E3 2011: Hands On with Nintendo’s Next-Generation Wii U

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by Jamison Cush

Preshow estimates put the E3 2011 attendance at 45,000 strong. I’m assuming at least half of them were in front of me in line at the Nintendo booth, waiting to demo the Wii U tablet-like controller, because I spent four hours waiting.

I’ll hold off judgment on whether the gameplay justified the long wait, as Nintendo reps were adamant that the games were merely demos to illustrate the potential of Wii U controller. To Nintendo’s credit, there certainly was a ton of potential on display.

Nintendo Wii U

Most striking was the 6.2-inch touchscreen at the center of the Wii U controller. As shown in one particular game station, players can use it as a seamless extension of the game setting. In this demo, a pirate ship sat floating in the distant ocean on the large-screen monitor. When I held the controller up to the screen and veered left, right, up, or down, the controller display showed a ship at each side, the planks of the ship I was “standing on” at my feet below, and the moon up in the sky. I was then able to use the controller as a shield, blocking arrows from the three ships by quickly rotating left, right, and up.

This was all wrapped up in a neat rhythm game, complete with Nintendo’s trademark cutesy charm. 

The Third Parties
There is little doubt Nintendo will exploit the new controllers resources to its fullest in their self-published titles, but what about third-party games? For all its successes, the Wii was saddled with poor third-party game support. Anyone playing Madden on the Wii could tell you the motion controls felt tacked on and unnecessary, resulting in a game experience that paled in comparison to the XBOX 360 and PS3 alternatives.

Nintendo Wii U

To that end, Nintendo reps went out of their way at the Wii U unveiling to stress that third-party developers are on board with the new Wii U tablet controller, and excited to explore its exciting uses.

In fact, Nintendo invited Ubisoft to demo Ghost Recon Online at the session. In this multiplayer shooter, the Wii U controller display acted as map and information screen that players can use to communicate with others on their squad. For example, a squad leader can issue orders to attack or regroup in the form of beacons that will appear on their teammate’s respective displays. Also, single players can use the controller display to map locations, send off drones and monitor for nearby enemies, select and customize weapons, and keep tabs on health and ammo.

Nintendo Wii U

Playing with the Wii U Gamepad
I’m on the fence as to whether the large Wii U controller will make an effective gamepad. It has all the elements of a modern controller, complete with d-pad, twin thumbsticks, trigger, shoulder, a, b, x, y buttons, and of course, the touch-enabled 6.2-inch display. The buttons are spread over a lot of real estate, making transitions from the shoulder buttons to the commonly-used a and b buttons difficult for even those with large hands.

Also, the Wii U controller is thick and light enough to grip comfortably, but the slick plastic build makes it slippery, particularly after a few minutes of intense gaming. I can easily see a repeat of the flying Wiimotes that plagued the early days of Nintendo’s previous console. Rubber grips on the bottom of the controller would go a long way to solving any potential problems. However, the rubber grips weren’t present on the demo units, and the Nintendo reps were well-versed on the controller specifics, suggesting that the design Nintendo unveiled at E3 is final, or nearly final.

Additional specs of interest include a charging port that signifies the end of AA battery-powered controllers, a front-facing camera for video chat, an proprietary-looking USB input that could be an AV-out jack, and a slot for a small stylus.

Nintendo Wii U

I could not get anyone to confirm the technical specs behind the Wii U controller, including whether the screen was resistive like the lower half of the Nintendo DS, or capacitive like the iPad. The stylus certainly looked like the basic plastic pick that ships with the DS, so I assume the display is resistive, but I cannot confirm.

Is This the Wii U?
Nintendo claimed that the Wii U console is still in development, and that is was not ready for public viewing. But I did manage to snap a pic of the units powering the demos. It certainly doesn’t look like a Wii, but it’s hard to believe Nintendo would casually expose their top-secret console to the 45,000 estimated attendees at E3. But who knows? Maybe we have the gaming scoop of the year, right here on DesktopReview.





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