The Wii U Is Evolution Not Revolution
I’m a huge fan of the Wii, and I have been since the moment I saw the Wii-mote. The Wii-mote was revolutionary and innovative. From the moment I played Wii Tennis, I was hooked. The Wii-mote opened up new genres, it brought in new gamers, and it presented a new branch of gaming. However, despite my love of the Wii-mote, I never once thought it would, could, or should replace the standard dual stick controller, even in my wildest fanboy dreams. I never even thought the Wii-mote was better than a standard controller. The Wii was an excellent change of pace from the standard controller, it was the better choice for certain genres, and it was more novel, but it wasn’t better than competing controllers, at least not for the hardcore sector.
After my first hands on with the Gamepad, I didn’t feel the same sense of wonder I did when I first played the Wii. I wasn’t blown away. I wasn’t amazed. I wasn’t surprised. After spending several hours with the Wii U, I didn’t feel the thrill of innovation that I initially felt with the Wii. Maybe that sounds like a negative to you, but it’s really not. I may not have walked away in shock and awe, but I did walk away feeling that the Wii U Gamepad was the best controller I’ve ever used. It’s hands down better than the dual stick controllers we’ve become used to, and it will wind up replacing them. The Wii U Gamepad is not revolution, it’s evolution.
Let’s get the basics out of the way. The Gamepad is incredibly comfortable. The pad is a bit heavier than an X-Box 360 controller, but not heavy enough to be bothersome. Some players will prefer the extra heft. It’s a matter of preference. Looking beyond the giant touchscreen in the center of the pad, the Wii U has made several slight adjustments to make the controller a bit more comfortable than its competitors. The right stick has been flipped with the face buttons, which is a more logical configuration that feels especially comfortable for shooting games like Mass Effect 3 and Black Ops 2. This analog stick configuration is so logical and intuitive that it’s a wonder that no major company has tried it yet. The second set of shoulder buttons dip a bit lower than those on the 360 which lets your middle fingers rest comfortably on them. The back of the pad is slightly contoured which makes it easier to grip than other similarly shaped devices like the Vita, 3DS, or the iPad. Ergonomically, the Wii U Gamepad is a great controller. Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s talk about the games.
Am I Really Playing A New Console?
My first experience with the Wii U was Zombi U. As I started playing the game, I didn’t feel the excitement of playing a new console. Instead, I felt instantly at home. The graphics were along the lines of what I’d seen on the X-Box 360 or PS3, and the controllers were familiar to any FPS game. L aimed, R fired, left analog moved, and right analog turned. There were few mind blowing moments, but there were a few nice little surprises. Having touch icons for my weapons and items was convenient. Being able to tap an icon to turn my flashlight on and off was quick, easy, and it didn’t waste one of my precious face buttons. Once I picked up a sniper rifle, I was able to aim by holding up the Gamepad and using it as a sniper scope, which was the coolest functionality of the demo.
Inventory management was another cool part of Zombi U. Looking down at my Gamepad to look a zombie meant taking my eyes off the screen. Peeling my eyes off the screen made me incredibly uncomfortable, which was exactly the point. Thankfully, the area of the game I played featured a limited number of zombies, so I didn’t get my brains eaten while looking in my bag. Hopefully, this feature will be more critical to the final product.
After playing Zombi U I thought “this was kind of neat”, and I’d definitely buy the game if it was released on a console I owned, but I was still unsure if it was worth throwing down $350 for a new console.
Fun With Ports
In my next Wii U adventure, I checked out Mass Effect 3. I did this partially because I wanted to see how an existing console game would play on the Wii U, but mostly because there was no line. Strangely, Mass Effect 3 helped me appreciate the Wii U difference more than Zombi U.
Mass Effect 3 is essentially the same game as it was before. I found the Gamepad’s analog sticks and shoulder buttons a bit more comfortable, but otherwise the game controlled similarly. The sole new feature in the new demo I played was the ability to map powers to the touch screen. These powers could be Shepard’s or his squadmates. Surprisingly, this seemingly minute feature made me really appreciate the Wii U.
I’m the type of gamer who really likes diversity. In the case of Mass Effect 3, this means that I tried to use as wide of an array of abilities as possible. Since you could only map three powers for Shepard and one for each squadmate, this meant lots of pausing my game to access my power wheel. With the Wii U, you can map eight additional powers to the tablet which means a lot more versatility. It was nice to be able to have a power for each situation without having to pause my game and scroll through the power wheel. Enemy with a riot shield? Bam singularity. Synthetic? Overload. Enemy with armor? Incinerate. In my playtime with Mass Effect 3, I only accessed my power wheel once, and that’s simply because I wanted to see if I could. Due to this seemingly minor change, the gameplay was a heck of a lot smoother than it was on the console version.
