1. Nintendo Has Still Got It
I won’t profess to be a Nintendo fan. When the Wii was first announced it was hit by a swelling wave of admiration, created and pushed forward by many people whom I knew and respected. To me, it looked like a gimmick – under-nourished in a number of ways that allowed for the sort of games I enjoyed, in favour of the sort of control gimmicks I’d been seeing in arcades for years. I predicted a flop, and I was so totally wrong that it’s a source of embarrassment to this very day. But I feel vindicated in seeing the Wii as a gimmick – as the arrival of a new console heralds its inevitable end, I struggle to think of another successful platform in history with such a weak portfolio of games.
My thoughts on Wii-U are far more positive. As the announcement video played it was difficult to stop my mind racing to the many possibilities the hardware suggested: it seemed like an iPad, a DS, a Wii, and something close to an Xbox 360 all at once; a device that married almost every trend in contemporary videogames, throwing out provocative idea after provocative idea. It was so bewitching I almost didn’t notice the nagging questions gathering at the back of my mind, but more on that later.
For now, it’s useful to dwell for a moment on the handful of ways Wii-U excels at first glance. The controller is a wonderful example of approachable, inclusive and ergonomic design. It looks great, it feels great, and the screen is bright, colourful and responsive. The analogue sticks, triggers and shoulder buttons are well-placed, with only the d-pad and face buttons requiring some dexterity to reach.
In short, the Wii-U is equipped to do pretty much everything Nintendo suggested in its press conference: web-browsing, photo-sharing, video calls, playing games on both TV and the controller’s touch-screen, offering a second way of looking at, interacting with and extending each game, supporting software that doesn’t require callisthenics; from my brief experience, all of this can work, and work well.
2. But Don’t Get Too Excited Yet
The problem is that nobody seems to have any clue as to what it all means for the games, and that includes Nintendo. The announcement video was littered with snapshots of innovative ways to use the controller: as the golf ball, with the television screen showing the course and a Wii-mote serving as the club; as a sniper scope in a shooter; as a magnifier while browsing the web on television; as a chequers board in a skit that looked for all the world like an iPad advert; one actor even nonchalantly flicked a photograph from the controller screen to the television screen, much to the delight of the audience.
It was impressive, but on reflection there was little of any real substance. Even the video of Miyamoto pondering its design applications – presumably intended to set our minds at ease – struck me as just so many vague, evasive platitudes. When Nintendo Of America president Reggie Fils-Aime pledged a new Smash Brothers game for both Wii-U and 3DS, he threw in the bonus promise that the two versions would, “work together in some fashion” – pretty loose for a company presumably seeking to launch the hardware in just over a year.
The knowledge that this tech had been on the hands of developers for a year or more would deal with several of my niggling fears regarding Wii-U, particularly when the 3DS’s flagging sales have been blamed on a poor launch line-up. Wii-U will be compatible with all of the Wii’s devices while also having the inputs of a conventional control pad and an iPhone. This is a selling point in its own right, of course, but it gives developers plenty of ways to stick to what they know ignore the touch-screen controller – in all honesty, that could be Nintendo’s entire plan.
Right now we don’t know if it’s possible to use more than one controller with each base unit, or even how powerful the base unit will be. Until fundamental information like this is provided Wii-U will be all glittering, hollow promise.
3. Nintendo Needs To Improve Online
Nintendo’s approach to online play has staggered between dismissive and embarrassingly ham-fisted, but everybody knows that. When the Wii was at its peak Microsoft could always find solace in pointing and laughing at its online service, but Nintendo now really needs to play catch-up. The controller will be a perfect device for WiiWare and Virtual Console games, and might even open the door for the sort of bite-size diversions one finds on the iTunes Store.
But Nintendo isn’t even close to making that happen. Reggie Fils-Aime kept a straight face when he told the audience that the 3DS e-shop would have game demos by “the end of the year”, but I find it laughable that a company with Nintendo’s resources and influence could release a handheld device in 2010 without a full-featured digital platform to back it up at launch. When EA’s Jon Riccitiello took to the stage to state his company’s commitment to the Wii-U, it seemed to me that EA’s strong focus on digital distribution could be a major benefit to Nintendo.
4. The Retro Thing Is Starting To Get Old
There’s no doubt that Nintendo had the most interesting and surprising press conference, though it was largely by default. New console hardware is a trump card that Microsoft and Sony couldn’t really hope to beat, but until the Wii-U showed up Nintendo had very little to get excited about.
There are many thoughtful and professional writers who regard every new instalment in a core Nintendo franchise as a cause for celebration, but I am not among them. A new Mario game, a new Kid Icarus game, a new Luigi’s Mansion game, a new Starfox game, a new Mario Kart game; each is ostensibly new , but there is a grinding inevitability to their existence; they delight in the most familiar and prosaic way.
Nintendo may have given up on every creating a new character again, and so be it, but ceding the floor to a third-party for the conference’s 3DS section would have been a smart move. How about Kojima running us through the new content in Snake Eater? Or someone from Resident Evil: Revelations to sing its praises? 3DS owners are starving for games, and the Wii has taught us that we need more than Nintendo to make a gaming device truly worth owning. E3 was a gilt-edged opportunity to ease some troubled minds.
5. Nintendo Is Now Running The Same Race
One element of Nintendo’s presentation of the Wii-U stood out above all the others: the short video of many of the industry’s most powerful and talented names waxing lyrical about its potential. Not only is it out of character for Nintendo to seek and display justification for its products from external companies, it included people like Ken Levine, who represent a very different kind of game to those normally associated with consoles like the Wii and DS.
Nintendo recognises that the Wii stumped developers to the point where many studios simply stopped trying or gave up altogether. The Wii-U will address this by giving devs familiar inputs, HD graphics, and, I assume, familiar hardware architecture to work with. Activision no longer needs to churn out a shoddy Wii version of the new Call Of Duty just to stay relevant to that audience; the same game can appear on all three platforms.
The Wii-U will play host to Batman: Arkham City, Assassin’s Creed: Revelations, Darksiders 2, Metro: Last Light, and almost every other game on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. Indeed, there’s now a great opportunity for Nintendo to gather ports of classic releases from this generation to bulk up its launch line-up: think Bioshock, Fallout 3, Half-Life 2 and Mass Effect all available for the Wii-U on launch day for, say, £20 each. Unless the porting process is complicated, it’s win-win for all concerned.
The big remaining question is how this will affect Sony and Microsoft’s plans for the next generation of consoles. Both would rather stick with what they have, but neither could have foreseen what Nintendo was working on, and, after several years of effectively operating in separate markets, the Japanese giant is once again running the same race.
This is a very good reason to be scared, but both Microsoft and Sony do have the opportunity to throw the relevance of the Wii-U into doubt. Ultimately, Nintendo now has a machine that can run the same games as its competitors’ current consoles, and will eventually have a whole lot more that they can’t. But the next step for either company is likely to be far ahead of where Nintendo has just arrived, and with E3 2012 between now and the Wii-U’s launch the competition is still wide open.