June 7, 2011 at 1:28 PM ET
Nintendo wants to give gamers a new window into their game worlds. More specifically, a 6.2-inch window that they can hold in their hands.
The game giant today revealed their next game console – a successor to best-selling Wii. Dubbed Wii U and launching sometime next year, it offers the HD graphics capabilities Nintendo fans have long been hoping for as well as a controller that features a sprawling touchscreen.
Nintendo gave In-Game editor Todd Kenreck and me an advance look at Wii U and its controller during a private demonstration before the Electronic Entertainment Expo got underway in L.A. today. And while there is much that remains to be seen, we were both impressed by the unique gameplay opportunities the forthcoming console and its unusual controller could deliver to all kinds of gamers.
During the demonstration, Nintendo executives weren’t handing out much in the way of tech specs or other vital details about the console. And they insisted that even the games we were seeing weren’t actually games but rather “experiences” designed to show “the possibilities for video gamers and developers.”
But what they did tell us is that the machine will be backwards compatible with Wii games and Wii peripherals, that the console itself comes with internal flash memory that can be upgraded with SD cards and other USB solutions (a choice that remains something of a head-scratcher), and that it plays proprietary high-density optical discs and will access downloadable content as well.
Also, we did get a good look at and a chance to play around with the new controller (the new machine will make use of both the new controller as well as the Wii Remote and Nunchuk controllers). And here are a few details about that controller as they stand now. It has a 6.2-inch touchscreen, gyroscope and accelerometer for tilt control, it’s got full traditional Nintendo stick and button controls on either side of the screen (see above image), as well as a microphone, speakers and an inward facing camera … though not a camera that faces outward.
While Wii U does deliver 1080p HD graphics to your television screen, the controller screen itself displays images brightly, but not in HD. And the controller must be used in conjunction with and in the vicinity of the console itself. It can not be used as a fully independent handheld game machine or tablet.
During our time with Wii U, Nintendo reps kicked off things by showing us the kind of gorgeous graphics its forthcoming HD machine will be able to deliver. They showed off a sequence in which birds fly through a Japanese landscape as the seasons change around them. And these live images were quite stunning – water that absolutely glowed as it hung on the rocks of a pond, vivid cherry blossoms dancing in the branches of a tree.
They also showed us footage from a "Legend of Zelda"- like game experience (not an official game, they insisted). And Link has never looked so good as he did fighting off a giant spider in crisp high-def. (Nintendo fans, this seems like it could eventually be THE HD game you’ve been waiting for.)
But really, it’s the way the two screens – the one on the controller and the one on your home television – can be used together as well as independently of each other that makes the new Nintendo machine so fascinating.
We were walked through and given time to try out several “experiences.” (Nintendo reps said they are not calling what they showed us games – not even game demos.)
“This is designed to give a deeper and wider experience to players,” Marc Franklin, Nintendo director of public relations, said of the connection between the controller screen and the TV screen. “It opens up a new window into your video game.”
During the “Chase Mii” experience, Todd and I, along with two other players, were dropped into a game that features a maze. Todd and the others were handed Wii Remotes and Nunchuks to control their Mii-like avatars on screen. I was handed the new controller which gave me and only me a top-down perspective on the game maze as well as a look at what my Mii avatar was doing. It was my job to sprint off into the maze and elude capture while the rest of them tried to hunt me down. But since I had the new controller with the screen and birds-eye view of things, I could see where everyone was on the game board and try to elude them using that extra information. The others had to try and find me by talking to each other and hunting the twists and turns of the maze from their individual perspectives.
It was, truly, a lot of fun. And the way that new controller with its private screen can give different players individualized information certainly makes for a unique playing experience.
We were given a chance to try out another “experience” called “Battle Mii.” This time around, the group of us were dropped into a combat arena. And like before, Todd and I took turns being the player with the new controller in hand while the others used the Remote and Nunchuk controllers. Those with the Remote and Nunchuck were charged with finding and gunning down the player with the new remote and vice versa.
Again, it was fun to see how having a bit of private information on your own screen turns things on its head. But also, in this game…er…experience…the player uses the tilt-sensitivity of the remote to control his or her view on the world.
Looking at the screen in your hands, you spin around in all directions to get a look at the game arena in a full 360 degree view. It’s as if you are inside that game arena, moving backwards and forwards with your stick controls and shooting at your competition with the trigger at your finger all while getting to see the field in an immersive, around-you kind of way.
“This is a perfect example of how you can have two different controllers and play the same game,” said JC Rodrigo, a member of the product development team.
Similarly, we were shown the “Shield Pose” experience – a pirate themed rhythm-style game in which you find yourself on a ship. To see the ocean scenery around you, you use the new controller's screen as a window on the world that is seemingly around you. Once again, you move the device in 360 degrees above, below and around you in your real home and you can see the digital world through that screen wherever you point it.
“The game world is populated all around you,” Rodrigo explained.
Ultimately you use that touchscreen controller as a kind of shield, finding the incoming arrows being shot at you from various directions by a cartoon pirate. You stop the arrows by holding up the controller as protection, but you also have to move the controller to the rhythm of the music.
Todd and I walked away with these thoughts: In the age of the iPad and iPhone, the Wii U's touchscreen controller makes a lot of sense and the ways in which Nintendo and other game developers could bring this controller's extra screen into the gameplay experience are fascinating. There really are many intriguing opportunities to be had here.
Also, we felt that this mutiple-screen approach really could help bridge the gap between the way, say, an adult plays a game and the way a kid might. And since Nintendo vows the Wii U will provide HD gaming, the company's insistence at Tuesday's press conference that this machine will appeal to both core and casual players does seem like a claim that has a good chance of becoming a reality.
Certainly many questions remain. What is the Wii U's price going to be? Why is there no hard drive for crying out loud? The new controller is comfortable to hold but it’s a beefy thing – but will it remain so in final design? Not having a front-facing camera on the controller seems a missed opportunity but will that too change in final design?
Also, it does seem something of a shame that the touchscreen controller doesn’t operate as a handheld game machine or tablet that can be taken on the go. We suspect the choice to tether the controller to the console was made to help keep the overall price down since Nintendo tends to keep its machines in the realm of average-consumer budget reality. But it would have certainly been a nice bonus too see a tablet/console combo.
But overall, from this first brief time with the Wii U, it seems Nintendo is doing what it often does best – delivering fresh, unique gaming ideas to the world. We'll have to wait until the machine launches next year to see just what the world makes of these new ideas.
For more E3 coverage, see: