updated 09:10 pm EDT, Tue June 7, 2011
Nintendo Wii U given an extensive look
We managed to get some extensive hands-on time with the Nintendo Wii U at E3 to get a feel for how well it works and whether any claims that it might be an iPad rival are well-founded. Our first impression is that it's much more manageable to hold than it looks: the controller is light and easy to steer if you're using a motion-sensitive game. The layout was clearly designed to be comfortable for both buttons and touch, and we had no problem with games that needed either the analog sticks or the touchscreen.
The mini-games on show -- Nintendo prefers to call them "experiences" -- are all over the map in terms of complexity, but many of them were fun and good showcases of what the Wii U could do. At the most basic, Measure Up was a simple geometry drawing game. The most accurate shape won the most points, and it showed that stylus games still had room to play.
A tech demo of a bird flying through the four seasons of a Japanese garden was even more basic, but it showed that you could steer action from one screen to the other with seemingly no lag, even when both screens active. The app was also a clue that the Wii U was much more powerful than the Wii and possibly more so than the PS3 or Xbox 360. Detail on both was the same and included both the known water effects as well as nice touches like depth of field (such as defocusing the bird) or carving footprints in the snow as the bird walked a ledge in the winter.
Other demos weren't necessarily technical powerhouses so much as examples of how well a game could work if it put everything together. Shield Pose is an unusual mix of a shooting gallery-style first person game with a rhythm title: you have to pivot to face oncoming arrows based on cues from the TV and shake the arrows off, with better timing getting you a better score. You could also find a simple Super Mario Bros. adaptation as well as a basic explorer based on the Zelda games.
The two most interesting titles for us were Battle Mii and a maze game, both of which used a mix of Wii remotes and the Wii U controller to show the differences in experiences. The former saw two Wii remote players try to shoot down a spaceship steered by the Wii U controller. It was fun on both sides, but the Wii U player had a much easier time controlling and could fly around the map much like a good PC shooter would.
The maze title had the Wii users relying on the limited perspective of their view on the TV to try and hunt down the Wii U player, who had an overhead map on his private screen to tell where the others were. Again, it was quite clear the Wii U player had the best of it; it was possible to catch him, but the extra info would let him double back on the others and otherwise get free.
So is it a challenger to the iPad? At this stage, even if Nintendo head Satoru Iwata is wrong, not yet. Without the web browsing, video chat, and games that are meant to last more than a few minutes, it's still very early. Having said this, we don't see it being in the same category when it ships. The iPad is a computing device that happens to play games; the Wii U is a game console that happens to do computing-like tasks. Neither is necessarily worse, just different.
As a game machine by itself, we're looking forward to it. There's a lot of distance to cover between E3 and the 2012 release. Nintendo, though, is clearly eager to keep the accessibility that made the original Wii a hit while throwing in controls that would make more sense for first-person shooters and other more 'serious' titles. We're looking forward to seeing the full potential, and we could see the Wii U being a genuine everyman console that could handle Tekken (which will be coming) just as well as a casual game like Wii Sports. Nintendo just has to hope Microsoft and Sony haven't been planning a quick response.