Nintendo Land of Confusion: What's a Wii U?

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Nintendo Land of Confusion: What's a Wii U?

Introducing Nintendo’s new console…once we figure out what it is.

We’re chasing ghosts. My wife, my brother and I are holding Wii Remotes, controlling Luigi-capped Miis as they tremble through the corridors of a haunted mansion. We’re armed with flashlights and total dread as a ghost picks us off one by one.

My elementary school-aged nephew controls the ghost on a curious device called a GamePad. It’s essentially a tablet squeezed into a regular videogame controller, a 6.2 inch touch-screen surrounded by joysticks, face buttons, bumpers and triggers. My nephew sees everything on this screen, both the level and the do-gooders trying to dissipate him with their flashlights. We three ghost hunters stare at the same level on the TV screen but we can’t see the ghost. He stalks us as we stumble about with our flashlights, which are the only things that can stop him. If we hit him with enough light the ghost dies and we win. The ghost wins if he sneaks up behind us and drives us all into a fear coma. The game’s called “Luigi’s Ghost Mansion”, it’s essentially a high-tech riff on hide-and-go-seek, and it’s one of the dozen minigames included in Nintendo Land, the pack-in game with Nintendo’s Wii U Deluxe bundle.

With the Wii U Nintendo is also chasing ghosts. They’re hunting down the customers who have left them, their flashlight a new console that’s a cross between a Wii, an iPad and an Xbox 360. The Wii was a monstrous commercial success its first few years, but so-called “hardcore gamers” largely ignored the system. Dissatisfaction from these most dedicated of videogame players has plagued Nintendo since the mid-90s, when major third party publishers neglected the cartridge-based Nintendo 64 in favor of the expanded storage and cheaper manufacturing costs afforded by the PlayStation’s CD-ROM format. The PlayStation and its later rival the Xbox have dominated among the core male videogame demographic ever since, with third-party publishers developing few serious action games for the considerably less powerful Wii. At the same time, tablet and smart-phone games have exploded in popularity among both the occasional gamers that helped make the Wii such a mainstream smash and the child demographic that has long been Nintendo’s most valuable supporter. As a result Wii hardware and software sales have decreased every year since a high in 2008. How can Nintendo entice these prodigal players across disparate demographics back into their fold?

nsmb wii u.jpg Some games, including New Super Mario Bros. U, can be played with the GamePad or a Wii Remote.

Nintendo hopes that the Wii U is the answer. It’s not a particularly elegant solution, though. The Wii U aims to be all consoles for all consumers: It’s capable of 1080P HD graphics, with internal memory, an online social network and processing power similar to the 360 and PlayStation 3; it runs streaming video services including Netflix, Hulu Plus and Amazon Instant Video on either the TV or the GamePad; it supports Wii motion controls; and its main input device is that weird little tablet/controller hybrid. It can feel as awkward as it sounds, especially when Nintendo Land tells me I need a Wii Remote for some minigames, a Wii Remote and Nunchuk for others, and then a Wii Remote with the Wii MotionPlus add-on for more. Including the GamePad, there are four different controller mechanisms required by the same Wii U game, and other than the GamePad none of them come with the system itself.

If you haven’t played it, the Wii U can sound very confusing. Even basic information has eluded the general public. My brother and nephew represent two ends of the Nintendo spectrum: One has owned every console Nintendo has ever released, and the other is just now discovering the joys of Mario. Neither of them knew the Wii U was an entirely separate system from the Wii until they played it at my house. They thought it was a tablet peripheral for existing Wiis.

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The questions over the Wii U’s online capabilities sum up the confusion over this system’s launch. For Nintendo to effectively compete with Sony and Microsoft for the business of “hardcore” gamers, the Wii U will need to drastically improve on the Wii’s paltry online architecture. But even after almost two weeks with the system I and other members of the press weren’t sure what to expect from the Wii U’s online features, which didn’t go live until a few hours before the system was released to the public. Many initial reviews of the Wii U were published before any of these features could be explored. They had to be added to the system via a sizable firmware update. If you don’t update your Wii U out of the box you simply can’t connect with anybody over the internet or buy any games through the Nintendo eShop. It’s not uncommon for hardware to update itself the first time you connect it to the internet, but it’s unusual that one of the Wii U’s chief selling points to the “hardcore” crowd was apparently not ready for release until just a few hours before the system launched. Considering that Nintendo announced last week that some of the system’s streaming video services, including Hulu Plus, Amazon Instant Video and the proprietary DVR service TVii, wouldn’t be available at launch (the Hulu and Amazon apps went live within a few days of release, but TVii has been pushed back to December), and then Nintendo’s lack of communication to the press about the firmware update that would allow access to the system’s online features, it was increasingly easy to believe in the days before release that the Wii U would launch without any online feature set at all.

