[Games] First Thoughts: Nintendo Wii U

The New Wii U controller in all it's slightly plasticky glory

The New Wii U controller in all it's slightly plasticky glory

So after months of speculation; most of it, as it turns, out fairly accurate, we know know what the Wii’s successor will look like, play like and be called.

Wii U (pronounced “you” rather than “oo”) is, I suppose, no less stupid a name than Wii was in the first place, and is substantially less ridiculous than PlayStation Vita. The machine’s exact specifications are being kept under wraps, as is its price. What seems evident though, is that Nintendo has gone to lengths to keep costs down wherever possible.

The all singing, all dancing controller does indeed feature a built-in touchscreen of more than 6 inches in size. Contrary to speculation though the display is not capable of HD resolution, unlike the main console which can fire 1080p images along an HDMI lead. Though no-one knows for sure yet, it appears the screen may well be resistive in design, rather than capacitive, more akin to the last-gen touch tech found on the DS and 3DS’s bottom screens than the multi-touch, swipe-tastic displays of Android and Apple mobile phones. That makes sense, as the touchscreen is likely to be a secondary control surface, and capacitive screens can run to more than a $100 each, even wholesale.

The controller also looks slightly cheap. There’s a huge plastic bezel which might be the norm for a console controller, but looks somewhat downmarket in these days of unibody aluminium and glass tablets.

Nintendo also seem to have skimped on storage. It’ll be flash and SD card based, with no built in hard drive. That will keep the initial cost of the unit down, but will likely mean most gamers get their software via the proprietary disc format (capacity unknown) rather than the alternative download option. The dream of a download-only console is still some what off, it would seem.

While no-one has explicitly said so, it also appears that the Wii U may support only one of the new controllers at a time. That at least would allay fears about the cost of buying two, three or even four touchscreen equipped control pads. Certainly the multiplayer games reportedly demonstrated so far have featured a single player on the new device with the others using the traditional Wiimote and nunchuk combo. That would make sense given that the Wii U has to push all of the video content to the controller’s screen. Having to sling graphics to up to four separate screen-enabled controllers as well as output in 1080p to a TV would tax even a high end gaming PC, let a lone a machine rumoured to be roughly on a par with a PS3 in the performance stakes.

So where does that leave the Wii U? It’s certainly an interesting step forward from a company that generally hits the bullseye with its innovations. In terms of performance it certainly seems to bring the Big N on a par with Sony and Microsoft, though it seems likely that within the next three years we’ll see new consoles from both manufacturers that could dwarf the Wii U’s specs.

All of that leaves the Wii U to survive on its first party software releases and its innovative control method. The idea of a secondary screen in home gaming is brand new (I’m not counting the Dreamcast VMU here) but it’s an area where Nintendo’s success with the twin screen DS family will serve it, and its developers well. That device, like the Wii that followed it, proved that brains can triumph (or at least compete with) brawn in the gaming world. Clever design and innovative control methods count for a lot with modern gamers, and Nintendo has built up a sizeable user-base of brand-loyal casual gamers who would need to be given a reason to switch to Sony or Microsoft, as opposed to the hardcore market who will feel the exact opposite.

In the short-term some hardcore gamers may supplement their existing library with a Wii U. Give it another three or four years though and the arrival of new machines from Sony and Microsoft may well relegate Nintendo back into the casual field, peddling great first party games and tons of shovelware to younger gamers and the family market, just as the Wii did.

Another worry for Nintendo is the success of Microsoft’s Kinnect. Fantastic early hardware sales are yet to translate into a single triple-A title for the innovative motion controller, but E3 has seen a slew of blockbuster franchises announce Kinnect support. Mass Effect 3, FIFA 12 and Forza 4 will all support Kinnect alongside the traditional 360 pad. That could be the biggest threat to the Wii U in the near term. If Microsoft can successfully convince its top-end third-party developers that Kinnect can add value to traditional hardcore products, and isn’t just a fancy Wiimote clone, it may take the lead when it comes to innovate control methods. Then, bereft of any graphical advantage, and with a controller that’s not quite as novel as its main rival, the Wii U might not look quite as enticing as Nintendo might have hoped.

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