Here is the next big game for Nintendo's Wii U displayed on my TV. Do you see something strange in this picture?
Hint: look at that screen on the controller. It's dark! No graphics! (It might actually be displaying blackness, oddly enough!)
That's right. Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze, a game for the Nintendo home console that is all about putting a second screen in your hands, only displays its graphics on a single screen. Unlike every other Wii U game I've played since November 2012, it doesn't use the Wii U GamePad controller's screen for anything—at least, not when you're playing.
The game does use the TV and controller screens when it's showing the game's logo...
It uses dual-screen display when the game is running in its non-playable attract mode...
But when you start playing, you need to choose one screen—and only one screen—on which to look at the game's graphics...
You can play the game just on the Wii U GamePad, of course...
Plenty of Wii U games have displayed graphics to the TV and the GamePad simultaneously. It appears that this Nintendo game's creators have shut that option off this time.
So, why would this be?
I've asked Nintendo, and hopefully they'll be able to fill us in, but my hunch is that turning off the GamePad's graphical output during gameplay might allow the Wii U to pump out better graphics on the TV. Or perhaps it saves power on the GamePad's battery.
Then there's this: perhaps they shut off the graphical output to the GamePad simply because the game doesn't need it.
Tropical Freeze is a hard game. It's supposed to be. The DKC games always are tough. They're not breezy sidescrollers but instead, great-sounding, good-looking backbreakers. They demand focus. I've been playing the game for a couple of hours, and the amount of time I've been looking at my TV while wanting to look at a second screen has been zero minutes, zero seconds.
If my theory is correct, this development is actually really good news.
Back when the Nintendo DS came out, early games on the system were made to use as many of the DS' features as possible. They used the two screens, the microphone, the touch controls...and sometimes they were awful because of it. The same thing happened with the Wii. Every game had waggle controls for things that maybe didn't really need waggle controls.
On the DS and again on the Wii, Nintendo's own superb designers eventually calmed down and seemed to realize that, hey, we don't have to use every gimmick every time. In so doing, they created a Mario Kart on DS that was excellent without being gimmicky. They created a Smash Bros. and a Super Mario Galaxy on the Wii that barely used motion control. They neglected signature elements of the hardware they were making games for in order to best serve the games they were making. Gamers benefitted from that just as they benefitted from the games that did use those machine's gimmicks well. Maybe... just maybe...that kind of selective design restraint is what's going on here.
I do know that Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze isn't suffering because the second screen is dark. The game is gorgeous because of or despite that.
It's tempting to take Tropical Freeze's blackened GamePad as a sign that the Wii U concept is a bad one (other than that nice option to play a console game on a screen other than your TV, of course!). Oh, look, they shouldn't have wasted time with that complicated controller, you might think.
I think the other possibility is actually rather exciting: that Nintendo is past trying to squeeze two-screen features into all their games and is instead going to use their hardware as it best suits each new game.