That fits in with what I heard from a quality assurance analyst for a major publisher who’s worked with the Wii U for months. Earlier in November, less than two weeks before the system came out, the tester described the Wii U’s online features as a “clusterfuck” and added that “it’s very difficult to say how good the online’s going to be because the architecture is only starting to crop up.” That was just 10 days before launch and even game developers weren’t exactly sure how the Wii U’s online features would work.

Now that I’ve had a week to work with the Wii U’s online apparatus, I can say that it is far better than the Wii’s almost nonexistent set-up, but not without its minor confusions. The Friends List replaces the inconvenience of the Wii’s Friend Codes, but setting up that Friends List is a little convoluted. You have to create the Friends List before you can directly send or receive Friend Requests. You can also provisionally add somebody to your list if you know their Nintendo Network ID, but that won’t send a notification to that user, and they’ll have to manually add your ID to their system to properly connect. I’ve had no problems connecting to Call of Duty multiplayer matches and haven’t noticed any major lag issues. I’m not a fan of watching TV or movies on tiny handheld screens, but flipping the Netflix feed to the GamePad was as simple as pressing a single button, letting me finish my episode of Cheers after my wife took over the TV. The Wii U’s online might’ve felt rushed to those who had consoles before release, but it’s a fully functional component that compares respectably to what the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 offer.

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Between the multiple control schemes, the online questions and the general sense that Nintendo is playing catch-up with competing systems that are already six and seven years old, it’s easy to be skeptical about the Wii U. Of course, Nintendo’s DS handheld, which also utilized two screens, and was less powerful than Sony’s PlayStation Portable, was initially met with similar confusion and pessimism. Despite these doubts the DS wound up being the second best-selling videogame system of all time.

Can the Wii U find the same success as the Wii and DS? It depends partially on third-party publishers. So far, many of the big publishers have embraced the Wii U, porting over current hits including Assassin’s Creed III and Call of Duty: Black Ops 2. Third-party publishers are vital to the long-term success of any console, and if these and other third-party releases sell well on the Wii U, expect them to continue. What could happen when more powerful follow-ups to the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 inevitably arrive, though? To gain insight we talked to a game designer and businessman familiar with the Wii U.

Alex Neuse, the founder of Gaijin Games and creator of the Bit.Trip series for the Wii and PC, has worked intimately with the Wii U for almost a year. Gaijin is developing Bit.Trip Presents… Runner2: Future Legend of Rhythm Alien for the Wii U, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, and received a Wii U development kit from Nintendo in December of 2011. The original Bit.Trip games were some of the few third-party releases to utilize the Wii’s motion controller as elegantly and effectively as Nintendo’s first-party software. Neuse has a history with the company and is familiar with the inner workings of both the Wii U and its competition.

“Each platform has its own pros and cons and goofy stuff about it,” Neuse tells me. “The Wii U is a huge step forward from the Wii. It’s pretty comparable to the other platforms [performance-wise]. I don’t know how it’ll compare to the next PlayStation or Xbox, which are presumably in the works. The Wii U is modern enough next to the 360 and PS3, which are years old. It’s weird—they’re all contemporary now, but the moment anything new comes out from Sony and Microsoft, well, I wonder.”

From a game-design perspective, the GamePad might discourage third-party development even before the next Sony and Microsoft consoles arrive. “The problem with any sort of totally unique peripheral is that it makes multi-platform games that much harder,” Neuse explains. “You want to use the unique capabilities of the GamePad, but anything we do on that screen, or with the specificity of the Wii U, won’t translate to the PC, Mac, Linux, PS3 or Xbox. So the specific Wii U controller stuff is going to be best utilized by games that are released exclusively on the Wii U. And that’s a bummer. It’s not a bummer that Nintendo made this crazy device. That part’s cool. But it’s a bummer for me when any of these peripherals come out. Like the PlayStation Move motion controller—do I want to make a Move centric game? If I do I can’t release it multi-platform. Or the Kinect. Or, in this case, with the Wii U GamePad.

“It raises unique challenges if you want your game to be multi-platform,” Neuse continues. “What we’re doing is using the screen for bonus levels in Runner2, but because we’re doing a multiplatform game those same bonus levels are on the big TV screen for the other platforms. But then, does that cheapen the experience on the Wii U because it’s now smaller or weird, or does that make it cooler? We don’t know. It’s a difficult thing, and I don’t really know what the right answer is, either. You don’t want to just half-ass it and just put a logo on the bottom screen. That’s goofy.”

The trick with the twin screen setup will be using that second screen as a complement to the TV instead of a distraction. The quality assurance tester reports that the second screen is easy to grow accustomed to, which makes it less challenging than expected for designers to incorporate the second screen in a natural and seamless fashion. “At first it’s pretty disconcerting to look at the TV and use the touch-screen since we’re used to looking at a touch-screen when we use it,” the QA analyst tells me. “You become sort of ‘trained’ after a while with the GamePad and it works okay. It’ll be tough for things that require a lot of precision, but one of the games I’ve played requires a fair bit of precision, and it was doable.

