The system itself doesn't look too far removed from a regular Wii (and it still uses all the regular Wii remotes and peripherals the company currently employs). The difference is in the controller. This beast has a massive, high-resolution touchpad built into the screen, and it's fully capable of running the same games on both the controller screen and your TV screen.
A lot of what Nintendo showed on the big screen was very conceptual: sharing video from the handheld screen to your TV, using the alternative screen as a standalone information panel for games like Wii Fit, and a number of other odd, intriguing uses. But I got a little time to try out some of the more game-specific applications Nintendo had ready for the show.
As Nintendo said over and over again during the conference, none of the following are real games -- they're just demos of what's possible (though I'm sure we'll see more than one of these in an inevitable Wii minigame collection). But first, I'll go into a few general impressions.
The Tablet Controller
Wii U's screen looks big; it's basically a tablet...but that doesn't keep it from being an effective game controller. I have no idea how it'll feel after extended play or how heavy it'll feel when you have to wave the controller around for too long. But in my brief demos, it felt great. Surprisingly, your hands fit on the buttons and analog sticks without feeling stretched or uncomfortable.
The touchscreen looks good, but I'm not sure why you'd want to play on the controller by choice. But some of the demos available let you switch between devices on the fly, while others allow you to use both at the same time.
The HD Experience
An interactive Zelda demo shows off how well the game does HD. Link enters a cathedral-esque area and squares off against a massive, ugly spider creature. I couldn't control the battle, but buttons on the touchscreen let you switch the time between day and night (to see the lighting effects) and to swap between several preset camera angles.
It's not as good as actually getting to play a game, of course, but this tinkering shows that the Wii U is obviously a more powerful system than the Wii, with much more attractive visuals. Not every game was optimized to look this good (though they all looked better than Wii), but from the looks of it, Wii U is going to be able to at least keep up with PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360.
Shield Pose is, basically, a Rhythm Heaven minigame. You hold the Wii U tablet like a shield and follow instructions given at the beginning of each round; you're only blocking projectiles coming at you from faraway pirate ships by facing left, right, straight ahead, or up in the sky. But the catch is you move your controller in time to the music.
But the controller is more than just a blank slate. Looking through the screen, you see pirate ships off in the distance and a moon up above you. It's cute, and it shows off the screen's (and gyroscope's) abilities.
This article originally appeared on GamePro.com as What is the Wii U?