Rest assured, there will be no arm flailing with the new Wii U controller. Arms flailing, maybe, in unison, but we'll get to that later. Nintendo's successor to its massively-popular home console caused quite a commotion — dare we say, a pure bedlam — following its unveiling yesterday, and we managed to get an extensive look at the controller and all the software it was showing off. Check it out after the break!
Update: Now with Ross' (less enthusiastic) take. Check out our live Q&A tonight at 6:30PM ET!
In case you missed it, Nintendo is building a new console. It’s called Wii U ("we you"), and it involves an all-new controller with a 6-inch touchscreen, in addition to completely refreshed console hardware capable of HD games. Games can be played on the TV with the controller as a secondary screen (like for managing items), games can be played on the controller without the TV (the video is streamed wirelessly to the controller), and games can be played in a combination of TV and controller screens (one player has a special view on the controller, the other players have their own view on the TV). That’s the basic idea, and you can find the tech specs here if you’re more curious. The console will launch in 2012 (most likely the holidays), but we got an early look at the hardware and some software at this year’s E3.
The Wii U controller is super huge if you compare it to any seemingly relevant reference point. It’s a comically large DS, or a super fat iPad with a terrible bezel, or it’s a stupid huge Xbox 360 controller. Still, when taken for what it is — a gamepad with a 6-inch touchscreen in the middle — it actually seems "just right." It’s very comfortable to hold, with nice contours on the back that seem made for our hands, and it’s lighter than it looks. After spending most of the day dwelling on this bizarre object, and an hour or so of the day playing with it, it doesn’t seem too crazy, really. But it is crazy.
Obviously the big eye-grabber is the 6.2-inch LCD (of an unnamed resolution, prevailing wisdom is 800 x 480). It looks great, with very nice viewing angles (not as premium as, say, a $500 tablet, but totally acceptable), nice color, and plenty of resolution for the size and typical use distance. It’s a single touch resistive touchscreen, with a very similar feel to that of the 3DS, and a soft matte surface. Basically, a feather tap is all that is required, and most buttons were large enough that precision didn’t really matter. One exception was a relatively detailed gun configuration menu for Ghost Recon, which involved "swiping" gun parts up to our custom weapon on the TV. It didn’t feel stellar, with several missed swipes, but obviously we’re a ways away from launch and dealing with pre-alpha hardware and software at best.
For finesse work there’s always the stylus. It’s pretty much exactly a DS stylus, and it has a permanent home up top of the console. In Nintendo’s demo video we saw what appeared to be pressure sensitive sketching, but all that was available to us was the crude MS Paint-style black lines in Measure Up.
The face buttons are very standard for recent Nintendo hardware, with a (small) d-pad and the (small) A / B / X / Y buttons on either side of the screen. We still prefer the larger, flatter SNES iteration of all of these, but those days are apparently far behind us. Triggers and bumpers were pure butter, however. Amazing what you can do when the button is large enough, eh Nintendo?
We’re really not sure about the analog sticks. They’re similar to that of the 3DS, with each "stick" actually being more of a multi-directional slider. Maybe they just take a bit of getting used to, but we weren’t doing so hot with precision movement. Our biggest problem was with shooting on Ghost Recon, but Battle Mii (you use one stick for navigating around and the other stick for diving and climbing with the spaceship) also gave us a bit of trouble. Here’s our theory: a tilting analog stick gives good feedback as to when it’s centered, but with the "flat" movement of these nubs it’s hard to tell when you’re centered or how close you are to the edge when you’re trying for a finesse move.
There’s an IR sensor on the back of the console for communicating with a Wii Sensor Bar, but none of the experiences we were shown apparently make use of it — the accelerometer and gyroscope were doing all of the work. According to one rep, the sensor bar isn’t necessarily even a guaranteed part of the SKU. If it’s not, we’re curious as to how the controller will get its initial orientation to the screen for games that involve the Wii U controller being a sort of "window" into what’s happening in the TV world, or for that wild bit we saw in the demo video where the controller acts as a golf tee. We’re sure Nintendo will figure out something.
Sadly, we didn’t see anything app-wise on the console, so we’re not sure how video conferencing works, or how you do web browsing or media playback with the back and forth between the TV and the controller. Those things actually seem like killer apps for this console, so we expect to see more soon.
