I am a multi-tasker. I habitually bounce between screens and activities with the twitch of a speeding driver glancing at his rearview window to check for cops. I keep an obscene number of browser tabs open. I am addicted to doing tons of things at once.
It's awful, I know. I'm part of the generation your parents complain about, one of those twenty-somethings who was raised on the Internet and taught from an early age that paying attention to one thing at a time is way boring. I spent my formative years playing point-n-click adventure games on a computer while watching TV, or letting my eyes glaze over a movie while grinding levels in Final Fantasy Legend on my Game Boy. One screen just wasn't enough.
Even today, I play console games with a laptop next to me, taking frequent breaks to check my e-mail or send messages on IM or put on YouTube videos about Thanksgiving. Sometimes, whether I'm driving around the streets of Grand Theft Auto or sneaking through compounds in Mark of the Ninja, I'll load up a couple episodes of Veronica Mars or West Wing and watch while playing, consuming as many things as possible. It's just what I do.
This makes me a perfect customer for the Wii U, the Wii's successor and a console whose main selling point is its GamePad controller, a tablet-esque beast complete with a six-inch screen, buttons, joysticks, and back triggers. You can use that controller to play certain Wii U games using what Nintendo is calling "Off-TV Play," which lets you turn off your television and do everything in your lap—or switch channels so you can play games while doing something else.
And sure enough, when I spent this past weekend playing around with Nintendo's new console, I found myself gravitating toward that smaller screen. While playing New Super Mario Bros. U, which mirrors the action so you jump from platform to platform on both screens at the same time, I found that even while the television was on, my eyes kept floating down towards the tablet controller. I wanted to play on the screen that was in my hands.
Holding the GamePad feels like holding a bigger, more lap-friendly portable system, with a lovely high-definition screen and exceedingly comfortable controls.
Eventually I started flipping the TV to other stations, too. Saturday I watched Iron Chef Michael Symon cook turkey in a vacuum sealed bag while playing through Mario's desert world in my lap. Sunday I used New Super Mario Bros. to distract from the pain of watching the Jets' Mark Sanchez improve his record of completions to the ground. For a multi-tasker like me, it was fantastic.
By the way, if you haven't yet tried out the Wii U's fancy new controller, you should know that it is an excellent piece of plastic. Holding the GamePad feels like holding a bigger, more lap-friendly portable system, with a lovely high-definition screen and exceedingly comfortable controls. Friends and co-workers who have tested out the GamePad have all noted that it's surprisingly ergonomic. Ridges on the back of each side of the controller meld nicely with your hand, and once you get used to the unorthodox shape of the whole thing, it is pleasant and easy to use, not unlike the Wii's remote and nunchuck.
The GamePad screen also seems designed to deliver a crisper, clearer display than your television, and unlike gaming with, say, an iPad for an extended period of time, playing with the Wii U's GamePad has yet to feel uncomfortable. It's light, pretty, and fun to use.
In general, what's exciting about a new video game console is not what it has to offer—what's exciting is that console's potential. What it will have to offer. The Wii U has a great launch lineup—one of the strongest of any console launch in history—but its best games will be the ones that Nintendo and other developers release in the years to come, not in the months to come.
And after playing around with the system over the past few days, I'm even more excited about the Wii U's potential than ever before. I've written before about some of the ways the dual-screen technology can make RPGs better, but maybe video game makers should really be using the GamePad for Off-TV Play. The most important feature of the Wii U—to me, and to other multi-taskers like me—might wind up being the one that makes it portable. If I can play great Wii U games while watching television, or while letting someone else watch television, or even while gaming on my Durango or Orbis, it could be exactly what I'm looking for.
If it gets enough game support, of course.
Which makes it particularly awful that Nintendo won't let us play Wii or Virtual Console games on the GamePad—instead, you'll load them up on your screen using what Nintendo of America boss Reggie Fils-Aime calls "a Wii within your Wii U." This is a serious missed opportunity, and I hope they realize that one of the biggest draws of this system is getting to play games on the GamePad screen and only on the GamePad screen. Why not support Super Nintendo or N64 games on the Wii U's controller?
Regardless, this is an exciting console. When I first saw the Wii U at E3 2011, I was excited about what two screens could offer. But now, after spending a weekend getting to know Nintendo's new system, I'm even more excited about what one screen could offer. I'm excited to play console games in my lap, on a controller more pleasant and comfortable than any portable system I've used before.
Now let's see if the games can live up.