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Nintendo's Wii U Uncovered

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We take a closer look at Nintendo's new games console - the Wii U. From tech specs to touch screen - our experts get under its skin

Published on Aug 1, 2011

It was hard to know where Nintendo could climb from its current vantage point. While the Wii represented innovation to the point of changing the whole industry and Nintendo’s standing within it, it was impossible to divine what remained, this generation at least, for  Nintendo to achieve in order to keep that accessible family gaming plate spinning for very much longer.

While other hardware companies continued to play catch-up with their own concessions to motion control, it has proven difficult to escape a feeling for the past couple of years that any small advancements in this area are too little, too late.

While PlayStation Move doubtless improved upon the Wii Remote in terms of accuracy, its implementation lacked the originality or individual  creative vigour Nintendo became famous for in its early titles. Kinect, meanwhile, proved a mouthwatering prospect as a completely ‘controllerless’ controller, but the truth proved far less attractive than the projected goal.

Kinect suffers unavoidable lag, and crucial accuracy limitations, and creative implementation concerns have relegated the Microsoft  peripherals’s near-future to the realms of games for younger players less demanding of a complexity Kinect seems, for now, unable to offer. 

Where could a new Nintendo console slot in among these? It turns out, with an idea markedly unique while displaying, this time, no distinct  technological uniqueness. A control solution using a combination of technology we’ve seen many times before, and which by anybody else but Nintendo might seem a comparative non-starter next to its earlier introduction of motion control to the masses.

But Nintendo, despite the scope of its technology, will always know how to work with what it has, and anything more than a cursory glance at what’s on offer with Wii U leaves little doubt that Nintendo could be sitting on yet another trendsetter. What’s important now is for the company to begin to clearly define exactly what it is the public’s going to be experiencing with Wii U.

The facts: it’s Nintendo’s first HD console, with visuals that reportedly exceed that of Xbox 360 and PS3. The tablet-like controller, meanwhile, is not just a touch screen and more an independent console in itself; possibly a catch-all solution to a range of gameplay quandaries that have puzzled developers in recent years, or not even been considered  until Nintendo’s E3 presentation hit.

Even then, this white, plastic iPad-like construction proved a hard sell to many a wary, recession-addled gaming public. “It’s one of the challenges that Nintendo has had over the years, being an innovator,”  David Yarnton, General Manager of Nintendo UK, tells us, when we ask how Nintendo would explan its new direction.

“When we introduced DS, the concept was hard to grasp but, when people played it, it made sense. Then with the Wii we introduced motion gaming to the world, and people looked at that and thought we were crazy. I think once people get their hands on the Wii U and start playing it, it will make sense."

"In some ways it has the best of both worlds with a touch screen controller, keeping the Wii’s motion gaming and then adding into the pie high-definition graphics.” Those high-definition graphics, and the potential they represent, are a whole different discussion. But for now, it’s important to remember that the controller itself is not a HD device.

Though Nintendo, at the time of writing, still hasn’t shared the exact screen resolution, a conservative estimate places it around the 480p mark. It will interpret the Wii U’s screen display with the crispness of the average handheld, but will not be a true HD gaming experience.

But while the 6.2-inch, 16:9 format touchscreen can, at a basic level, enable gameplay to be continued instantly if the family television is to be put to other uses, it’s the controller’s wider potential in gameplay that runs much further, and is what should really be the focus of commentary.

Shigeru Miyamoto, ever the frontman for a new project, seems best placed to wax lyrical on the company’s creative angle behind the controller. “You can see information on it that won’t appear on the TV, so on many levels it’s a tool that makes things easier to understand,” he  states in a sit-down ‘chat’ with Nintendo CEO Satoru Iwata.

“So by taking advantage of it, we can think about designing bold, brand new games. On the other hand, as we had to think about the resulting size of the controller, I came to think that rather than focusing efforts on just trying to make it slimmer, we should focus more on designing it so that the potential for us to be able to make a variety of new things can  be further expanded.”

He continues: “Because it has a screen, it’s become much easier to understand, and we thought, ‘in that case, let’s stuff it with features so it can do anything’.” Nintendo of America President Reggie Fils-Aime took, of course, great pains to point out during the presentation that the games for demonstration on E3’s show floor were, for the time being, anything but.

