There are two sides to Nintendo’s Wii U, as I discovered after spending nearly an hour with the upcoming home gaming system at E3 last week. On one hand, it’s another platform for gimmicky, silly fun, just like the original Wii. On the other, it’s a practical hardware upgrade that wants to be more capable than its console competitors.
My time with the Wii U included five “experiences” — that is, short tech demos that won’t necessarily become actual games — all of which showcased the Wii U’s controller, with its 6.2-inch touch screen. You can see each one on Nintendo’s website.
Picking up a Wii U controller was a lot like handling a Wii remote for the first time — a bit of bewilderment and a bit of excitement, followed by a quick dose of simple entertainment. I was playing a virtual game of tag with three pals from PCWorld, them using Wii remotes to chase my avatar, me using the Wii U controller to escape. The trick was that only I could see where everyone was positioned, thanks to a map on my controller’s screen. We yelled. We laughed. We cheered. It was Wii Sports Tennis all over again — a cheap thrill without much substance.
But the Wii U also has a practical side. In two demos — a widescreen rendition of New Super Mario Bros. and a non-playable Zelda boss battle — the controller’s small screen could mirror was happening on the television. If you’ve ever had a household argument over who gets to use the TV for what, this alone makes the Wii U an interesting proposition.
Thing is, both sides of the Wii U coin require compromise. The controller will seem straightforward to anyone who’s played video games before, but it introduces a layer of complexity not found in the dead-simple Wii remote. For core gamers, the Wii U has a bit of an ergonomics problem. The controller is surprisingly light, and it rests comfortably in the hand thanks to a little lip on its back side, but it doesn’t feel as good for traditional console gaming as an Xbox 360 or Playstation 3 controller. The analog thumbsticks are also more like the Nintendo 3DS’s analog nub than the full-sized sticks on competing game consoles.
Still, to look at only the gimmicky and practical sides of the Wii U is to miss the bigger picture. This is a home game console whose content exists beyond the television screen. That by itself a fascinating concept with lots of possibilities. I got a glimpse of this when playing Shield Pose, a rhythm-based game that makes you point the Wii U’s screen away from the television to fend off attacks from pirates. Of all the demos, Shield Pose was the only one to realize the vision in Nintendo’s Wii U concept video, extending the game to a 3D space around the TV set.
In the Wii, there exists potential for greatness, but it’s up to Nintendo and third-party publishers to turn the Wii U into something more than just a high-definition Wii with an extra screen for inventory or other mundane information. We’ll find out next year whether they can pull it off.