Hands-on / Wii U

It’s Nintendo, it’s a Wii successor, and it’s probably the biggest reveal at E3 this year. The buzz on the floor is equal parts excitement and skepticism. The excited think of the potential, the convenience of not needing a tv, the ability to play Zelda with modern graphics, and the things they can’t even imagine. The skeptical heard it all before before when they saw a Wiimote for the first time, and they will watch and wait, not expecting much more than heaps and heaps of shovelware. So after spending time and playing three of the concept games on the machine, it seems fair to say that, like anything that is a whole year from release, there’s reason for both.

To start, the controller feel; it’s good. Holding it is remarkably light, the gamepad elements mold to your hand pretty comfortably, and the size actually didn’t look to be a major factor. There are no analog sticks, but sliding discs like you see on the 3DS. I never even noticed as I played with them. Everything is fine… for the most part. It didn’t strike me as the perfect compromise between hardcore and… er… Nintendo eccentric. The analog “sticks” don’t press in as their own buttons, meaning a lot of conventional first-person shooter control schemes won’t have their sprint button or melee/crouch buttons. Also, the right stick is directly above the four main buttons, and it’s a bit of a thumb crunch to reach down to, say, reload or jump. That could be a problem for the Battlefields and Calls of Duty of the world. But at the same time, there is a potential solution in the six inch touch screen. Whether players would be willing to move their controller scheme around though… who knows.

Judging by the “games” they had on display, though, it seems safe to say the unit will handle most genres just fine. In one demo, I squared off against two Samus suit-dawning gunners controlled by two guys with Wiimotes. I was in a flying UFO-looking vessel with some lasers to mow them down. To aim, I moved the entire controller like it was a camera. Panning left aimed left, for example. The unit was tethered to a kiosk, but I could have rotated to where I was facing away from the TV and still been in the game thanks to the controller display. Thumb sticks controlled six degrees of movement, and my L and R buttons zoomed and fired respectively. No lag in any inputs, and the only challenge was learning to fly the ship, as it should be. I came away impressed, amused, and the winner of the match.

Super Mario Bros Mii showed that the controller functioned pretty well in simple 2D side-scrollers as well, but I will admit that the Wiimote is still my controller of choice in this game. This was one case where the smaller the controller, the better.

The final game I played was a sort of Tag / Pac Man hybrid where I had an isometric view and map on the Wii U controller display while my opponents chased me from split-screen, third-person over the shoulder views on the TV. With the whole map visible, a little savvy, and a screen all to myself, it wasn’t too tough to avoid my predators. This was fun, but felt like a mini game in a new Mario Party, making me think of the notoriously huge selection of Wii Sports wannabe shovelware.

While there is reason to doubt Nintendo’s vie for attracting familiar and innovative games to one place, it’s hard to deny that they really might be on to something. It isn’t exactly¬†going to completely replace for the current model for a gamepad, but then again… maybe? If developers want, they can address the shortcomings. There’s a six inch touch screen at their disposal now. But if they don’t want to, or if players aren’t willing to adjust, this could prove their “something for everyone” approach a bust. Either way, as with anything Nintendo, it’s worth watching. Heck, watching the competition’s reaction can prove worthwhile if nothing else. Expect dismissive remarks from Sony and Microsoft ¬†camps before they announce their own all encompassing packages. But that aside, I want it to succeed. I want the new experiences they promise and my familiar FPS experience. I want to have my cake and eat it too. And just for that want, I am really looking forward to next year.