Bright and early on Thursday morning, I arrived at the Times Square Building—the old New York Times headquarters—to try out the Wii U and a few of its games. I walked in the door as a skeptic; I suspected that the tablet-style controller would be heavy and uncomfortable, and that its touchscreen would make the system more expensive without adding much of value.
An hour and a half and a free doughnut later, I left believing that the Wii U will be a worthy successor to the Wii. It's every bit as family-friendly and gimmicky as its predecessor, but it's every bit as fun, too. I'm still not quite sold on that controller, though—or on the ability of the Wii U to win back hardcore gamers.
If you haven't been following the steady drip of details about the Wii U, here's what we know now. Overall, the Wii U basically combines the Wii and the DS in a current-generation console. As was the case with the Wii, there are doubts about whether it will have enough processing power to compete with the next offerings from Sony and Microsoft. (This could be a problem for third-party support after a few years.) It's also backward compatible with the Wii, and some of the games will work best with Wii controllers. There is also a standard controller, basically an update of the Classic Controller that mimics the design of the current Xbox and PlayStation gamepads.
Of course, there's also the distinctive tablet-style controller, which provides a touch-sensitive second screen, à la the DS. Note the "-style"; it does not function as a tablet that you can carry around with you away from the console. But it includes lots of clever features—a stylus, all the buttons you'd expect on a modern controller, two nice joysticks, the pointer and tilt features of a Wii-mote, a camera that can be used for voice chat, a headphone jack, and the ability to function as a universal remote. Further, for games that don't require two screens, you can play entirely on the tablet's screen while someone else uses the TV. And it's way, way lighter than I expected.
But here's why I'm still not sold on it. For starters, while I did enjoy the dual-screen action of Rayman Legends (see below), the fact that many of the games won't even require both screens makes me wonder if it's worth the extra cost. In addition, the controller didn't sit well in my hands. There seem to be two ways to hold it—you can rest your middle finger along a ridge at the back, holding your middle, ring, and pinky fingers flat against the controller, or you can hold on to the supposedly ergonomic grips along the sides. The former option felt awkward to me, and my big hands rendered the latter an impossibility. I like my controllers to be grippable, rather than just holdable. Maybe Nintendo will release some kind of attachment that makes it easier to grasp.
But I'll stop pontificating now. Without further ado, here's a brief rundown of the games I got to try. Beware that all of the information below, including the titles, might change before the Wii U launches this holiday season.
I played NintendoLand with a few other journalists who came to the event. It's basically the Wii Sports of the U—it contains twelve Nintendo franchise-themed minigames that exploit the new console's special features.
One of those features is "asymmetric gameplay," which in the Wii U's case is when one person plays off the tablet while the other players look at the TV, and the two screens display different images. The first game we tried, based on Luigi's Mansion, was a very simple take on this idea. A Nintendo rep played as a ghost using the tablet, and the rest of us used Wiimotes with the TV (where the ghost was invisible, naturally). Each of our characters had a flashlight. Our goal was to catch the ghost in the flashlight, and her goal was to sneak up behind us without being detected. When we caught her, she lost some health; when she caught one of us, we were scared into unconsciousness (though we could be revived by each other's flashlights). The game ended when she lost all her health or all of us were unconscious at once.
In another game, based on Animal Crossing, one player used the tablet's joysticks to control two characters at once, and chased the rest of us while we tried to collect candy. The more candy we collected, the slower we moved. And finally, there was a game based on the Takamaru franchise, which is apparently big in Japan. In this game you hold the tablet sideways with your off-hand, pointing it at the TV with the screen facing up. This makes the pointer function kick in, and by flicking the touch screen with your dominant hand, you can launch throwing stars at your targets. This was by far the most fun game, though I noticed that the aiming reticle seemed to lag a little.
NintendoLand is certainly not a title for hardcore gamers, but it's a lot of fun with friends and ought to sell some consoles.
In terms of demonstrating the new hardware features in the context of a solid game, Rayman Legends is by far the best title I played. The demo was set up to work with two players only, so I don't know how it will function in the single-player mode, but it was a great experience with one player on a traditional controller and the other on a tablet.
For the person with the traditional controller, Rayman Legends is a basic 2-D platformer for the most part—a very good-looking one, with lush visuals that pop out at you. However, the other player is tasked with making life a little easier—using the touchscreen, he can kill off enemies, play rhythm minigames, and adjust the contours of the path ahead. The most interesting puzzle I saw was a wheel that had an elaborate path through it—a path full of spikes. While a Nintendo rep handled platforming duties, I used the tilt function of the tablet to turn the wheel and make sure the path was safe. If every game could utilize the tablet this well, buying a Wii U would be a no-brainer.