Wii U and its GamePad set a course for gaming’s future

Nov. 17, 2012 | 5:00 a.m.

A scene from the "Nintendo Land" mini-game "Mario Chase" for the new Wii U console. (Nintendo)

A scene from the "Nintendo Land" mini-game "The Legend of Zelda: Battle Quest" for the new Wii U console. (Nintendo)

A scene from the "Nintendo Land" mini-game "Pikmin Adventure" for the new Wii U console. (Nintendo)

A scene from the "Nintendo Land" mini-game "Balloon Trip Breeze" for the new Wii U console. (Nintendo)

A scene from the "Nintendo Land" mini-game "Metroid Blast" for the new Wii U console. (Nintendo)

A scene from the "Nintendo Land" mini-game "Mario Chase" for the new Wii U console. (Nintendo)

Nintendo’s Wii felt like a gaming revolution. Unlike its increasingly complex button-riddled competitors, the Wii’s controller was a magic wand. Simply stand and point, it seemed to be saying, and leave behind the burden of pressing a combination of Xs, Ys, squares and triangles. Since its 2006 release, it’s estimated to have put a spell on nearly 100 million users worldwide.

In contrast, Nintendo’s high-definition Wii U console (sure to be in short supply this holiday season) feels less otherworldly and more bound to existing technology.

The powerful system puts forth a valiant and ambitious solution to a video game quandary: How does a gaming console — that box tethered to a television by one of those unsightly, old-timey cords — survive in an era dominated by the intimate touch screens of smartphones and tablets?

Simple: Join them.

The Wii U’s traded the traditional controller for a touch screen that Nintendo has christened the GamePad. It’s not sleek and sexy — think part iPad Mini, part child’s first tablet, but it works wirelessly with the console’s operating system.

The idea is that our individual screens shouldn’t be stand-alone devices but should interact, so the GamePad now allows you to play the same game on its small screen and on your TV screen at the same time. And why would you want to do that? Because what you see on the GamePad as opposed to the TV isn’t always the same, and that dynamic aspires to add a new dimension to gaming. But more on that later.

A scene from “New Super Mario Bros. U” for Nintendo’s Wii U console. (Nintendo)

The GamePad also works as an entertainment hub: tap it to turn up the volume on the TV, change the channel or, soon, browse Netflix. And, if your annoying roommate wants to watch “Honey Boo Boo” while you’re engrossed in the “New Super Mario Bros. U,” switch Mario and Co. to the GamePad — even while the game is in progress. Crisis solved. The game can then be played entirely on the GamePad, which for me worked just fine up to two rooms away from the base system.

All this makes the Wii U perhaps the most versatile gaming system ever invented. And today, amid the current cloud-driven digital revolution, convenience is power.

As for Wii U’s drawbacks? Simply put, it’s difficult to explain why a tablet that interacts with the TV is a necessary gaming advancement, and the initial Nintendo advertisements haven’t exactly helped. They’ve highlighted the least impressive aspect of the Wii U — how it simplifies karaoke — by heavily showcasing Nintendo’s “Sing Party.” It’s nice that the person holding the GamePad can select songs with a swipe of the screen and then read the lyrics on the handheld display, but that’s a minor perk of a system that runs $299.99 or $349.99, depending on the configuration.

It also lacks the surprise-like wonder of the Wii. When it was released six years ago, it felt space-age imaginative. The Wii had but one rule it needed players to understand: You, the person holding the controller, will stand up and wave your arm.

Perhaps not since the invention of a pinball machine had a piece of gaming equipment made so much sense. Soon, activities such as tennis and bowling suddenly found themselves needing added clarification. Did you actually go bowling, or were you Wii bowling?

Sports, as in get-off-the-couch-and-burn-calories sports, became virtual activities for the family. Video games, once again, were casual. The latter point was Nintendo’s gift to the gaming world.

The Wii showed that video games were for everyone, and while Microsoft and Sony were emphasizing technically impressive systems with games that required a safe-cracking combo of buttons to master, the Wii illustrated the joy of the pick-up-and-play puzzle and the ease of a flick of the wrist.

Whereas the Wii arrived like a gift from the future, Wii U at first seems to be playing catch-up with a world where the screens that dominate our lives are not the ones found on a home television but the kind that can be carried with us. Why, even this newspaper article is likely being read on a screen, and though it’s only been out since 2010, the iPad already has the potential to be a gamer’s console of choice.

Yet Nintendo is on the forefront of multi-screen gaming, and one doesn’t need to have the Wii U turned on long to see that the system is full of pleasantly unexpected surprises. For instance, it took all of 30 seconds for the system to sync with each of the two TVs it was attached to, and then — voilà — the Wii U GamePad was a remote.

You can play your old Wii games on the system, but they won’t come with the benefits of new games designed for the Wii U.

