E3 2011: Nintendo Wii U: Inside and Out
Nintendo shows us its vision for the future - Wii U. Is it another revolution?
Nintendo found lightning in a bottle with the Wii, and with the Wii U--the company’s upcoming console--it might have found the bottling plant. The Wii U builds on the barriers broken by the Wii and takes advantage of a touch-screen-equipped controller that offers you a new way to interact with games paired with a console capable of HD visuals.
To save you the effort and grief of reading through the whole article, we'll just state up front that Nintendo did not disclose many pertinent details of its next system at E3 2011. There's no official price point. And there's no specific release date. It might come out somewhere between April Fools' Day and New Year's Eve in 2012. The rumors were also correct about the Wii U. It's most definitely going to be running in high definition, and the controller is every bit as outlandish as we were led to believe. Probably more so.
The actual hardware behind the Wii U is still under wraps. Nintendo offered no specifics as to the internals behind its upcoming console outside of saying that it has a multi-core IBM Power processor and an AMD GPU, but its size and capabilities give us much to speculate about. The Wii U appears to be no larger than the Wii itself, but it's much more capable, outputting 1080p visuals over HDMI. The console has internal flash memory for storage that is expandable via USB and SD memory cards. Games will come on proprietary high-density optical disks similar in size to a DVD. Like the Wii, the Wii U will be able to download and play games. It's also backward compatible with Wii software and devices (specifically the Wii Remote and Nunchuk--a key point we will get to). Nintendo made no mention of backward compatibility with GameCube games.
As with the Wii, the controller is the heart of the Wii U. And it's large--think somewhat smaller than an iPad and considerably bigger than the original Sony PSP. The reps on hand noted that the controller was designed to offer a new way for players to interact with the console, games, and other players. They understood that, much like the first time we saw the Wii Remote, the only way to really understand was to show us.
On the face of the controller you'll find a 6.2-inch touch screen (Nintendo declined to say whether it was multitouch capable). A stylus slides out of the controller for use on the touch screen (which makes us think it's based on resistive touch technology). During the E3 2011 press conference, Nintendo showed the stylus being used for fairly complex sketching, which shows us how detailed the touch screen will be. The matte screen has great viewing angles and offers vivid colors and brightness, making it ideal for use by two people at the same time at very off angles. The pixel density seems to be high enough to put it on par with modern smartphones. Nintendo stated that it's not high definition, but the resolution appears to be substantially higher than the 3DS screen. We're guessing the screen is under 1280x720 and above 640x480.
Nintendo eschewed a complex controller with the Wii by limiting the number of buttons. By contrast, the Wii U controller practically bristles with them. Two circle pads, similar to those found on the portable Nintendo 3DS, flank either side of the screen. A D pad resides on the left; A, B, X, and Y buttons are on the right; two shoulder buttons are on the top; two trigger-like buttons are on the bottom; and the usual array of start, select, and home buttons line the bottom. But it doesn't end there.
Like the Wii, the Wii U controller also features motion controls that should be on par with the Wii MotionPlus. Although you won't be using it like a Wii Remote, as its bulk and unwieldiness prevent it from mimicking sports equipment like bats and rackets.
A front-facing camera sits at the top of the controller, ostensibly for use in taking pictures and possibly for augmented-reality capabilities. At its E3 2011 press conference, Nintendo revealed that the controller will have video chat capabilities. Built-in speakers also play back sound, and the controller also features a headphone jack.
The controller is capable of playing games even if the TV is being used at the moment for something else, like watching shows. It's portable in a sense, but only within wireless reach of the main console, because all of the controller's visuals are generated by the console and then streamed to the controller.
One of the key features of Wii U is its backward compatibility with Wii controllers (remotes, nunchuks, and more). Many of the cases we saw involved anywhere from two to four remotes, with and without nunchuks, and one player on the Wii U controller. Players on Wii Remotes would generally get split-screen gameplay on the TV, while the player on the Wii U controller would primarily use the screen on the controller. Most of the games we saw would give the player on the Wii U controller extra information, or an entirely different perspective paired with vastly different controls. In general, the player with the Wii U controller was pit against the players with Wii Remotes.
