Was it really been a year since we first clapped our disbelieving, slightly jet-lagged peepers on Wii U? Incredibly, it is, and a lot has changed in those 12 months for a console that isn't even out yet. We now know a great deal more about the machine than we did at its divisive debut, and we don't need to dust off the crystal ball to tell you that its future looks bright.
Iwata admits Nintendo had problems communicating what Wii U was about...
That's not to say our love affair with Wii U started from the instant it was revealed. More 'uh?' at first sight, as Nintendo's slightly muddled reveal confused even seasoned journos. And it's not us the big N needs to convince. Part of the problem was the focus on the controller. It's understandable that Nintendo would want to bring attention to the unrivalled breadth of its capabilities, but by featuring games like New Super Mario Bros U and Wii Fit - not to mention peripherals like the Wii Zapper and RemotePlus being used alongside it - it looked more like an add-on to most. Given the success of Nintendo's previous home console announcement, with its near-exclusive focus on the Wii remote, it's easy to see why Nintendo would want to repeat the trick, but Wii represented such a huge shift in approach that it couldn't ever be considered a GameCube peripheral (even though it was originally planned to be just that).
Still, Iwata admitted to investors the difficulties Nintendo faced in communicating the unique appeal of Wii U. "We have no intention to start from scratch and abandon the strengths of the Wii. As a result, people... may wonder if it is merely an improved version of the Wii."
SECRETS AND FRIES
Of course, Nintendo wasn't about to give away the console's biggest secrets. Last year, Wii U was some 18 months away from release, and a certain amount of caginess was therefore essential. "As people in the industry have observed what we have done in the past, if we prematurely disclose our development information, it is possible that products with similar concepts could be launched before Nintendo itself can finalise and launch the products," explained Iwata. "Please understand that Nintendo cannot elaborate on what we are working on until the time we are ready to make the official announcement, because doing so would negatively affect the real impact of our products when they are released into the market." By the time you read this, you'll understand exactly why.
What makes Wii U such a thrillingly unusual proposition for a Nintendo console is that it doesn't have a single communicable hook, but a ton of them. Game Boy, Nintendo DS, Wii, even Nintendo 3DS: all have had a signature feature that sets them apart, but it's the wide variety of possibilities that makes Nintendo's latest machine so unique.
Yet if that means it's a tough sell, it certainly makes for exciting scope. With analogue sticks, a whole host of buttons, a resistive touchscreen, and Near Field Communication capabilities - not to mention its use as a screen when the TV is occupied - this is a controller that does everything, the "Swiss Army knife of controllers," as THQ's soundbite-friendly ex-big cheese Danny Bilson would have it.
As such, it might initially appear to lack focus. But it's designed to be a machine for everybody. Miyamoto is particularly keen to ensure it has as wide a range of features as possible; during the controller's development, he strongly opposed those who wanted to simplify the interface.
"Bold, but cautious, I have to be," he claimed, doing his best Yoda impression. "Not one of our customers is the same, so I think about it from the point of view of someone who has dealt with games for years, and at the same time I also think about how it will appear to people who have never played games. [The controller] has a touch-screen here, and you can see information on it at any time that won't appear on the TV. Because it has its screen, it's become much easier to understand, and we thought in that case, we'd stuff it with features so it could do anything." In other words, a secondary display with touch-screen capabilities for casual players, buttons and sticks for the core. Bingo! Everyone's happy.
ONLINE, ALL THE TIME
Of course, a world-beating feature-set means little if you don't have the developers to make the most of it, but the beauty of Wii U is that it's much more welcoming to third parties. And particularly - gasp - when it comes to online. Reggie says Wii U offers "an extremely robust online experience", while Iwata says Nintendo now "has a policy of adapting itself to changes in the network environment in a flexible fashion rather than the one of sticking toa rigid mechanism."
Sure, these are lines we've been fed before, only for Nintendo to tentatively dip its toe into Wi-Fi waters when it should be wading in with both feet. But by comparison, Wii U represents a sprint through the shallows and a headlong plunge into deeper waters. Don't just take Nintendo's word for it: third parties are lining up to praise their commitment to online. EA'sPeter Moore talked of a "really extensive" online setup, claiming "Nintendo has recognised the future is connected. The future is online. The future is about building powerful communities."
