The Wii U – Hands-On Preview

My love for Nintendo is probably as well kept as any secret in this industry leaked to a site desperate for page views, and with that in mind it was a no-brainer that I’d spend any given opportunity at various events and expos sampling a slice of hot Wii U action. After all, Nintendo have been there with me from the start; the Game Boy and Nintendo 64 were my first games consoles, the DS was the first system I ever bought entirely with my own money, and the Wii was the first I’d ever acquired on launch day. I’m still one of the few people I know who’ll readily defend the Wii at the drop of a hat, adamant that most of my favourite games of the last generation  – and of all time – were on that motion-controlled wonderbox.

Okay, I’ll admit that the 3DS hasn’t grabbed me with anything I desperately need (give me more than Mario Kart, and I will give you my wallet) and I still think the Wii U is the worst name they could possibly have given their attempt to regain the hardcore market (well, the worst name we can legally print here), but I’ll be damned if that new controller doesn’t have my mind sparking at the possibilities.

The Hardware
What truly set the Wii apart from the other consoles this generation was its oddball controller that allowed for a completely different play-style to some of the more hardcore alternatives, owing to the lack of buttons, the ability to attach peripherals like the Nunchuk (or the oft-forgotten Vitality Sensor) and the motion controls that left many screaming into the abyss about how it let other people enjoy our hobby and would be the death of us all. Rather than rein it in, Nintendo pushed the boat out even further with the primary gamepad for the Wii U, which has a touch screen in the middle, built in motion controls and allows for asynchronous gameplay.

As a concept, it’s a difficult one to get your head around, but when it’s physically in your hands it’s surprisingly easy to get used to. All of the buttons are within easy reach of where you hold the tablet-like device, meaning that you’re not going to be crippling your hands trying to access everything, although that admittedly all falls out the window when you’re trying to hold the controller and access the touch screen. Some games and mini-games I tried let you use the touch-screen as the primary method of control, also allowing you to turn the controller around so that you hold it flat with the side of the device facing the screen. Those that utilised motion were more restrained than the Wii, requiring tilting more than sweeping, exaggerated movements. While the device calibrated before these mini-games, I was slightly disappointed to find that by the end I was often facing the controller away from the screen in order to make my target reticule centre in.

Weirdly, what struck me the most about the Wii U controller was how light it felt. Considering the size of the device and the technology packed inside, it’s probably the lightest I’ve ever used. Yet, I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or not. It’s seriously impressive, but it doesn’t feel as firm in your hands as it should, and it leaves you underestimating what you can do with it, initially in fears you’re going to drop it and crack that gorgeous little screen in two. The visuals displayed were so beautiful that by the end of my time with it I found myself preferring to gaze at the screen instead of the TV whenever possible. The hardware admittedly leaves me a little in awe, but without the right line-up of games that can fully demonstrate its power, it could be left unappreciated and underestimated. Speaking of software…

Painful landings await

New Super Mario Bros U
Okay, confession time: I’ve only recently finished New Super Mario Bros. Wii. It was nestled at the top of my pile of shame for over a year with only a temporary respite after a friend and I resolved to give it another shot, only to find ourselves conceding defeat after about an hour. Eventually we slogged through the rest of the game and found outselves having some fun in-between enough expletives to fill a swear-jar. It’s by no means a bad game, but it’s a slightly inconsistent platformer, owing entirely to the fact that you can have up to four players on screen at any one time, and I’m not sure how anyone is able to successfully navigate that kind of scenario without it ending in a sucker-punch to someone’s face. When a game is geared towards multiplayer more than single action, it feels slightly hollow when slogging through in single player.

I get the impression that Nintendo refused to drop the multiplayer aspect for future iterations in fear that people would see it as a step back, especially for a launch title, which is why we now have New Super Mario Bros. U, which I’m convinced is going to turn that inevitable sucker-punch into an all out brawl, but not in the way that involves an all-star cast battling it out. Admittedly, the levels I’ve seen demonstrated lent themselves far more clearly to a multiplayer experience, feeling less like a giant accident waiting to happen, yet giving me the impression that they’d be just as fun to play through by myself. The Wii U makes all of the environments beautifully vibrant and an absolute joy to look at, as most Mario games often are, but the addition of higher-definition graphics lets you admire the splendour that bit longer.

So the levels seem more geared towards a multi-pronged assault and the environments have that classic Nintendo sparkle, but what does the Wii U controller bring to the fray? Well, do you remember Mario Galaxy and the way you could have a second player who’d not be able to do anything but pick up star bits and occasionally stun enemies?  Think that, but replace the star bits with the ability to create platforms, and you have the fifth-player’s role. The star coins that have littered previous New Super Mario levels make a return, and your attempts to retrieve them are bolstered by the addition of a platform-conjuring friend, who’ll also be able to stun nearby enemies or give you a saving grace when you’re about to tumble to your death, bottomless pit style. If that player starts to tire of their role of glorified assistant, they can turn troll and start using their new skill to hinder your progress as much as possible, as I relished when wiping out most of the party in a single jump.