“For a ‘core’ focused title, the extra screen allows them to clean up the main display, and moves the pause menu down, which I think adds a cool element of physicality in a way much less annoying than the Wii. Being able to look at your hands for the pause menu makes one screen feel like ‘real life’ and the other like pulling out your phone to check the internet or take someone’s number or something. It’s way less counter-intuitive than you’d expect.”

My experience with the GamePad is similar. The first few times I played Nintendo Land or the hack’n’slash action game Ninja Gaiden 3: Razor’s Edge I had to fight the urge to look at both screens at once. I’d hold the GamePad just underneath the TV in my line of vision so I could easily focus back and forth between the two. I quickly realized my awkward arrangement was totally unnecessary. Nintendo Land always informs the player what screen he or she should look at during every minigame, and Ninja Gaiden 3 can actually be played entirely on the GamePad. After the first few hours I’ve had no problems with the two screens, which cooperate rather than compete with each other in the various Wii U games I’ve played so far.

Still, designers will have to be careful to use the GamePad screen in intelligent and non-distracting ways. As Neuse explains, the GamePad “needs to be a complement and not a primary viewport, unless the entire game is made that way. As an example, what we’re doing in the primary game experience, when you’re playing the levels, on the screen in your hand we have an indicator that lets you know what mode you’re in. If you’re familiar with Bit.Trip games, you mode up and mode down to augment the music and graphics. The GamePad allows a nice, at-a-glance reminder of what mode you’re in. But when the action transitions to the handheld, we put a big giant thing on your TV that basically says ‘look down, dummy’. And immediately you look down and there’s the game in your hands. You never have to be looking at both screens or paying attention to both screens.”

Neuse admits they arrived at that conclusion after first trying to use both screens at once. “Our original implementation had it where you did have to look at both screens,” he says. “You’d be running through a regular level and something would appear on the touch-screen. Out of your peripheral vision, if you noticed it happen and were quick enough, you could tap the screen and initiate this bonus round. But we found that basically no one ever noticed it, so we changed it. And that’s the learning process of trying to make something with two screens that aren’t always directly in front of your face.”

bittrip runner2.jpg Bit.Trip Runner2

Neuse is clearly intrigued by the design possibilities opened up by the Wii U, even if they complicate making a multi-platform game like Runner2. He’s not sure how enthused other developers are about the new hardware, though. “We’ve talked to some other developers, just casually speaking with our friends, and no-one is super duper excited about it, but they all think it’s cool. We all just want to wait and see what comes out for it, once it’s in the marketplace.

“[Response] is a little bit divided between the dreamers and the pragmatists,” he elaborates. “You have the dreamers who see it and go, ‘Yeah, this is awesome, it’s something new and I’m going to do crazy stuff with it’, and they just get excited about being nutty and doing weird unique stuff. And then you have the realists, where they look at it and say, ‘Okay, that’s great, it’s a neat peripheral, but I can’t make my games multiplatform if I design for that device’. So for them it’s almost as if the device is worthless.

“I fall somewhere in-between,” Neuse continues. “I think the device is cool, I certainly don’t think it’s worthless and don’t want to just ignore it, but I’m not going to go out of my way to make a game that really utilizes that controller, like super specifically and super well, because I won’t be able to bring that experience to other platforms. And our business model is to release on multiple platforms. So if you’re a Nintendo first-party developer, I think you’re going to be stoked, and I’m sure that the best games that come out for the Wii U, that utilizes that controller the best, will be from Nintendo. And that’s because they don’t make games for anybody else. There’s a lot of excitement about it in the design community, but also a lot of apprehension.”

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Designers and serious gamers might be apprehensive, or even dismissive, toward the Wii U, but there’s always excitement about any new console launch. And as much as they might complain about Nintendo and the Wii, most game fans still grew up playing Mario and Zelda. Nintendo remains one of the world’s premier game developers, and perhaps no other company is as adept at making games that can be enjoyed by children, casual players and the “hardcore” alike. Many of the Wii’s staunchest critics would still love to be able to play their childhood heroes’ new adventures on a machine that also runs more violent games like GTA or Modern Warfare. If third parties stay on board, and if Sony and Microsoft don’t strike fast with newer and more powerful systems, some of those critics might be won over by the Wii U.

Is Nintendo’s outreach with the Wii U an overreach? In trying to please everyone, will they please anyone? Anecdotally, response is cordial but muted. My nieces and nephews, all in elementary or middle school, delighted in Nintendo Land’s multiplayer games. None of them are asking for a Wii U for Christmas, though. A few adult friends have played the system out of curiosity, but they all own 360s or PlayStation 3s and don’t feel any need for a Wii U at the moment. In “Luigi’s Ghost Mansion”, Luigi can only see the ghost when lightning strikes or when it wants to be seen. If Nintendo isn’t better at tracking ghosts, the company might be in for a major fright.

Garrett Martin edits Paste’s videogame section. He also writes about the gaming industry for the Boston Herald and has contributed to Joystiq, Edge, G4tv.com, GamePro and others.

Lead photograph by Brian Taylor.

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