A scene from “Madden NFL 13″ for the Nintendo Wii U console. (Electronic Arts)

The Wii U edition of “Madden NFL 13” can be played using the GamePad to select — and even creatively draw — plays. The tablet’s 6.2-inch LCD touch screen is bright and Pixar crisp, and it often felt more natural to play a straightforward game like “Super Mario Bros.” or “Madden” entirely on the handheld device.

The GamePad enhanced every single launch game sampled. “Batman: Arkham City” has been out for more than a year on the Xbox 360 and PS3, but using the GamePad to read maps and tap among bat-gadgets made a tense, sprawling action game feel fuller and more inviting. And with the TV screen free of cluttering maps and inventory items, a game like “Arkham City” or horror thriller such as “ZombiU” was instantly manageable.

The millions of current Wii owners will also be pleased to note that all Wii controllers and peripheral devices are immediately recognized by the Wii U, which is handy considering the bundles now sold only come with one GamePad. (Nintendo will sell additional GamePads in the U.S. in 2013 for an as-yet-unannounced price, but expect it to be around $150 based on prices in Japan.)

But Nintendo insists one GamePad is enough, even among four players (families prone to fighting over a remote were not part of the design equation). A game like “Luigi’s Ghost Mansion” requires at least two people and offers the GamePad user an alternate view of the action so they can sneak up on their prey — or hide from them.

A scene from the “Nintendo Land” mini-game “The Legend of Zelda: Battle Quest” for the new Wii U console. (Nintendo)

Each of the 12 new games featured in “Nintendo Land,” a title available with the $349.99 system package or for $59.99 alone, unveil a different use of the GamePad and are designed to showcase the uses of multi-screen gaming. In “Donkey Kong’s Crash Course,” blow into the microphone to push an avatar upward; in “Takamaru’s Ninja Castle,” turn the GamePad horizontally to fling weapons at enemies that look assembled of construction paper. Some, like “Captain Falcon’s Twister Race,” are deceptively easy and little more than games of perception.

These games are sometimes childish, but they reveal the system’s aspirations that one hopes will be realized by Nintendo and third-party developers in the years to come. A gaming system will ultimately live and die by its games, and the Wii U offers enough at launch to feel optimistic about its marriage of tablet and TV.

Already, though, the Wii U does prove one point that all tech developers and game designers should heed: Smart devices are nice, but ones that connect are better.

– Todd Martens
Twitter.com/@ToddMartens

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Comments


13 Responses to Wii U and its GamePad set a course for gaming’s future

  1. Derrick says:

    Gaming is more than this article makes it out to be. Games are a past time for many people. Yes Nintendo has become the casual company. Sony is more hardcore games and Microsoft is the middle ground between them. That’s what people need to understand. At least this is my opinion.

    • Jack says:

      Gaming is much more than your comment makes it out to be. All of the major console manufacturers go for every part of the market, some simply do different parts more successfully than the others. Games are more than just a past time; they become a way of life for many, a form of expression for others, and a simple diversion for the rest. By the true definition of "Hardcore," the dedication to the medium that comes with being described that way requires an interest in all avenues to access games, whether mobile phone, major consoles, PC, and any other manner to play games. To derive fun out of the grandest or simplest of experiences is what truly enjoying the medium is about, regardless of hardware manufacturers and limitations. To put restrictions on yourself, outside of monetary reasons, to a particular piece of kit simply because you think the machine is "for your category" is a disservice to the designers that actually make games, and you as a player. In reality, the casual gamer is one gives loyalty to a single part of the market without giving the others a chance. The business part of Nintendo advertises to the "Casual," because that's where their money could be made, but the spread of games on each of the major platforms is pretty even.

      • djkeens says:

        That was probably the truest statement ever made on the Internet.

        The hardcore crowd recognizes and enjoys a myriad of games and devices.

        Playing Call of Duty exclusively on XBox does not make you hardcore. If someone were to ask you what you like on Wii and your response is “Wii sucks” or “Wii is for kids” you most definitely are not hardcore.

        Part of what drives Nintendo sales are those “real” hardcore gamers that embrace Zelda, Mario, and Metroid (many like myself remember getting the very first NES version of these titles). But often those same customers also have XBox, PS3, Vita, 3DS, IPad, the list goes on. But they recognize that while they may have their favorite devices, all bring something for everyone and that competition only demands innovation which is a plus for us all.

  2. Ray says:

    I've been a long time fan of Nintendo, having owned all of their products, my simple argument is this:

    As time progresses and technology advances, playing games and doing other such things are meant to become more simple, easier to use, less hassle, this is not the case with the Nintendo Wii and by the looks of things the Nintendo WiiU as well, I simply do not get enjoyment from waving my arms around to play a game, I am a hardcore gamer, I been gaming since 6 years old, its normally what i do after work to unwind.

