Hands-On With The Wii U, Nintendo’s Risky New Revolution

The Wii U does not give the immediately-wonderful first impression that the world-famous Wii did. But after having played some of the games Nintendo has made for its next console, I'm certain the Wii U has great potential.

This is a familiar spot for Nintendo to be in: quirky new console, skeptical reporter, and a dollop of uncertainty about whether the house of Mario is going to compete successfully against its competition.

Let's finally talk about some Nintendo-made Wii U games: one you should be excited about and one that's a head-scratcher:

A virtual Nintendo theme park that looks terrific…

Nintendo Land is a mini-game collection sort of in the vein of Wii Sports or Wii Play. It's specifically designed to teach you how to use the new Wii U GamePad, which is the screen-based controller that sets the Wii U apart from just about every other video game console ever. Some spotlight the GamePad's ability to serve as a touch-sensitive controller for games that run on your TV; some focus on the GamePad's tilt features; others on the Wii U's ability to give players standing in the same living room radically different playing experiences while joined together in a Wii U game. You play as Miis, hopping from one mini-game to the next.

The unifying theme in Nintendo Land is that you're in a Nintendo-style theme park. Each mini-game is a new attraction in this sort of what-if-Disneyland-was-made-by-Nintendo virtual world.

There's some sort of haunted mansion attraction tied to Luigi and another based perhaps on a Mario game. Nintendo reps didn't show me those. We tried games based on Zelda, Donkey Kong and a Japanese-only Famicom game called The Mysterious Murasame Castle.

  1. The Legend of Zelda: Battle Quest: This one is the best I played and the coolest thing Nintendo has shown for the Wii U. It's a co-op Zelda-inspired attraction that supports one player on the Wii U GamePad and up to three using Nintendo Wii Remotes (the newer models with MotionPlus built in). Each player is controlling a Mii who is dressed up as Zelda protagonist Link. Together you proceed in an on-rails advance through some valleys and chambers full of puzzles and enemies.

    This Zelda experience is visually stunning, portraying this riff on the classic series as if it was in a world made of fabric. While Nintendo officials seem to hate talking about graphics, there's no denying it when you're playing Battle Quest: this is an HD Zelda experience and it looks really good.

    The players who use the Wii Remotes can swing their swords or press a button to raise a shield. Their controls are similar to the Remote controls in The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, matching player arm movement in the real world to the angle and velocity of virtual Links' sword swings in the game world.

    The player who holds the Wii U GamePad plays the role of a Link who uses a bow and arrow. This player holds the Wii U controller vertically to start but can then move the GamePad all around them: to the right, to the left, up, down… wherever they move it, the screen on the GamePad essentially serves as a viewing portal to the related part of the game world. In other words, when I faced the TV during Battle Quest, I could see the things in front of the other Links. When I looked up, I could see the sky. When I turned my back and faced the back of the room we were playing in, I had a view of the back of the game world. It's like the GamePad is a viewfinder to a virtual world that is surrounding you.

    As the archer, I could pull back the GamePad's right stick to shoot arrows and hold the GamePad level to refill my quiver. My job was to take out enemy archers and provide covering fire for my sword-swinging buddies who ran ahead.

    This demo was similar to a Metroid-style Wii U demo shown at last year's E3. It shows off the way a bunch of people in the same room can have very different experiences. I liked it a lot.

  2. Takamaru's Ninja Castle: Throwing Star Showdown is based on the Japan-only Mysterious Murasame Castle and essentially a ninja-style target shooting game. It's a fleshed out version of the throwing-star demo Nintendo showed in video for the Wii U last year.

    This is a single-player game that has you holding the GamePad sideways with one of its short ends pointed at the TV. On the TV, enemy ninjas pop up. On the GamePad, you'll see a virtual throwing star. You swipe the star forward while aiming the GamePad long-ways at the TV. You can tilt the GamePad to aim or angle the star. The speed of your swipes determines the speed of the "throw" of the star.

    This one is simple and should be a delight, but I repeatedly ran into syncing problems. The GamePad has no Wii Remote-style sensor on its sides, so it's not really sending a signal toward the Wii/Wii-U sensor bar in front of the TV to help tell the Wii U exactly where it is pointed. Instead, the tilt sensor in the GamePad are trying to communicate that information to the Wii U, and they frequently seem to get confused. I would be pointing my throwing star at the center of the TV, and it would think I was pointing at one of the TV's four corners. The problem is "fixed" as soon as you press a button on the GamePad to re-center the targeting reticle, an added annoyance that will unfortunately be familiar to players of the Wii's Skyward Sword. This is, sadly, one of the Wii U's blemishes: Nintendo has not figured out how to better keep its Wii Remotes and the new GamePad in perfect directional sync with the TV, requiring frequent player-initiated on-the-fly recalibration. It's stunning that Nintendo might let this become a standard hassle of their new system and one I hope Nintendo reps are right in saying the company can improve upon before the Wii U comes out.

    The basic target-shooting game here is straightforward. You want hit enemies in their hiding spots, wherever they pop up. You want to be accurate, chain your throws, etc.

    Hands-On With The Wii U, Nintendo’s Risky New Revolution

  3. Donkey Kong's Crash Course is another example of how great Wii U games are going to look. Simply put, seeing old-school Nintendo franchises done in HD graphics feels fresh, modern and exciting. This one is based on the old red girders from the original Donkey Kong game. You see a massive 2D maze of these things laid out on you TV screen. You control a small two-wheeled buggy that you need to roll through this maze. You roll the buggy by tiling the Wii U GamePad, which you hold vertically, left or right. Aside from some button-based triggering of some movable girders, that's it. It's simple and fun.