It’s an admittedly more bog-standard use of the new Wii U controller, but it’s also one that’ll hopefully allow more players to get in on the Mario action, even if they’re less experienced with the series. While I’d like to get some time with it in single-player, with the right combination of patient, understanding allies and a bit of Ninty magic this could be a perfect launch title to enjoy with your friends or instigate a night down A&E.

Nintendo Land
I’ll try not to overplay my affections for Nintendo any more than I have done already, but if they unveiled that they were building a theme park with rides and experiences mimicking their most famous franchises, I’d be camped out the week before opening day just to be the first in line to the “Another Castle” roller coaster. Instead, they’ve created Nintendo Land, a videogame version of what would make Thorpe Park look like an abandoned children’s playground.

The first mini-game (and my first experience with the Wii U) on offer was Takamaru’s Ninja Castle, which required the game pad to be rotated so that I could flick my finger across the touch-screen to throw shuriken at approaching Ninjas. The faster you flicked, the stronger the throw was, but at the cost of some accuracy, with chained hits granting a bigger points bonus, meaning that you were encouraged to balance your attacks for optimal points, on top of defending yourself to avoid losing the entire challenge. Though it was was a short experience, it was a great way to showcase how the motion controls (used to aim the reticule) combined with the controller’s touch-screen interface in order to provide a fast-paced score-attack that’ll keep encouraging you to have just one more go.

Donkey Kong’s Crash Course also requires the player to tilt the controller, but this time to guide themselves to the end of a course that could at best be described as “sadistic”, complete with ramps, loop de loops and plenty of obstacles between you and success. The main difficulty comes from the tilting sensitivity, as when you’re unaccustomed to how much you need to move your controller to progress, you’ll find yourself splatting into a wall and cutting your run short, and it’s far easier than you’d think to rocket off to your doom and humiliate yourself. However, I actually found it a really addictive experience, and I’m sure that I’m not going to be the only one who’ll cheer triumphantly every time they reach a checkpoint, let alone the end of the course.

One of the Wii U’s biggest draws for multiplayer-loving gamers will be the ability to perform asynchronous multiplayer, as one player will have a different display and control method to others, who will only be able to rely on the TV screen for visuals. Luigi’s Ghost Mansion will be one of the titles that allows players to take advantage of this style of gameplay, as four players will act as Ghostbusters, aiming to hunt down the ghost and protect the other players. The catch is, they don’t know where the ghost is, and their torch batteries have limited power with which to stun the poltergeist, though their Wiimotes will vibrate when the spectre is in close proximity. The ghost, on the other hand, knows where all the other players are at all times, and is totally invisible, save for intermittent lighting strikes, when they choose to sprint across the mansion or attack. It’s a slightly one-sided challenge, as the ghost only has three minutes to take down his foes and they’re able to revive their team-mates after a certain amount of time, but it’s a fun diversion nonetheless.

Those who are still waiting for Animal Crossing 3DS may be satiated by the next mini-game subtitled “Sweet Day”, which charges one player to control two guards at once with both control sticks and catch the other players, who are trying to steal as much candy from the trees as possible. The sweet thieves all share three lives, meaning that they have to work together closely to prevent getting caught and getting all the loot, whilst the fifth player can synchronise his guards to flank escaping players and attempt a do-or-die lunge to stop them getting away. It’s easy to get into and is more balanced than the previous mini-game, owing to the additional controllable guard for those using the primary gamepad.

My favourite mini-game of the collection was by far The Legend of Zelda: Battle Quest, which charged the tunic-garbed players to work together in order to reach the Forest Temple. During one recent demo, those players with with Wiimotes were equipped with swords, and the player with the tablet controller was equipped with a bow and arrow, using the tilt-controls to aim, one stick to pull an arrow back and fire, and the other to correct the aiming on horizontal axis. When charging, the archer would stand still and would be the only player able to attack enemies from a distance and shoot down hearts to replenish everyone’s health, which was tied to same bar, meaning that players had to work together to prevent failure. It was the only co-operative challenge on display, and also the only example where no one player had a clear advantage over the other, as the archer was just as involved in the action as the swordsmen, and both roles were equally as fun to play.

I inititally felt disappointed in Nintendo Land; I considered it a missed opportunity as despite the mini-games acting as a fantastic representation of the Wii U’s tech and being immensely fun to play, it struck me as odd that the Big N hadn’t sought to include it as a pack-in title. Since my hands-on with the title Nintendo have confirmed it will in fact be bundled with the Wii U – but only if you shell out for the more expensive premium bundle. Without overselling it, I’d go so far as to say that not picking up the deluxe version would be a mistake; NintendoLand is a gateway game in exactly the same way as Wii Sports before it, as it’ll not only showcase the power of the console to your friends, but it’ll prove to be a title you’ll want to pick up and play again and again.

