Barring objections about the name, the Nintendo Wii U was received with great applause and excitement at this year’s E3. The first thing many people did when the doors opened to the West Hall was rush to Nintendo’s massive booth to get a glimpse of the hardware and its capabilities. And the lines never let up for the entire three days.
The reward for waiting more than an hour and a half in line was a chance to experience several demos: Shield Pose, an editable video of Link battling a ginormous spider, Battle Mii, Chase Mii, Super Mario Bros. Mii, that questionable video of the bird, and Ghost Recon Online. The prognosis – hopeful.
That’s about all I can be after experiencing these demos. To be honest, I was among the joyous, clapping giddily at Nintendo’s E3 press conference when I saw the introductory video. The longer I thought about it, however, the more it seemed like Microsoft’s introduction to the formerly named project Natal. Natal promised big things. Fastforward to today, the Kinect still has several gaps between its lineup and its declared power. Experiencing the Wii U first hand was marked with ambivalence because it feels like the same situation.
We’ll get into that later. First, let’s talk about the some of the demos.
Chase Mii was the first game I played. I call it a game despite Nintendo of America president, Reggie Fils-Aime calling it a prototype. I call it a game because it contains the essentials – ground rules, a set mode of play and a challenging yet achievable goal. It was fun to boot.
The demo starts with four Miis standing apart and one more standing in the middle. The outside players don iconic Toad mushroom costume while the one in the middle is dressed like Mario. The object is to tackle the Mario Mii before time runs out. I liken it to a hybrid hide-and-seek/tag/race.
The highlight of the game is of course the Wii U controller. When you’re the one being chased, the entire experience is on the controller’s 6.2 inch screen. It’s big enough to fit a global map that displays everyone’s location, and a 3rd person view of your fugitive Mii. Whereas the other four players use the familiar Wii sticks and share the TV’s standard split screen — they have no way of telling where you are except for a distance counter and sight, thus encouraging a team effort.
Being the fugitive Mii offers the rare feeling of being the boss in the game. The other players are trying to beat you; they strategize and plot; they work as a team. After some time passes, a star becomes available and all of a sudden you’re invincible. I took that time to taunt the other players by bumping into them and laughing triumphantly.
That boss feeling was replicated in Battle Mii, and again was made possible with the new controller. This time, two players using the nunchuks control laser wielding, Samus suit wearing Miis. Their goal is to blast the third player, the one using the Wii U controller, who is whirring around in a spaceship, out of the air.
Okay, these are great demos that show off the very unique interactivity you can have in a multiplayer game. Most likely, Nintendo will bundle these games with the console purchase, similar to what they did with Wii Sports. What remains to be seen is whether developers will adopt this concept for core titles. Remember, universal appeal is one of the philosophical tenants behind this new console. Seeing a similar aspect in a core game will show how great the Wii U can be in capturing their declared audience.
Speaking of core titles, Ubisoft’s Ghost Recon Online was the only one at the Wii U area. Another ray of hope, the demo packed massive quality despite being an early version. The interface is incredible to say the least.
Players tap on the touch screen to cycle through weapon customizations. When you’ve made your choice of, for instance, the barrel, you simply swipe it toward the TV and that piece is saved. This is far better an interface than that demoed in Ghost Recon Future Soldier for the Kinect — don’t get me wrong, choosing gun parts with a wave of my hand and mimicking gun play is intriguing, but when it’s time for a three hour shooter fest, I can see the arms getting tired.
My favorite parts of the Ghost Recon Online demo were the map and drone, again leveraging the touch screen. The map reacts to the motion of the controller via the gyroscope. Players can zoom in and out, set rally points and launch drones with more simple taps. Essentially, pausing the game for logistics is a thing of the past with the Wii U. Furthermore, the concept of a HUD is eliminated as everything is moved to the device in your hands.
So, why am I so fixated on the controller? It’s the crux. It’s what makes the Wii U exceptional, instead of just another HD console that happens to be from Nintendo.
From a hardware perspective, it’s a wonder how they built it. So light in my hands, it felt close to fragile. Yet, there are two circle pads in addition to the D-pad, A/B/X/Y, L/R bumpers, ZL/ZR triggers, camera, rumble, microphone, sensor, stylus and speakers that startled me the first time I heard them. I also spied a screw piece just under the triggers that has me thinking tripod support.
Demos and hardware aside, that leaves Internet browsing, continuous play when someone takes over the TV, controller only games and so on with big question marks. These were nowhere to be found at the Nintendo booth.
Considering that Nintendo recently confirmed the console will have no DVD/Blu-Ray capability (see Q8 in the E3 Q&A), we’re already starting to see the real Wii U emerge, the one with limitations. It’s bound to happen, after all. The Wii U we saw at E3 must reconcile with the one we buy in stores, and like an inspiring politician, we will have a reckoning of all its promises.
I still remain hopeful, albeit. It’s fascinating hardware. So, I venture to enjoy the promise of a great console as I wait to see whether it is fulfilled in 2012.