They were technical mock-ups at the very best, but echoed Miyamoto’s words with a beguiling truth. While nobody could say the interactions on display left quite the open-mouthed gapes and whoops of joy that echoed off the walls of 2005’s Tokyo Game Show, as people picked up a virtual bowling ball or tennis racket for the very first time, Nintendo has still clearly innovated in a way that feels unprecedented next to Microsoft’s safe-playing movement games and Sony’s wise decision to drop back and concentrate more on core titles.

There’s only one controller available per console, which immediately lessens the potential of the hardware, but Nintendo’s array of demonstrations was no less impressive for it. HD Experience was the piece people were naturally flocking to first. While this was clearly no ‘new Zelda game’, it didn’t stop that instinctive desire to get hands-on with Link.

Sadly, the only interaction on offer was employing one of the controller’s twin analogue sticks to swing the camera around the impressively-rendered church-like temple surrounding, in both day and night, and take in the excellently animated Link and giant spider boss characters. It was really the only demo that pushed the controller itself to the back of proceedings, the rest of Nintendo’s coverage of the Wii U very much more focused on the wonders of the  touch screen’s features.

“We’ve always looked at how people interact with the machine,” says Yarnton. “You can have lots of power and really great graphics, but when you get down to the gameplay it’s really important that people can pick it up and play it. It’s something that the new controller really adds another dimension to.”

This angle was borne out no better than in Battle Mii, which was to interaction what HD Experience was to visual advances. With two players using traditional Wii Remotes to hunt a spaceship piloted by a third using the Wii U controller, the demo is an excellent insight into how a full-length gaming experience could originate. The spaceship utilises the controller’s tilt sensor, and also proves, via its absolutely seamless interaction with the action on the main screen, that the Wii U is more than capable of operating successfully on two fronts.

In addition to Chase Mii, an obvious extension of Miyamoto’s Pac Man Vs. on Gamecube – which saw three player-controlled ghosts chasing a Pac-Man privately ensconsed in a remote Game Boy Advance – but now  upped to four on-screen players against one on the Wii U controller, the potential for truly innovative gaming experiences feels, at this moment in time, extremely promising for game makers.

It’s a line Yarnton is keen to promote. “It’s really interesting talking to the developers; they are blown away by what they can now do with gameplay. The controller screen can actually have different views to what people are seeing on the TV. For example, the hide and seek game with the controller we have now gives the person hiding a different view to the people trying to find him. It opens up possibilities in that respect. It’s got a camera too, so you will be able to video conference or Skype with it potentially.” 

He continues: “As the developers get their hands on it they will be able  to understand it and take advantage of it. I think about playing Call Of Duty and calling in a bombing raid; with the controller you could have an overhead view. The experience that people get will be something they haven’t had before.” 

New experiences aside, the addition of a touch screen may draw conclusions that the days of Nintendo’s interest in physically active experiences may be coming to a close, but Shield Pose was on hand to  prove that the lightweight Wii U controller has the versatility and gaming potential to be swung around with as much breathless abandon as the Wii Remote.

Reminiscent of a Rhythm Tengoku-style minigame, a cardboard cut-out pirate shouts out directions before, a few beats later, arrows appear from the stated area and must be blocked to stop them hitting you. Miyamoto has talked in greater detail about his own personal creative outlooks on sports-based experiences.

“There were limits to what you could do when making a simulation only with a single screen and a controller,” he says. “You had no other choice but to make it that way. But now it can be more real, or seem more realistic. I think we’re able to add more realism in different ways, without making the gameplay too difficult.”

He uses the example of golf, a sport he professes never to have played.  But integrating the Wii U controller into a golf simulation (as shown in a video demo at Nintendo’s presentation) involves laying it on the floor, and looking down, as in life, at the ball and the terrain it lies on.

Miyamoto speaks of how this helps him appreciate the physical situation of the ball, and helps to more realistically influence his next shot. Again, the notion of placing the controller on real-life surfaces promises a potential of near AR-like experiences. New Super Mario Bros. Mii was an expected instalment in the franchise, its point seemingly to illustrate Nintendo’s ongoing support of traditional IP, as well as the fact the same game could be coordinated on both screens by multiple players and controller types. Now with personal Miis, if that’s your thing.

There’s an awful lot on offer in terms of interaction, but returning to the discussion of the console’s pure, simple processing power boost reveals Nintendo’s other front of attack on the console market. A video montage boasting the third-party publishers involved showed Dirt, Batman, Assassin’s Creed and Darksiders brands, with a Battlefield game mooted elsewhere by EA.

