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Born to win, doomed to fail: the Nintendo Wii U dilemma

HardwareFeatures
by Stuart Andrews, 12 Jun 2012Features

Nintendo's next-generation Wii was unquestionably one of the talking points of last week's E3 convention, but not always for the reasons Nintendo might have hoped. The Naysayers could point to an unusually lacklustre Nintendo press conference, hints of underwhelming performance and a lack of really compelling software. Over and over again you'd hear the same refrains: "who wants an update of Batman: Arkham City or Ninja Gaiden 3?", "Where's the Mario Galaxy, the Metroid Prime, the Zelda? Where are the big, exclusive new games?"

Yet Wii U also has a lot in its favour. It does offer a genuinely new experience, and once you've had a little hands-on time there are some gems in the early line-up. Not only does it offer a fantastic new 2D Mario but, in ZombiU, one of the most innovative games of the show. Is Wii U born to win or doomed to ignominious failure? We marshall the points both for and against.

The case against Wii U

The hardware is underpowered

To be honest, nobody knows how powerful Wii U is. We know it uses an IBM Power-based multi-core processor and a custom AMD Radeon HD GPU, believed to be based on a similar architecture to the old 4870HD GPU. It has a slot-loading optical drive that supports proprietary 25GB disks and 8GB of built-in flash storage, and it's believed to have 1GB of RAM. Generally, however, there's nothing to suggest that it's any more capable than the existing Xbox 360 or PS3.

This might not be a problem now, but in two years' time when Sony and Microsoft have their Xbox and PlayStation successors on the market and the PC is pushing barriers again, the Wii U might be left looking weedy, running games that are cut-down versions of what we're seeing on the newer consoles. In other words, we'll be back to the same situation we and the world's third-party developers have had with Wii.

Wii U is big on novelty value, but what else?

Now that motion control has gone mainstream, Wii U is dependent on one key USP: the new Wii U Pad. With its dual-analogue sticks and Xbox 360-matching triggers, bumpers and face buttons it's ready to play blockbuster action games, and the built-in 6.2in, resistive touchscreen and camera allow for some cool and interesting new ideas. However, Nintendo seems to be hinging a lot on the concept of asymmetric multiplayer gaming, where players using the Wii U Pad can compete or cooperate with other players using normal Wii remotes.

The best example is the Luigi's Mansion section of the Nintendo Land mini-game compilation, where four players play as ghost hunters, patrolling the maze-like mansions, while the fifth player uses the Wii U pad to ambush them as a ghost. The ghost can see the other players on the Wii U Pad screen, but they can't see him unless he's lit up by a lamp or torch. It's fun, sure, and not the only entertaining diversion in Nintendo Land by any means, but is it the sort of thing that sustains long-term interest? Remember all those Wiis that have been gathering dust for the last couple of years? Are we really going to replace them with Wii Us for this?

Wii U has nothing for hardcore gamers

If you regard yourself as a gamer, then you already have an Xbox 360 or a PS3 - and maybe both. In fact, you might have a PC too. You've probably bought Batman: Arkham City and Mass Effect 3 already, and you'll be happy to get Assassin's Creed 3, Darksiders 2 and Aliens: Colonial Marines on your existing console, not wait around for a version with Wii U enhancements, however cool. Nintendo clearly wants to woo the hardcore gamer this time around, but has Wii U really got much to offer that they're not already getting, and wouldn't it be smarter to wait for the next Xbox or PlayStation to emerge?

Where are the big exclusive games?

OK, so we have a Mario at launch, but it's an old-school 2D Mario rather than a big 3D adventure. A new Pikmin is quite exciting, but more of a cult favourite than a major mainstream hit. A new Zelda or a Metroid Prime would have given Wii U a stronger graphical showcase and given ample room to demonstrate how Wii U's technology might apply to core games. Why then, hasn't Nintendo got either ready for launch?

The case for Wii U

The hardware is smart and innovative

OK, so we'd all prefer it if Wii U had a little more graphics clout, but let's not dismiss the hardware right away. The Wii U Pad, for instance, is a beauty. It's lighter than you might expect, the touchscreen, while approximately 480p resolution, is clear and bright, and the overall feel is classic Nintendo: sculpted, comfortable and friendly.

