Nobody has any idea what they really want. Game journalists groaned in unison at the violent shooters that dominated the Microsoft and EA press conferences. Many of the same writers immediately mocked Sony’s Wonderbook, an interactive storybook for kids, and every family-friendly game shown at Nintendo’s press event. Sure, Nintendo’s software line-up is full of more iterations of the same handful of franchises they’ve fixated on for three decades, but at least their event wasn’t a ninety-minute sizzle reel of exploding heads. Nintendo might be stagnant but their games are still a nice, primary colored change of pace from the grotesque “mature” games that make up the backbone of the AAA world.
Much of that consternation came from the company’s incessant dependence on nostalgia that is now approaching the thirty-year mark. Somehow the software publisher that is the most hidebound is also the most experimental hardware manufacturer in the industry. Nintendo focused squarely on the upcoming (and notably idiosyncratic) Wii U console at their major press event. In fact they added a late-breaking second press conference to focus on the 3DS, supposedly to fit as much Wii U information as possible into the main meeting. And then the event ran for barely one of the two allotted hours, with five or so minutes dedicated to three 3DS games. It was an odd scheduling choice.
The Wii U is Nintendo’s follow-up to the massively successful Wii. It’s a high-definition console that supports the standard Wii controllers, a more traditional game controller that resembles the Wii Classic Controller, and a dedicated touch-screen tablet with twin analogue sticks, the standard A/B/X/Y face button layout, and bumpers and triggers. The tablet, called a “GamePad”, can also play certain Wii U games without a TV. This profusion of input devices aims to appeal to everybody, from the motion-controller fanatic to the so-called “hardcore” gamer to players who have solidly transitioned over to their iPads and smartphones.
Beyond the show-opening announcement of the long-awaited Pikmin 3 Nintendo’s revelations largely lacked excitement. They spent several minutes on the Wii U version of Batman: Arkham City, which won’t hit stores until a year after most fans already played it on the PS3 or 360. The company mentioned there would be 23 Wii U titles available within the launch window but barely discussed any of them.
NintendoLand soaked up more of the running time than any other game. Like Wii Sports it’s essentially a tech demo dressed up as a suite of minigames. It’s an entertaining tutorial, a set of simple games that unobtrusively explain various aspects of the Wii U’s unique interface systems. The minigames don’t necessarily play or feel like the more famous Nintendo franchises they’re based on, but possess similar visual aesthetics. The Donkey Kong game, for example, features graphics very similar to the arcade classic but is a Trials-style physics puzzler that shows off the tilt detection of the touchscreen. Meanwhile, in theLuigi’s Mansion spin-off, one of five players uses the tablet to play as an omniscient ghost in a fun multiplayer mode that’s like an inversion of Pac-Man.
Nintendo also announced the expected new Mario variations, including New Super Mario Bros. U and 3DS games from both the New Super Mario Bros. and Paper Mario ancillary franchises. They’re certainly some Mario games, for real.
I later got my hands on the Wii U and saw how the tablet can be incorporated smoothly and unobtrusively into a game. That doesn’t make Nintendo’s new console feel any less risky, though. The Wii was a smash in part because it was unique and relatively cheap. The economy is far worse today than it was in 2006 and the Wii U will almost definitely cost more at launch than the Wii. And despite the potential for TV-tablet interaction, there’s nothing inherently new about the platform. It’s a potentially awkward, potentially inspired combination of motion controls, joysticks, and iPads, and that sprawling mess of options could easily confuse and dissuade potential customers. And even though Pikmin 3 and New Super Mario Bros. U look like fun, the Wii U doesn’t yet have that must-have game. Perhaps it’ll be NintendoLand, which could be as surprisingly good and widely appealing as Wii Sports, but if the five minigames playable at the convention are a sign I’d be surprised if that happens. The Wii U might be a big risk, but at least one of the major hardware manufacturers is still willing to take one.