When the original Wii hardware launched, several important pieces of the puzzle were missing – not that we knew it at the time. Wii MotionPlus controllers did not exist in 2006, nor did the Balance Board (now in over 43m homes worldwide), and both components have shaped the overall Wii experience considerably. In contrast, the late-2012 launch of Wii U will see the new hardware arriving in a more fully formed manner. MotionPlus control is standard on Wii U, while Nintendo’s recently announced Pro Controller will give immediate control parity – at least in terms of general design, if not overall execution – with PS3 and 360 for games that support the device.
And then comes everything else via the GamePad controller: a dedicated five-inch display, touchscreen control, a microphone, camera, plus the full suite of triggers, face and shoulder buttons, and more traditionally styled analogue sticks. With such a range of possibilities in front of them, it’s easy to imagine game developers not knowing where to begin. And it’s in this respect that you can see the difference between Nintendo’s work and that of thirdparty studios.
At E3 2012, it’s clear that Nintendo’s approach is more tuned to exploring the potential of asymmetrical gaming – multiple players taking part in the same experience but in a mechanically varied way, as demonstrated by Nintendo Land's Animal Crossing: Sweet Day, The Legend Of Zelda: Battle Quest and Luigi’s Ghost Mansion, all of which give the player holding the GamePad a considerably different experience to companions or opponents using Wii Remotes. Meanwhile, the two highest-profile Wii U exclusives from thirdparty publishers at E3, Lego City: Undercover and ZombiU, are more at home simply clearing traditional clutter from the main screen and pushing it onto the one between your hands. As you’d expect, it’s a route also taken by Batman Arkham City: Armored Edition and Ninja Gaiden 3: Razor’s Edge, both built on games already in existence and therefore less likely to confound expectations.
While it’s always easy to make an argument for the reduction of gauges and numbers and readouts littering a screen, the transition to this new type of play style isn’t immediately comfortable. Dual-display gaming is hardly new, but it’s one thing moving your gaze between the adjacent screens of a DS or 3DS, and quite another switching between the 42” LED TV ten feet in front of you and a five-inch LCD panel in your lap. Your entire head tends to move in a nodding motion, for starters. It is suggested during our demo that changing weapons in Ninja Gaiden is made much easier and quicker by being able to tap the required icon on the GamePad screen. Easier than it would be to, say, tap a direction on a D-pad while not moving your gaze from the TV? We’re not yet convinced.
Batman Arkham City: Armored Edition goes further than Ninja Gaiden in its retooling, and we’re invited to fling a batarang and steer it via the GamePad’s motion-sensing hardware. It is a fluid, sensitively calibrated exercise, but it’s also the sort of thing PlayStation 3 owners got a bit bored with years ago, albeit with the addition of being able to track the projectile’s flight on the GamePad screen. Elsewhere in the demo, detective mode allows us to explore our surroundings by moving the GamePad around us in the air. You will be seeing a lot of this sort of thing in Wii U games. How quickly you tire of it depends on how physical you want your play experience to be, but in this respect at least, Wii U is being faithful to the lineage.
Not that the GamePad unit is difficult to handle. Considering what’s onboard, it’s remarkably light, and it doesn’t feel outsized held in adult hands. Since children manage just fine with iPads, it shouldn’t be difficult for younger players either, although clearly Nintendo’s hardware is considerably thicker than Apple’s, and specifically contoured on its rear to make it feel comfortable when held in the style of a traditional controller. Several games also require players to use the GamePad in portrait mode, and it’s well-balanced enough to not feel awkward when operated this way either.
This new, dedicated hardware is engaging enough in itself to make the multiplayer experience an unusual one when you’re one of the players using a standard Wii Remote, inviting envious gazes in the direction of the fully loaded, GamePad-wielding player. And yet Nintendo’s asymmetrical-gameplay concepts demonstrated at E3 are good examples of how an uneven set of devices can function harmoniously. Working as a team of up to four ghost hunters in Luigi’s Ghost Mansion against the other, invisible-to-everyone-but-himself player is a strange mix of Pac-Man and Left 4 Dead, players able to revive fallen comrades with torchlight. The rumble in your Remote tells you how near you are to danger, and communicating verbally among your team keeps the experience urgent and entertaining. Close collaboration is also the key to Animal Crossing: Sweet Day, as up to four players wander around collecting candy from trees while the GamePad user directs two guards independently with the controller’s analogue sticks. Collect 50 sweets between your team and you win; get caught by the guards three times and you do not. Both Ghost Mansion and Animal Crossing move slowly, partly, perhaps, to ease players into the Wii U experience as part of the Nintendo Land package, which Nintendo hopes to do for this new platform what Wii Sports did for the original hardware.
Donkey Kong’s Crash Course, another part of Nintendo Land, is capable of running at a considerably faster pace, depending on how much you tilt the controller. It’s also among the most unusual Wii U game concepts at E3, charging you with getting your triangular Mii-trolley-thing to the bottom of the level by rolling it along tracks that can be manipulated via the L and R buttons, the analogue sticks, or a combination. See-saws can be rocked back and forth, lifts raised and lowered, and horizontal platforms cranked from one position to another to allow passage to the next section. It’s a tense experience that feels trickier than it looks, and some of the later levels seem destined to test the robustness of this new console’s controller.
Minigame collection Game & Wario offers nothing quite so tricky, our time with the game turning up a clear favourite in the shape of Shutter, a photography challenge that requires you to aim the GamePad at the TV and locate criminal targets to snap. With the WarioWare series’ sense of fun in place alongside some finely tuned aiming sensitivity, it makes the other offerings we played, Ski and Arrow, feel a little tatty. Hopefully the final package will have quite a few more, better options.
We’ll have impressions of more Wii U games, including Pikmin 3, ZombiU and Project P-100, tomorrow. All require extra playtime, and one in particular feels like the pick of the substantial Wii U E3 crop.