Speaking of the console... there’s also a console here, lest we forget. It looks sort of like a pudgy Wii, and we only witnessed it from the front. Our conspiracy wheels were turning when we saw a mouse cursor on screen in one of the demos (Japanese Garden), and a rep reached behind the display to mess with something — ignoring the console itself, whose blue light kept humming. We’re not sure what happened there, but in other cases when something went wrong we saw the console itself being reset by a power button in the front.
One potential theory is that the "HD" demos (Zelda and Japanese Garden) were running on reference hardware that hasn’t been crammed into that tiny white package just yet, while the other titles (which had basically Wii-level graphics) were simply running on repackaged Wiis. Still, that doesn’t explain all the streaming to the Wii U controller that’s happening — inconsequential for a modern chipset, maybe (Intel Wireless Display, for instance) but no small feat for the old Wii hardware. All this conjecture might be a little pointless, but we’re obviously a little wary of what Nintendo is "really" showing us graphics-wise, after they pulled PS3 and Xbox 360 graphics for their press event.
The video streaming situation is another one where a few questions remain to be answered. On at least one game we noticed some serious compression artifacts on the stream we were getting. For other games the graphics were perfectly crisp on the secondary display, but there was also additional cabling running from the controller to the console, and a bit of a "backpack" on the controller itself. If Nintendo was feeding video directly to some controllers it wouldn’t be the conspiracy of the century, but it’s important to remember that anything wireless won’t necessarily be bulletproof — and for HD games, blocky compression is a bit of a downer.
That’s not all for unanswered questions. We still have no idea what sort of specs are inside the controller itself — it’s been made very clear to us that it’s a slave to the console, but there still has to be something inside the controller making it tick. We also don’t know the actually processor speed inside the actual console. IBM is claiming it’s some relation to Watson, but that’s not much to go on.
Other unanswered questions about the controller are apparently still unanswered by Nintendo itself. There’s a docking plug of sorts on the bottom, for instance, but it’s unclear what its final purpose might be — one rep was calling it an HDMI plug, another rep wasn’t sure it would even be on the final product. Nintendo wouldn’t clarify its battery situation, but repeatedly slapping a bunch of AAs inside something like this doesn’t make sense — we’d say a rechargeable battery with at least a serious day’s worth of playtime is a must.
Chase Mii. We don’t know why Nintendo decided to stop making good multiplayer battle maps for Mario Kart over the past decade, but Chase Mii just might make up for it. It’s a pretty dumb idea, really, but with the right crowd and the right amount of alcohol, we think it’s a winner. Basically, one person wears the Mario hat (virtually), and they get the fancy Wii U controller, while everyone else is supposed to chase that person using their lowly Wiimotes and splitscreen views on the TV.
We started off all casual, but some of the Nintendo reps were taking things very seriously. There was much yelling as Mario tried to hide in the circular maze-like level and the rest of us took off to find him. The strategy involves having a lookout who can direct traffic, allowing the peons to pin Mario into a corner and tackle him. The Mario player gets the advantage of a top down perspective and an entire mini map with locations of all the competition, turning it into a sort of Pac-Man game for him or her. The chasers get the advantage of numbers and... yelling. All of these games are tech demos, and Chase Mii is no exception, but we really hope Nintendo ships some version of this gameplay next year when Wii U launches.
Battle Mii. Another title that we earnestly hope makes its way into some (probably bundled) collection of minigames at launch. Battle Mii takes a similar approach to Chase Mii, in that you have one person using the Wii U controller and two with the classic Wii remote / nunchuk combination. Only this time, your Mii is all dressed up à la Samus Aran from the Metroid series, and the Wii U player gets his own gunship to eliminate the competition. The other two players team up to take it down, armed with a hand cannon and the ability to roll into a ball (again, very Metroid style).
The gunship takes a bit of getting used to, with rotating and aiming done via gyroscope (expect full body motion as you move about the battlefield). The left and right joysticks are responsible for strafing and climbing / diving, respectively — not at all like a first-person shooter, but it only takes a few rounds to get the hang of it, and there’s an optional, quick-and-dirty little training session for everyone to get accustomed. Once the battle officially begins, it’s everyone firing lasers and lobbing charged-up missiles at one another, the ground crew trying to clear the skies. It really sells a new type of local multiplayer, one that clearly pits everyone vs. the one guy in the room with a clear tactical advantage. That jerk.