Meanwhile, Asymmetric gaming is only one aspect of the Wii U Pad. We're already seeing smart applications for the second screen, the camera, and the touchscreen and motion sensor controls in games like ZombiU and Wii Fit U. What's more, it instantly fixes one of the worst problems those of us in families face with console gaming; the battle for the TV screen. At the moment, if someone comes in mid-game and wants the telly, we eight have to risk a row or save and switch off. With Wii U, you can simply transfer the action to the smaller, on-pad screen and carry on. It even has a handy headphone socket.

Wii U is family-friendly

In a way, Nintendo's desire to charm the hardcore market has obscured Wii U's biggest selling point: it's a brilliant family console. Asymettric multiplayer might be hard to sell as a concept, but once you've played New Super Mario Bros U it all makes sense, with up to four players handling the usual platform hopping while another provides support on the Wii U Pad, defeating enemies and tapping new blocks into existence to either help or hinder the rest.

Rayman Legends is another prime example; one player can play as Rayman while another supports with a weird frog-like ally, removing obstacles, battering baddies and pulling and rotating objects into place. Even Just Dance 4 gets in on the act, with a fun Puppet Master mode where one player chooses the next move or pose that the other four players will either have to strike or dance through. Wii U enables kids and parents to play together, or different players to take different roles according to their likes, dislikes and abilities.

A different approach to online gaming

We still don't know an awful lot about MiiVerse, partly because Nintendo hasn't actually done that fantastic a job of explaining it. What we do know, however, is that this is a very different type of online gaming network; one based more on social interactions, player-to-player hints and asynchronous competitive play (think Need for Speed's Autolog challenges) than on hardcore coop and competitive play. It sounds weird, but it all ties into Nintendo's vision of Wii U as the console that gets people playing together.

The games are there if you look for them

Wii launched with a handful of decent to great games (mostly Wii Sports and Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess) and a whole lot of dross. This didn't prevent it from selling out everywhere it could. Wii U will have New Super Mario Bros U and Pikmin 3, plus enhanced editions of Mass Effect 3, Batman: Arkham City and one genuinely exciting new IP in ZombiU. While some consider Mass Effect 3 and Arkham City irrelevant, not everyone in the Wii's target audience has played them already, and New Super Mario Bros U and Pikmin 3 are, on first impressions, as enjoyable, entertaining and packed with Nintendo magic as you might expect.

It's Ubisoft's ZombiU, however, that points towards how more hardcore gaming titles might employ the unique capabilities of WiiU. At first, it seems like a straight first-person spin on Resident Evil, set in a Walking Dead vision of a zombie-ravaged London. The Wii U Pad, however, makes all the difference. Point it at the TV screen and move it around, and the Wii U Pad screen acts as a scanner, pinpointing useful items and latent threats. Use the crossbow and the Wii U Pad becomes the scope, allowing you to target accurately using sensitive motion controls. The Wii U Pad even doubles as a hacking device to flick switches or pick locks.

True, there's an element of novelty at work, but the second screen is also used to ratchet up the tension. Stare too long at it and you might not notice the zombies creeping up behind you, but at the same time fail to focus and you might not get that door open before the zombie hordes descend. If you're familiar with the Fatal Frame/Project Zero series, the potential for a Wii U version should already be clear about now. What's more, the Wii U Pad even enables a great multiplayer option, where one player fights to hold objectives while another uses the touchscreen to post Zombie troops to grab and guard them. At E3 seasoned journalists were actually missing meetings to play it.

We have three hopes here: that ZombiU will live up to its promise, that it will be a hit, and that other publishers and developers will feel inspired to use Wii U to put their own spin on established genres. After all, anything that shakes the existing formulae up is very welcome.

Wii U is fun

We can't say this enough. No matter how much we try to rationalise for or against WiiU, the simple fact is that we've had fun playing it, and that we believe others will feel the same way. Nintendo didn't get where it is by manufacturing dross; it got where it is by transforming the creation of seemingly simple games into an artform. Some of the WiiU launch titles are more enjoyable than others, but there's stuff there that has the potential to catch on just like Wii Sports or Wii Fit or any other big Nintendo hit. It might not be your cup of tea, but it will be someone else's.

The decider

We hate to say it, but the really crucial thing will be price. Part of Wii's success came down to the fact that it launched at such an affordable price, and it might be hard for Wii U, with that expensive, tablet-style controller, to match that feat. Gut feeling? If WiiU can launch for less than £250 then it shouldn't have a problem gaining traction. More than £299? Expect some hasty back pedalling and price reductions within the first few months. Our hope is that Nintendo will see sense: Wii U might have its issues, but it also has real star potential. Getting the price right at the start could be key to helping it realise that.

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