The gaming wars, they will never end. That’s just not how this business works. Nobody knows what tomorrow will bring.
Wii U: First Impressions
Expect that to be your first reaction when you see the Wii U Gamepad in person. From the videos I’d seen, I expected the controller to be perhaps 75% of the size of the real deal. It feels a little like playing with a PS Vita that hasn’t been removed from the box; strategic holes were just cut for the buttons and screen.
That said, your second thought might be, “It’s light.” Perhaps this is deceptive. Perhaps the size of the Gamepad tricks one’s mind into believing it’s light when it’s simply not that heavy. This is a subtle but important difference, when you think about playing a game for a few hours. It feels heavier than a 360 controller, but not significantly so. The weight balance seems fairly refined, too, evenly distributing its burden across the entire device.
In terms of aesthetic, the Wii U gamepad is an obviously expensive piece of kit wrapped in the body of a toy, and that’s not a bad thing. I have faith that the plastic shell will hold up as well as any other modern game controller, and anything short of blunt trauma directly to its surface shouldn’t compromise the screen’s integrity.
From a usability standpoint, it seems the controller is a veritable kitchen sink of opportunity, especially when compared to the decidedly minimalist take seen with the Wii remote and nunchuk. There are four shoulder buttons, four face buttons, start/select/home, TV Control and power buttons, a D-Pad, an RFID sensor, a microphone, stereo speakers, a camera, the IR transmitter and who knows what else packed inside. This list goes without mentioning the touch screen itself, of course. Oh, and a stylus tucked away in the back.
Some people are surprised that the Gamepad doesn’t support multitouch on its screen, instead registering just one touch at a time the same way the 3DS does. After playing with one, I’m not surprised at all. I can’t imagine a situation where using two fingers would make much sense; I found my thumbs simply reaching to wherever they needed to go on the screen, without letting go of one side of the controller. I think this was partly due to its weight and partly out of fear of dropping it. At the same time, I can’t fathom why anyone in their right mind would use the stylus during gameplay. Perhaps some art or puzzle game can find use for its more precise movement, but I’m not sure mine will ever leave its back slot. Of course, this is true of my DS’s stylus, as well.
It’s fitting that so many words would be written up front in service of the controller, because it’s undoubtedly the centerpiece of the Wii U experience. Before we return to the Gamepad, though, a word about the system’s graphics. It feels foreign and wonderful to finally play anything at all on a Nintendo branded system in honest high definition. That the game I had the chance to play was Rayman: Legends surely helped, since, like Origins before it, it’s a beautiful game featuring paint buckets full of wonderful color.
Nintendo fans that care about visual fidelity have been stuck at 480P since the early days of the Gamecube. It’s odd and wonderful, and more jarring than I expected, to finally break away from this. It’s such a Nintendo-specific leap that it rekindles the same sort of feelings one might have had when first seeing an HDTV in action 10 years ago.
The screen on the Gamepad looks fabulous, as well; not up to snuff with the unspeakably gorgeous screen on the PS Vita, perhaps, but still benefiting from the kind of curve-grading that makes anything Nintendo-related in HD impressive.
I held the Gamepad up against the TV to try to find any sign of latency. My eyes were sufficiently fooled; Ubisoft must be right about the Gamepad having only a 1-frame delay, because it appears to be completely in sync.
Navigating menus with the touchscreen was easy enough, but perhaps it’s telling that I was relieved when I discovered the shoulder triggers could also shuffle options left and right.
Rayman was an interesting experience. Ubisoft demos always feel a little ragged; all the pieces are there, but it’s obvious that there are “under construction” walls surrounding you, as the gameplay will suddenly jump from one sequence to the next with little notice. The level I played began as a traditional Rayman platformer. The Gamepad curiously showed a level selection screen throughout this part, rather than mirroring the gameplay on the screen or providing other functionality.
After traveling through a bit of the level, however, things suddenly changed: the on-screen character was now effectively on rails, and it became the player’s job to remove obstacles and move platforms to the correct places for the character to trudge forward. These actions included cutting ropes or moving platforms up and down by swiping, as well as using the built in accelerometers (See? Forgot to mention that function) to swing or rotate circular platforms into position.
