I am not a game designer. I have made games before, but they were not very good. My talents lie elsewhere. So when I write about games, I consciously try to avoid offering my own suggestions for what their designers should have implemented or cut. My job is to critique what's there, not talk about what they should have done.
But today is special. I spent most of yesterday fiddling around with the Wii U during Nintendo's big bonanza in New York City, and all I could think about was how many cool features it could bring to the world of role-playing games. The Wii U's tablet controller—which is constantly tethered to your game and could be used for all sorts of dual-screen experiences almost like a bigger, more versatile DS—opens up a whole lot of opportunities.
So let's open the brain dam. Here are some things that RPGs could do with the Wii U.
Maps and maps and maps
World maps. Dungeon maps. Battle maps. One of the coolest things about having a separate screen in your lap is that it can be used to supplement what you're seeing and doing on your TV. And one of the most irritating things about gaming displays, as any interface designer will tell you, is how obnoxious and cluttery all those little things on your screen can be. Mini-maps, health bars, status gauges, etc.
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The Wii U can help fix that. The big screen can be clean and clutter-free, showing nothing but beautiful 3D (or 2D, or isometric, or whatever). All that nasty UI stuff—like an interactive map that you can touch and play around with—can fit in your lap.
Character and inventory management
Again, the second screen can make all that UI clutter easier to deal with. Maybe we don't even need menus anymore. Instead of pausing the game to open up a separate set of screens that allows you to swap your characters' equipment and use items and manage your inventory, the Wii U's tablet could hold all of that information for you 24/7. No reason you shouldn't be able to do all that stuff while walking around.
Remember Triple Triad, that fiendishly addictive card game from Final Fantasy VIII? Or the (godly) Iron Chef knock-offs in Suikoden II? Think about how much cooler they could be if you could slide cards around a touch-screen in your lap, or furiously whip up sushi dishes on your GamePad as the judges yelled at you from the big screen.
We've seen the DS and 3DS play around with ideas like this before, but this could be a totally different scale. And if anyone knows minigames, it's Nintendo.
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Crazy combat systems
Maybe combat that forces you to tap along with a beat ala Theatrhythm Final Fantasy. Or fights that task you to draw patterns on the small screen while you control characters with buttons on the other. Basically, the Wii U will let more RPGs copy The World Ends With You. That's a good thing.
Bosses that take up both screens. Some DS games have also done this—Bowser's Inside Story, for example—but again, we haven't seen them that frequently, or on this scale. Imagine a giant tower whose head has to be attacked by characters on the big screen while its base is taken down by your fingers on the GamePad. Or a boss that can only be defeated by simultaneous attacks on both screens. Lots of potential here.
Strategy guides, helpful messages
Here's a good opportunity for developers to implement social features—a buzzword that drives gamers crazy—in a way that isn't intrusive. Maybe you're walking around an area and you can see live reactions and feelings from other players on your bottom screen. Maybe you get cryptic messages ala Dark Souls or see other RPG players like in Journey.
And what about extra help? You could play the game on one screen and read about helpful tools and tips on the other. Maybe you pay a bit extra for a built-in Prima strategy guide that recognizes exactly where you are in a game, and updates with supplementary information as you progress.
Routes, battle orders in strategy-RPGs
One of Madden 13's coolest features on Wii U is the way it lets you plot out receivers' routes by just drawing where you want them to go. Can't you imagine strategy-RPGs using a similar mechanic? Maybe you can give all of your characters simultaneous assignments in the hypothetical Valkyria Chronicles 4 for Wii U, or move them along the grid battlefield in the hypothetical Final Fantasy Tactics 2. Excited yet?
Extra camera angles for cut-scenes
Not to go all Kojima on you, but wouldn't it be neat to see cut-scenes from multiple angles at the same time, each on a different screen? Could get expensive. Not a priority.
Few things are more annoying than trying to read large chunks of virtual text on a big-screen television. Let's make that easier. What if you pick up a book in Skyrim or a Tales game and open it in your lap? More convenient, easier to read, bam. (Thanks to Kirk for this idea.)
Simultaneous combat and exploration
Let's get crazy. We've all dealt with random encounters. Nobody really likes them. But what if random encounters didn't interrupt your progress? What if your characters could actually fight battles while you continued exploring?
Stay with me here. Let's say you're exploring a dungeon on the television, right? Third-person 3D view, etc. What if your characters hung out on the bottom screen as you explored, automatically fighting enemies while you walked around? Maybe you could help them out by tapping the screen to cast a spell or heal them every once in a while. Maybe every once in a while you run into a more powerful enemy or boss that takes over the big screen too.
So you'd have to micromanage, but you wouldn't have to grind. You'd have to deal with the challenge of random encounters without the tedium. Seems like a cool balance, no?
Some of these ideas might work. Some of them might not work. But the Wii U has a lot of potential, and it could do a lot of good things for all kinds of RPGs. Now it just needs to get some RPGs.
Random Encounters is a weekly column dedicated to all things JRPG. It runs every Friday at 3pm ET.