First Hands On With Nintendo's New Wii U, the Next-Generation of Play

I played Nintendo's Wii U earlier this week, the exciting successor to the Wii that not only plays a lot like the Wii—now with a new, unique twist—but a console that plays nicely with the Wii controllers and accessories you already have.

It is an experience that incorporates the social appeal of the Wii while also delivering a high-definition visual experience and control interface that video gamers may be more comfortable with. Nintendo says its Wii U is designed to appeal to "the most experienced players" as well as those whose first interaction with video gaming was with the original Wii.

The core of Nintendo's Wii U is its new controller, a hefty, sturdy, rectangular device with buttons and sticks on its edges and a 6.2" touchscreen controller in its center. It works in tandem with Nintendo's new console hardware, with video streaming from the console to Nintendo's controller. In addition to buttons and touchscreen, the controller sports a camera on the face of the controller, a microphone, and tilt-sensitive gyroscope. Nintendo's Wii U outputs its HD visuals simultaneously to a television and to the controller's screen, meaning players can either game on their TV, their controller screen or both a the same time.

Wii U is compatible with original Wii games and accessories. Some of the Wii U games we played relied on other players with Wii Remotes and Nunchuks.

Nintendo showed us the unique possibilities of gaming on Wii U, how it might affect how games are designed by Nintendo and its third parties, bringing one of a kind experiences to Nintendo faithful.

What Nintendo did not discuss during our hour-long demo was the Wii U's technical details, with a few exceptions, its online component or games in development for the new system. We don't know price, we don't know if its unique touchscreen controller will be sold separately, we don't know exactly when it's coming.

What we do know is based on Kotaku's hands-on experiences with a handful of Wii U demos at a recent hands-on event. Here's what we saw and played.

Japanese Garden Demo

First Hands On With Nintendo's New Wii U, the Next-Generation of Play

The first demonstration I saw powered by Nintendo's Wii U was also the most unexpected from the maker of Mario, Kirby and Zelda games. This presentation was clearly designed to showcase the visual fidelity of Nintendo's Wii U, delivering a gorgeous, high resolution display of rarely seen photorealistic graphics from Nintendo.

Only lightly interactive, the non-playable demo centered on soothing, sweeping travel through a traditional Japanese garden, following the flight path of a tiny sparrow. As it flew through this lush world, a Nintendo of America rep moved the New Controller around, tilting it and turning it. The New Controller's display was recreating what was being output to the television screen in perfect sync and movement of the New Controller manipulated the camera's view on the big screen.

The sparrow flitted through a cluster of falling cherry blossoms, landing on the branch of a cherry tree, plucking a flower from its branches. Depth of field effects blurred blossoms in the foreground, locking the viewer's attention on the beautifully animated bird.

The sparrow dropped that blossom into the lake, drawing the attention of a school of koi. The fish emerged from the surface, splashing, scales glistening wet. A bright orange koi leapt from the pond, again kicking in a dramatic slow-motion pause.

The "Garden" demonstration then refocused its attention on another bird, a falcon gliding over a softly rippling lake. The demo dramatically slowed to zoom in on the bird as it flew by, offering a detailed look at its plumage, each feather rendered in a photorealistic style. It soared over a rock garden, magically drawing concentric circles in the dry sands with a powerful mystic wind. Snow began to fall, at first whipping in the wind but eventually collecting. The Falcon landed. It hopped through the piling snow, leaving impressions on its surface in real-time.

It was a welcome surprise, this visually rich, but quietly reserved demonstration. If it represents a visual benchmark for Nintendo's Wii U, it bodes well for the platform to compete ably against its Xbox and PlayStation counterparts.

Playing Chase Mii, the Next Generation of Hide and Seek

Chase Mii is a five-player game in which one player—me, during my demo—wielded Nintendo's New Controller, playing as a mustachioed Mii in Mario clothing. Four players, each armed with a Wii Remote and in control of a Mii styled like a Super Mario Bros. Toad, were tasked with chasing down my Mario Mii through a brightly colored, Super Mario Bros.-themed maze.

We all started our game of cat and mouse in the center of a diamond-shaped map, but I had a few seconds of a head start. I ran by moving the left analog stick, seemingly my only control option. My opponents had only a minute or two to find me and catch me with a tackling jump.

The players armed with Wii Remotes couldn't see my Mii if I hid behind walls made of Mushroom Kingdom bricks and decorated with Piranha Plant pipes. They could, however, see how far away my Mii was on the four-panel split-screen display on the television, giving them some sense of my location. My pursuers had to cooperate, attempting to spot me as I ran, calling out my position, trying to surround me.

I had an additional advantage, thanks to Nintendo's New Controller. Not only could I see my Mii running around the play field from third-person perspective, I had a top-down map view of the level on the New Controller's touchscreen and the locations of each opponent. But my opponents were fast and many. I failed the first time, easily caught within 30 seconds. My second try, I was successful, outrunning and outsmarting my foes with improved hide and seek tactics.

