E3 2011 Analysis: Nintendo and the Wii U

Yes. It’s called the Wii U.

Say what you will about the name of Nintendo’s new console, you have to admit it’s a neat piece of technology that could lead to some very interesting game designs. We haven’t seen anything particularly revolutionary yet, but in the right hands it’s easy to imagine some really unique and novel stuff.

At the same time novelty is the problem. The Wii hit it’s stride early with games like titles like Wii Sports, WarioWare Smooth Moves, Boom Blox and  Zak and Wiki  thoroughly exploring the various implementations of the Wii Remote. What seemed like a promising new avenue for design became a boon, with waggle shoehorned into places it needn’t be and an overwhelming amount of minigame collections and other novelty-based games.

I would argue that the Nintendo DS’s library has fallen into similarly hard times. We saw titles early on that took advantage of the new hardware in interesting ways (I, as well as many others, will be quick to point out the brilliance of Kirby Canvas Curse) but I can’t even remember the last DS game I bought because of its innovative use of the system.

The Wii U will likely be the same story. We’ll have a slow first few months and then eventually Nintendo will put out a title that really takes the promise of the controller and runs with it (Pikmin 3?). From there we’ll see another year or two of ports and middling efforts punctuated by the occasional stroke of genius until we’re into the late stages of the system’s life characterized by a lack of enthusiasm for the controller’s unique functionality.

While this seems unavoidable, Nintendo’s strategy to combat this novelty fatigue seems to be getting third-party publishers and developers on board. This will hopefully lead to some great uses of the controller, but Nintendo sees it more as an opportunity to bridge the gap between their console and the competitors.

As I touched on in my analysis of the Microsoft press conference, third-party games are the key to long-term success. Nintendo will use its stable of first-party titles to bring consumers in and create an install base, then support third-parties in hopes of receiving ports of their games and build up a solid library. This is their move to recapture the “core gamers” that have denounced the Wii. Whether or not it will be a successful maneuver is another story.

Let’s talk a bit about the Wii U itself.

I think the thing is incredibly smart. What Nintendo has basically done is combined many of the latest trends in technology and industry dynamics to create this new device that brings it all together.

In my eyes the most interesting aspects of the Wii U break down into two main influences: head tracking tech and OnLive’s game streaming.

In many cases the Wii U controller will offer a sort of window into the game world. It uses motion sensing to determine which way your moving the controller and changes the viewing angle of the game accordingly. This feels like the first practical implementation of head tracking we’ve seen. Granted it’s more head and upper body tracking, but I can’t see a more practical solution to actually accomplish head tracking.

Take it’s implementation on Forza 4, for example. Kinect will sense players moving their heads and adjust the angle displayed in the game accordingly, allowing the player to check for drivers at their sides or what have you.

The problem here is in order to make it work the player must look away from the screen. What good is changing the field of view if you can only see the television in your periphery? If the game is tuned to only pick up more subtle movements, allowing players to move their heads and still see the screen, then we run into the problem of accidental head tracking and an unstable field of vision. Wii U offers up this same functionality but with a more practical solution.

The OnLive influence is what interests me most. The Wii U’s controller does not have any sort of GPU inside of it. Any games and game data being shown on it are streamed wirelessly from the console. When you see someone playing New Super Mario on the controller’s screen what you’re essentially getting is a video stream of the game, just like OnLive provides.

Unlike OnLive, the Wii U’s stream is not over wi-fi and thus will only work within a range of the console (the actual distance has yet to be clarified by Nintendo). The concept behind the technology, however, is clearly rooted in ideas that started with OnLive and while most people predicted that service’s failure (and it hasn’t exactly hit it out of the park) those concepts always held a great deal of promise.

And what about the 3DS?

Nintendo needed to accomplish two things at th show this year: unveil its new console with gravitas and confidence and provide a slate of software that justifies the 3DS. They were certainly successful in the former but I don’t think the 3DS was served as well.

A number of new titles were touched upon with only two really tugging on my heartstrings (Super Mario 3D and Luigi’s Mansion 2). Nintendo has proven that the 3DS will have solid first-party support throughout the coming months, but the third-party offerings at hand were limited to a sizzle reel comprised of 10 titles and only two of those 10, Tetris and Tekken, were newly announced games.

This is incredibly underwhelming and doesn’t bode well for the future of third-party support on the 3DS.

Combine that with the news that the PS Vita will be launching at the same price as the 3DS and it seems like that system’s bad situation will only get worse. From what we’ve seen of Super Mario 3D that could be the title to salvage its disappointing library, but to what end?

About Matt Gerardi
Matt Gerardi is a journalist and musician. He also happens to write about video games.

One Response to E3 2011 Analysis: Nintendo and the Wii U

  1. Pingback: Reports of Nintendo’s Death are Greatly Exaggerated « Rated J, For Janky

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