We got some (albeit all too brief) hands-on time with the prototype Wii U units at E3 2011. This year, however, Nintendo is far more welcoming, showing off the new technology for all to see. The biggest change this year came in terms of refinement. It’s clearer than ever that the devices we saw last year really were prototypes; Nintendo has made more than a few changes to the Wii U GamePad in terms of features and button placement.
Most curious is the addition of NFC, or Near Field Communication, to the controller. We didn’t get to see much of a demonstration of this aspect, but the possibilities are intriguing – you’ll be able to buy physical game cards and tap them against the Wii U GamePad to access extra or purchased content. This would work well with a collectable game card such as Pok?mon, M:TG, or for purchasing virtual content in the real world. Nintendo could sell game cards in retail stores with codes for downloadable merchandise, just like how you can buy Xbox Gold time cards and the like from Microsoft – there’d be no typing complicated numbers in, however; just tap the card against the GamePad and you’d be good to go.
Another interesting addition to the controller is its TV remote control capability. Nintendo clearly wants users to pick up the Wii U GamePad first and foremost, and the ability to clone your TV remote onto the device may get customers to do just that.
The GamePad itself is exceptionally light, so some people who were worried at the effort required to move a bulky controller around should have less to be concerned about. It’s so light, in fact, that it took me by surprise when I got to spend some time with it last night. The Wiimotes feel much denser in comparison. That actually makes sense when you stop to consider the technology behind the Wii U’s innovative new GamePad – it really isn’t much more complicated inside than a typical game controller. The Wii U console is what does all the complicated math and rendering, which then gets beamed wirelessly to the GamePad.
Nintendo showed the new console off with a selection of partial games and minigames which, in true Nintendo fashion, erred a little bit on the ridiculous side in order to showcase the capabilities of the Wii U. All of the minigames are part of a larger creation to be called Nintendo Land. Nintendo Land mixes the idea behind capability-centric games found in Wii Sports with the concept of an open-world social environment found in something like PlayStation Home. The results are…mixed. It’s very early yet, so it’s hard to say to what degree the game selection may improve.
The new system also brings in online video services, such as Netflix, YouTube, Amazon Video, Hulu Plus, and more.
It’s obvious that Nintendo is finally going after the online, multiplayer experience, but they’re going about it in that quirky Nintendo way that only a certain slice of the population ever really agrees with. Before Nintendo’s demo and hands on time, my feelings on the new console were mixed – and barring the 3DS, I’ve owned every single console Nintendo has ever made (including the Virtual Boy). After playing with it, however, it’s clear how many cool new things a clever developer might do with the system.
Of course, a clever dev could do a lot of things with the Wii, and while some did, most passed because the Wii’s attach rate just wasn’t high enough. While the system as a whole did well, it sold a lot of units to people who bought a Wii, played Wii Sports, and never really did anything else.
As we mentioned earlier, however, Nintendo is trying to change their families-only image by courting some really high-end games for the new unit. Is it going to be enough to convince these developers that the Wii U is a worthwhile investment? That’s difficult to say.
The second real problem Nintendo has going for it is that the recent explosion in tablet growth makes a lot of the investment they’ve put into the Wii U GamePad, well, moot. Microsoft’s SmartGlass effort proves that. Nintendo tipped their hand last year by showing off the early Wii U hardware, and Microsoft has spent the last 12 months putting together a product that emulates most of what the new system can do. Of course, it requires a substantial extra investment (namely, a tablet), but a lot of gamers will end up with access to both a game system and a tablet. It means that the Wii U isn’t unique anymore, not really. The simple fact that every Wii U will come boxed with the new controller does give it a definite edge, however.
In all, it’s going to be an interesting year for Nintendo. The Wii looked dated from its first introduction, compared to the dazzling HD graphics put out by Sony’s and Microsoft’s efforts. The new Wii U fixes that, and leapfrogs the 360 and PS3 with stunning HD (I know; right now it’s just Mario in HD – but it looks a lot nicer than it sounds). Next-gen consoles from MS and Sony will probably surpass the Wii U in sheer power, but the Wii U will very likely be good enough to hang in there.