Monday, June 27, 2011

Will You Wii U? An Early Look At Nintendo's Next Video Game Console



The E3 Expo, the annual cutting-edge video game dog and pony show, was held at the Los Angeles Convention Center a few weeks ago. Of the many previews provided at this year's E3, one of the most heralded was Nintendo's next generation console, Wii U. Although I wasn't at E3 to sample the new system first-hand, I've seen enough articles and video footage about Wii U's debut to come to a few conclusions about Nintendo's latest step forward. As long as Nintendo gives their new system the support it needs, it looks like the Wii U could be the next blockbuster system in the video gaming community. Read on....

When I first saw what the Wii U looked like, I had some doubts as to how this new system could be fun and interesting to play. Sure, the Wii U console has the same compact appearance as the Wii, but Wii U's touchscreen controller is almost as big as the console itself. With so much space in the controller devoted to a 6.2 inch touchscreen video display, it looks like players would be interacting with the Wii U games through something as bulky as an Etch-a-Sketch.


This stands in sharp contrast to the Wiimote and nunchuk, the Wii's controllers that (in my opinion) added a new kind of energy and enthusiasm to game playing through their nimbleness and simplicity. In fact, it was the simplicity of the Wii's controllers and game play that got many people playing video games who would not do so otherwise, so I could only wonder what motivated Nintendo's decision to implement a larger, more complex controller as an integral part of its next system.

It didn't occur to me, though, that Nintendo has been experimenting with dual screen gaming (one on the TV and one on the controller) for quite some time now, as far back as 2003 with their GameCube and GameBoy Advance systems. As recognized by Chris Kohler in an article he wrote for Wired magazine last April, titles such as Pac-Man vs. and The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords Adventures were designed to explore the different game play formats that were possible through controllers that had their own built-in display screens. Unfortunately, these kinds of games were too cost prohibitive to promote outside of a handful of titles because gamers would have to own both the GameCube and GameBoy Advance systems to play them. With the Wii U, Nintendo overcomes this problem by including a touchscreen controller as part of the console.


So what does the prospect of a console that has dual screen displays mean? Simply put, Wii U will allow for a greater level of depth within a virtual gaming environment, greater than any other console that has come before it. The Wii U won't turn our living rooms into virtual reality worlds akin to the holodeck in the Star Trek franchise, but it will allow two or more players to look at the same digital worlds from different perspectives and operate within those worlds in different ways. Before the Wii U, only massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs) were capable of providing such immersive game play, but those require each player to have his/her own PC or gaming console. In contrast, the Wii U has the potential to make MMORPG-style game play available in a single console in a style that's more immersive than just a split-screen display, which can get confusing and crowded.

As two preview games at E3 demonstrated, the Wii U's utilization of both the touchscreen controller and the Wiimote allows for more flexibility in local multiplayer gaming. In the games Chase Mii and Battle Mii, players compete against each other by assuming two completely different roles. On the basis of these games alone, I can imagine a Star Wars Battlefront game where the player with the Wiimote assumes plays as a Rebel or Imperial soldier, while the player with the touchscreen controller plays as a Rebel or Imperial pilot.

The Wiimote and touchscreen controller combo has unique applications for single player games as well. As Wired's resident "Geek Dad" Andy Robertson observes:

"While the main action continues on the big screen in front of you the (touchscreen) controller can offer an alternative view of the game world from any number of different angles in the space you are playing. ... This creates the sense that the gaming arena extends into the room and you can look around it by holding the controller up as if it was a window into that space. Want to see what’s above your head, or to your left or right, simply hold up the controller in that direction and you can instantly see what’s there on the screen. ... The simplest and most compelling example is Wii-Sports Golf on the Wii U. Here the player puts the Wii U controller on the ground in front of them and it displays the ball, ground and lie, ready for them to hit it. Using a Wii-mote they then hit the ball in the usual fashion and watch their club swing through the Wii U screen and send the ball flying onto the TV. It was a simple demonstration that was quite magical to watch."

By adding a new kind of controller while keeping the older Wii controllers, the range of games in which Wii U can support will only broaden in terms of diversity. That alone will give Nintendo a considerable advantage against its competitors in the years to come. By extension, the Wii U's breadth of game diversity has the potential to further refine the game play formats that are available to each Wii U controller.


A recurring complaint that I've heard about the Wii is the excessive use of "Wii waggle". While the Wii has many games that put the the Wii's motion controls to good use (such as Wii Sports Resort, Boom Blox and Red Steel 2), not all Wii games utilize the motion controls in a creative, compelling or useful way. The arrival of the new touchscreen controller could promote the reduction of Wii waggle-heavy games and a greater focus on games that focus on the strengths of each different controller or a combination of them. (That said, I'll be severely miffed if the Wii U doesn't release a Predator game that allows players to play as the title creature while using the Wiimote as a weapon interface and the touchscreen controller was as a control pad with glowing red buttons.) Furthermore, the inclusion of Motion Plus technology in all new Wiimotes for the Wii U will overcome Nintendo's previous mistake of not including the Motion Plus in Wiimotes for the initial release of the Wii system.

Of course, Nintendo could drop the ball at any point during the Wii U's release and its run on store shelves. It could become lazy and overtly rely on its core game franchises (such as Mario and Zelda) to shore up sales to compensate for its lack of support for its latest gaming gizmos. It could also lose the interest of third party game developers who'd rather stick with more traditional game play formats on the rival game systems, thus leaving Nintendo by itself to ensure its console's profitability. Yet barring some unexpected development on the market, I doubt that either of these scenarios will come to pass. Nintendo has been working on the dual-screen gaming idea for some time (as opposed to some of Nintendo's other gimmicky oddities, such as the Power Glove and R.O.B.) and the Wii U looks to be the result of almost a decade's worth of trial-and-error experimentation.

I've never been disappointed with the Wii, despite its frequent lack of support from third party developers. Whatever the Wii lacked in more mature titles and high-end graphics, it more than made up for by simply being fun, time and time again. With a game lineup that already includes Aliens: Colonial Marines and Killer Freaks from Outer Space, it looks like the Wii U will keep the fun going and boldly take it to places where no game console has gone before.



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