We trotted off to E3 thinking that the biggest reveal had pretty much been outed already. Nintendo would announce a new console, they'd finally join the HD generation and the third parties would be ushered into the world of Project Cafe with open arms. Everyone would be friends again! It would be wonderful. But by the time the Nintendo presser was over, we found ourselves, along with a large majority of folk the world over, confused as hell. In a twist of epic proportions, Nintendo had chosen to focus completely on their new controller, ignoring the console completely and baffling the physical and virtual crowds in front of them.
Several media outlets, including VG247, thought that it was a tablet with knobs on. We thought it looked like it had been made by Tomy or Fisher Price. There were glimpses of the base unit itself - a cross between a chunkier, curvier Wii and a DVD boxset with blinking lights on it that had been leaked a dozen times before the show even kicked off - but all eyes were on this newfangled interface that looked like an albino etch-a-sketch. Nothing made sense.
Fast forward an hour or two on Tuesday to the show's opening and the rush for Nintendo was more like an unstoppable stampede. We'd had no appointment booked so we figured we'd try and jump in the queue. We were pretty near the front, it seemed like a solid plan. Not a chance. By the time we'd leapt into the fray, the queue was already 5 hours long and growing. It wasn't long before a rep came out and cut it off in front of us explaining that was it for the day! Thankfully, though, we managed to sneak in a hands-on and a booth tour on the final day as things died down.
As you'll have no doubt seen from the pictures, the Wii U pad has all of the trappings of a standard modern gamepad. There are two analogue circle pads, much like the one found on the 3DS, although slightly larger and with an extended tracking range. The right circle pad sits above the face buttons, themselves arrayed in a thumb-pleasing cross formation as with the X360 and DualShock pads. Underneath the Wii U controller, one can find a little ridge housing the two triggers, above which sit the left and right bumpers. The controller features a gyroscope for motion control, a front facing camera and then, of course, there's that big, fat touchscreen too, a stylus slotted into the back for good measure.
Nintendo were pretty light on actual specifications. There was no indication of battery life or wireless transmitting distance, although I was told that the pad will charge and hard link to the hub console in much the same way as the DS does with the Wii. There was no quantifiable news pertaining to the power of the base unit, though; indeed the core hub console was pretty much ignored. With Reggie Fils-Aime admitting that the demonstrations at the press conference showed PS3 and X360 footage, it was a bit of a surprise just how seemingly unprepared the Wii U was for showcase, but it rapidly became obvious that this had been deliberately done to allow us to focus on the controller itself...and with good reason.
I expected the thing to be an utter ergonomic nightmare. I mean, look at it. But the Wii U pad actually nestles into the hands perfectly. It's unbelievably comfortable and far lighter than I expected. These were units that were fully wired, of course, so no doubt there'll be extra weight to come with the wireless components and battery packs, but even so it's a snug piece of kit. The triggers feel fantastic, the circle pads within easy reach. However, when combined with the face buttons and D-pad, the buttons do seem to be a bit more spaced out than usual, not too much, but perhaps enough to be a little concerned about long periods of play for those with smaller hands. Only the bumpers I found to be a bit awkward and uncomfortable, though; again, a little further away than I'm used to on my Sony and Microsoft equivalents.
The touchscreen is brilliant. Although I'll touch on it more in my Wii U Experience preview later this afternoon, swapping between the TV and the touchscreen in terms of visuals absolutely worked. Not in HD itself, the graphics on it appear pin sharp nonetheless, and we can only begin to speculate on the capacities in which it might be employed to work in conjunction with a game on the TV. There was a brief little tech demo that us drawing lines of a certain length or circles with a certain diameter that the pad would then measure, the winner being the most accurate stylus user, but nothing really major. I for one really hope it heralds a new dawn for the console RTS, the gamepad turned into a tactical, touchscreen pad. The stylus could well be a better instrument of instruction than even the mouse! We can always hope.
It's worth saying this in big, bold letters: this is NOT a tablet. The controller is designed to be used only in conjunction with the main console. As Reggie Fils-Aime explains,
'We were well in development before the birth of tablets and, again, to be clear, this is not a tablet. It is a connected experience to the base console. It talks with the base console. It interacts with other Wii accessories whether that is a Wii Remote Plus or a Wii Balance Board. So it has very different functionality compared to a tablet.
'... What we wanted to do was in a home environment, taking advantage of this multiple screens. This was not conceptualised as an on-the-go piece of equipment.' [VentureBeat]
It's not designed, therefore, to really be compared directly with the iPad, then. But it will be. Just as there are some things that the iPad can do far better than the iPhone because of its larger screen, it's not unlike the Wii U and the 3DS.
Nintendo are talking at the moment of there being only one new gamepad supported per Wii U, which is a little disturbing, frankly. Although the Wiimote and nunchuk are still compatible with the new device, one suspects that Nintendo will have to bring out a regular, two-stick modern gamepad to match the current consoles, particularly when it comes to local multiplayer, and provide opportunities for DS and 3DS integration.
Speaking of multiplayer, with games like Battlefield 3 coming to the device, Nintendo will finally have to pull their fingers out and create an online service that's actually serviceable, not to mention a browser that's a damn sight better than the one that just dropped onto the 3DS. That gamepad should provide the perfect interface for surfing the web, but unless Nintendo's core software is up to scratch (and here I feel the word 'floundering' might come in handy to describe their precedent in this matter) it'll be a woeful experience.
Sat in one's hands, then, the Wii U makes a little more sense. But Nintendo are taking a huge risk here. They've become a household name in the past half a decade by actively gunning for the family market. They had a solid and simple gameplan: to become the second console in every home and, by taking themselves out of the HD race, they actually rose above it. But can they have their cake and eat it too. The new controller actually feels like you're holding two connected Wiimotes in terms of comfort (no bad thing), but it's laid out like a regular console pad. Will this confuse and alienate their new-found casual audience, enticed into gaming through the simplicity of motion control? Is the gamepad even small enough for children to use comfortably? And what of the games themselves? EA's presence at Ninty's presser was a big step - an historical step. But we'll believe it when we see it.
Check out the second part of my Wii U preview here, which looks at the tech demonstrations and nuggets of gameplay that were on show at E3.