The Wii U, which hits stores on Sunday, is the first new video game console in six years. With all the technology world's advances in processing power, graphics capabilities, online delivery and input breakthroughs in the intervening years, that's a minor miracle. Just about every other category of gadget has been iterating and improving on an almost monthly basis, so it's nothing short of amazing that console makers have been able to get as much mileage out of their machines as they have.
Nintendo, clearly, is the first to flag. Its previous Wii console revolutionized gaming in 2006 with its innovative motion-sensing controller and initially sold like crazy, but with its early momentum long since sputtered out, it's time for a new kick at the can.
While the Wii courted a large, broad audience that wasn't being catered to by traditional game makers – including families, young children and even seniors – it ultimately didn't attract those developers themselves. Set in their ways, game makers continued to create increasingly deep and graphically rich games that the Wii hardware simply couldn't handle.
Now, the Wii U is boasting high-definition graphics and the option of regular non-motion controls, both of which represent an effort to win back the core gamers shunned by its predecessor. But with an innovative tablet-like touch-screen controller that incorporates a camera, microphone, speakers, gyroscope and accelerometer, all of which is set up to tailor to all sorts of casual iPad-like games, it's also an attempt to woo that same broad market that the Wii enticed.
Will the move pay off? After a few days with the Wii U, it's clear Nintendo is going to have a hard time with this all-things-to-all-people approach. While the new console is likely to initially appeal to non-core gamers with its novel functions and capabilities, its future with the regular market – and therefore with game makers – remains questionable since it doesn't offer many advantages over competitors.
On the plus side, the most noticeable thing about the Wii U is its charm, which it oozes right from set-up. The grid-like main menu interface, displayed on the tablet-resembling GamePad, has the same simplistic elegance as its predecessor. The menu screen is also accompanied by a soothing melody playing in the background. It's the sort of tune you might hear when getting a massage.
As an added bonus, the music plays from the controller's speakers as well as the television, creating a nifty and trippy stereo sound vibe. The effect isn't quite the same when a character is speaking since there's some lag between the two sound sources, but in that case the volume on the GamePad can be turned off.
The controller itself is much lighter than it looks. With iPads and other tablets creating an expectation of heft for a similarly sized device, it's almost a shock to hold the super-light GamePad. The tradeoff is that while it's comfortable to use for long periods of time, its battery life is short. I averaged about three or four hours before having to plug it in. While that's not the end of the world and certainly more than enough for casual sessions, core gamers are often at it for much longer than that.
The touch screen is generally a pleasure to use. Rather than looking up at the TV screen, many game options and settings are adjusted by looking down at the GamePad. In an age where many people are used to this sort of interface on phones and tablets, it feels completely natural to navigate game menus this way.
Button placement, on the other hand, doesn't feel as right. For gamers used to Xbox and PlayStation controllers, the GamePad will feel weird since its buttons and thumbsticks are spaced considerably farther apart. There's a learning curve involved for playing the sorts of big games also found on other consoles, such as Call of Duty: Black Ops II or Assassin's Creed III.
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.
Coming up with truly clever incorporations of the second screen rather than just simple novelties that will eventually get tired is going to require game developers to invest significant time, ingenuity and resources specifically to the Wii U. Given that they largely didn't do that for the Wii's motion controls, it's questionable as to whether things will be different this time. Nintendo managed to line up strong initial support for the Wii U, with 29 games available through retail at launch, but it remains to be seen whether that will continue over the long term.
Gamers and developers at least don't have graphics to complain about anymore, at least for the time being. Many developers are saying the Wii U is comparable to the Xbox 360 and PS3, if not a little better. The console indeed does a smooth job of beaming graphics to the TV and GamePad at the same time, so it clearly packs decent horsepower under the hood. And while a game like Arkham City looks sharper on the competing consoles it was originally designed for, it certainly doesn't look bad on the Wii U. Meanwhile, Mario – in his full high-definition glory – has never looked better.
However, this too is an area where the Wii U is likely to be challenged again, and soon. With Sony and Microsoft widely expected to announce their own next-generation consoles next year, both of which will see significant graphics boosts, Nintendo may find itself at the back of the pack again. Company executives have said they chose to load the Wii U with lower-cost components in order to keep its price down, but doing so may ultimately come at the cost of insulating it for the future.
Nintendo has also promised a host of video streaming services for the Wii U, including the ability to watch live television while chatting with friends on the GamePad. The new console is also supposed to be backwards compatible with older Wii games and have access to an online store where downloadable content can be purchased.
None of these functions were live as of the day before launch, with Nintendo announcing on Friday that many of the streaming functions won't be available until December. A downloadable system update on launch day is supposed to enable backwards compatability, but obviously none of the features were available to be tested.
The Wii U and its second-screen proposition can ultimately be a lot of fun, with some of the launch games – primarily those from Nintendo itself – proving that. But this console hits stores with the big questions of whether that potential will be realized, whether game developers will support it in the long term and whether competitors will outpace it.
It's great to finally get a new and innovative gaming experience, but the long-term questions combined with significant delayed functionality on launch means potential buyers are probably better off waiting to see how the new console is positioned in a few months time.