In case you haven't heard, Nintendo will be introducing a new-and-improved version of its wildly popular Wii video game system, the Wii U (and, no, I don't know why it's the "U") sometime later this year at a price yet to be determined.
At CES last week, I got a personal Wii U hands-on tour.
Wii U boasts two primary improvements over Wii and even Microsoft's Xbox and Sony's PlayStation: high-definition (which both Xbox 360 and PS3 have) and a wireless tablet-like controller featuring a smart phone-like 6.2-inch touch screen, accelerometer, motion sensor and gyroscope (none of which neither Xbox nor PS3 has), while continuing Wii's gesture control capabilities.
On Wii U's second screen, you'll be able to view strategic information and game play overviews independent on what's on your HDTV and, more importantly, out of the view of your opponent(s), or play a game or surf the Web while someone else watches the TV your Wii U is connected to.
So, how does Wii U look in HD, and does the tablet controller improve game play? Great and immeasurably. But before I expound on Wii U's writ, I have to place my impressions in context.
You may have noticed I don't write about gaming often – and when I do, it's usually disparagingly. This is because I believe video games, while I admire and even marvel at the technologies, are a gigantic waste of time at both the developmental and play level.
As I mentioned to the Nintendo folks during my Wii U demonstration, I'd rather read a book than become obsessively addicted to an activity with absolutely no redeeming value (even though I justify my Scrabble obsession by pretending it teaches me new words – I often use "crwth," a Welsh lyre, in conversation). I wish the creative and technological effort brought to bear on gaming could be directed toward more useful pursuits.
But that's just me.
Is Wii U an improvement?
Even missing HD and no tablet controller, Wii is already the number 1 selling video gaming console, thanks to its appeal to family entertainment and fitness. But Nintendo wishes to expand its appeal to more serious World of Warcraft-type gamers.
I may not be a gamer, but it's obvious the tablet controller adds a multiple new dimensions of play that could re-write the rules of gaming engagement.
All by itself, the Wii tablet controller is a sophisticated piece of gear:
- 6.2-inch widescreen LCD touchscreen
- 1080p graphics
- motion sensor, accelerometer, gyroscope
- front-facing camera
- 2 analog "circle pads," which act like joysticks
- "+" up/down/left/right navigation cross
- A/B/X/Y action buttons
- stereo speakers
- shoulder and rear fire buttons
Wii U game play
In my demo, we played a game called Chase Mii, a high-tech version of video hide-and-seek. While my four opponents chased me around on the big screen, I watched Mii (or me) on the controller screen and could see where all four of my chasers were in order to best avoid them. With the additional location information, I almost alluded my more experienced pursuers (although they may have been taking it easy on me after I admitted my lack of gaming experience).
In more ornate games, the second screen might provide a selection of weapons to choose from or the ability to plot strategy out of site from your opponent, such as choosing a play in a football simulation.
I may have never played a game on Xbox or PlayStation (I think the last video game I played with any degree of serious intensity was Pong sometime in the late 1970s), but the advantages of a second, personal screen for game play are obvious and the potential myriad, limited only by the proven wild and wacky creativity of game designers.
To me, though, using the Wii U tablet controller during fast-paced and pressure-packed action seemed akin to asking me to pat my head and rub my stomach or a puppy would die.
The Nintendo demonstrators, however, seemed to have no difficulty glancing back-and-forth between the two screens, seemingly simultaneously – and immediately integrating the information gleaned from these alternating glances into their game play, especially during a second, more complex chase game the internal logic of which I was unable to grasp. I guess Wii U is a matter of game-playing muscle memory evolution. Mine is obviously stunted.
If you think you, too, will have trouble playing a game across two screens, don't be dissuaded. All current Wii games and controllers will work with the Wii U.
To get a better sense of how the Wii U plays and its potential, check out this "concept" video Nintendo produced.
More than a second screen
The tablet controller provides more than additional strategic assistance – it's the Swiss Army Knife of gaming accessories. You can:
- use it like a steering wheel
- hold it up to the screen to aim a weapon
- put it on the floor to make it part of the game; in a golf game, for instance, it'll display the ball and the terrain it's resting on, then it will react to your swing – take a divot or splash the sand in a trap.
- "flick" items, such as weapons, displayed on the touch screen at whatever is on the big screen – possibly the coolest affect of all
- draw on it, hence the stylus
- use the front camera to create avatars with your face
- video chat with fellow gamers.
Wii U also will include a full Web browser. You use the controller as a keyboard, track pad or mouse – or just use the tablet to surf the Web while watching another program.
What the tablet controller is not is an iPad-like tablet. You can only use the controller when it's within visual range of the actual Wii U console. It won't operate independently outside the house.
The controller is powered by a rechargeable lithium-ion battery, but how long it will run on a single charge has yet to be determined.
When and how much?
Nintendo has not set a release date for Wii U, only that it will be some time after E3, the annual gaming show in early June. It's also unclear how many Wii U-specific game titles will be available.
As to how much, there has been speculation Wii U will run around $600. My Nintendo demonstrators pooh-poohed this Web rumor. But a 6.2-inch touchscreen isn't cheap. If I were a betting man (and I'm not), I'd say Wii U will likely fall in the $349-$399 range.
But even at this higher price, Wii U may be a relative bargain since you're essentially getting two systems in one. Older folks and tots can continue to use the Wii U as they do the current Wii – for more family-styled and fitness activities, this time in HD. But the serious gamers in your midst will be drawn to the more challenging and intense gaming experience the tablet controller provides, and, therefore, become even more additive.
Which means I won't be getting one. But don't let me stop you.