Ghost Recon Online. This one is a little rough around the edges, and therefore not too much fun to play. We suppose it was important for Nintendo to show off a "core" game with good old fashioned dual analog support, so we appreciate it on that level. Ghost Recon was the only actual game with traditional mechanics on the floor, which actually turned out to be a disadvantage — we were all geared up for groundbreaking experiences, and instead we got a below par by-the-book tactics shooter. We’re so jaded!
Shield Pose. It’s a seriously dumb rhythm game, with kind of a lame mechanic — in theory. In practice, this thing is sheer joy. Basically you have to "catch" arrows shot at you by pirates using the Wii U controller. But you have to do this to a beat, and you have to move the screen to certain predefined spots in a specific order called out by the lead pirate. It’s sort of like Simon meets hunting for a cellphone signal.
Measure Up. This one’s mostly to prove to us that the stylus works. Guess what? It works! The idea is to draw a line or a shape to the correct specification. ("Draw a triangle with 1.5-inch sides" or "Draw a 10-inch squiggly line.") You get a score based on your specification-matching and your drawing skills. The concept is kind of fun, but it needs more explosions if it’ll ever pass minigame pack-in muster.
HD Experience (aka "Legend of Zelda"). It’s easy to get caught up in the fact that Link is on screen, probably looking for Zelda, but the point of the demo was the graphics (and Nintendo showed off realistic concept Zelda graphics way back on the GameCube that ended up getting scrapped in favor of a cell shaded look for Wind Waker) so we’ll try and stay focused here. The console is mirroring a realtime cutscene on the TV and on the controller, at what looks to be 720p HD. There are a ton of visual effects which look really great, like realtime shadows, tons of light beams, and the scary fur of the scary spider Link is up against. Still, there are a lot of jaggies on the actual polygons, and the actual scene complexity isn’t too high. The scene looks great because it’s Zelda, and because the spider has an eyeball in its back, but the overall tech isn’t really challenging the state of the art. We had control over which camera was being used and whether it was day or night, but the really nice part was the near instant swapping of video from playing on the controller to playing on the TV.
Japanese Garden Tech Demo. This was a little more impressive than Zelda. For starters, the bokeh really adds a feel of film to the scene, no matter how "cheap" of an effect it might be. But the main thing is that while a pre-scripted cutscene is being rendered in realtime on the TV, another version of the same scene can be camera-controlled on the Wii U controller. We’re not that good at math, but that sounds like double the work for the console, but both scenes looked great. In fact, we’d say the garden looked slightly more realistic and photograph-like on the controller’s smaller, denser screen. Still, while the demo is pretty great, our overall impression is that the Wii U can pump fancy shader effects like crazy, but it’s not as powerful as the PS3 or Xbox when it comes to sheer geometry. Some of the visuals almost remind us of the tablet gaming cream of the crop, in this regard. Hopefully there’s more power to be found in here for developers willing to dig for it.
New Super Mario Bros Mii. We’re sorry, we’re trying to be team players here, but there’s nothing that frustrates us more than four player New Super Mario Bros., and the addition of Mii avatars that we want to punch, controlled by strangers that we want to punch, was too deadly of a combination to stray near. Here’s the idea: one of the players gets the whole game on his or her Wii U controller screen. Everybody else has to die repeatedly until they swear to Satoru Iwata that they’re having a good time.
So, we just dropped a lot of "facts" on you, but right now the Wii U is a lot more than facts. There’s boundless opportunity here, and I can’t wait to see what Nintendo and other developers come up with. The primary sliver I saw in playable form at E3 is asymmetric local multiplayer, which could offer a new spin on all sorts of genres. I can imagine a whole genre of "dungeon master"-style gameplay where the guy with the Wii U controller is scripting or at least impacting the action that the "regular players" enjoy on the TV. A touchscreen makes even more sense in this context — drawing or selecting items or obstacles from the Wii U controller that are sent into the TV universe.
But that’s just one angle. Another thing I’m excited about is an opportunity to move menus and other UI chrome off of the main screen, allowing for something that looks a little more like a movie on the TV, while all the stats and items and stuff are easily accessed and manipulated with the 6-inch screen.