The real kicker here is what happened after the conference. I went home to play the new Leviathan DLC for Mass Effect 3 on the X-Box 360, and I found the controller that I’d used to play through three Mass Effect games suddenly felt a little strange. My old faithful X-Box 360 controller was a clear step back from the Wii U’s Gamepad.
Wii Should Play Together
My next stop was Ubisoft’s Rayman Legends booth. Rayman Legends was easily the most visually impressive game on display, and it looked even better than the already beautiful Rayman Origins. I was excited to try out Rayman’s latest, but that joy was turned to disappointment when the Ubisoft rep handed me a Wii U Gamepad. You see, players using the Wii U Gamepad were playing as Murphy, a tablet exclusive character who flies around interacting with the environment. The player controlling Murphy can cut ropes, pluck items from the ground, tickle (stun) enemies, deactivate traps, and control various mechanisms in the stage.
In what turned out to be one of the day’s pleasant surprises, controlling Murphy was actually a lot of fun. Murphy had a ton of options at any given time, and at many times, Murphy’s abilities were essential to completing levels. At no point did I feel like I was just along for the ride. I felt that I was an important part of the game, no less so than Rayman himself.
I did get to play the game as Rayman as well, and when playing as Rayman, the game was still awesome. Communicating with Murphy adds a new element to the game, which was packed with secrets to be discovered. Rayman Legends is shaping to be a truly excellent platformer that will rival New Super Mario Bros Wii U in the launch window.
Speaking of New Super Mario Bros Wii, that too featured a touch screen based coop mode. In this mode, called Boost Mode, the touch screen player created platforms for Mario, Luigi, or their Toad friends while the screen scrolled automatically through a series of levels. Consecutively landing on the platforms, or boost blocks, garnered coins which in turn made the stage scroll faster. This mode required a little more skill than Rayman Legends’ Murphy mode. While Murphy was never an active hindrance, poorly placed platforms led to many deaths in Mario. My first round of Boost Mode was played with a gal who knew exactly where and when to make platforms, and it was an interesting take on the Mario formula. My second round was with another rep who had no idea what they were doing and frantically tapped the screen which made the game nigh impossible.
Both of these modes were especially great for less experienced gamers. I saw several gamers who constantly walked into walls Zombi U playing as Murphy in Rayman Legends and having a blast. With the Wii, Nintendo made a console which allowed me to play games like Wii Sports and Mario Party with my non-gamer friends and family members. Being able to share my favorite pastime with my favorite people was one of the things that made me love the Wii, but I sometimes felt frustrated that my multiplayer gaming was limited to casual games. With things like Murphy and Boost Mode, it looks like the Wii U will give me the chance to play more substantial hardcore titles with my friends and family while they help me along in ways more suited to their experience level. This is a great potential feature, and I hope Nintendo and third party developers make the most of it.
Look Ma, No TV!
I would be remiss if I didn’t take a moment to talk about the Wii U’s remote play like feature. Several games showed off the ability to play the game solely on the tablet, although they each activated the feature in a slightly different way. In Black Ops 2, the controller’s touch screen was constantly in sync with the TV image, so someone could come in and shut the TV without me missing a beat. With Mass Effect 3, a simple touch of a button was all it took to switch from TV to tablet and back. With Skylander’s Giants, I had to go into the menu to activate the option. In all cases, playing on the tablet was lag free (by the way, lag was not an issue at any point in any of the games I played).
Many gamers have scoffed at the usefulness of this particular feature. Those gamers probably don’t have wives, husbands, children, or roommates. For those of us who often have to share a TV, this feature will be a huge boon. Even for those gamers who live alone, it will be nice to be able to play a level or two of Rayman during a commercial, or craft some iron daggers while watching a bit of TV. Like many of the Wii U’s capabilities, being able to play a game on your controller is hardly an Earth shattering feature, but it is one that most gamers will find to be useful at one point or another. Some gamers may find this feature to be essential.
I Just Won The Superbowl. I’M GOING TO NINTENDO LAND!!!
Despite being the most hyped game for the Wii U, Nintendo Land is also the most enigmatic. It’s hard to get a read on whether Nintendo Land will be the groundbreaking success that the Wii Sports was or if it will explode all over the launch pad. The potential for each of these scenarios to happen is there. Nintendo Land features a great collection of minigames, some of which are simple but fun experiences, and others of which offer a bit more depth. I got to try out 4 of these minigames; Mario Chase, Metroid Blast, Pikmin Adventure, and Balloon Trip Breeze. For the sake of brevity, I’ll focus on Metroid Blast and Mario Chase (check back soon for hands on previews of Balloon Trip and Pikmin).