If such titles come to the fore as versions identical to their PS3 and Xbox 360 peers, rather than spin-offs, Nintendo may also be looking at an automatic entry into the mainstream release list. The real question to be answered here, of course, is how willing developers will be to jump  on board to provide Wii U-centric versions of its triple-A titles.

“Part of the reason that we are talking about these sample games as ‘experiences’ is because we are introducing a whole new concept,” says Yarnton. “We are trying to give developers an opportunity to see these  experiences. We have already talked to a lot of developers and they are coming on board – as you saw with EA in our press conference. All the publishers and developers have seen it but we think there are still things that we haven’t realised that it could do.”

“When we introduced Wii we didn’t realise that people were going to be using it in physiotherapy,” Yarnton reminds us. “I’m not suggesting that’s the case with Wii U, but there’s always people out there who have brilliant ideas and we are simply giving them the palette, paint and easel to create whatever they want. There are many different facets that we haven’t even explored ourselves.”

Which leads into perhaps the biggest questions surrounding the announcement of Wii U: where are the actual Nintendo games? A barrage of multiformat games is all well and good, but it’s always the  internal EAD-developed games that make Nintendo hardware sing, and they were largely absent from Wii U’s E3 showing.

New Super Mario Bros. Mii was the only such game shown, but was so basic in execution that it left many people believing it to be nothing more than a demo ‘experience’ not intended for release. Satoru Iwata name-dropped Smash Bros. during the presentation, much to the delight of those Nintendo fans in attendance, though the lack of any footage or details suggest that the game itself is only in the pre-production phase at best while lead designer Masahiro Sakurai  finishes off Kid Icarus: Uprising.

The only solid detail about Smash Bros. is that it will be released alongside a 3DS edition that will interact with the Wii U version in some yet-to-be-announced way. In a private press conference, Miyamoto later conceded what this announcement suggested; that the 3DS could be used as a controller for Wii U.

Whether that  means utilising the 3DS screens for Wii U gameplay functions in lieu of the console’s not-to-be-sold-separately controller remains to be seen, however.

Miyamoto was also the one to confirm the only other Nintendo Wii U game known to be in development. Three years ago, the same man sat in the same auditorium and uttered the now infamous words “we’re making Pikmin 3”. And, if things had gone according to plan, we’re told that the long-demanded sequel would have been released on Wii this year to coincide with the series’ tenth anniversary.

Yet when Miyamoto saw the power of the Wii U hardware and the flexibility of its controller, he felt it completely necessary to rework Pikmin 3 for the new console, so we’re going to have to wait just a little bit longer. Let’s hope the tantalising prospect of flicking little Plasticene Pikmin from the Wii U controller to the TV screen is fun enough in reality to make that wait fully worthwhile.

Until those games are shown, presumably at Tokyo Game Show in September, we have only the hardware itself to contemplate, as well as Nintendo’s newfound desire to cater to both the hardcore and non-gamer with one product.

“We’ve kept the good bits of the Wii with the motion controllers and the  games it can play,” says Yarnton. “There are still a lot of family games available, but we’ve widened the people. Not forgetting the traditional gamers and fans that we are giving them a lot more, but also not forgetting an expanded audience either.”

Truly a catch-all solution, or a Jack-of-all-audiences? It’s too early to say. Second-guessing whether Nintendo’s latest approach to gaming will capture a mass audience is a job best left to a quiet night in the pub, or a Wedbush analyst. But what’s unarguable about the Wii U is that, against the adversity of technology, misunderstood hype and recession blues, Nintendo is continuing, inspiringly, to craft its own destiny.

Whether Wii U proves a ‘stop gap’ before the next generation or the brave leader, once again, in gaming’s next step, is of absolutely no concern to the venerable company. From Game Boy, to DS and Wii, Nintendo has always balanced conservative technology with a wildly creative outlook.

Wii U looks absolutely no different, and should not be underestimated for offering that pure, undistilled Nintendo magic.   “There were limits to what you  could do with a single screen and a  controller. But now it can be more real”  underestimated for offering that  pure, undistilled Nintendo magic. 

Third-Party Developers Discuss The Wii U

At this year’s E3 we cornered some of the world’s best development talent and asked them what they thought of the Wii U. Their answers predictably praise the wealth of potential offered by Nintendo’s new controller, but it’s also worryingly noticeable that some third parties hadn’t seen the Wii U until E3, and even those who had previously pledged support for the console are still unsure of whether their games will run on it.

