When Nintendo showed off its "TVii" app yesterday, one of the more perplexing features was a series of concentric dials controlling volume, source, and playback. It's entirely possible that the dials work well, even if we didn't get to try them. But more than anything, the mystery meat interface evokes the kind of future that's seen in movies and video games past and present. Looking over the rest of Nintendo's Wii U line, it's easy to see it as a similar negotiation between the current state of gaming and the new systems Nintendo hopes to add.
Television providers and companies like Microsoft or Google are trying to take advantage of the "second screen" — the tablets or phones people use alongside their televisions — but Nintendo has gone a step further by integrating the second touchscreen directly into its console. Equipped with physical controls, a stylus, an accelerometer, and a camera for video chat, the GamePad is less a controller than a massive handheld that runs through the Wii. The question is whether Nintendo will be able to deliver the range of games and media it wants to provide while still making the GamePad more than an intermittently useful curiosity.
The most familiar use of the GamePad is with Nintendo TVii, a central hub that pulls content from cable or TiVo and uses the GamePad as a remote. It's the kind of thing that's been integrated into any number of mobile apps — indeed, Nintendo TVii partner i.TV will release its own cross-platform app with most of the same features. Nonetheless, it's Nintendo's largest foray so far outside the familiar territory of games.
While each original Wii came bundled with the iconic Wii Sports, only the Deluxe version of the Wii U will come with Nintendo Land, a first-party title that showcases the GamePad. Bill Trinen, Nintendo's director of marketing for North America, says he hopes this move will attract people who would rather play Bayonetta 2, ZombieU, or other titles — likely a nod to the "core" AAA action crowd Nintendo is courting this time around. Despite this, Nintendo Land provides some of the best examples of what the console can do. A Metroid-themed minigame, for example, pits two players with Wiimotes against one on the GamePad, taking advantage of the different capabilities of each.
'Nintendo Land' and 'ZombieU' are effective, but cross-platform titles struggle to provide anything new
ZombieU is equally successful as a single-player game, but the cross-platform titles struggle to provide anything new on the Wii U. Even if there's a map or some weapon-switching options on the GamePad, it's often not worth the inconvenience of looking away from the television. Black Ops 2 offers a unique multiplayer setup, dropping the split screen and having one player use the GamePad's monitor. But instead of adding to the experience, it just looks like one person has been relegated to second-best.
The Wii U's graphics can't compete with current-generation Microsoft or Sony consoles, and online gaming is still heavily downplayed. In order to convince people to spend more than they would on a current-generation Xbox or PlayStation, Nintendo needs to make good on Trinen's promise to provide experiences that you "can't have on any other system." If developers keep finding intuitive ways to use its unusual control system, that will be an easy pact to keep. But doing so will require more than adding futuristic interfaces to present-day games — otherwise, Nintendo's bid for the next console war is dead on arrival.