With rumors swirling about Nintendo's next home console, much of the excitement leading up to E3 was simply to find out exactly what it was. And though the system's silly name didn't endear any critics (many at the press conference laughed at the reveal, thinking it to be a joke) the new controller certainly turned heads.
Closer to resembling an iPad than a conventional controller, the Wii U controller is packed with everything from a touch screen to a microphone and traditional buttons. To see just how it all comes together, Digital Spy went hands-on with the Wii U at E3, and came away quite impressed.
The new controller is what really sets the Wii U apart from other game consoles. In the centre of the controller is a 6.2", 16:9 touch screen. It is a single-touch resistive touch screen like the DS and 3DS, which can be used with either a finger or the included stylus.
While Nintendo has not revealed the official resolution for the Wii U's controller screen, it looked bright and crisp, and perfectly reproduced the HD visuals from the video demos on display. Without the exact screen specs from Nintendo, we cannot say for certain whether the controller screen is outputting in true HD, but for a screen this size it certainly looked good.
On either side of the screen are more traditional controls. On the left there is an analog circle pad and a d-pad, while on the right is a second analog circle pad and four face buttons. Interestingly, Nintendo has decided to use circle pads similar to those on the 3DS, rather than the more traditional analog stick found on the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and Wii nunchuck controller. Both circle pads are also above the other buttons to make both sides of controls symmetrical, possibly to make them more accessible to left-handed players.
On the front of the controller is a front-facing camera, two stereo speakers, a microphone, a power button and buttons for Home, Start and Select. The Start and Select buttons are marked with a plus and minus symbol like those on the Wii remote. On the back of the controller are a set of shoulder buttons marked L and R as well as a set of triggers marked ZL and ZR.
These triggers are part of a plastic outcropping from the controller's back, and are placed so that they are comfortable to use either with index fingers or middle fingers when the index is on the shoulder buttons. The controller also includes an accelerometer, gyroscope and rumble feedback. It could be said that the Wii U is the Swiss army knife of video game controllers.
The controller is surprisingly comfortable to hold. I expected the vaguely rectangular and mostly flat form factor to feel cumbersome, but it felt quite natural in my hands. There is a slight curve to the controller's back for easy gripping, and my thumbs rested naturally on the controller's face buttons.
The circle pads are particularly nice, a little larger and featuring a more pronounced rim than their 3DS counterpart. Even more surprising was how light the controller is to hold. It felt lighter than an iPad, and while it's still heavier than any other current gaming controller, but it is certainly lighter than one would expect from such a substantial piece of hardware.
The Wii U is also an entirely new games console, and not just a controller. Nintendo proved the system's technical prowess by confirming a sweeping number of third-party games that are to come out on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, including Batman: Arkham City and Metro Last Light.
While specific technical details have yet to be released, the Wii U is assumed to easily match both systems and possibly surpass them to visual quality, in a bid to help future proof the device. In terms of resolution, the system can output at full 1080p high definition, and supports HDMI, component, S-video and composite connections.
An important feature is that it supports all current Wii software and controllers, including Wii remotes and the Balance Board. However, one of the more interesting changes in the Wii U is the lack of Gamecube backwards compatibility. The Wii included ports for Gamecube controllers and memory cards, neither of which appeared to be built into the Wii U systems at E3. The system specs released by Nintendo confirms this by only listing 12-inch Wii discs and 12-inch proprietary high-density Wii U discs as compatible, the latter of which is assumed to be comparable to Blu-ray in data size.
As for the system itself, Nintendo had the Wii U system encased inside each demo kiosk, so only the front panel of the system could be seen clearly. From the front, the system appears almost identical to the current Wii rested on its side. There is a self-loading disc slot across the top with power and eject buttons next to it on the left.
Under the disc slot is a sync button for connecting wireless controllers and a small door flap. The door flap was not seen open, but it is assumed that inside is the SD card slot, much like the current Wii. There is also the possibility of a USB port since external USB hard drives are said to be compatible, but it is only speculation at this point.
The Games (Tech Demos)
While other Wii U demos showed more of the system's features, Chase Mii was easily the most fun and instantly accessible of them all. It is a simple game of hide and seek, with four players controlling Miis with Wii remotes trying to catch a fifth player who controls a Mii in a Mario suit on the Wii U controller.
The catch is that the Wii U controller also displays a map of the whole level, including player positions, while the four players with Wii remotes only have the limited third-person window on a split-screen TV. It was very similar to Nintendo's Gamecube experimental game Pac Man Vs, which used a GameBoy Advance to control Pac Man while three players controlled ghosts on the TV. Chase Mii also provided the only playable example of five controllers working on a single system.
Battle Mii had two players controlling Metroid-themed Miis with Wii remotes and nunchucks battling against a third player controlling a space ship with the Wii U controller. Controlling the Miis with the Wii remote was fairly standard for a Wii third-person shooter, aiming at the screen with the Wii remote pointer and using the B trigger to shoot.
The Wii U controls were more interesting, using the left circle pad to move, up and down on the right circle pad to change elevation and moving the Wii U controller itself to aim using motion control. And I really do mean moving the controller - the game had me literally spinning in circles to aim at enemies behind me, similar to the 3DS title Face Raiders. While simple tilt controls might have been preferred, Battle Mii certainly showed that the new controller can handle more action-oriented games.
Shield Pose was the most interesting use of the Wii U controller on display. On the TV screen players saw a pirate ship floating in the ocean. By holding up and pointing the Wii U controller at the TV (with Wii U screen facing the player) the player could then move the Wii U controller to see the rest of the ocean beyond the confines of the TV.
Aiming up revealed a moon in the sky, while two additional pirate ships were floating on the player's left and right. It was a unique experience to be able to see the game world beyond the TV, essentially using the Wii U controller as a window to surround the player with the game everywhere they look.
The pirate ship in the centre would give commands two at a time, such as up and left, that the player would have to repeat by holding the Wii U controller in those positions. It turned out to be a rhythm game that moved quite fast, which meant that following the commands was based more on remembering positions than actually looking around the level.
However, the initial tutorial that instructed the player to search around the TV using the Wii U controller was probably the most effective use of the second screen for unique gameplay, only possible on the Wii U.
New Super Mario Bros. Mii
The final playable demo on display was New Super Mario Bros. Mii. Essentially, the game took levels inspired by New Super Mario Bros. Wii and remapped the controls to show that the Wii U's controller could still work with more traditional games. The Wii U's screen accurately displayed the exact same image as the TV without any lag and the game was played with the D-pad and buttons just like it would be with a Wii remote.
Even the game's shake controls remained intact. The biggest difference was that this version allowed each player to pick a traditional Mario character or play as a Mii wearing various colours of Mario's signature overalls. It was certainly fun to play, but was less exciting than the other demos that actually showed gameplay that could not be done with a traditional controller.
The Legend of Zelda
In addition to the playable demos, there were video demos for Legend of Zelda and a bird flying through a Japanese garden. Both of these videos had been shown during Nintendo's press conference, but on the E3 show floor they featured limited camera and lighting control using the Wii U controller to prove that they were running in real time. They displayed impressive HD visuals when viewed on the TV and still impressive, even if not in HD, visuals on the Wii U controller screen.
The Wii U will be available in all regions worldwide in 2012.
More Wii U coverage from E3 2011:
> Wii U announced as new Nintendo console
> Wii U technical specifications released
> Super Smash Bros. coming to Wii U, 3DS
> Assassin's Creed, Ghost Recon for Wii U
> Wii U price above £150, $250?
> Pikmin 3 confirmed for Wii U
> FIFA to become Wii U launch title?
> Wii U supports one controller per system