It's never boring with Nintendo, is it? The company is addressing rumors of an upcoming Wii successor head-on (rumors that have spawned the insane mockup you see above), with a comically short press release stating that the new system will be unveiled in playable form at E3 in June this year, and then ship in 2012. Now, this is a fairly odd format for announcing that you're working on a brand new home console -- a statement that's usually reserved for a big gaming expo -- but Nintendo actually took a similar approach to its 3DS launch (albiet with much less rumoring going into it). Here's Nintendo's release in its entirety:
To whom it may concern:
Re: Wii's successor system
Nintendo Co., Ltd. has decided to launch in 2012 a system to succeed Wii, which the company has sold 86.01 million units on a consolidated shipment basis between its launch in 2006 and the end of March 2011.
We will show a playable model of the new system and announce more specifications at the E3 Expo, which will be held June 7-9, 2011, in Los Angeles.
Sales of this new system have not been included in the financial forecasts announced today for the fiscal term ending March 2012.
Odd, yes, but rather refreshing for Nintendo to just cop to its plans, instead of letting the rumors go wild for a couple months. Not that they weren't already pretty wild...
But let's start from the start. In its initial report on an "HD" Nintendo home console a couple weeks ago, Game Informer quoted a source who said "Nintendo is doing this one right." The Wii survived on a strong gimmick and some amazing first party titles, but it suffered in the long term due to its last-gen graphics and an unfruitful relationship with third parties. From the sound of it, Nintendo is attacking both of those problems, and it's sharing some pretty spectacular tech specs with prospective third parties to garner interest and support -- which have apparently been passed along into the gaming press.
Rumors were spot on about the console being announced by E3 this summer, and the word on the street was that the machine would land late this year or early next. Nintendo's "2012" narrows it down a little bit, but consoles usually launch in the fall, so we'll see about those "early 2012" predictions. Game Informer's initial report also seems to imply that this console will be perfectly capable of running ports of multi-platform mega hits that are currently burning up the charts for the PS3 and Xbox. So, that all sounds great. Good job, Game Informer, you get a gold star.
Things got a little crazy the next day, however. French site 01.net put forward some rumors on tech specs, including a three-core IBM PowerPC processor, ATI R700 GPU, and at least 512MB of RAM. They also mentioned an unspectacular "Project Cafe" codename for the new console. But then they shot for the moon with mention of a 6-inch touchscreen tablet controller, which has a camera, d-pad, bumpers and triggers along for the ride. Apparently the screen can even double as a Wii sensor bar in a pinch.
Now, I'd love to write this all off as the insane rantings of a little-known foreign site, but 01.net nailed the NGP before Sony's announce, and its report has been since "confirmed" by a multitude of outlets, including IGN.
IGN followed this all up yesterday with some more specifics on the spec front, including an assertion that the console will outstrip the PS3 and Xbox 360 in sheer horsepower. This won't be so notable when the PS4 and Xbox 720 inevitably leapfrog ahead in a couple years, but in the near term this could be a huge selling point for Nintendo -- especially if they can master the 1080p and 3D gaming that the modern consoles more or less choke on with the current blockbuster titles.
Interesting, but nothing strong enough to take my mind off that 6-inch screen. Basically, from where I'm sitting, there's no way Nintendo can sell controllers with embedded 6-inch touchscreens for anything less than $150 (maybe $100, at a stretch). Sure, Nintendo got away with a $99 peripheral with the Wii Fit, but you only need one of those per home. Theoretically Nintendo is going to want more than one person at a time playing on this new console -- how else are we going to play Smash Bros.?
So, I suppose there are three possibilities right now:
- There is no 6-inch screen, it was all a lie (or a hilarious mistranslation).
- There is a 6-inch screen on the console itself, or somehow separate from the primary controllers.
- There is a 6-inch screen on the controllers.
Let's talk these through. I think a screen of some sort actually makes a lot of sense, given Nintendo's penchant for gimmicks and the purported camera on the controller. The camera on the controller makes even more sense, because it would actually allow for some really fine-tuned motion control (think of how the PlayStation Move works, but in reverse), but it also allows for great augmented reality possibilities when used in tandem with a screen -- as shown on the Nintendo 3DS.
In fact, the Nintendo 3DS already has all the makings of an excellent motion controller for a console. It has all sorts of cameras, an accelerometer, a gyroscope, a touchscreen, and an analog nub. When you add up its two screens, it has about six inches of pixel real estate as well. (That is, if super flat aspect ratios are your thing. In total the 3DS screen area adds up to about half of a 6-inch diagonal display). Unfortunately, that $250 pricetag seems to demonstrate exactly how difficult a controller with a 6-inch display would be to pull off.
Now, the biggest red flag in all of this is 01.net's claim that you can use the screen of the controller as a Wii sensor bar. It's true you can simulate a Wii sensor bar with just about any willing pair of light sources (I prefer vanilla-scented candles, personally). Unfortunately, those light sources have to be almost a foot apart to really get a Wii-like experience. Even if you squash the aspect ratio of a 6-inch diagonal screen to flat, it's still not likely to be wide enough for good Wii gameplay.
However -- and stick with me here, I'm about to talk some crazy talk -- if you imagine the 6-inch screen as a different kind of sensor bar, it could make sense. Imagine a screen built into a console, or one that's external to the console but not a controller. It would be the perfect way to offer up an image that can be tracked by a camera. Think of those augmented reality cards that Nintendo ships with the 3DS, but on a larger and more dynamic scale -- and one that works under any lighting conditions. In fact, it wouldn't even have to be a full-on LCD screen, merely something that can light up and offer a fairly detailed and distinct pattern. It's Wii Sensor Bar 2.0.
Only problem with that theory (outside of its general silliness) is that there's a lot of noise around this console being able to stream entire games, or at least a view of a game, to the 6-inch screen. Which brings us right back to where we started. Maybe Player 1 gets a big touchscreen, but everybody else can play along with a regular controller? Maybe Nintendo found a stack of 6-inch LCDs that fell off the back of a truck? Maybe Nintendo expects us all to be incredibly wealthy by the end of the year? Who really knows.
Another thing to keep in mind is that Nintendo actually considered a touchscreen experience for its Wii controller (codenamed Revolution at the time) to jump off of the innovative gameplay allowed by the then-new DS, but ultimately decided it needed to differentiate its home console experience from its mobile experience. With only two primary products, a home console and a mobile console, can Nintendo afford to confuse the two? Or obviate the need for one of them?
The good news is that with Nintendo putting its official stamp on things, these loose-lipped developers might find even more of an excuse to talk. There's certainly still a lot to learn and understand about Nintendo's much-anticipated console sequel. We'll be listening! What is clear is that the time for an HD followup to the Wii is all of a sudden very nearly at hand, and that makes me happy. Shenanigans are just gravy.
Here are your sources, and a bit of a timeline: