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Buzzwords: The Power of U (July 22)

by on July 22, 2012
 

We live in a time of excess and instant gratification, but, above all else, we live in a time of buzzwords. Buzzwords control the landscape of the world; politics, sports, and, of course, video games are all manipulated by these simple words and phrases. As a result of their power, Buzzwords must be embraced. This is where the embracing begins.

I consider myself to be an individual of moderate luck, but, for one week only, I’m willing to upgrade that estimation from moderate to severe. On Thursday, I was treated to a hands-on demonstration of both the Nintendo 3DS XL and Wii U, two systems destined for retail later this year, in Chicago.

Obviously, I have a lot of writing to do, and, as such, this week’s edition of Buzzwords is an extension of my coverage and will focus almost entirely on the hardware itself. There will, of course, be some talk of games as they are somewhat important to the story at hand; I have to mention Rayman Legends at some point.

I really like Rayman Legends.


The Gamepad

Going in to the event, there was little that I was more skeptical of than the Gamepad, the Wii U’s innovative controller which touts a traditional collection of buttons supplemented by a more intuitive, touch-based interface; having viewed the device only from the comfort of my humble abode, the tablet-inspired accessory appeared to be big, uncomfortable, and little more than a novel concept conceived in a desperate attempt to appease a casual market that has become growingly disenchanted with the idea of dedicated gaming hardware. Though it is undoubtedly large and quite possibly in charge, the Gamepad is far from uncomfortable and is, in fact, more than the gimmick that it is largely reported as being. It is an unanticipated delight.

While many of its design decisions appear to have been derived from it, the Gamepad is not an exact replica of Apple’s iPad; instead of having a flat underbelly, the controller has carefully placed grooves that make the device easy to hold and comfortable to grip for extended sessions of play. It does reach some common ground with tablets in that it is a lightweight peripheral with a negligible pound advantage over comparable interfaces.

After having a moment to get myself acquainted with the proportions of the Gamepad, my concern shifted in the direction of the touch screen that occupies the central portion of the device. Never once did I doubt that the interface would work, but I did have some serious issues with the idea that it wouldn’t operate well without the use of a stylus. For the most part, that statement is untrue; many uses of the control mechanism, including those found in such third-party properties as ZombiU, worked as well without a stylus as they did with it. The only instance in which this wasn’t the case was when playing through Rayman Legends, a game in which such precision was required by the controller’s user that a stylus was all but a necessity. I was thankful that this wasn’t the case for such light-implementations of the interface as those found in Game & Wario and Nintendoland, two experiences that would be fundamentally impaired were they to require the accessory.

Another feature of the controller being proudly touted by Nintendo is near-field communication, a recent technological emergence that the company is planning to use in such games as Wii Fit U. Beyond that, the representatives demoing the system for me could not say anything else about the function and its utility as it pertains to future releases.

Perhaps the most difficult to grasp conceit of the Wii U has been its ability to stream content directly from the console to the Gamepad regardless of whether or not the television is being used by the player. Even after having the concept explained to me in great detail, I had a hard time seeing the need for such an option to exist. It was only after hours of thought and a few moments on the city’s pubic transit that I came to an epiphany on the subject; this function isn’t designed with adults in mind. I have a laptop, a Kindle Fire, and an iPhone so, when push comes to shove, all of my bases are covered; however, most children are lucky to be considered responsible enough for a packet of gum. When mom or dad strolls into the living room and turns on The Newsroom, the kid in question is going to have a tough time finding a way to continue watching a program on Netflix or playing New Super Mario Bros. U. The Gamepad eliminates that problem without requiring too many other devices of the user.

As a whole, I was pleasantly surprised by the Gamepad. After entering with the mindset that it was little more than a gimmick, I left with the cognition that it was a respectable alternative to the offerings being put out by Nintendo’s opponents in the marketplace. Sure, it would be nice if the controller’s screen was advanced enough to more precisely account for fingers, but overall it appeared to be a well designed piece of hardware that won’t be any more inconvenient than a traditional interface.


The Graphics

With proper, reasoned dialog in mind, I’m going to get this out of the way now: the Wii U looks a little bit better than the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. That said, the upgrade from the Wii is so dramatic that I had to look back towards the entryway to make sure that I was meeting with the right publisher.

Though the upgrade over next-generation systems is a humble one, Nintendo games look phenomenal when examined through the looking glass of high-definition visuals; even New Super Mario Bros. U, an experience with the graphical complexity of a DS title, leaps off of the screen like none of the company’s major franchises ever has before. Of the games showcased, only Game & Wario and ZombiU looked as if they needed a facelift of any kind, a fact that led me to yet another realization: style is going to have to go a long way if the Wii U is to overcome its next-generation counterparts.

The fact of the matter is that both the PlayStation 4 and Xbox 8 are going to blow the Wii U out of the water from a visual perspective. Nintendo cannot compete as a powerhouse, but it can compete if it looks inward and ensures that the experiences it can facilitate are as aesthetically pleasing as is possible given the hardware limitations. Pikmin 3 and Rayman Legends are great examples; the games sport graphics that are simple, and because of that fact they truly take off as the system’s first breathtaking experiences.

