The Wii started out as a pretty glorious experiment. Motion control was something that seemed like future technology at the time, and everyone saw the Wii as the future of gaming. While the Wii has delivered several high-quality gaming experiences over the years, the fact is that with only barebones support from third-party developers, and some pretty awful motion controls in its early days, the Wii left many hardcore gamers cold. Nintendo has identified this, and in their recent E3 keynote address admitted that they needed to serve a "wider" audience of gamer with their next console.
That's where the Wii U comes in. I'll be the first to admit that the name is a little ridiculous. But once you get over your initial reaction to a game system that sounds like it was named after a university or a police siren, you have to admire what Nintendo is trying to do with the thing. I got the chance to spend extensive time with the Wii U at this year's E3, and while there were no full games on display for the system, there were several "experience" stations that allowed players to pick up the new Wii U controller and feel what might be possible in the future from this brand-new console.
First, let's talk about hardware. No specs were given about the console itself (and I could not confirm that the console model on the show floor was the Wii U's final design), so the only thing we can really talk about with authority is the Wii U's controller. The controller does indeed have the much-rumored 6-inch touch screen at its center, and it is surrounded by the same face buttons that you see on the classic controller. The twin thumbsticks are absent though and have been replaced with the leaner circle pads that are featured on the 3DS. In addition to the buttons on the front, the Wii U also has trigger and bumper buttons on the back.
Though the controller unit is quite large, the Wii U's controller is surprisingly light, only a little bit heavier than a Wii-Mote. It feels comfortable to hold, and fit snugly in my small hands. The touchscreen display is bright and vivid, and features the same beautiful visual quality that you see on the HD television display.
The first experience I saw was a demonstration of the Wii U's high definition output, and I definitely came away impressed. The footage was the same that we saw during the press conference of the bird on the cherry blossom tree, but up close it is really something spectacular. Everything from motion blur to lighting and even water effects looked on par with what you would expect from a top-of-the-line developer on any of the other two consoles. Though I can't confidently say that the visuals are better at this juncture (one pre-rendered cinematic does not a blockbuster console make), the Wii U unquestionably equals the graphical power of what is out there already.
The next station I went to demonstrated the potential for stylus-controlled games. I went on a short head-to-head match with our lovely PR guy Chris where we were challenged to draw shapes of certain dimensions from memory. The gameplay was very simplistic, but it was the potential here that they were trying to showcase. The experience felt like a DS game with the two screens, which felt natural. One thing I was worried about initially with the Wii U was whether or not it would be comfortable to hold in positions other than the default, given its rather large size. Fortunately, I found the controller easy to hold in a single-handed position, and it was easy to draw precisely with the Wii U's stylus in-hand.
However, the true test of the Wii U's potential as a legitimate gaming platform came with our next three experiences. Over the course of about a half-hour I was able to play a Metroid-inspired shooter, an HD Mario game, and a hide-and-seek mini-game. These game experiences all used the controller in new ways, and really sold me on the potential of the Wii U. The shooter was particularly impressive, as you could use the Wii U controller to pilot a spaceship and shoot down human enemies (who used the Wii-Mote) with amazing precision. As I was playing, I was talking to some of the Nintendo representatives at the booth, and they told me that Nintendo's vision with the Wii U is all about choice. So while I preferred to use the Wii U controller's dual circle pads to control my aircraft, I could also use motion controls if I wanted. The concept of motion controls as a choice is something they experimented with on the Wii (with games like Super Smash Bros. Brawl), but that ultimately wasn't implemented in a large-scale way. Fortunately, it looks like the Wii U will give developers many more choices to implement in games, which can only be counted as a good thing for gamers.
The hide-and-seek experience (dubbed "Chase Mii") also gave us a rough idea of what the Wii U can do for the future of gaming. The game was a simple hide and seek simulator, but the twist was that the one doing the hiding uses the Wii U controller and has a top-down view of the environment and can watch other characters as they search for them. This makes it easy to sneak around in characters' blind spots and play the game strategically in a way not possible when you are limited to just one screen.
The Mario sample I played was the most straightforward Wii U sample we played, and featured all the 2D platforming you've come to expect from the series. The game was modeled after New Super Mario Bros. Wii, and allowed up to four people to play co-op. You can play with the Wii-Mote or the Wii U controller, and both options feel natural; there really is no benefit to using either. The only thing that the Wii U controller brings to the experience is the fact that the Mario game could be streamed and played through the Wii U controller without the TV. This is a really cool feature, but I have to wonder how many game companies will use this feature, since the possibilities for using the second screen as part of the gameplay seems to be the most interesting possibility with the Wii U.
The Nintendo press conference got me excited about the Wii U, and though there are a lot of things we don't know about the console (final design, technical specs, storage media, etc.), I can confidently say that what I've seen so far has impressed me. Nintendo is clearly making wooing back the "core" gamer a priority, and with their new tablet-like controller, there are plenty of possibilities for innovative gameplay that moves gaming beyond its current form. The console is slated for release in 2012, so I'm sure we will hear more about the Wii U in the months to come.
By Amanda L. Kondolojy
CCC Senior Contributing Writer
*The views expressed within this article are solely the opinion of the author and do not express the views held by Cheat Code Central.*