A fuller PC Advisor review of the Nintendo Wii U games console (formerly known as Project Cafe) will appear here shortly, but in the meantime, here's our verdict based on some brief hands-on time with the console, along with the demos and presentations we've seen so far.
The Nintendo Wii U is a cool and interesting concept. My initial (cynical) take was that it's like a Fisher-Price iPad, but I made that observation more for giggles than anything else and, as we sat through the series of demos, the Wii U pad-machine-controller showed some amazing potential. It lets you interact with games in an innovative way and really opens up some serious potential for new types of gaming.
Design and features
The Wii U system itself doesn't look too far removed from a Wii (and it still uses all the Wii remotes and peripherals the company currently employs). The difference is in the controller. This beast has a massive high resolution touchpad built into the screen, and it's fully capable of running the same games on both the controller screen and your TV screen.
A lot of what Nintendo showed was very conceptual. Sharing video from the Wii U's handheld screen to your TV, using the alternative screen as a standalone information panel for games like Wii Fit, and a number of other odd, intriguing uses. But I got a little time to try out some of the more game specific applications Nintendo had ready for the show.
As Nintendo said over and over again during the conference, none of the demos we look at in the following review are proper games, they just show what's possible (though I'm sure we'll see more than one of these in an inevitable Wii minigame collection). But first, I'll go into a few general impressions.
The tablet controller
Wii U's screen looks big; it's basically a tablet... but that doesn't keep it from being an effective game controller. I have no idea how it'll feel after extended play or how heavy it'll feel when you have to wave the controller around for too long. But in my brief demos, it felt great. Surprisingly, your hands fit on the buttons and analogue sticks without feeling stretched or uncomfortable.
The touchscreen looks good, but I'm not sure why you'd want to play on the controller by choice. But some of the demos available let you switch between devices on the fly, while others allow you to use both at the same time.
The HD experience
An interactive Zelda demo shows off how well the game does HD. Link enters a cathedralesque area and squares off against a massive, ugly spider creature. I couldn't control the battle, but buttons on the touchscreen let you switch the time between day and night (to see the lighting effects) and to swap between several preset camera angles.
It's not as good as actually getting to play a game, of course, but this tinkering shows that the Wii U is obviously a more powerful system than the Wii, with much more attractive visuals. Not every game was optimised to look this good (although they all looked better than Wii), but from the looks of it, Wii U is going to be able to at least keep up with the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360.
We don't know anything about the system's online capabilities (although they're promised to be robust), the extent of the system's backward compatibility, or if you'll need (or even be able to use) more than one of the new controllers at a time. The system isn't coming out till next year, so that leaves lots of time for info on the price and unique Wii U features for the flood of ports that will be coming soon.
Can it do better than the Wii?
So the Wii U is a cool concept. But I remember saying exactly the same thing about Wii, I was blown away by how cool it was. How innovative the controller was, and the more I thought about it at the time, the more I thought that we were on the verge for a new dawn of gaming. The reality is though, we weren't.
While the hardware was cool and interesting, the reality for most gamers is that Wii is one of the least played consoles of recent years. It sold incredibly well, it was the machine everyone wanted to have. But the same can be said for the latest fitness machines: they are bought, they are played with for a while and then they gather dust. And unfortunately that's also true for most Wiis out there.
Wii games: the problem?
Part of the problem is the games, there are simply very few truly great Wii games. Some might blame the Wii's weak technology for that, but I always felt that innovations in game mechanics driven by the controls would make up for that. But it seems most companies simply couldn't capitalise on that, and we ended up with a few shining examples of Wii games drifting in a sea of mediocre unimaginative shovelware.
The other thing that didn't help is that Wii's architecture and tech is so out of step with 360 and PS3, publishers couldn't cross-develop games. That meant development costs were relatively high for Wii games because a unique team was required to develop games, and assets were difficult to port and share across platforms. Which then combined with a generally weak market for Wii software, many machines were sold but users generally bought fewer games for their systems that users of others, and you ended up with a market that just wasn't particularly viable for a lot of publishers.
The end result was a machine that, for most gamers, delivered a lot of promise that it never really fulfilled. So is Wii U going to change that? I really, really hope so, but I think there is a large amount of wait and see.
Nintendo opened its press conference by teasing that Wii U would appeal to both casual and core gamers, and judging by the lineup we saw a montage of, there's a lot to look forward to.
Darksiders II will be on the Wii U at launch. Batman: Arkham City is also coming to the system, which got a big cheer from the audience. We'll also see new Tekken, Assassin's Creed and Ghost Recon titles on the console, as well as Aliens: Colonial Marines, Ninja Gaiden 3 and Battlefield 3.
Some demos we tried out
Shield Pose: Shield Pose is, basically, a Rhythm Heaven minigame. You hold the Wii U tablet like a shield and follow instructions given at the beginning of each round. You're only blocking projectiles coming at you from faraway pirate ships by facing left, right, straight ahead or up in the sky. But the catch is you move your controller in time to the music.
But the controller is more than just a blank slate. Looking through the screen, you see pirate ships off in the distance and a moon up above you. It's cute, and it shows off the screen's (and gyroscope's) abilities.
New Super Mario Wii U: There wasn't much to this game other than demonstrating how the tablet functions like a regular controller, showing you the game running on both screens at the same time. It's big, but it works as a platform controller (and this is probably a hint that we'll be seeing more New Super Mario titles in the near future that feature Mii integration).
Chase Mii: Chase Mii is a cat-and-mouse game where those playing on the big screen use regular Wii controllers while trying to track down a player whose character is shown on the tablet. The four chasers are running blindly through a maze, chasing after a Mario-looking character. If they catch him, they win. The Mario character has to avoid being caught, but since no one on the main screen can see what he's doing unless they actually find him, he has a distinct advantage.
The tablet user also has a full map and a top down view of the battle, so he can see his pursuers even when they can't see him. He's basically playing a Pac-Man-like game of keep-away on his smaller screen while three friends try to track him down. It's fun from both sides of the chase, and it's a great example of having (in a way) two different games working simultaneously and congruently.
Battle Mii: Battle Mii operates on a similar concept, but it's a little more action-oriented. In this demo, Samus-suited Mii avatars try to chase down the table user, who flies above them in a spaceship with tablet controls.
Only two players can join the full screen actions, and they act like characters in any other Wii shooter. The tablet user uses the analogue sticks to control his ship and the gyroscope controls to aim. It's a gimmick that wouldn't normally be as comfortable all on one screen (though it would work fine as an online co-op game), and it shows off the fun of playing with a group on the couch. There aren't any minimaps, so while the tablet user has the advantage of being able to rise up and get a clear view of the battlefield, it also makes his position pretty hard to miss.
Also, I dominated both of the rounds of this I played, so I might have a slightly biased opinion. Winning makes everything a little more awesome.
The Wii U has a lot of potential, but do you need another (massive) controller sitting on your coffee table? I'm willing to give Nintendo the benefit of the doubt. But while it seems other consoles are going for smaller controllers, or no controller at all, Nintendo is taking a gamble with its big new pad.