Over the weekend, we were invited to test drive the Wii U gaming console at a private event in Hollywood. Check out our thoughts on Nintendo's new system!
Moonrise Mushroom Kingdom --- A tale by Daniel Hirshleifer
The place: Hollywood, California. The time: A hot and muggy Saturday afternoon in September. The event: An introduction to Nintendo's newest console, the Wii U. The machine has received a lot of puzzled looks since its announcement at E3. The questions flew fast and furious: Who was the console for? What was the deal with that big touchscreen game pad? Would the system suffer the same fate as its predecessor, with virtually no third party support and the good games buried under a mountain of shovelware? Despite these uncertainties, presales have been brisk, but Nintendo is taking no chances. They've taken the Wii U on tour, and we were on hand to see if the system lived up to the hype.
The first thing I noticed, and how could you not, were the relentlessly perky event employees. One of them stood in the doorway and high-fived everyone who entered. In most circumstances I would have chafed at the forced joviality, but as I passed through the venue, it became clear that many people were genuinely having fun. Whether it was through the ministrations of the employees, a genuine pleasure in the gaming, or simply enjoying the novelty of it all, there was a positive atmosphere to the place. Cookies and flavored ices were being handed out, and you could get your photo taken with a variety of Nintendo-based props.
But we weren't here to soak in good vibes from the crowd. No, we were here to game. Unfortunately, so was everyone else. Long lines fed off of the most popular titles, and those who weren't in line were eagerly gathering around those actively playing, eager to get a peek. I found my way to a couch where I got to play Mario Chase, one of the mini-games in Nintendo Land, the game bundled with the 32GB version of the console. The idea is simple. It's essentially tag. Four players, using Wiimotes and sporting a third person view, race around an arena trying to tackle Mario. The player with the GamePad, playing as Mario, has an overhead view of the entire arena, and the locations of all the players on the map. All that Mario has to do is evade his pursuers until time runs out. The other players are told how close they are to Mario, but not which direction he's in. And that's it! It's a simple, but addictive, little mini-game. At first I played as a seeker and managed to tackle Mario by flanking him. Second go around, I got to use the GamePad and managed to evade all of my pursuers with some pretty smooth moves, if I do say so myself.
Now, a word about the GamePad. This is the centerpiece of the Wii U, the extra something that separates the system from all of its competitors. Its main feature is a 6.2 inch, 854x480 (158 ppi), touchscreen that can replicate or supplement what's on the TV screen. It can also surf the internet or even interface with DVRs so you can watch TV on it. It's not just a touchscreen, as it does have two analog sticks and all the face and shoulder buttons of a standard controller (the system also comes with a Pro Controller, which will be familiar to any current gen console user). Whether you use the touchscreen or the traditional gaming controls depends on the game you're playing. For Mario Chase, you used the left analog stick to move, and the touchscreen to view the map. The GamePad doesn't weigh too much (about a pound), but for most games you're going to grip it towards the top in order to access the various buttons not on the screen itself. This can make for some awkward moments, and I did have to readjust my hold on the pad midway through the game. I would not like to see what would happen if I had to do that during a game that required both hands to be active.
Mario Chase was fun, but we couldn't play it all day. Moving on, Rayman Legends caught my eye. A timed exclusive, the game uses the Pro Controller as its main input. Wrapping my hands around it felt much more natural than the GamePad. It is almost identical to an XBox 360 controller, but with both analog sticks at the top. The design may frustrate those who love offset analog sticks, but it's certainly a step up from the DualShock, which places both analog sticks close together at the bottom of the controller. Rayman Legends looked colorful and vibrant, as one would expect, but my enthusiasm dimmed when I switched to the GamePad. On the touchscreen I saw an exact replica of the main game, and I was tasked with tapping eyes that popped open as player one rushed through the level. I sat there, tapping the touchscreen idly, while the other guy had all the fun. How disappointing.
Next stop was Wii Fit U (to my ears, this sounds like a game about tailoring). The game hasn't changed much since its last iteration, still requiring the Wii Balance Board, which is supported by the Wii U but is sold separately, as are all the Wii peripherals that the Wii U supports. I watched someone luge, which looked pretty hilarious. Coming to my turn, I chose rowing, which had me sitting in a chair with my feet on the Balance Board and a Wiimote in my hands. I simulated rowing motions, attempting to keep time with my virtual teammates. I won't keep you in suspense: I was terrible. The GamePad here provided an alternate angle of the boat, but no additional information that I could discern.
We slipped into a side room to find a demo of Arkham City: Armored Edition in progress. The game was aptly titled, as Batman was sporting some crazy armor. However, graphically, the game did not appear to even meet the standards of the existing version of Arkham City. This could be because it was a demo, but you'd think a port of a two-year old game would look at least as good as the original. This game tried to use the GamePad in a myriad of ways. You could control your gadget inventory through it (in fact, it appears you have to), which means you don't have to pause the game to click through menus. It's also used to control many of the gadgets Batman employs, which isn't always a plus. By far the best use of the GamePad was in detecting evidence. When you went into Detective Mode and stepped into an evidence area, you could use the GamePad as a scanner, moving it around to explore the space. Hold the GamePad up to your ceiling, and you see the ceiling of the in-game building. It's a neat trick that added to the immersion.
