Wii U Hands-On Preview

Every year at E3, we keep ourselves busy with hands-on previews and developer interviews for the latest iOS games. But we always try to make time to check out the latest iOS-like consoles from Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft. Two years ago, we tried out the 3DS to see if 3D mobile gaming would take off, and last year, we put the PSP Vita through its paces. This year, the most iOS-like console at E3 is Nintendo’s Wii U, so we took it for a test drive to see if its touchscreen controller can compare with the best of iPad gaming.

The Hardware

The Wii U is a console that, for the first time since the Dreamcast’s Virtual Memory Unit, lets you look down at your controller for extra information. In the case of the Wii U GamePad, you’ll be looking down at a colorful six-inch touchscreen that serves a variety of different purposes, depending on the game. The controller also has a full set of traditional console controls, including joysticks, shoulder buttons, and face buttons.

To us, the Wii U seems to bridge the gap between home consoles and tablet gaming, but there are a few big differences. For one, you can only touch one point on the Wii U touchscreen at a time, making simple gestures like pinch-to-zoom or multitouch unusable.

Another big difference is that the Wii U GamePad is useless once you take it away from your Wii U console, which stays hooked up to your home TV. You can’t load up games onto the Wii U and take it in the car, which was the first thing we thought about when we saw the new controller’s design. Using the Wii U is an experience that is very much still tethered to your living room.

Rayman Legends

The first game we played, and the one which we think made the best use of the Wii U’s touchscreen, was Rayman Legends. While one player controls Rayman using a traditional Wii controller or Wii U controller without the screen, another player can take control of his goofy-looking fairy friend. The Wii U GamePad will display the same scene as the television, but with the touchscreen you can tap on enemies or pull down platforms for Rayman to jump on. At the end of our demo, we had to tilt the Wii U to rotate a spiked trap away from Rayman as he ran to the end of the level.

Playing Rayman cooperatively with the Wii U GamePad was a lot of fun, but we wished we could watch the brilliant HDTV in front of us instead of looking down at the lower-resolution 6″ touchscreen. Otherwise, this was the most enjoyable use of the Wii U touchscreen of all the games we played, including Nintendo’s own games.

New Super Mario Bros U

New Super Mario Bros U was the game we expected to make the best use of the Wii U GamePad, but in our demo, there just wasn’t much to do. One player controlled Mario using a regular controller, while we on the Wii U had the ability to make platforms appear on the screen with a touch. If we sensed Mario was about to miss a big jump, we could give him an emergency resting spot.

Our guide from Nintendo pointed out that you could also make your fellow player’s life more difficult by spamming the screen with platforms where they didn’t belong, but we didn’t see this as much of a useful feature. It’s the Wii U equivalent of unplugging your friend’s controller, or standing in front of the TV, for an “added challenge”.

Batman: Arkham City Armored Edition

Batman: Arkham City Armored Edition had a dozen different uses for the Wii U GamePad, but only a few of them stood out as truly revolutionary. In Arkham City, you can use the Wii U controller as your inventory menu, assigning Batman’s gadgets to shortcuts using the touchscreen. You also had to use the Wii U GamePad for crime scene investigations, moving the GamePad around in certain spots to find a trail of blood to follow.

In one hacking minigame, the Wii U controller’s touchscreen became a grid of circuits. You had to trace your finger around the screen to find a spot to hack, which you did with an onscreen press. The Wii U also doubles as a radar, map, and first-person camera for your guided batarang attacks.

Arkham City seemed to use the Wii U controller every minute or so in the game, but it seemed more gimmicky than essential. A lot of the touchscreen moves could have been simplified with standard onscreen menus, and constantly switching between the TV and the touchscreen felt confusing. While there were a few good uses for the GamePad, they seemed lost in a sea of other, overly-complicated maneuvers that seemed to be there just as a hardware tech demo.

Ninja Gaiden 3: Razor’s Edge

We also spent some time with Ninja Gaiden 3: Razor’s Edge, a beefed-up version of Ninja Gaiden 3 that offers a higher difficulty level and more dismemberment and gore. This demo was fast and fun, but we hardly had to use the Wii U controller for any reason. The only time it was used was when we switched from our sword to a bow and arrow, and that could have easily been handled from a pause menu on the TV.

So after spending some time with the console, we’re not sure that the Wii U will replace iPad gaming anytime soon. You still need to be hooked up to your TV to play with it, and the touchscreen doesn’t even come close to the new iPad’s Retina display and 11-point multitouch.

The traditional console controls are one thing we really liked about the Wii U, and some of the games we demoed had genuinely clever uses for the new technology. But switching between a touchscreen and your home TV isn’t necessarily engaging, and we’re already moving closer to a world where iPad games are controlled remotely on your TV.

The Wii U GamePad has a lot of potential for creative new gameplay ideas, just like the second screen did for the Nintendo DS. But it still feels rooted to the TV and Wii U console, while mobile games on the iPad can go anywhere. The question of whether Wii U will be a big success depends on whether the living room and TV is still going to be the central hub for entertainment, or if our wireless world means that your living room can be just about anywhere.