My feelings on the Wii U have been something of a mixed bag since seeing it unveiled at E3 2011, and the first public showing of Nintendo's console at Eurogamer Expo did little to change that. Jon's already gone into some depth on a number of the titles that will be adorning shelves throughout the Wii U's launch window, but it gave us a chance to not only see how Nintendo's software schedule is shaping up, but also how they're looking to present the console to an increasingly wary and austere public.
The GamePad is a thing of beauty, it really is. The original model, still using the Circle Pads, was comfortable, but looked and felt like a something out of Tomy's pre-school range. The latest version is smaller and sleeker, with analogue sticks that feel responsive, and an ergonomic design that makes this extraordinarily fussy writer very happy indeed.
But its incorporation into the launch titles is dubious at best, and more often than not, as we discussed in a recent podcast, it's used as something of a segregation tool. Asynchronous multiplayer is something that Nintendo are eagerly banging on about, unsurprising considering its one of the Wii U's unique selling points, but do we really want or need it? It's like being "It" in a game of...well..."It". You run around, arms flailing, desperately trying to tag other players to join your side, while he majority run away, equally desperately trying to avoid you like a plague-stricken leper. The only reason games like that survive is because the unpopular kid is always "It", or because pleasant friendship groups rotate the point man; traditionally, that's a role given to the computer, usually because it's not actually that much fun.
You see, the problem with the GamePad's incorporation into these multiplayer experiences, is that the people using the Wiimotes are having more fun. Playing New Super Mario Bros. U with a Wiimote is almost identical to its Wii-based sibling. If we ignore, for a moment, the staggering laziness of rehashing a 2D rehash for your new console, NSMB Wii was still a fair amount off fun. So you'd expect a near-identical counterpart to prove similarly fun with a Wiimote, and you'd be right. Snatch up the GamePad, though, and instead of running, jumping, kicking Goomba butt and riding Yoshis, you're fashioning blocks for your friends, and occasionally poking a Koopa. It's rather enjoyable at first, but then after the first thirty seconds, you realise that you're actually just the ghost at the feast.
The game sort of thing can be said for Nintendo Land's Luigi's Mansion and Animal Crossing multiplayer minigames. One involves four players attempting to destroy a ghost controlled by a fifth player using the GamePad; the other sees four players scrambling to gather as much fruit as possible while a fifth GamePad-toting associate tries to stop them with giant knife and fork. It's fun because it's new, but it has absolutely no longevity to offer whatsoever - and that's down to the both the nature of the games themselves, and the limitations of the console and its concept, which is rather more worrying.
Nintendo Land is a pack-in, a least it will be if you buy the Premium Wii U bundle, but it's no Wii Sports. The latter provided an incredibly simple, readily accessible answer to the question "why buy a Wii?" It summed up the console's modus operandi perfectly - explaining, educating, engaging, and engrossing. For many, it was the only game you needed for a long time. Nintendo Land is no Wii Sports, it has more in common with Wii Play - a selection of minigames that serve as an advanced tutorial in explaining how a new control system might be used. As it was, Wii Play was really just a ploy to sell more Wiimotes.
This considered, it makes Nintendo's decision to place Nintendo Land at the centre of attention rather interesting. On the one hand, this was the first public showing for their console in this country - explanations always help. On the other hand, thanks to smartphones and Nintendo's own DS, the consumer knowledge base for touch input, asynchronous multiplayer opportunities, and dual-screen gaming is greater than it ever was for motion control.
In short...the public are not idiots.
It comes as no surprise, then, that the queues for ZombiU were some of the longest of the entire show as gamers sought to find out what actual proper gaming experiences could be had on the Wii U. Rayman Legends proved arguably more popular than NSMBU the day I went, with Ubisoft making better work of the GamePad than Nintendo themselves perhaps, but only just. But the people I spoke to on the show floor all said much the same sort of thing: "Oh I can't wait for Zelda", "Can you imagine a Star Fox game that used the GamePad...I don't even know how it would work", "Where's Smash Bros.?" These games will all come, of course, such is the blind loyalty that Nintendo inspires; but that loyalty may not be helping, neither is the burgeoning feeling that any new tech is good tech.
I saw someone at the show almost cry when they realised that Pikmin 3 had been there, but they'd completely missed it, and now the Wii U queue was two hours long. That's right, the game that got the biggest cheer at E3 had but two tiny stands, tucked around the back of the Wii U booth, next to the fantastically impressive and equally ignored The Wonderful 101, that you might never have known were there.
Nintendo have no real competition when it comes to this winter, at least in terms of new hardware, that is. But you only had to glance around EGX to realise that might not work in Nintendo's favour. The end of a console cycle means complete comfortability with console development practices, and this winter we are seeing some truly adventurous titles - Dishonored, XCOM: Enemy Unknown, Far Cry 3, Halo 4, MOH: Warfighter, Hitman, DmC, Revengeance, Tomb Raider, Aliens: Colonial Marines. For the launch price of a Wii U, you could buy half of the games on that list.
There's no hardware battle to win this time around, and Nintendo don't need to explain the Wii U's mechanisms in as much detail as they did the Wii's, so their decision to showcase exceptionally shallow gameplay experiences via Nintendo Land or point towards a Mario experience you can get already is almost unfathomable. Then again, with almost zero marketing, a paucity of games (news dropped today that Rayman Legends is to be pushed back into 2013), and an unnerving knack for shooting themselves in the foot, Nintendo are somehow selling out pre-orders in the US. The Nintendo brand, and indeed that of the Wii, is still something to be reckoned with.
But I'm still in no hurry to get one.