There is a white pickup truck driving around the country, towing an Airstream behind it. This particular Airstream is painted white and has some pretty familiar faces all over it:
Signature Nintendo characters such as DK, Princess Peach, Yoshi, and the Mario Bros are plastered all over the trailer. Today they stopped in Dearborn, Michigan, where we met with Nintendo representatives to go over the Wii U, Nintendo 3DS XL, and some of the new games coming out this season.
Nintendo 3DS XL
The new 3DS XL is impressive and feels really good in the hands. With 90% more screen real estate and a better grip, it’s by far the most comfortable hand-held system I’ve ever used. In all other respects it is a Nintendo 3DS, just writ large. After playing around with the XL, I want to trade in my 3DS (or give it to one of my kids) and get an XL for myself. They are available in red and blue in North America for $199.99.
Some of the new games I got hands-on with included Professor Layton and the Miracle Mask, and New Super Mario Bros. 2. Unfortunately I forgot to bring my own 3DS, so I could not Streetpass with the Nintendo reps. Doesn’t matter, I still have way more Streetpasses than Bobby “Streetpass Smalltime” Miller.
Nintendo has had a conundrum for years now: they literally invent an entirely new way to interact with video games, the gaming press and hardcore gaming communities make fun of it and write it off as Nintendo being silly and for babies, and then Nintendo gets copied (not that it matters because they generally laugh their way to the bank). The Wii brings motion control to the mainstream, and then Microsoft and Sony jump on the bandwagon. Sony took liberal inspiration from the DS and 3DS for the Vita. Miis? I mean Xbox Avatars? You get the idea.
Let me just say right now that Nintendo is once again marching to the beat of their own drum. They are inventing a new paradigm for console gaming, and I will eat my own foot if competitors don’t emulate this new paradigm in the next generation and a half of their consoles.
There’s lots of head-scratching about what the Wii U Gamepad is. I played with it for an hour today and I’m not entirely sure I can definitively answer that question. Much of what it can become is up to software developers. To make sense of it, let’s look at it as wireless extension of the Wii U console. The Wii U can stream content to it independently of the television, or duplicate what you see on the TV. It is not a “tablet” like many people have been claiming. It’s a dedicated game controller and it doesn’t have any brains. It does have a high-resolution touchscreen display (not multi-touch), and it’s big but comfortable to hold.
We started off with four-player New Super Mario Bros U. It is more of what makes New Super Mario Bros so fun. There’s nothing groundbreaking in the core game here. More suits, more levels, and so on. Where it goes way off rails is with the concept that one player can use the Gamepad to “assist” or “boost” … or hinder their friends. In assist mode, you can touch the screen to lay down platforms that might, say, save Luigi from falling into the jaws of a piranha plant, or prevent poor little Toad from falling to his doom. You can also turn platforms into coin blocks to help the other players get more coins.
But you can also use the platform drops to make life miserable for the others. They’re about to make a high jump to a platform? Bonk, block-blocked. They’re jumping over a pit? Not if you drop a block right over their head.
The potential for lulz is high with this one. The four of us were cracking up in the little Airstream with this thing.
Next up we played Nintendo Land, which is a pack-in with the Deluxe set, and one of the showcase games that is designed to show off all the Wii U features—much like Wii Sports did for the Wii. Nintendo Land is a collection of mini-games that show off the potential of the Gamepad and multi-player capability. First, I tried the Takamaru’s Ninja Castle game in which you hold the Gamepad vertically and flat, and use it to flick shuriken at targets on the screen. It’s stupid and fun and surprisingly frantic and challenging.
We then went into a multi-player game of Luigi’s Ghost Mansion. This game was a total hoot. The player with the Gamepad is the ghost. They get a top-down map of the simple maze-like haunted mansion on which they can see all the players as well as their own location. The players get to look on the TV, but they can’t see the ghost. The players have to either survive for five minutes, or drain the ghost of energy with their flashlights. The ghost’s job is to sneak around and grab the players from behind, which knocks them asleep. If the ghost puts all the players to sleep, the ghost wins. If the players survive or drain the ghost, they win. They can also revive their sleeping teammates with their flashlight, but that leaves their back vulnerable to the ghost.
