Nintendo seeks to shake up gaming again with Wii U
It can scan zombies, replace a TV remote, open a window into virtual worlds and shoot ninja stars across a living room. It's the Wii U GamePad, the 10-by-5-inch touchscreen controller for the successor to the Wii out Sunday, and if you ask the brains behind the "Super Mario Bros." about it, they say it's going to change the way video games are made and played.
"You can't manufacture buzz," said Nintendo of America president Reggie Fils-Aime. "You can't manufacture word of mouth. All we can do is to provide the product and the games to foster some sparks that hopefully enable that to happen. We think we have that with Wii U."
Much like the iPad, the curve GamePad features a touchscreen that can be manipulated with the simple tap or swipe of a finger, but it's surrounded by the kinds of buttons, bumpers, thumbsticks and triggers that are traditionally found on a modern-day game controller. There's also a camera, stylus, microphone, headphone jack and speakers.
While the Wii U can employ its predecessor's motion-control remotes with a sensor bar that similarly detects them in front of the TV, the console's focus on two-screen experiences makes it feel more like a high-definition, living-room rendition of the Nintendo DS and 3DS, the Japanese gaming giant's dual-screen hand-held devices, than the original Wii.
"It's a second screen like a tablet or a cell phone, but it's different," said Mark Bolas, professor of interactive media at the University of Southern California. "In addition to providing more information, the GamePad is also a second viewpoint into a virtual world. Nintendo is letting you turn away from the TV screen to see what's happening with the GamePad."
The touchscreen controller can also serve as a makeshift TV remote control and online video aggregator for services like Netflix and Amazon Instant Video. (Nintendo cheekily calls it TVii.) Some games have the ability to flip-flop between the TV screen and the GamePad screen, allowing for non-gaming use of the TV.
There are limitations to the GamePad: it won't work after it's been moved 25 feet away from the Wii U console; it lasts about three to five hours after charging; and while its touchscreen is intuitive as those that have come before it, the GamePad is not quite as simple to use as the Wii controllers that had everyone bowling in their living rooms.
"Is the GamePad more complex than the Wii Remote was six years ago? Certainly," said Fils-Aime. "On the other hand, I believe consumers will easily grasp the GamePad and what we're trying to do with the varied experiences we'll have not only at launch but over the next number of years in this system's life."
The abilities of the GamePad are most notably showcased by Nintendo Co. in the amusement park-themed mini-game collection "Nintendo Land," which comes with the deluxe edition of the console. "Nintendo Land" turns the GamePad into several different tools, such as the dashboard of a spaceship or the ultimate advantage in a game of hide-and-seek.
In other titles, the controller mostly eliminates the need to pause the action to study a map in order to figure out where to go next or scour an inventory for just the right weapon. That can all be achieved simultaneously on the GamePad screen, which is best illustrated among the launch titles in Ubisoft's survival action game "ZombiU."
The GamePad acts as a high-tech scanner in "ZombiU" that can analyze a player's surroundings in a version of London overrun by zombies. It pumps up the terror by drawing players' attention away from the horrors lurking around them.
Will gamers who've grown up with their eyes glued to the TV and hands gripped on a controller adapt to glimpsing at another screen? The Wii U edition of "Call of Duty: Black Ops II," for example, invites players to customize their arsenal on the fly on the GamePad, as well as engage in multiplayer matches without needing to split the TV in half.
Nintendo expects 50 games will be available for the Wii U by March 2013. There will be 23 games released alongside the console when it debuts Sunday, including the platformer "New Super Mario Bros. U," karaoke game "Sing Party," an "armored edition" of "Batman: Arkham City" and the Mickey Mouse adventure "Disney Epic Mickey 2: The Power of Two."
"New consoles come along and nobody exploits their full capabilities for the first two to three years," said Warren Spector, creative director at "Epic Mickey 2" developer Junction Point Studios. "It's only after you've had two or three projects that you fully understand what the hardware is capable of doing. We're going to be experimenting with it more."
Fils-Aime said he's already envisioning ways that developers will innovate with future games. He pointed to some of the console's features that aren't on display in the launch line-up, such as the ability to play with two GamePads at once or utilize the console's near-field communication technology to interact with other gadgets in the room.
"I think that developers and consumers are ready for new experiences," said Fils-Aime. "More than anything else, I think that's what is driving excitement for Wii U. They've experienced what this generation has to offer. They're ready for something new."