Metroid Blast is an interesting game. This minigame has far more depth than you’d expect out of a minigame collection game, and is easily more robust than anything you’d find in Wii Sports, Wii Sports Resort, Wii Play, Sports Champions, Kinect Sports, and so on. The mode I tried out was called surface to air, where one player controls Samus’ gunship while other players control Samuses and try to take the gunship down. In my first round I played as Samus. I used the Wii-mote and Nunchuck for my controller and teamed up with others to take on a gunship which was controlled by the player holding the tablet. The controls were instantly familiar to me as I’ve played my fair share of Wii-mote shooting games. Metroid Blast kept things simple enough to not completely alienate new players, but also offered enough depth to appease more hardcore gamers. There was plenty of cover to be utilized, power ups, grapple points, dodges, warp pads, and other elements to add strategy to the proceedings. Metroid Blast also featured a co-op horde style game which had the Gunship teaming with Samus to take on waves of enemies.
Metroid Blast was… well… a blast. It was a simple but polished shooting experience that will appeal strongly to gamers who enjoy deeper games but may not be quite ready for more complex shooters. Even though it was fun, it was hard to get too jazzed up about using the tired and true Wii-mote and Nunchuck combination with the fancy shmancy new Wii U.
I became a whole lot more interested in Metroid Blast when I got to try it out from the gunship perspective. The gunship used a fairly complex control scheme which used the dual analog sticks to thrust, decelerate, turn, climb, and descend, while using tilt controls for aiming and shoulder buttons to zoom in and fire. On a basic level, this was an interesting control scheme that wouldn’t work quite as well on other consoles. More importantly, it was an entirely different experience than playing Metroid Blast with the Wii U remote.
Having players choose different vehicles or characters in multiplayer modes is not a brand new concept, but typically choosing a different vehicle only offers a mild variation on the core gameplay. In Metroid Blast, the difference was night and day. It was essentially two different games in one package. Having different players working with separate toolsets adds a new wrinkle to competitive multiplayer.
Surprisingly, my favorite game of the day was one of the games I was least looking forward to. Mario Chase seemed just a little too simple for my tastes. Mario Chase is an evolution of Pacman VS, one of Nintendo’s earliest flirtations with dual screened gaming. One player plays as Mario. This player must last two minutes and thirty seconds without being caught. The other players control Toads with Wii-motes and must give chase. Naturally, the Toads have an easier task, but Mario has a key advantage. Mario can see the whole level with the Gamepad while his competitors can only see their immediate surroundings.
The key to success is communication. My first round of Mario Chase had me facing off against two Nintendo representatives who were completely in sync and caught me in less than thirty seconds. The second time around I played as Mario against four total strangers. Despite having double the number of Toads, the players couldn’t catch me. After a few rounds, the strangers were communicating, barking orders, giggling, and working as a well oiled machine. My poor Mario didn’t stand a chance. Mario Chase was the most engaging party game experience I’ve enjoyed since Rock Band, and in an age where local multiplayer is waning, that’s a great thing.
Best. Controller. Ever.
I got to try out several other games in my time with the Wii U, but those were the highlights. The features I’ve touched upon may not seem revolutionary to you. Being able to have a non-gamer jump into a game of Rayman Legends is a cool feature. Nintendo Land’s unique take on multiplayer puts an emphasis on communication which was a lot of fun. Zombi U makes use of the Gamepad to add a jolt of fear back into the survival horror franchise. Battles in Mass Effect 3 on the Wii U were a lot smoother than in their X-Box 360 counterparts. Being able to play games solely on the Gamepad is a feature that will please anyone who shares a TV. On their own, these features may not be enough to dazzle jaded hardcore gamers, but the sum of the Wii U’s capabilities makes for the best controller the console industry has seen to date.
Let me be crystal clear. This is not a gimmick. This isn’t something like the Wii-mote which will provide a fun alternative to standard controls. This isn’t something like the Kinect that features exciting technology that will ultimately mean nothing for gamers. In every game on display at the conference, the Wii U Gamepad offered meaningful advantages over a standard controller. These advantages were more pronounced in some games than others, but at no point did I feel that the Wii U Gamepad wasn’t superior to a normal controller. This isn’t an alternative, this isn’t an experiment, and it certainly isn’t a gimmick. Any gamer who tries out the Wii U Gamepad with an open mind will conclude that it is superior to the PS3 or X-Box 360 controller.
The controller is the way we interact with our games, so having the best controller on the market is kind of a big deal. It should go without saying that there are many other factors that will impact how well the Wii U will function, but the Wii U’s Gamepad has me pretty excited about the potential for the system.
So, How About You?
Those are my impressions of the Wii U. What did you think about Nintendo’s big show? Let me know by posting in the comments below, and you can always comment on my twitter account at @GotGameJustin. Till next time.