Wii U: How it will change gaming as you know it
10th Jul 2011 | 14:30
You might remember how the Wii name began to make perfect sense once you started hearing it. It was clear how much fun 'we' had together. But in thinking about a new Nintendo system, we knew the prevailing thought would be this: yes, the game is right for us, but could it also be a perfect fit for... you.
And the answer to that question is an emphatic absolutely. We're so convinced, we put the pronoun in the name. So today, welcome to the world of Wii U." And just like that, Nintendo's Reggie Fils-Aime ushered Wii U into our lives. Or did he?
In the beginning was the word. And the word was "huh?". Closely followed by "wha...?" and rounded out with a "hmmm". Let's get this out in the open: Nintendo did a terrible job of introducing the Wii's successor at the E3 games conference in Los Angeles at the start of June. It was a fudging of such galactic proportions that some E3 attendees - and a good portion of us watching from home - didn't even realise Nintendo had announced a Wii successor. Whoops.
We all saw the tablet-like device that you now see sitting pretty across the page. But what was it? A Wii peripheral or a console in itself? An introductory film revealed simplistic Wii-level visuals and co-operation with remotes, Balance Board and - gulp - the Wii Zapper. Surely no vision of the future involves that plastic calamity? Where was the HD wowgasm? What does the console do? How is it a revolutionary new way to play? E3 threw up questions.We've returned with answers.
Wii U is the next Nintendo console, ready to pump out 1080p HD loveliness and embrace new play styles with its daring, tablet-like controller. But this was an untraditional debut for an untraditional piece of kit. Nintendo were not at E3 to talk about the base unit or offer up technical specs (more on them in a moment) but to slap a gauntlet down at the feet of conventional wisdom. Why, asked Nintendo, should games be restricted to the TV?
Wii U is, among other things, a second screen. And a touch screen at that. Some implications are clear. Should a selfish family member shoo you from the sofa so they can watch TV, the game can seamlessly continue in your hands, streamed from the base unit. Playing New Super Mario Bros Mii there's no noticeable lag between TV and controller screen.
And what a screen. The 6.2-inch widescreen pumps out a crisp picture that does handsome justice to HD looks. While it lacks the surgical perfection of iPhone's 'retina display' (packing pixels beyond the eye's ability to see them), our eyes couldn't make out the individual pixels that plague DS and 3DS. For our money, the HD Zelda demo reel plays better when it's squished into the controller's confines, compressing the image into a nugget of purest wow.
Once you're done considering its abilities as a replacement, think of Wii U as a supplement. With two screens, your living room is transformed into a DS. First, think small: common gaming faff transplanted from an in-game menu to the touch screen. Map screens and RPG inventories excavated from a pause screen and updated in real-time with a finger prod. Name input freed from the tyranny of cumbersome on-screen keyboards. Bliss!
Now think bigger. A second screen is a second perspective on the action. Ubisoft tell us the controller could pilot a spy drone to accompany the Ghost Recon soldier slinking about on the TV. In Assassin's Creed - announced to rapturous applause - the controller might show us the world in 'Eagle Vision', the extrasensory perception used to pick targets from a crowd. Think of all the fun of DS, viewed through an HD lens and traditional console controls.
The demo footage hints at all kinds of perspective twists. Lying the controller on the ground in a golf game displays the tee on the screen, swung at with a Wii remote in your hands. Looking at your ball on the ground gives a "sense of how tough it is in the rough" joked Shigeru Miyamoto. Imagine Trauma Center where you grab remote tools from a touch-screen tray, or Wii Boxing with an x-ray controller revealing snapping bones.
Exciting, right? It gets better. What happens if said screens decide to co-operate, blurring the boundaries? Motion-sensing innards let us move the controller for a new perspective on the TV action. In the Shield Pose demo we swing the controller to catch arrows as they're fired from distant ships.
The twist? Only one ship is visible on TV - the others can only be seen by aiming the pad left or right of the TV. This idea, that the pad is a window to an unseen virtual reality, is easily Wii U's coolest trick. One tech demo - a virtual garden shown in Nintendo's conference - plants you in the middle of ornate Japanese grounds and invites you to look around. Spin through 360 degrees and you spin 360 degrees in the game. Look up and sunlight saturates the leaves. Look down and a nearby koi pond ripples in the breeze. Here, among the swaying grass, we fell in love with Wii U.
The gaming implications are great. Motion-sensing fidelity (Wii U already feels more stable than a Wii remote) makes it a feasible control scheme for first-person shooters. When Ubisoft unveiled Wii U exclusive Killer Freaks From Outer Space they demoed the entire game on the pad, moving with analogue sliders and pointing guns at fleshy gremlins with physical shifts. This set-up only works if you play on the tablet screen, but what's lost in TV inches is made up for in immersion.
THE POWER TO MOVE YOU
Further proof of motion potential comes in Battle Mii. Gently moving the pad aims a UFO which is steered with the two control sticks, in effect offering a third analogue input that 360 and PS3 pads don't. Tank and helicopter controls should be a doddle on Wii U. But if FPS advancement hints at a promising online future, Wii U is even more revolutionary in local multiplayer.
Four players sitting on a sofa is Nintendo's bread and butter. Wii U adds the jam: a fifth player. A Wii U-wielding player. Four remotes/nunchuks versus one super controller. Wii U offers what GoldenEye victims begged for in 1997, physically splitting split-screen multiplayer. You can't peek at a controller in someone else's hands. But this is way more than a simple cheat deterrent.