Outside of stating that the console outputs at 1080p, Nintendo was mum on details. But judging from the visuals, we can speculate a little on what's driving Wii U. Many of the demos we saw had dynamic lighting and shadowing, light shafts, high dynamic range rendering, full reflections, and bump mapping, and some titles also featured antialiasing. It's hard to say whether the console was rendering at a lower resolution and then upscaling to 1920x1080, a common occurrence on the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. The console's GPU has its limitations--distant objects in complex scenes were noticeably less detailed than those found in the foreground.
The screen on the Wii U's controller receives a video stream from the console and does not have its own mobile GPU. Looking between the controller and the console, the visuals were more than comparable, if not identical. Impressively, we didn't notice any compression artifacts or lag between what we saw on the TV and what we saw on the controller's screen.
Nintendo's first Wii U demo was focused on showcasing the new console's HD capabilities, which allowed for 1080p visuals via HDMI out. The moderately interactive demo focused on a small bird's flight through a Japanese temple area that encompassed a lake, a forest, and changing weather and time of day. As with all the console tech demos we've seen before, the demo focused on a variety of dazzling effects. The start of the demo saw the bird flying through the area and landing on a tree. As the creature looked around, a button prompt to press the B button came up, and when our demoer hit it, the tree bloomed with cherry blossoms. The bird snapped up one and took to the air for a tour of another area of the temple. At the same time, all the action on the television was being mirrored on the controller, which could be used to affect the camera angle on the screen. After a few moments, the bird buzzed along the surface of the lake and dropped the flower in the water. The camera stayed focused on the flower for a bit as it was buffeted around by koi, who were lingering near the surface and eventually did some hopping around. Another prompt to press B changed the weather from sunny to cloudy and rainy. The controller was used to shift the camera angle to offer us a different view of the area. Shortly after, an eagle swooped down and landed, surveying the rainy landscape. Another press of the B button cleared up the weather and time of day and shifted the setting to dusky sunrise complete with a gorgeous orange glow that flared over a mountain in the distance. Another press of the B button changed the season to fall, complete with falling leaves as the eagle tore through the area at high speed. The demo ended with the bird zipping through a sand garden that began to shift with ornate patterns. The visuals and real-time changes in the environment were a fine showcase for the hardware's HD capabilities. We saw a ton of lighting and filtering effects on display that all worked to good effect to create the environment. We did notice some odd rendering in the distance, but the visuals that were up close were very well done. While we didn't have access to any specs, we'd have to say the demo displayed a level of graphic horsepower that's roughly Xbox 360 level, if not a bit below.
The second demo was a set of two games to highlight the system's backward compatibility with the Wii Remote and how the new tablet controller will figure into a game experience. The first game was called Chase Mii and supported five players, four with remotes and one with the tablet. The demo was essentially a timed game of tag where the four Wii Remote players had to track down the players using the tablet controller. The action took place on a circular Mario-esque map with pipes and blocky shapes and was divided into four colored grids. The players using the Wii Remotes focused their attention on the screen, which was divided into four quadrants like most multiplayer Wii games. A general map of the area was displayed in the center of the screen. When the game started, all the players started in the center of the map with the four "chasers" standing with their backs to the "runner," which let the chasers monitor one section of the map. This is key at the start of a match, since they'll be able to see which direction the runner, who gets a head start, heads off to. As the action started, we looked at the view on the tablet, which offered an overhead view of the action that was entirely different from what the other players could see on the television. The tablet view let the runner see the exact position of each chaser and plan his escape route accordingly. In order to find the runner, the chasers were forced to take to high perches in the game, which allowed them to look around and do some spotting, and they had to pay attention to an onscreen display that let them know their distance from the runner. As time wound down, a star appeared in the center of the map. If the runner is able to collect it, he will get an invincibility bonus for a brief time and get the chance to knock opponents around. The demo sported simple visuals, which gave us a look at Miis in HD, and it looked sharp.
