It looks like the product of a fevered fanboy wetdream. A 6.2-inch touchscreen, surrounded by dual analog sticks and oodles of buttons. Like the portable hardcore gamers wish Nintendo made. But it's the most incredible controller ever.
I'm completely immersed in my own tiny world with the Wii U controller, staring into the screen, moving my arms and entire body to track two tiny people, scurrying around below my hovercraft. They're a Nintendo rep and Kotaku's Stephen Totilo, whose eyes are glued to the TV next to us, trying to shoot down the enemy ship in the sky (me). My entire game takes place on the Wii U's controller, almost as if I'm playing not just an entirely different game, but an entirely different console. I move the aircraft with the twin analog sticks, forward, back, left, right. But to aim, I have to move the entire controller and my body with it, as if I'm surrounded by an entire world that can only be peeked at through the Wii U controller's screen. It's both profoundly connected and weirdly alienating. I'm not just the enemy for these players united on one screen, I'm in an entirely different space.
The controller is light. Not in a way that's like, "Oh, I'm glad it's not too heavy," but more "this feels like a plastic mockup." It's almost unbelievable there's a working touchscreen and full wireless powers inside. The lightness is what makes it work though, what makes this massive controller feel incredibly comfortable and totally natural. The ergonomics are nigh perfect.
Super Mario Brothers Mii is up on the TV. And it's on my controller. Mario jumps, on the controller and on the TV, simultaneously. It's the same game, in two different places. Watching the game on the controller, it feels like I'm playing a very large DS. Up on the TV, it's like I'm playing Nintendo's latest console release. It sounds useless, until I realized I could watch whatever really important thing is on TV while continuing to play my game on the controller. Or even turn the TV off. Gaming can come back to the bedroom.
The quality of the touchscreen, compared to nearly any reasonably high-end current-generation smartphone, is mediocre. The viewing angle's pretty narrow, for one. You need to be almost dead center to see what's happening (but maybe that's a feature, for versus mode?). It's not especially bright, either. And it's sort of glare-y. Nintendo's not talking specific screen specs like resolution, because this is technically a prototype—so a lot of things could change and get better—but the pixel density is just okay. It's standard Nintendo hardware quality, in other words. Just good enough. Like, I totally didn't mind playing Super Mario Bros. Mii using the controller as my sole display. But iPad or PS Vita, it is not. It was just like playing it on a much bigger DS screen, instead of my TV. There's a stylus, which I didn't get to use. But it's a standard piece of plastic, so there's no multitouch. Which is sort of heartbreaking, insofar as it imposes at least some limits on what this controller is capable of.
The Wii U is the first Nintendo console whose games are visually on the level with the Xbox 360 and PS3 (or at least close to it). That's important. And nice. The Legend of Zelda in full HD? Yes please. The Wii U, in just catching up to the consoles that came before it, and using a mid-quality touchscreen for the controller, showcases one of Nintendo's greatest talents: Taking "good enough" technology and packaging it in a way that's super simple but deeply impactful and innovative. (There's another technology company that's spectacular at this.)
I'm being chased, again. And again, my predators are sharing the TV, pooling their visual resources to track me. They need to catch me in 2 minutes and 30 seconds. That's it. Down on my controller, I've got an unfair advantage-a combined map/radar, that shows me where everybody is. It's kind of like top-down Pac-Man. But I've also got a screen showing a closeup of my character, so I can see my immediate surroundings. I never take my eyes off the controller. And I win.
That's something no controller's ever offered before: The possibility of entirely different viewpoint, the ability to see something in a game that no one else sees, to engage different players in completely different ways. A screen is by definition a blank canvas, a place that be inscribed with anything. Which means there's basically limitless potential in the Wii U and its controller, just waiting to be exploited. Developers can use that space for whatever they want, whether it's an alternative view or secondary action to the main game, extra info, a straight-up mirror, or anything else they can think of that'll take advantage of the fact they now have another window to show players whatever they want, completely independent of the TV. And that's not even considering the wealth of sensors onboard, like the mic and gyro, and what they'll allow the control to accomplish in concert with everything else.
We haven't even seen the beginning of what this thing is capable of, but one thing's clear today: It works, and it's a hell of a lot of fun.