If you remember the concept behind Pac-Man Vs., Nintendo's attempt at bringing GameCube-to-Game Boy Advance connectivity to its pre-Wii console, then Chase Mii should sound familiar. The mechanic is almost identical, good news for gamers who loved the multiplayer thrills of Pac-Man Vs., but found the hardware requirements to play it were just too steep.

Playing Battle Mii, A Third-Person Shooter

First Hands On With Nintendo's New Wii U, the Next-Generation of Play

The three-player shooting game Battle Mii left the Mario-themed aesthetic of Chase Mii behind for a game in which Miis wore Metroid battle armor and flew a chubbier version of bounty hunter Samus Aran's gunship. Battle Mii pits two players in space suits against a lone player flying that gunship. Players on the ground look for the person piloting the gunship, attempting to shoot him down, while the gunship pilot tries his best to blast the duo running around a futuristic city. Like Chase Mii, it requires cooperation and communication—mostly in the form of excited shouting. It too is a game of hide and seek. And it is disarmingly fun.

I started my demo as a Mii foot soldier, aiming and shooting with the Wii Remote, moving with the Nunchuk controller. My partner did the same. We watched the skies on our respective halves of the split screen for the Mii player piloting a gunship, to catch a glimpse of him or to trace his energy blasts back to the location of his ship. And we were both trying to stay under cover, taking carefully aimed shots or charging up our attacks to launch a splashy missile. We hunted for dropped items, like a health-restoring heart. And we were successful, shooting down that enemy Mii ship with a flurry of beam fire.

Then, I switched to the gunship pilot's seat, which is controlled with the new controller. The left analog stick moved my ship forward and backward and strafed. The right analog stick controlled my ship's altitude. I aimed my crosshairs with sweeps, twists and turns of the New Controller, a precise method as it turns out. But that three-part control scheme is not immediately easy to grasp, working with three control interfaces to move and shoot. But Battle Mii looks like a rare thing: a family-friendly third-person shooter.

Playing Shield Pose, A Slice of Rhythmic Heaven

As Chase Mii appears to draw clear inspiration from Pac-Man Vs., so too does Shield Pose seem to draw its influence from Nintendo's Rhythm Heaven series, a brand of rhythm games that explored the controls of the Game Boy Advance, Nintendo DS and (soon) the Wii in simple but inventive ways.

Shield Pose put the player (me) in control of a shield (or more specifically a pirate wielding that shield). Holding the New Controller in hand, I looked out from a ship through the large touchscreen display. In front of me was a pirate ship, populated with comical pirates. Two more were visible at my right and left, the moon viewable above me. I could look around in this virtual space by twisting and turning my body and the controller. It felt like window into another world in the palm of my hand.

But as uniquely interactive as the visual experience was, Shield Pose was a simple play experience. I was given simple audio cues "Hey! Come on!" to raise the controller, to block arrows lobbed from that pirate ship, cues to look upward or left then right. After stopping one of those arrows, a "Hey! Down!" commanded me to shake the controller downward, while obviously maintaining a firm grip on the device to which I was not tethered. Initially simple, the commands started to come more quickly, faster and more complicated, offering hints of a smart rhythm game to (potentially) come.

The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess

First Hands On With Nintendo's New Wii U, the Next-Generation of Play

This is the demo that may shrieks of delight, heart palpitations and flowing tears of joy from the Nintendo fan: The Legend of Zelda in brilliant high-definition with a sense of visual clarity and detail unlike anything the series has ever seen.

(Before those Nintendo fans set expectations to impossibly stratospheric, please note that Nintendo said this Zelda demo, sporting a Twilight Princess artistic sensibility, was only a demonstration. There were many "ifs" and "maybes" in this "Wouldn't it be cool if we did this?" presentation, but no promise of an actual game.)

The Zelda demo re-imagined the Temple of Time from Twilight Princess and Link's battle with Armogohma, a ghastly, colossal spider boss monster. Not playable, but interactive, I watched as Link stepped onto a polished marble floor, his reflection sharply visible as light from stained glass windows danced on its surface. The fairy Navi appeared as a softly glowing orb of light. We could see the stitching in Link's tunic, the leatherwork of his boots and sheath in detail. Smoke pouring from flaming braziers was lit with a soft orange glow.

I was handed the New Controller. On its screen were three buttons and a map of the Temple of Time. One of those buttons switched the lighting from daytime to nighttime, showing that the demo was dynamically lit. Another changed the demo's camera angle to offer dramatic new perspectives. A third swapped the displays of the television and the touchscreen controller. I could watch Link's battle play out on an HDTV or on the smaller, more intimate controller's display, switching back and forth with a tap of the screen.

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With Wii U, Nintendo seems uniquely positioned to compete in the space that made the Wii a massive success, while also catering to dedicated gamers who hunger for high-def visuals and competitive online play. Players who enjoy competing with each other in Wii Sports or Wii Play in the same room and players who enjoy competing with others online will likely find something to love about the Wii U experience, a surprising middle-ground between dedicated gamer and casual fan.

This is a video game console informed by the experiences and experiments of Nintendo's past, blending connectivity, social interaction and multi-screen gaming into an all-new device.

Wii U is scheduled to be released sometime between April 1 and December 31, 2012.