The second game, Battle Mii, dropped Miis into a Metroid-themed map and pit them against an opponent riding a saucer that's meant to look like Samus Aran's spaceship. This time, two players guided their Metroid suited Miis in a split-screen hunt for the spaceship in a large space-themed level using Wii Remotes and Nunchuks. Each suited player had three health points that could be replenished by hearts floating in bubbles that could be collected once a bubble was popped and it dropped to the ground. In addition, question mark icons could be collected to earn a helmet for the armor suit that upgraded the firing speed.
The player using the tablet to control the ship relied solely on the display, and all movement and aiming was controlled by the motion controls and the circle pads, which were used to adjust height and direction. What was especially cool was the ability to use the gyros in the tablet to quickly target your enemies. The simple game of hide and seek was extremely fun and easy to pick up and definitely sold us on the notion of using the tablet's screen in conjunction with a game.
Pirates With Rhythm
The third demo was a pirate-themed rhythm game called Shield Pose that relied solely on the tablet. The view on the television showed an ocean with a pirate ship in the distance. This time out the tablet was used to "zoom" in closer to see the pirate ship, but we saw that we were able to use the tablet to view the surrounding area not shown on the television. In doing so, we saw that there were in fact two other pirate ships, on the right and left, and a moon that could all be seen on the controller's screen. The gist of the game was to use the tablet as a "shield" to block incoming suction cup arrows from the pirates (yes, we know, suction cup arrows aren't really a pirate "thing"). The rhythm element came into play from the voice cues and music playing. We had to listen for the audio cue letting us know the pirates were about to shoot, and from which direction, at which point we had to bring the tablet up to block the shots. Following that, we had to "shake" the suction cup arrows off the device and prepare for the next wave. The demo included a tutorial section that layered in the various elements before tossing three boats of pirates at us. The freedom of movement and viewing afforded by the tablet let us deal with arrows coming from the center, left, right, and above. When we got through several waves of the arrows, we had to briskly shake the tablet side to side to build up a charge and then "shove" our ball of energy at the ship to sink it. The demo was very fun and had a Rhythm Heaven feel to it, along with a fun stylized look that we loved.
Tokyo Street Scene
The fourth demo was a brief tech demo using standard definition video to showcase another way that the controller could be used to complement visuals shown on a television. In this instance, a rolling video of what appeared to be a car rolling through a Japanese street was shown on both the television and the tablet controller. When the controller was held up toward the TC, the video matched on both displays. However, when we moved the tablet around, the video on the tablet changed to reflect our position, showing us different parts of the environment. Think looking around you while riding in a car, but without the car. While there wasn't much more to the demo than that, the tech on display was interesting and got us thinking about ways it could be incorporated into any number of different game genres.
Legend of Zelda
The last demo ended the Wii U experience on a high, with an "HD experience" meant to highlight what a Legend of Zelda title in the style of Twilight Princess could look like on the system. The mildly interactive demo showcased the boss fight with Armogohma, the annoying spider boss that has haunted many a player. The view on the tablet featured a map and some touch controls to change the time of day and camera position. More importantly, one button let us bring the map from the tablet to the television, superimposing the map onto the video. Beyond the graphical fidelity of the visuals, we were very intrigued by what a Zelda on the new console could do--especially taking into account the aiming in Shield Pose.
Overall, we have to say we were impressed by what we saw. The way the controller works with the system and game experiences was very clever and offered a wide variety of possibilities that were exciting. The new controller is a very smart element that we reckon will be a gamechanger for what Nintendo does on the console. The backward compatibility with Wii games and peripherals was also a masterstroke, ensuring consumers will get the most out of the raft of peripherals they undoubtedly own.