It’s hard to say, based on what I saw, whether or not the Wii U can be viewed as anything more than a moderate upgrade over current-generation hardware. It is significantly less hard to say that the Wii U makes Nintendo games pop as they never have before, and, for that fact alone, I’m optimistic for the near future.


The Games

There are a lot of complaints made in regards to the Wii U that I can understand, but, especially after leaving the demonstration in Chicago, the one that I can’t make heads or tails of is the issue that many are having with the console’s launch window software; in my eyes, the lineup is substantial.

Of the half a dozen games that I got a chance to play, I would say that five of them are worth a purchase. The one factor that all of these titles had in common was that they would all be seeing the light of day within minutes, days, weeks, or months of the Wii U’s launch. No, there isn’t a major Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, or Metroid, but there is a lot more that I think is worth getting excited over.

Rayman Legends was, to me, the standout effort of the showing. Ubisoft has, after the exceptional Rayman Origins, clearly gotten a grip on what it is that makes a platformer flow. The level shown in this particular demo was challenging but never in a way that broke the pace, and, at the same time, it was incredibly creative as the action was happening in respect to a rhythmic beat that helped to make the experience as fresh and fun as anything else currently on the market.

My personal favorite title at the presentation was Pikmin 3, the long-awaited sequel to Nintendo’s most offbeat franchise. While Rayman Legends was fresh, Pikmin 3 was simply refreshing. The game plays nearly identical to Pikmin 2 with the major changes being relegated largely to new species of Pikmin, improved graphics, and an increased focus on presentation that made the boss battle in the demo feel twice as intense as even the most vicious antagonist from the series’ first two entries.

As the event unraveled, I found myself most surprised by Nintendoland; yes, I am talking about the game that concluded Nintendo’s E3 press conference with a series of confusing lectures and uninspired stage demonstrations. Nintendoland is an experience that fares significantly better when it is in the player’s hand and not in those of people trying to explain its mechanics. Though the final product will have ten stages inspired by popular Nintendo franchises, the build prepared for me had only attractions based on The Legend of Zelda, Donkey Kong, and Luigi’s Mansion I can’t emphasize enough how much fun each of these proved to be.

The Legend of Zelda was an action-oriented romp through the forest that had the user with a Gamepad acting as an archer while those with a Wii remote swung their swords in a manner similar to last year’s Skyward Sword. As simple as it was, I couldn’t help but smile as this world I was so familiar with was boiled down to an attraction at any given amusement park. This game in particular will be great for parties, but I do have one concern that I directed towards my nearest Nintendo representative. In order for the title to maintain its fun, there needs to be a level of variety in the enemy formations such as that which was seen in Left 4 Dead. If the experience was to remain stagnant, this particular mini-game will have a hard time lasting beyond the first few plays.

The remainder of the two worked equally as well and proved to be similarly fun, and I say this next sentence with complete sincerity: I’m excited for Nintendoland. Based on my experience with the rest of the software lineup, I’m excited for the Wii U, too.


The Nintendo 3DS XL

In the debut edition of Buzzwords, I made jokes at the expense of the Nintendo 3DS XL. After all, it is incredibly large and, for that reason alone, inherently the subject of humor (i.e. your system is so fat, it thought that a school bus was a fun-sized Twinkie). Comical proportions aside, the XL is a reasonable, iterative expansion of its predecessor if.

Two potential problems leaped out at me the moment that the device was announced: comfort and the effect of the new screens on the visuals of the platform’s games. Both concerns were eased within instants of picking up the handheld.

The Nintendo 3DS XL is, unlike its forefather, rounded around the edges. From a standpoint of aesthetics, that alteration raises more than a few troubling quandaries; however, from a standpoint of comfort, the alteration makes for a more enjoyable experience than those had with the original hardware. By making this simple adjustment, the XL is more conducive to the human hand and less rigid in its opposition to extended play. I can only grapple with the original Nintendo 3DS for so long before the center of my palm begins to look like it just demonstrated to an unknowing third party what the five fingers did say to the face. With the XL, I can envision this becoming little more than a worry of the past.

More importantly, the Nintendo 3DS XL and its altered design do not negatively affect the system’s existing software. As the screens have, along with everything else, multiplied in size, it became a growing concern that users of the handheld would have to put up with stretched out, unappealing visuals. After playing both Luigi’s Mansion 2: Dark Moon and New Super Mario Bros. 2, I can safely put this issue to bed. The games, big screen or little screen, look fine; there’s nothing to worry about on that front.

In the interest of fair analysis, it’s hard to discount the claims that a year and a half is far too little passed time to release an iteration on new hardware. The Nintendo 3DS XL is unnecessary, but, that fact still in mind, it still seems like a fair upgrade with an equally fair asking price.


Drew Robbins – Tired, Cranky, and Hungry

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