The fifth screen secludes one player on a private playing field. In Battle Mii, hunters share the TV screen to bring down a tablet-piloted UFO. In Chase Mii four players pursue a single mastermind who sees their positions on his tablet map. Sound familiar? It's Miyamoto's wonderful Pac-Man Vs reborn, only without the need for a Game Boy Advance and link-up cable. In fact, thanks to remote compatibility, you've already got most of the kit needed to play.
Interestingly, Wii U is only designed - at this stage at least - to work with one tablet controller. Local multiplayer relies on remote/tablet co-operation. That's understandable from a price perspective - touch screens and streaming video tech don't come cheap. We do wonder what dangerous controller envy this will evoke. When you've been the chased in Chase Mii it ain't so easy reverting to a chaser.
ONE ON ONE
So, the controller is TV replacement, supplement and partner. THQ's Danny Bilson (the man you can thank for bringing Darksiders II and Metro: Last Light to Wii U) calls it the "Swiss Army Knife of controllers" - and he's spot-on. It kinda does everything. The touch screen alone is a thousand buttons in one, allowing for the kind of input unrivalled even by PC. And yet... and yet people can't rest easy until they know what it connects to.
Nintendo managed a console reveal where no console was revealed. Cue mass confusion and an emergency tweet from Ninty boss Satoru Iwata saying that yes, there was a box to go with the wonderpad. As for what's in the box? Here's where things get murky...
We know it looks like a pudgy Wii, bulging at the sides. Perhaps it's fat on tech, guts rumbling with its IBM Power-based multi-core CPU and AMD Radeon-based HD GPU (largely meaningless until Nintendo announce specifics). Factor in internal flash memory of unknown size and we know... not a lot. And Nintendo refused to spill the HD beans, deflecting questions with the kind of nimbleness that would have come in handy in Shield Pose.
Annoying, isn't it? As much as we'd like to act all grown-up and enjoy the innovative promise of the tablet, inside we yearn for details, for confirmation of the HD power denied us all these years. Wii bravely held the SD ground after others fled for bump-mapped hills, but we think we owe our wallet-busting flat-screen telly a better workout than Kung Fu freaking Panda 2. Wii U is set to bring it.
The console's graphical showcase is Zelda HD. Or to give it its proper name: woowooohmigodohmigodohmigodisthateallylinkdoingallthathdstuff puffpuff *faints* (pause) *wakes* huffpuffwoowooarghimsohappythankyounintendo. The aisles of LA's Nokia Theatre were transformed into white water rapids of fanboy tears as Link became the first Nintendo mascot to step into HD.
Being true Englishmen, we bottled our emotions for a private demo later. Though we will admit to genuine chills as Nintendo's artists finally got the power they deserved. Zelda HD recaps Twilight Princess' Armogohma fight in the Temple of Time, albeit pumped up with gorgeous textures, reactive lighting and a dynamic depth of field that lent the scene a cinematic heft.
Sprucing up a recognisable location offers a great feel for how Wii U exceeds Wii: ornate carvings mark every surface, while pond water ripples, distorting images reflected within. A button press switches day to night, suddenly bathing boy and spider in flickering firelight. And all this reflected perfectly in the marble floor. Zelda HD turns fanboys dewy eyed. Everyone else? Zelda HD turns them into fanboys. And then dewy eyed.
And if you can't believe your eyes? Believe the third-party testimonials instead. Darksiders II's technical director, Colin Bonestead, says Ninty's new hardware is more powerful than 360 and PS3, and that Wii U's will be the "best" version. Every day sees the list of supported game engines swell: Crytek's CryEngine (Crysis 2), DICE's Frostbite (Battlefield), Ubisoft's Anvil (Assassin's Creed). Wii U graphics get prettier with every press release.
The question, then, is not are the graphics good or bad, but how good are they? Good enough for Batman: Arkham City, Ninja Gaiden 3 and Aliens: Colonial Marines. The Dark Knight unveiling saw our conference whoop-o-meter go off the scale. At a show where third parties' Wii games can be counted on one hand, such sterling early commitment is heartening.
Not to be outdone, Nintendo offered two games of their own: Smash Bros and Pikmin 3. Details are non-existent on both - Smash Bros designer Masahiro Sakurai admits he's only just employing the development team - but both are the product of that tougher, purer Nintendo we haven't seen around these parts recently. Smash Bros in HD is an easy win, and touch screen Pikmin was hinted at in a Nintendo patent many moons ago.
A BRIGHT FUTURE
We hope we've answered a few of your questions. Truth is, Wii U doesn't lend itself to neat labelling. It reaches in multiple directions, simultaneously challenging how games look, play, control and behave in the living room. Hell, they're challenging the underlying tenet of all modern gaming: that TV is king. In a modern age dominated by the pursuit of clinical elegance, Nintendo are the champions of unfettered potential.
"There are so many options in what can be done, it's actually difficult to narrow down what I should do next," joked Miyamoto in a post-reveal interview. What an idea: the father of modern videogames, and his army of protégés, faced with hardware exceeding their imaginations. Considering the potent fun they've cooked up within the technologically claustrophobic Wii, their next move could change the face of gaming forever.
Of course, we have questions: cold hard specs, controller range, detailed online plans, price ("This is not going to be cheap," said Iwata, ominously) and release date (between May and December 2012). Only one thing is truly known for sure: it's been a long time since we held something genuinely new in our hands. Not since our first serve in Wii Sports Tennis, in fact. And here it is: as big as a family sized Dairy Milk and glorious to behold.