But wait, there’s more! Something we didn’t see much of yet, at least in playable form, is "window" type stuff where you can use the controller to act as a sniper scope or as a pitcher’s aim. We can actually imagine the controller screen being thought of as the "primary" gaming screen for some titles, while the TV just provides a context of sorts.
And more! One of the examples from Nintendo’s demo video was flicking shuriken off of the touchscreen and onto the targets on the TV. There are all sorts of virtual motions we can imagine communicating between TV and controller, like pouring, catching, bouncing... we could go on.
Many of these things have been dreamed of before, but Wii U is really going to make them possible. I actually had a really wonderful time with the simple little tech demos Nintendo was showing, especially Chase Mii and Battle Mii, and none of it required learning a whole new control scheme — in fact, most of these controls are more "standard" than typical Wii titles.
Which could be the problem, if you were growing attached to Wii control schemes. See, the Wii U can use all your old Wii controllers, but the Wii U controller is a seriously two-handed affair. Are you going to set it down for a moment to pick up your virtual sword and shield? Are we ever going to play virtual tennis again? The Wii U seems to fly in the face of everything Nintendo has been doing in the home over the past five years — it tosses out almost every form of 1:1 control outside of aiming (which is, of course, probably the most important one), simply because the controller is too big and your hands are both glued to it. Is Zelda: Skyward Sword the pinnacle of Nintendo’s attempts at 1:1 motion control? It seems like a funny time to abandon these motions, with Microsoft and Sony just getting involved, but we’ll have to see what happens. Obviously those Wiimotes will still be available, but it’s just hard to imagine any developer choosing those old things over a flashy new controller with a 6-inch screen and dual analog nubs.
Overall, Nintendo is taking some wild and complicated technology, making it look easy, and delivering some fresh new gaming ideas on top of it. It’s their bread and butter, and I think the Wii U is going to carry on that lineage just nicely.
You can't fault Nintendo for not trying something new (unless you think of the Wii U setup as a giant DS for the home, which isn't entirely fair but also somewhat an understandable observation). The more I think about it, however, and the more I stew on my hour or so with the controller, the less enthused I am to play it. This is where I disagree with my esteemed colleague; at the end of the day, I'm not sold on the novelty. A jack of all trades, a master of none.
Let's discuss the controller. The 6.2-inch touchscreen has impressive viewing angles, but none of the tech demos — there to specifically show off its feats and capabilities — really sold me on the necessity for a screen that large. As light as the hardware is, the size (10.5 x 6.8 inches) feels overly cumbersome. I'm thrilled that the touchscreen seems to take finger input well, despite what seems to be a resistive screen (it has a stylus, after all), but that said, the lack of multi-touch is pretty disappointing. All this display and only one finger can enjoy it — never any pinch-to-zoom or two-digit swipes.
And what you lose with so much screen real estate is justifiable space for the physical buttons, which are rather awkwardly placed along the side. Where my hand is comfortably positioned, pointer fingers on the back L / R triggers, the top triggers are awkward to reach. Ditto for the face buttons under the right joystick, which itself is more of a multi-direction slider with a smooth top. I didn't feel like I was battling drones in Ghost Recon Online — more so, I felt like my thumb was fighting the controller to aim where I wanted it to. I'm not sure why these were chosen over other joystick options — the Vita has great sticks, and they don't stick out obnoxiously at all.
Then there's the matter with what didn't get announced. Though Nintendo didn't utter "Friend Codes," it also didn't reveal any online plans. In fact, aside from the reported IBM Power-based multi-core microprocessor, we don't know much at all about its hardware. The tech demos weren't using it, so I'm really hesitant to comment good or ill on how the tech demos looked, but these known unknowns (to borrow the term) temper by enthusiasm — especially online, an area where Nintendo really fell behind this generation.
No, this presentation was all about the Wii U controller and its capabilities. It's a ways off from launch and everything could change. The question to ask right now is fairly nuanced: is the concept of the Wii U controller exciting, and does it innovate gaming? Battle Mii and Chase Mii were a lot of fun, but the other tech demos really didn't impress me at all. I'm not willing to give Nintendo the benefit of the doubt yet, so though I'm cautiously optimistic, I can't say I'm excited.
Ross Miller contributed to this report.