Yosuke Hayashi, Team Ninja
“We knew Wii U could provide us with a different kind of gameplay experience, so we wanted to develop for it. We released the DS game Ninja Gaiden: Dragon Sword with touch screen controls that worked very well, so this is why we looked at bringing touch controls to the Wii U version.” 

Andrew Wilson, EA Sports
“We haven’t had a lot of information on this, like everyone else, but there are so many things that happen in the world of an EA Sports game – that happen on your HUD – that would make more sense if it  were in your hand. We saw, at the Nintendo conference, the golf demo where you put the controller down on the ground and hit the golf ball off it. We could do that for Tiger Woods, if that made sense."

"It will be a lot about control, a lot about the strategy and tactics of sport that we can put in your hand that used to exist up on the screen; it always felt a little bit odd up there. I think once our creative teams get their heads around this, that’s just the starting point. We will end up with much cooler things than just that.”

Yoshinori Kitase, Square Enix
“Three or four years ago we joked around about developing a Final Fantasy game on the Wii Fit balance board, but after seeing Wii U revealed at Nintendo’s conference, we are now considering the possibilities of bringing the Final Fantasy series to the format.”

Brian Cozzens, Gearbox Software
“Aliens: Colonial Marines on Wii U is not a definite. It’s just something we’re looking into. We want it to happen. We’ve already come up with a ton of gameplay ideas that can specifically use that controller, so we’re  really anxious to get the specs to see if that’s something to make happen.”

Hiroyuki Kobayashi, Capcom
“It has only just been announced, so we’re not confident that we know what specs the Wii U can offer. It is a tantalising option, though.”

Marcus Smith, Insomniac Games
“I love where we’re at currently as there are so many possibilities. It used to be this little controller but now we’re getting into arcade territory. There are so many new options and challenges.”

Marc Parenteau, Ubisoft
“Wii U will redefine first-person shooter competitive multiplayer. We think redefining how you control a first-person shooter is what will take it to the next level. And we’re going to expand the Assassin’s Creed franchise and add new abilities only on Wii U. It will work with and use the Assassin’s Creed engine.”

Interview with Masahiro Sakurai

Masahiro Sakurai, producer of Kid Icarus: Uprising and the two forthcoming Smash Bros. games announced at E3, talks to us about his current projects.

You’ve been working on Kid Icarus: Uprising for some time now.  How happy are you with the way development is progressing, and why did you go against expectation and add a multiplayer mode? 

We are struggling with the development progress. But despite that, we are managing to add more and more to the game. Everyone is sure to find many aspects of the game they would enjoy. This project, from the beginning, was also a project to test the capabilities of Nintendo 3DS. Therefore, we needed to include multiplayer modes from the start.

In what ways will this provide an experience different to other multiplayer games? 

The actual controls are very unlike other portable games and are made to be extremely simple but at the same time allow for fast-paced action. Therefore, it is not a game where you sneak around, taking cover, but instead a  high speed action game. The dodge move, which you perform by quickly flicking the stick to evade enemy fire, is extremely important.

In many FPS-type games, you can change your equipment but the character still has the same capabilities. In this game, you of course have different types of weapons, but it also affects your character’s  capabilities, for example their movement speed. This would be like changing character type in Smash Bros.

Each weapon, even if it’s of the same type, has unique properties, and in both single and multiplayer whether you win will depend on how well  you can make use of those properties and form strategies using them.

Also, in the multiplayer, there is a rule called ‘Angel’s Descent’. This is where the last player on the opposing team becomes a strong angel, and the team that defeats the angel is the winning team. This gives the players a unique game where they can enjoy different styles of play,  like going up against the enemy as the angel yourself, or where the team members protect the player who has become the angel as they run away, or where the angel could even hide, and let the other team  members handle it.

You’re developing a new version of Smash Bros. for Wii U. How do you intend to take advantage of the console’s unique controller?

I will think about this once Kid Icarus is complete. But as it is a game of a competitive nature, I do not think that any one person should have an advantage.

Smash Bros. Brawl was a complete experience. What can any sequel offer in addition to that game?

There are many things that can be improved upon even in Brawl. Also, I think you can base your expectations of the new Smash Bros. once you see how well-made Kid Icarus is. The director of each game is the  same, but because I regularly change my team around after projects, we will be able to see how good the team is then.

There can’t be many high-profile Nintendo characters left to add to Smash Bros. Who’s left that you’d like to include?

That is completely undecided, but it is true that Nintendo has not created many new characters lately.

 

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