It was at this point things got a bit wonky. Control seemed well enough calibrated, but the tasks became more difficult and less self-explanatory. In one area, the player manipulates a circular maze riddled with spikes that result in auto-death when touched. The character moves and shifts based on how the player rotates the maze itself. After a few attempts, I was yearning for a chance to use one of the analog sticks (Forgot to mention those, too) in order to gain some more precision in control. The movements were just too broad when rotating the Gamepad. Another obstacle shortly after, I simply couldn’t figure out. I knew what the game wanted me to do – use inertia to throw the character onto a higher platform – but without being able to controller her ability to jump, I felt powerless to accomplish the goal.
Throughout this sequence, the amount of action on the Gamepad’s screen essentially forces the player to look at their controller and ignore the larger image on the TV in front of them. There were too many instructions and touchscreen operations to be done to risk looking up.
In this way, I fear the Wii U may suffer from the same kind of screen bias that affects all but the best DS games (such as Advance Wars), where players spend the vast majority of their time watching just one screen. The TV simply becomes an inferior mirror of the action on the screen in players’ hands, which causes one to wonder a bit, in spite of the technical truth, why they’re playing a game on a giant portable.
However, I’m fairly optimistic that this will improve quickly with more play time: within just a few minutes, I forced myself to look up at the TV primarily and trigger actions on the touchscreen without looking down. If your thumbs are like mine, they may well learn quickly where to go in relation with your TV’s larger image, allowing the Gamepad screen to be used like a sophisticated touchpad in action situations, rather than forcing players to focus solely on its smaller screen.
A Few More Thoughts
Although my playtime resulted in mixed feelings, I don’t doubt Wii U will be a successful product. By not providing developers with the tools and motivation needed to push Airplay to its limits, Apple has left open a hole for Nintendo that it seems could easily have been closed. Few realize that an iPad, iPod Touch or iPhone paired with an Apple TV is capable of essentially the same core experience as the Wii U. This will happen over time, but Nintendo has a tight window in which they can launch, establish a software foothold and differentiate themselves as offering an “Affordable toy for the whole family to enjoy”, rather than “An expensive tablet for individual use that’s easy to break.” To game players in the Wii’s mainstream demographic, Wii U will surely feel like magic, and the hardcore have already fallen in line.
I think we’ll eventually see games that support two Gamepads, but I doubt additional gamepads will retail for less than $129.95 at any point during the system’s lifespan, ensuring that such titles will be few and far between. I’d really like a chance to explore some of the asymmetrical multiplayer gaming possibilities the system offers, but alas, titles like Nintendoland are as yet unavailable to play.
Although the software felt solid during my use, I have a sneaking suspicion that frustrating functionality gaps will become apparent quickly after launch. It seems to me that Nintendo’s effort went entirely into ensuring the hardware was rock solid, and in that they seem to have succeeded. Software can be patched, and will, so any early bumps in the road won’t be too terrible.
Looking ahead, I expect only Microsoft to offer a reasonably competitive experience to the Wii U; their expansion of Kinect’s capabilities and superior hardware will provide an alternative of merit when it launches next year. I remain confused by Sony’s strategy moving forward, and I suspect that Sony does, as well.
In the end, it’s all about the games, but it’s critical for consoles to make good first impressions. It’s hard to remember now, but for the first 6-12 months of its lifespan, the PS2 was beating back early criticisms related to a poor launch title lineup and other complications that made the system appear to be half-baked. Wii U seems like a reasonably finished product, in spite of the odd marketing leading up to the system’s release, which often felt improvised and spur of the moment.
Aside from competitive offerings, Wii U’s biggest concern will be finding the right use for its Gamepad screen. Much like the early days of the DS, I suspect that Gamepad utilization will be incredibly hit and miss, with some games offering only mirroring and little else, some offering a menu that’s grayed out during gameplay, some perhaps showing only a logo most of the time.
My hope is that Nintendo will work intimately with developers, especially early on, to ensure that their usage of the screen adds to the experience in some way. Once a few key concepts have settled in with developers, a sufficient minimum bar will be set to ensure the Gamepad screen doesn’t feel like a gimmick. Overall, I’m excited to see where Wii U takes us.
Here’s a quick peak at the #GDC11 showfloor.