Hang on - communities? We've already seen Nintendo exploring that idea in Mario Kart 7. You'll be seeing a lot more of it on Wii U. Nintendo Network is a good start, but it's third parties who will be able to capitalise. Randy Pitchford of Gearbox Software, creators of Aliens: Colonial Marines, says that: "It would feel unnatural for us to commit such an effort for this game [if Wii U didn't] offer the online functionality that you expect," and Ubisoft wouldn't be releasing Ghost Recon Online as a launch title for Wii U if they weren't confident of its infrastructure.
Nintendo has recognised the future is connected...
Iwata is even ready to allow third parties to use microtransactions. "As a hardware manufacturer, or platform holder, it would be better to present third-party developers with as much freedom as possible. We plan to ensure a relative level of flexibility for Nintendo 3DS and Wii U software compatible with the Nintendo Network as long as the developer has built a trusting relationship with consumers." With the additional promise of same-day digital releases for all retail games, this demonstrates a commitment to the online space we've not seen before from Nintendo. That the setup is less rigid than, for example, Microsoft's guidelines for Xbox Live, is set to be another key factor in attracting third-party support.
It helps, of course, that Wii U is an easy machine to work with. Discussing the nature of porting Darksiders 2 code from Other Formats, Vigil Games' associate producer Jay Fitzloff said "[it's] not as challenging as you might think. Getting it working was not any issue on the Wii U. When we first got it up and running, you can have the game download to and run on the pad, and everybody was like, that could take a while. It took two lines of code and five minutes."
Whether you subscribe to Pitchford's comments that " Wii U is a next-generation system... a more powerful machine" than Other Formats, or are more ready to believe the more sober assessment of Vigil Games' Marvin Donald that, "the hardware's on par with what we have with the current generations," it seems pretty clear that Wii U is not going to compete on a technical level with whatever Sony andMicrosoft are planning. Which means, in all likelihood, Wii U will occupy the same place as Wii has for this last generation.
The appeal of this is obvious: with spiralling development costs sending all kinds of software houses out of business, it's only going to be the enormo-publishers that can comfortably stretch their budgets to exploit the power of Wii U's rivals when they arrive late next year. That leaves smaller developers with bigger and/or riskier ideas to throw their lot in with Nintendo. The next generation's No More Heroes, Zack and Wiki and Trauma Center will all be on Wii U - not necessarily those franchises, but equally weird and wonderful ideas. For those who've spent a generation getting to grips with Xbox 360 and PS3, the idea of a console that works in a similar way will be a godsend.
But friendly hardware isn't the half of it. Developers are wide-eyed about the possibilities of Wii U. Pitchford has waxed lyrical about the controller's flexibility for Aliens: Colonial Marines, in particular the touch-screen. "It gives us some interface options that just don't exist on the other platforms. The most obvious one of course is the motion tracker... the [alert] sound is actually coming from the controller!" he enthuses. "And when I'm playing competitive [online multiplayer] sometimes I like to look at the score but I hate having to cover the screen with an overlay. Well, guess what? I ca nlook down at the Wii U screen and keep the score there."
If anyone can show us how powerful Wii U really is, it's Nintendo...
And if Wii U is making online multiplayer more flexible, it's completely transforming local play. Some have complained that one tablet controller isn't enough, but then those people probably haven't experienced Battle Mii or Chase Mii, two enormously convincing arguments for the brilliance of asymmetrical play. This isn't the first time Nintendo has explored competitive gaming of this kind - remember Pac-Man Vs? - but this is the first time it'll be accessible to everyone out of the box. You can expect to see Wii U demo units in stores and on tours before its release because for once playing really is believing. In its ability to convey this simple idea, Chase Mii in particular could be to Wii U whatWii Sports' tennis was to Wii Yes, that important.
Yet while it's exciting to think of the new experiences we're going to get on Wii U, that shallow graphics obsessive in all of us just wants to see Nintendo games in HD. If anyone can show us how powerful Wii U really is, it's Nintendo. The two Mario Galaxy games were a cut above just about anything else on Wii- marry that technical know-how with the extra potency of new hardware, and our mouths water just thinking of the possibilities.
It may not be easy to win over the doubters (though by the time you read this, we're sure a few will have been swayed by Nintendo's E3 showing). "It is our intention to satisfy a wider audience with one gaming platform," says a bold, bullish Iwata. Time will tell whether Nintendo achieves that goal. But one thing's for sure: it's going to be an exciting journey.