Hands On: The Nintendo Wii U

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One of the first things I was told when I ducked into one of Nintendo’s suites to play with the Wii U was what they wouldn’t tell me. Price, release date, technical specs, games in development — all of these were taboo topics that would be (and were) met with a gentle dismissal if I broached the subject.

Great. With that load lifted, I picked up the Wii U controller and dove in.

Holding the Wii U controller is your hand is… unusual. It’s been historically rare to see a controller that maintains such a considerable distance between the user’s hands (save for some funky Japanese one-offs), but it’s not so large as to be awkward.

It’s also surprisingly light, but again, not so light as to feel chintzy. Nintendo seems to have nailed a very tricky balance between size and weight, as well they should considering how critical the controller is to the new experiences they hope to deliver.

The controller’s built-in gyroscopes were very responsive when we played Battle Mii (more on that later), and the buttons had nice movement though I prefer clickier buttons myself.

Then of course, there’s that screen. The 6.2-inch display was bright, and registered input quickly and accurately even without the included stylus. I caught glimpses of ghosting when switching camera angles during a Zelda demo scene, but as the Nintendo reps in the room kept repeating, none of this was final hardware so we’ll see if that little issue persists after launch.

The Nintendo representatives in the room repeatedly referred to the Wii U as providing a second window for gaming as opposed to offering just a second screen. The controller and TV screens can work independently of each other, and that really sunk in during a demo in which a camera navigated some Japanese streets. While the television showed us video of the camera moving forward, I could use the Wii U controller to look above, below, and behind the camera as it chugged along

I played a few short demo games with the reps in the room, the first of which was Chase Mii. Essentially a Mario-themed game of tag, one player held the Wii U remote and got both a top-down and a third-person view of themselves on the map while players wielding Wii remotes tried to catch him. Battle Mii on the other hand pitted Wiimote-toting players again a UFO piloted by the player with the Wii U controller, who had to use the screen as a viewfinder and physically move in order to aim.

Though the games were basic (and may never officially hit consoles), they did the job by illustrating just how fun that bring another screen into the mix can be. Giving different players different experiences isn’t exactly new territory for Nintendo — games that took advantage of GBA/Gamecube cable come to mind — but the concept seems so much more refined, so much richer now.

The console itself is nondescript, and I have a feeling that was done on purpose. I’ve always gotten the vibe from Nintendo that the style or glamor of their hardware is secondary to their gaming experiences, and it almost feels like the Wii U was designed to blend into the background while players do their thing.

Nintendo has already revealed a few specifications at E3 2011 — multi-core IBM Power-based processor, AMD Radeon-based GPU, 1080p support — but none of that really clicked until I fiddled with the lighting effects during the previously mentioned Zelda demo. Don’t be fooled by its plain appearance, because the Wii U can really push some polygons.

As much as I like the Wii U, it isn’t as though Nintendo doesn’t have some obstacles to surmount. At this stage, the Wii U is a blank canvas. There’s incredible potential here for developers to create truly novel and engaging gameplay experiences, but will they? I’m sure many will, but the problem looming on the horizon is how many developers will look at the Wii U and slap some third-rate title together in order to generate some short term revenue.

Next time you’re in a big box electronics store, check out the discount games bin. I’ll bet you five internet dollars that cheap, lousy Wii games outnumber all the others. They might even have their own bin, for that matter. One of Nintendo’s biggest hurdles will be in keeping the crap-to-cool game ratio from skewing toward the former; hardly an easy task, but one that could make the entire Wii U-owning experience one to covet.