Today, Nintendo finally revealed the successor to its blockbuster home console system the Wii, the curiously titled Wii U. The console itself looks like a slightly tweaked version of the shiny white brick Wii users know so well; the only obvious upgrade was its ability to provide a true high-definition picture, something Nintendo fans have been clamoring for since the Wii first hit shelves in 2006. The real innovation, however, is the Wii U controller (pictured), which features a 6.2 inch HD touchscreen, microphone, gyroscope, accelerometer, front-facing camera, two analog controllers, and more buttons than than a Black Eyed Peas costume.
Although the company had no firm release date other than “next year,” and no price point to speak of, EW was offered a sneak peek at what to expect from the system. As has been the case with new Nintendo gadgets over the last five years, the experience was long on smiles and charm — and lingering questions as well.
The Wii U is so brand new, in fact, Nintendo had no actual games to offer in its sneak preview — just “demos” that showed off the basics of what the Wii U controller can do. But that was enough for now. The device itself feels surprisingly light for its size, and ergonomically it felt good in my hands — although I never had a chance to really make use of the ABXY buttons just underneath the right analog dial, which could get a bit tricky for more complex games.
As for the screen itself, it essentially promises to bring the gameplay innovations spearheaded by the Nintendo DS and 3DS to console gaming. The screen can be a map of your surroundings; lay it on the ground, and it becomes the tee from which you can shoot a golf ball with your traditional Wiimote. Switch from playing your game on the TV to the controller itself if someone else wants to watch Extreme Couponing or Nurse Jackie instead — Nintendo should call this option the “Relationship Saver.”
You can also use the screen as an alternate view on a multiplayer game; the demo I played involved me flying a UFO in a thunderdome-like arena, while my colleague Jeff Jensen tried to zap me from below. I saw him on my screen, while Jeff saw me on the TV. Not only that, but I could change my view by physically moving my Wii U controller around in space, which took some getting used to but brought an immediate smile to my face.
And the Wii U controller can also operate relatively independently from the main console, with simple games like Backgammon or certain options within Wii Fit. But Nintendo president Satoru Iwata stressed that the controller is not meant to be a standalone handheld device; no bringing it with you on the subway or vacation, I’m afraid.
The best thing I can say about the Wii U is that it looks, feels, and plays like a quintessential Nintendo experience — but that cuts both ways. The Wii U has been clearly designed with hardcore gamers in mind; I was especially impressed with the HD output, both on a big screen and on the controller screen as well. But can Nintendo have its cake and eat it too? The company has had a dickens of a time getting third-party game developers to create blockbuster games for the Wii, in large part because hardcore gamers have not taken the Wii all that seriously. (For what game publishers like EA and Ubisoft have in store for the Wii U, check out EW’s full report on the Nintendo E3 press event later today.) “Wii U” is the most whimsical name for a gaming system I’ve ever seen, and it’s bright, rounded design is at odds with the black, sharp-angled shapes of the Xbox 360 and PS3. Function, of course, will ultimately outweigh form; if great games come to the Wii U, gamers will follow. We’ll just have to wait another year (or so) to find out if that will happen, and if gamers will say, “Wii U! Woo hoo!” — or, as Doc Jensen is forcing me to joke, “Wii U? P.U.!”