Game & Wario
For me, Wario’s ascent in gaming is like watching a band you like rise from pub gigs to sell-out tours and festivals. Initially, you’re elated that their break-out role has led them to bigger and better things, only for you to feel like they’ve betrayed you when they suddenly change their style completely and all-but abandon their roots in the name of mainstream appeal. At least that’s how I felt when Warioware first appeared after years of WarioLand-related bliss. However, it turned out three-second minigames were more favourable than unique twists on the platforming genre, and save for The Shake Dimension (we do not talk about Master of Disguise) it seems that Wario’s treasure hunting days are long gone.

With that in mind, I’m at least slightly grateful that the Warioware games are absolutely bloody genius, marrying fast-paced challenges with each systems’ unique control schemes to deliver an experience that shows exactly what the console can do, while constantly assaulting you with fun.

The principle of Game & Wario is largely the same: mini-games that rely on the use of the Wii U controller to showcase what it can do, though the relative insanity of the affair has been toned down and the shortest game I played was forty seconds long, rather than four. That game required you to tilt the controller as you skied down a slope, with the TV screen showing a more cinematic view of the proceedings so you could only reliably use the screen on the controller to plot your movements and get the fastest times for medal-related glory. Another game charged you with hunting down criminals and taking their pictures before the time ran out and they presumably escaped scot-free. This one was a wholly more unique use of the controller, as I had to hold it up in front of the TV screen and move it about to focus and zoom in on the criminals, with extra points given for clearer photos. Think Pokémon Snap mixed with Where’s Wally, but with odd-looking ne’er do wells instead of adorable creatures.

The final mini-game I played was that one that left me the most impressed, as it took that touted idea of asynchronous gameplay but did so in a way that didn’t require anyone else playing to use a controller at all. On screen were a good hundred or so people walking around, with buses, manholes and all manner of distracting fare scattered about. The person with the controller had to use those distractions in order to steal all four pieces of fruit on the map without the other players successfully figuring out who they were playing as.

The nearest port of comparison I could give is the indie title “Spy Party”, where one player has to complete a series of objectives without the other player (a sniper) distinguishing them from the NPCs and putting a bullet in their skull. As the other player had to use the manholes, hide behind the buses and mingle with the crowd as best they could, their ruse only fell apart as they nabbed the last piece of fruit in plain sight, meaning we then had to take the controller and point him out from a lineup of people without letting the other players know who we thought was the fruit-thief. If anything, this mini-game was the one that left me in awe of the idea of asynchronous gameplay and what it could do, and if the rest of Game & Wario contains anything as innovative as that, I’ll be kidnapping my friends on a regular basis so I have someone else to play it with.

Pikmin 3
If you’re lacking the kidnapping equipment or prefer to play alone, then Pikmin 3 should be right up your alley. Though multiplayer will no doubt be present in the final game, the demo I played was a timed single player game that gave you seven minutes to acquire as many points as possible, which were granted depending on what your Pikmin carried to the collection zone.

Those who have ever played a Pikmin title before will be completely at home here; the visuals are so faithful to the Gamecube classics that the best way to describe them is “like the originals, but shinier”. What struck me most was that, though I’d only played the first to completion and hadn’t touched the “New Play Control” versions, within seconds of picking up the Wiimote and Nunchuk, I was ordering around my squad of loyal Pikmin as if the three years since beating the original hadn’t happened. It’s so easy to pick up and play that you just instantly know how to do it, and the level of satisfaction you get when you discover that fact is second to none. I don’t know if the game can be played with the Wii U controller, but it acted as a mini-map during the demo, and provided a top-down replay of my actions for the last seven minutes once time had run out, which allows you to see where you’ve lost time and will be ideal for time trials and challenges, if such modes are included in the final product.

Whilst the familiar red Pikmin were present en masse during the demo, the biggest addition was the presence of the rock Pikmin, whose main use appears to be destroying structures in the environment, as they tore down a wall without a second thought and smashed a piece of glass containing a collectible item in record time as I set the red minions off to build a bridge, allowing for easier transportation. It’s a testament to the design of the series that you can easily accustom yourself to the creatures at your disposal and immediately set out a strategy that suits you best. The weirdest thing about my time with Pikmin 3 was that despite it apparently using very little of the tablet’s utilities, it still left me the most excited for the console’s launch at the end of the year out of all the titles I played, even though it’s been delayed from its previous status as a Wii U launch title. Granted, they did a great job of showing off what the tech can do, but Pikmin 3 emphasizes the reason why Nintendo see fit to bring back their franchises time and again, because sometimes when we’re confronted with something new, we crave a little familiarity.

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  1. dfd says:

    350USD? Greedy cashwho**s

  2. Edward Edward says:

    The cost of the 360 at launch in America (2005): $299 for the core (ie, without a hard drive), $399 with a 20gig hard drive.
    The cost of the PS3 at launch in Amertica (2006): $499 for the 20gig version, $599 for the 60 gig version.

    The cost of the Wii U at launch in America (2012): $299 for the standard version (8 gig flash drive), $350 for the premium version (32 gig flash drive, copy of Nintendoland).

    I dunno, seems pretty reasonable to me…

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