.
The ghost player, however, can see everything on the GamePad screen and must use this knowledge to sneak up on the others. Both sides hunt each other until one runs out of lives or health. It’s a cerebral game that is either unnerving to the hunting players, or giddiness-inducing for the ghost player.
Other first- and third-party games make use of the second screen in various ways with differing degrees of success. Nintendo’s own New Super Mario Bros. U boasts two such functions, the first of which is simple – the full game can be played on the GamePad itself, thereby freeing the TV up for someone else to watch shows or movies. It’s an excellent way to avoid arguments over who gets the TV.
The second, and better, implementation is found in multiplayer, where up to four people can play on the main screen with regular Wii controllers. Another player can follow along on the GamePad and help out by adding new blocks to jump on by tapping the touch screen, thereby saving other players from certain death or easing their paths to hard-to-access areas.
My friends and I had a blast with this. Having four people playing a Super Mario game, with a fifth intervening with a sort of god-like omnipotence, was amazingly chaotic, but also immensely hilarious.
Third-party games such as Ubisoft’s Zombi U and Warner Bros.’s Batman Arkham City Armored Edition add their own second-screen elements, which range from neat and innovative to gimmicky and unnecessary. Both put maps of their respective environments onto the GamePad, which are welcome additions since it’s easier to look down rather than pause and surf menus on the TV screen to view objectives.
Both games, however, also have features that have clearly been shoehorned in just to make use of the controller’s functions. Removing a manhole cover in Zombi U, for example, is accomplished through mundanely tapping the touch screen, while in Arkham City, the player must hold up the GamePad and scan around using its gyroscope in order to have Batman analyze a crime scene. Both actions could have been accomplished more easily and naturally with old-fashioned buttons and thumbsticks.