    When I'm playing video games with my friends gathered around our flat 38" flat screen TV, everyone smoking having a laugh playing music in the background, normally games like Halo, CoD, gears of war, Fifa, GTA or other multi-player/adult games seem to be the main choice, sessions can last for up to 4 or 5 hours, sometimes longer, so who wants to wave their arms in the air to play games for 4 or 5 hours? I'd prefer to sit on my couch with a joint in my hand while holding the controller killing fools online on CoD.

    When its all said and done, the Wii will carry on sitting there gathering dust while my Xbox/PS3 get used time and time again (not just because of the controller, but because the games are my age, the multi-player is much better, the graphics work well with my 38"…)

    I grew up with Nintendo, i loved my GameCube, still have it, as well as the Snes, N64 and my DSlite+3DS with more than 20 games for each (4 so far with the 3DS), there's no shortage of Nintendo in my house, so you might wonder what the problem is then, problem is the gimmick, problem is no matter how much i wanted to believe, and other Nintendo fans still want to believe, Nintendo are no longer in the market for making games that us hardcore gamers will play, their gimmicks dont attract us, none of my friends plan on buying a Nintendo product any time soon, and i have a good few gamer friends.

    I see that the console can be a success if it attracts the casual market, as it did before, but as for me and my friends (long time Nintendo fans), we dont plan on dishing out our money on a Nintendo product until we see what Xbox 360 and PS3 have to offer next year.

    • Only a Gamer says:

      Then again sir, you are not hardcore but have a preference for only playing what you feel defines you as a hardcore gamer. I respect your comments about Nintendo and they are all true. I belive what you said about the gimmickry. The thing is it's always been "If it's PS or Xbox coming out with something new, it's innovation, but when Nintendo comes up with something it's a gimmick". It's sad how people have shallow minds, yet the other "innovative companies" tend to copy the "gimmicky companies" just to get a piece of the market the "lesser comapny" has. Such a shame really that their gimmicks become other companies innovations.

    • @critter171 says:

      more simpler pressing many buttons at once is more simple than wii remote you don't have to get up and wave your hands around… this was proven more than once. The fact you try to use this to persuader your agurement is bad taste of an apple.

  3. James says:

    Have no doubt Wii U will be a huge hit and already got preorders line up (go it at http://wiiu4me.com) but my biggest concern is that the gameplay with FPS…. being a huge fan of the original wii i've since moved to xbox more and more basically because of gametype. I see zombiu and all of the other announced games in the FPS genre, just hoping that when i get mine the control and gameplay exceeds xbox 360. i know that it's not a wiiu vs xbox thing, but still…

  4. Xellos555 says:

    Wii U gets rid of the GameCube compatibility, and looks the same graphically. It has a fancy new controller that lets you play anywhere in the house as a handheld device (Playstation Vita already has this feature with the PS3).

    I'm keeping my Wii, the Wii U seems like an all too convenient money sink for the holiday's. Sure Nintendo has Mario, Zelda, Metroid, and a slew of other original titles. (Xbox and PS3 have signature titles too).

    But when it comes to the more mature market they are one year behind everyone else, Assassin's Creed III is coming to the Wii U? (Come on guys…)

    • David says:

      You're an example of an biased ignorant console fan-boy who knows nothing about hardware. The graphics card shipped with the Wii U is slightly better than the GeForce 7800($20) included in the PlayStation 3. If you want graphics go PC. Personally, I'd rather play Zelda and Super Mario on the Wii U rather than playing COD on the other ConSLOWS. You can stick with your PS3 and XBOX360, just don't blatantly lie about what the Nintendo Wii U has to offer.

      Mad? Have something to say? email me: lottasay@gmail.com

  5. @critter171 says:

    Here we go again with mature market. Having a m rated game is not having Mature game and its not Nintendo fault they didn't make it for the other system wii.

  6. Kuroki says:

    That trailer for Luigi's Mansion Dark Moon is a Nintendo 3DS game it is not the Lugi mini game that the article mentions.

    Just clearing that up in case someone gets all excited about Luigi's Mansion on Wii U or someone thinks Wii U graphics are subpar b/c of it.

  7. Troy says:

    Its always best to wait out about 3-4 months to get a new console. When the Wii first came out, I've waited till about Feb of 2007 to get mine. It will be same with the Wii U. By that time, the company will iron out all of their console issue if there's any at all. All I know in the 8th gen console war is this: if the next-box or ps4 cost 400-600 bucks consumers would be more cautious in the same vain they were with nintendo. As far as nintendo's prices goes, the highest it's ever been is 300-350 bucks which a 50-100 dollar hike from when the Wii first came out plus, the company has retooled their console so you would really take your time in buying more stuff so its a win/win. One last thing is the next box or ps4 will be backwards compatable?

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