Every time a player got grabbed, they shrieked, because they knew the player with the Gamepad was gleefully outsmarting them. I tried once as a player and once as the ghost, and it was a riot.
The next co-op mini game was Legend of Zelda Battle Quest, an adventure where the players with Wii Remotes get swords and the player with the Gamepad gets a bow and arrow. It was a simple on-rails shooter in the same genre as Time Crisis, Area 51, or House of the Dead. In co-op mode, the players have to work together to defeat enemies (for example, the sword wielder has to swing a sword at an enemy’s legs, causing him to go behind his tower shield while exposing his head, which the arrow player can shoot) and puzzles (hitting simultaneous objects, etc.)
There was a Donkey Kong Crash Course game that paid homage to the original arcade classic, especially with music and graphics that really hit some nostalgia notes, and more. There are Metroid games, Pikmin games, and more. I hate to call them “mini-games” because that term has a bad legacy. They’re actually really fun games in and of themselves that provide more content than what most people would consider a mini-game.
Third party games
The first third-party launch title I played was Platinum’s Wonderful 101. This is a quirky superhero isometric 3D beat-em-up that puts you in charge of a shambling gang of superheroes. You control the entire group, selecting a leader and using gestures on the Gamepad to tell your heroes to glom together into shapes like a giant fist, a giant gun, or a huge sword. You then use the normal analog sticks and buttons on the gamepad like a normal fighting game. You fight big boss monsters one after another while exploring a city and rescuing people (you can also recruit them to your gang) in between. It was full of goofy humor and ridiculous situations.
The new Scribblenauts is equally awesome. To make a long story short, I got some laughs out of arming all the children in the forest with exotic weapons as well as creating a sad pig, a flaming chef, and an ornithopter to fly around with.
I also tried ZombiU from Ubisoft but found it clunky and hard to control. I am famously condescending about console FPS controls anyway, so this was nothing new. I’m sure people who are good at aiming with console controllers would find it acceptable, but I’m a mouse and keyboard guy all the way.
The Nintendo Media Hub
Nintendo wants the Wii U to be the media hub of your home entertainment center. To that end, one of the big features they recently announced was Nintendo TVii (yes, I know, I cringe at the stupid name too), which aggregates many of the digital content services (Hulu, Amazon, Netflix, and so on) so that you, the viewer, only have to basically type in what you’re looking for and Nintendo TV will direct you to the appropriate place to watch it, whether it be a for-pay service or on the air through a local channel.
I got “Nintendo has not made any statement” on whether or not the Wii will play Blu-ray movies, but the “proprietary optical disc format” that the games were on were the same color as Blu-ray discs I’ve seen in the past. Not that this means anything, but the proprietary discs will hold 25gb of content, just like a Blu-ray disc. If I had to guess, I’d say that the Wii U will probably never play disc-based Blu-ray movies, opting for HD streaming of movies instead.
The Wii U will have either 8gb or 32gb of internal storage at launch, depending on which model you buy, but it does support external storage via USB, so you’ll have essentially limitless storage capacity.
It will be very interesting to see if game creators take advantage of the new creative possibilities of the Wii U Gamepad. The idea that multiple people can be playing the same game but in entirely different roles simultaneously, while playing at the same “system” is a new one that Nintendo has just invented. Yes, co-op gaming has existed for years, and yes, multiplayer gaming has existed for years, but never like this. Having two entirely independent screens is going to change the way, once again, people expect to be able to interact with video games. It will be interested to see how Sony and Microsoft riff off of this.
The Wii U promises to be a tremendously entertaining system. Of course it has better graphics than the PS3 or Xbox 360, but more importantly it will push a new trend of creative ways to include multiple people in a living room-based gaming experience. Years from now, Nintendo may not be considered the best console for hardcore gamers, but the paradigm they are creating now will ripple out and affect us all in a positive way.
The Wii U is available on November 18th for $349.99 for the Deluxe set and $299.99 for the Basic set. Online pre-orders are sold out in many places but it looks like Sears and Kmart still have them available.