    The stand-out Wii U element in this one is that you can play the game while looking at the TV or you can play it while looking at a zoomed-in portion of the massive maze on your Wii U controller. And regardless of where the player is looking, spectators can watch on the TV. Of course, you can just turn the TV off and play off the GamePad screen, which is a cool added element the Wii U provides, for those of us who live with people who might want to use the TV while we're lost in a game and don't want to stop.

It seems that Nintendo Land should be packed in with each Wii U, since it is clearly designed to both show off the distinct experiences the Wii U enables and tap into Nintendo nostalgia. As a bonus it's a thrilling tease as to what Nintendo-franchise games can look like in HD. The Nintendo reps who showed me the game wouldn't say whether this will in fact be part of a Wii U bundle.

An Underwhelming Mario…

The Wii U will launch with New Super Mario Bros. U which is the official name of a game born from the side-scrolling Mario demo that Nintendo showed for the Wii U last year.

Nintendo reps boast that this will be the first Mario game to launch with a Nintendo console since the Nintendo 64's Super Mario 64. This game is no Super Mario 64. Rather, it feels as predictable and obvious as Nintendo could be and lacks, in the pair of E3 demo levels I saw, freshness. The game looks and plays like New Super Mario Bros. Wii which itself was barely distinct from the Nintendo DS' New Super Mario Bros.. The Wii game added four-player co-op, which this game also has, but you're more or less doing side-scrolling Mario platforming, looking for the one or two new power-ups they've added, enjoying the distinct level design but not really finding much that's new beyond the tweaks to the core 2D Mario formula. This feels not like a Super Mario World or Super Mario Galaxy evolution of a great series but more like a Call of Duty-conservative tweaking of a popular thing. This is, in other words, sadly, the safest Nintendo launch game I think I've ever seen.

Hands-On With The Wii U, Nintendo’s Risky New Revolution

The Wii U twist in NSMBU is that, while four players can play as Mario, Luigi, Blue Toad or Yellow Toad with Wii Remotes, another player can view and affect the action by playing on the Wii U GamePad. This player can provide a support role. They can see the same section of the game's side-scrolling level that the Mario/Luigi/Toad players can see on the TV, but the GamePad player can tap on the level and generate platforms to help the TV players from falling to their death or to access hidden areas. Double-tapping on a new block turns it into a coin block that the TV players can bounce on to collect coins. Coins, as always, will generate new lives.

The new power-ups I saw included an inflatable baby Yoshi who Mario can cling to like a child in a cartoon clinging to a bunch of floating balloons. There is also a flying-squirrel suit, which lets Mario extend his jumps into glides. A shake of the Wii Remote gives squirrel-suit Mario a single extra boost in the air… a double-jump, more or less.

Side-scrolling Mario games are always fun, but there's just not that much that is novel here. Perhaps Nintendo designers believe that Wii U gamers will need something as comfortably formulaic as New Super Mario Bros. U to clearly demonstrate how a Wii U game can differ from the many single-screen TV console games we've played for years, but this really feels like a re-tread with an added gimmick. Worse, Ubisoft's Rayman Legends which does the same side-scroller asymmetrical, co-op multiplayer straight-up looks better and looks more fun.

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Nintendo reps also showed me a video of a Wii U version of Batman: Arkham City. Developed by WB Montreal, the game modifies Rocksteady Studio's 2011 Arkham City game by putting a lot of added Batman map and scanner gadgetry onto the Wii U gamepad. It also adds a special armored-suit mode that Batman can fight in. This looked really gimmicky and unappealing to someone like me who has happily finished Arkham City on an Xbox 360. I guess it's proof that 360/PS3 games can run on the Wii U, but it's also proof that I can't care too much about last year's games getting some new touch-screen controls for the Wii U. Batman: Arkham City: Armored Edition is not the kind of third-party Wii U game we need, I don't think.

I was not shown a new Wii U version of Wii Fit, but that game is in the works. I was shown an app called Wii U Panorama View, which lets you point the GamePad in any direction to let you view a recorded live-action video from all sides, as if you have a viewfinder into the place where the video was shot (this is essentially the live-action version of being able to look around inside the aforementioned Zelda world in Nintendo Land

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There is no Wii Sports among the Wii U games I played. There is no game that I think people will fall in love with the moment the Wii U is released later this year.

There are even some troubling signs of controllers that need to be repeatedly manually re-synced when a game requires some sort of pointing of the controller at the TV. There's also worrying signs of gimmicky updates to existing games and the worst warning sign of all, that Nintendo's Mario team might not bring their best material to the Wii U launch.

On the other hand, it is wonderful to see Nintendo's best characters in HD graphics. Nintendo Land literally looks amazing. And some of the specific Wii U experience are fantastic: being able to play a Wii U game on my GamePad screen or my TV; being able to use the GamePad as a viewfinder to virtual worlds that ostensibly fill my living room; being able to have fun assymetric multiplayer experiences with people using different controllers and screens in the same room.

None of these ideas has the immediately-brilliant appeal of swinging a game controller to bowl a virtual bowling ball.

None of these makes me think the Wii U is a guaranteed global phenomenon.

Many of these ideas, though, are fresh and appealing and prove that the Wii U is going to be different enough from any game console we've ever played before that it'll be well worth anyone's time to at least give it a shot.