The Wii was a brilliant console despite its last-gen graphics and waggle for one reason: it expanded gaming and simplified the complexities of the modern controller's analog sticks, buttons and triggers with intuitive motion-control. The Wii made mom, dad, grandma and grandpa see they too could enjoy gaming; that the pass-time wasn't just for the so-called "core" gamer.
With the Wii, Nintendo touted that gaming could appeal to everyone. Nintendo's strategy with the Wii U might sound cheesy — "Together, Better" — but is the Wii U and its tablet-esque controller turning its back on the very casual gamers it embraced with the Wii? I have reason to believe so.
The Next-Gen Starts... Later
If you disregard the unique controller (Wii U officially supports two Wii U GamePads at once), the Wii U is nothing short of current-gen. It can pump out 1080p graphics (so can the PS3), has a robust lineup of streaming video options including Netflix, HuluPlus, YouTube and Amazon Instant Video (so does the Xbox 360 and PS3) and has a heavy list of titles that will satisfy the hardcore gamer (Assassin's Creed III, ZombiU, Mass Effect 3, and Batman Arkham City: Armored Edition to name a few). But again, these games have already been out on Xbox 360 and PS3 or will be.
The Wii U is serving up warmed leftovers. You're either on time or you're not. The Wii U is late.
The Reason Wii U Exists
Let's talk about the Wii U GamePad. It's extremely light and therefore very comfortable to hold. It also certainly offers entirely new forms of gameplay, especially thanks to its touchscreen, which runs silky smooth. But after playing with a handful of games, I'm convinced that Wii U is making it more difficult to jump in and immediately start playing. On any other platform, this would be expected. Games have a learning curve. The whole point of the Wii was that suddenly they didn't.
This happened with core games, too. For example, in Batman Arkham City: Armored Edition, the Wii U GamePad touchscreen is used to display buttons, the item inventory, yours maps, secondary camera angles and allow for the playing of mini-games. It follows the same line of thinking that relegated similar functions to the second screen on the DS and 3DS.
More buttons? Wii worked because it had fewer buttons, right? The Wii U GamePad has all of the buttons a PS3/Xbox 360 controller has and then some, thanks to the added touchscreen that can be crammed with functions that changes by game. Now, I'm not a casual gamer. I've been gaming since the 8-bit days, so I've been around the block, but something just didn't click with the Wii U GamePad.
A Harder Way To Play
It made me have to think about which buttons to press to do something. That's unnatural. To be fully immersed in a game, you shouldn't have to think which touchscreen buttons to press or choose which display to look at — your fingers should instinctively just do, and press buttons. That's the mark of a well-designed game.
In a first-person shooter such as ZombiU and one that requires extreme quickness and precision, I felt that holding up the Wii U GamePad to go into a "sniper view" severely slowed down the flow of the game. It wasn't as quick as pulling a trigger, which is exactly the functionality the GamePad has those triggers for. Don't get me wrong, the Wii U's accelerometer and gyroscope work with high precision to keep the pace of the game, but had the demo been an online match, you can bet your caboose that I'd have been shot before I even had time to hold up the GamePad. In other words, it worked, but it felt slower and is liable to be a problem.
I've mentioned two games geared at gamers where the Wii U GamePad just seems to render the game mechanics more complicated than before, but even a casual game such as Scribblenauts Unlimited was made more convoluted than it needed to be. If the touchscreen was littered with tons of non-universal icons without any markings that if I can't decipher in seconds, how will a person like mom?
That Tablet Ball & Chain
Touchscreen elements are only great when they're smartly integrated. How am I supposed to know when I should drag an item to equip to Batman, do a single tap or press and hold on an icon? That was the conundrum I walked away with after demoing Armored Edition. There's something tiring about looking away from a giant HDTV to focus on a tinier screen, too, nice at it is.
On the side of the physical Wii U console, Nintendo didn't parade it around too much. It remained hidden inside acrylic casing, away from curious bloggers' cameras. I took a quick peek at one unit and I'll admit, the console's body is quite elongated. Maybe that's why Nintendo decided to make it a console that can only be positioned horizontally and not vertically like the Wii.
And while we don't know for certain, Nintendo didn't announce or stress any options for internal hard drives for storing digitally-bought games. Even crazier is that Nintendo's reps refused to comment on whether the Wii U will get the ability to download DLC. MiiVerse looks like a step up from the Wii's non-existent online offerings, but it's no Xbox Live or PSN competitor, and the Wii really has no good answer there.
Scheduled for release this holiday, the Wii U could become an instant hit if it manages to convince the world it's truly a next-gen experience between now and then, but I don't feel like that's what we got today. With Microsoft working on its Xbox SmartGlass, and Sony using the Vita to connect to the PS3 and unite its gaming hardware, Nintendo's Wii U, which ditches the 3DS for its own tablet, might not have an advantage for too long.
It's all about the experience of playing with the Wii U. That's what needs to come together. When you watch game demos such as Star Wars 1313 and Watch Dog, both of which were rendered on high-end PCs and look next-gen, it's clear that the Wii U's graphics will be sorely dated once Microsoft and Sony start talking about their inevitable future consoles.
Don't forget to hit play on our video walkthrough of the Wii U GamePad below!
Posted on location at E3 in Los Angeles, California. All photos and video taken by Raymond Wong for DVICE.