Not all of the touchpad additions were so useful. Take for example the electric shock gadget. In current versions of the game, when you equip the gadget, you can press one button to shoot a charge that repels, and another for a charge that attracts. It's perfectly simple. Here, the attract and repulse buttons are on the touch screen, and you have to aim the gun using the accelerometer. This isn't nearly as accurate as using an analog stick, and instead of immersing you in the moment, takes you out of it. Even worse is when you have to use the remote control batarang. Once again, you use the accelerometer, which is far less accurate than the analog stick. You can actually choose to use the right analog stick to control the batarang, but this doesn't disable the accelerometer, meaning that even the slightest movement can send your batarang flying off course. Additionally, the GamePad uses the traditional buttons for movement and action, and they don't lend themselves to the kind of quick button inputs that the fight sequences require. I was assured that Catwoman appears in the game with a new suit of her own. Whether or not this is a positive depends on how much you liked or disliked playing as Catwoman the first time around.
From one side room to another, this time to see ZombiU. Perhaps the most talked about launch title, we saw a demo of a multiplayer capture the flag game. Player one used the Pro Controller and played through the game as a standard first person shooter. Player two jumped onto the GamePad and played the game a little differently, controlling the zombies and placing different kinds on the map. Player two only has limited resources, and so has to make strategic decisions about which type of zombies to place and where. I could imagine this being really fun over online multiplayer.
From zombies to ninjas. In this case, Ninja Gaiden 3: Razor's Edge. I'm not sure why the decision was made to have this game play on the GamePad and not the Pro Controller. The GamePad features a move list (sporting such creative move combinations as Y, YY, YYY, YYYX, etc.), and a touchscreen button for special moves. I couldn't fathom the purpose of all this information, as the Ninja Gaiden series is based around fast and fluid gameplay. Stopping to look down to a move list not only breaks the rhythm, but will easily get you killed, as you're not pausing. Once again, trying to use the GamePad for traditional gaming controls proved frustrating. I hope that this title allows the player to substitute the Pro Controller. Like Arkham City, the graphics on Ninja Gaiden (also not a finished product) were noticeably worse than Ninja Gaiden Sigma on the PS3, a five year old game.
The last game I managed to get hands-on time with was New Super Mario Bros. U; hyped as the first Mario game to be available at a Nintendo system launch in a long while. The demo was multiplayer only, and didn't seem to stray far from the New Super Mario Bros. formula, with 3D sprites in a 2D plane. The game was played with four Wiimotes and the GamePad. The Wiimote players got a standard platforming level. On the GamePad, you got a duplicated view, and could tap the screen to produce temporary platforms for the players to jump on and reach otherwise inaccessible areas. I'm sorry Nintendo, but that is not the kind of must-have functionality I imagine when I see the GamePad. When the family is sitting down to play this game, no one is going to shout with glee, "I call the GamePad! I can't wait to make some platforms!" Instead, the family will have to draw lots to see who gets stuck with such a lame task.
I saw several other titles that I didn't get to play directly. As a fan of the series, Pikmin 3, which used a Wiimote for control and the GamePad for a map, was a personal favorite. There was a collection of mini-games temporarily titled Game and Wario (a play on the old Game and Watch LED game). I also noticed another Nintendo Land game that had a Mii in Samus' Metroid costume running through a Tron-inspired landscape. There were a few stations with 3DS XL consoles set up. I was impressed by the massive top screen that put the 3D screen on my first-gen 3DS to shame. There were a few other titles I didn't even get a chance to see. It doesn't seem like the Wii U will be hurting for launch day content.
By the end, I left with many of the same uncertainties I had going in. The only unconditionally excellent GamePad experiences were Mario Chase and ZombiU. Every other use of the GamePad either felt forced (Rayman, New Super Mario Bros. U), inconsistent (Arkham City), detrimental to the experience, (Ninja Gaiden), or just redundant (Wii Fit U, Pikmin 3). In order for the Wii U to really take off, we need to see developers really buy in to the GamePad and design games around it. However, for many developers, the goal is a game that can easily be ported to all the consoles, making me wonder if the Wii U will suffer from the same lack of third party support that sunk the first Wii. Further, the troubling rough nature of the visuals on the graphically intensive games makes me wonder if the system can even deliver a traditional gaming experience that can match the 360 or the PS3. I do hope that the Wii U knocks it out of the park. I'm all for new and unique gaming systems, and Nintendo has clearly gone to great lengths to allow the Wii U to do many things its competitors can't. The question remains, are these things people want, and will it be worth hundreds of dollars to experience them?