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Wii U creates novel ways to control games and ups the graphical horsepower. But as with other Nintendo platforms, this is actually more exciting because of the games they will create rather than the controller innovation or tech specs.
It's easy to dismiss the Wii U. The controller technology may be clever but it is nothing that a PS Vita or iPad can't deliver. The visuals may be on a par with the PlayStation 3 and 360 but Sony and Microsoft have got this base pretty well covered already. The Wii is only five years old, a year younger than the 360 and really doesn't need replacing yet -- surely the Wii U could have been a peripheral rather than a whole new console.
But all this misses the point that Nintendo are a games company. They aren't hardware focused like Sony, or system focused like Microsoft. Nintendo excel in creating games. New Nintendo hardware is exciting not because of the technology in its own right, but because of the games it grants Nintendo licence to create.
It's no surprise then that they have been keen to move the gaming conversation from hardware power to gaming experiences. Unusual ways to interact, first with the DS then with the Wii, were a masterful way to focus us on what Nintendo did best - create imaginative and engaging gameplay.
This is no mean feat. The temptation to fall into the industries old habits of relying on new technology is a hard one to resist. The 3DS fell into this trap and was a moment of indecision from Nintendo. What could have been better called the DS3 instead focused on one technical innovation at the expense of the bigger picture -- and most importantly the games a new Nintendo handheld represents.
Having suffered from a lack of fresh imaginative gameplay in the 3DS message, it's no surprise that the Wii U has been announced with a firm focus on the experiences it can create. In fact, this is so much the case for a while it was hard to work out exactly what the hardware was that ran these games -- was this a new console or just a new controller?
The simplest use of the Wii U controller screen is as an additional map and equipment readout. This can free the main screen of clutter because it no longer needs the usual head-up display.
Fig 1. HUD Free Controller Setup
The controller can also be used as a portable system in its own right. The Wii U can stream gameplay to the controller screen (just like PSP Remote Play) so you can free up the main TV for other uses. I liked the novelty of this, although it does undo some of the good work Nintendo have done to get games out of the bedroom and into family spaces. The ability to use Wii-Fit without the need for the TV was a nice example of where this feature would come into its own.
Fig 2. TV Free Controller Setup
Perhaps the most interesting gameplay is where the Wii U controller provides one player extra information on the game. This is like Pacman Versus or Zelda Four Swords where you could link four GBA's to a Gamecube to enable players to use the GBA screen to set secret traps for each other. On the Wii U, one player uses the screen in their hands to hide from the others in the Chase Mii game.
Fig 3. Chase Mii Controller Setup
A similar use of the controller is the first person shooting Wii U game Battle Mii. Like Chase Mii, one player uses the Wii U controller screen for a different view of the game, only here they hold it up in front of them to look around the world, holding it left/right/up/down in the real world displays a seemless view of the game world from that perspective. This is like a third analogue stick with a massive sensitivity and no dead zone and makes targeting precise and accessible.
Fig 4. Battle Mii Controller Setup
The Shield Pose Wii U game takes this augmented targeting experience and drops it into a WarioWare-esque rhythm action game. You have to follow the instructions from the main screen to block arrows from the left/right/above by moving the controller view in time with the music.
Fig 5. Shield Pose Controller Setup
These are the headlines that Nintendo crafted for their announcements, much more than the HD graphics or new box of tricks. In fact that box of tricks is almost non existent in the rhetoric and images here.
While they have worked hard over recent years to address the general complaints from within the industry and from more hardcore gamers (better graphics and third party support primarily), this will always be trimmings round the Nintendo turkey.
New Nintendo hardware is not exciting because of third party buy-in, new control methods or better graphics but because of the games it means they will create for it. A new Nintendo console is as much a new Zelda, Mario Kart, Pikmin and Animal Crossing player as it is anything else. Sure, we have motion controls on all the systems now, but Wii-Sports still stands head and shoulders above both Sports Champions and Kinect Sports in my family.
A new Nintendo console is as much a new Zelda, Mario Kart, Pikmin and Animal Crossing player as it is anything else.
Nintendo always ask quite a lot of people on the basis of these games. Five years ago it was to buy a new console on the basis of motion controls rather than graphics. Next year, with the Wii U, it will be to buy another new console on the basis of the touch screen controller.
The Wii U really stretches the premise that Nintendo's games are enough to make their new hardware desirable. Even more than the original Wii, the Wii U offering would be much more palatable if it was a new controller rather than a whole new console.
But here, strategy has overridden user experience and affordability. In this approach Nintendo concede that they still need the hardcore gamer, and that a slice of the High Definition media market would be nice to have as well.
Regardless of the rhetoric or strategy I'm just excited for a fresh batch of Nintendo games.
Although, like the 3DS, they are downplaying the improved sound visuals they know that this part of this story will win back the more avid gamers they have lost in recent years. But this represents more of a risk as the revolutionary message of the Wii and 3DS are somewhat diluted with this more strategic approach to innovation.
It will be interesting to see how the Wii U performs next year. But in terms of my family, regardless of the rhetoric or strategy I'm just excited for a fresh batch of Nintendo games on a new platform.
With so many different perspectives it can be hard to know where to start - a little like walking into a crowded pub. Sorry about that.
But so far we've not found a way to streamline our review output - there's basically too much of it. So, rather than dilute things for newcomers we have decided to live with the hubbub while helping new readers find the columnists they will enjoy.
Our columnists each focus on a particular perspective and fall into one of the following types of gamers: