Nintendo brought a custom airstream gaming trailer through Houston and asked if I would be interested in playing the upcoming Wii U, scheduled for release on November 18. I of course said yes.
The eighth-generation home console is light-years ahead of the Wii in terms of processing power. It's the first Nintendo console to support HD (In fact, it comes with HDMI cables, which is nice), and has 20 times the memory of the Wii. Graphically, the system is stunning and puts the Wii U on the same level as the PS3 and Xbox.
But the big question on everyone's mind is how will it be playing with a controller the size of a tablet? I got the chance to demo five games, each using the tablet controller in a different way, and it gave me a pretty good idea of what we can expect from future releases.
First up was Nintendo Land, the launch title which comes bundled in with the premium edition. Trust me, drop the $349 for the premium. In addition to coming with Nintendo Land, it also boasts four times the flash memory of the standard release for only $50 more. Plus, it comes in a sleek black finish. Both systems are compatible with Wii peripherals and games (though Gamecube games no longer work) and come with a single tablet controller.
Nintendo Land is an amusement park-based hub of mini-games centered around the various Nintendo worlds like Hyrule and the Mushroom Kingdom. Each one has at least a dozen games, all involving various modes of play.
The one I most enjoyed was set in Luigi's Mansion. The game involved using the screen on the controller to move a ghost in and out of a maze while four other players, who can't see you on the TV screen, try and find you using vibration from their controllers. The experience was incredibly unique and undeniably fun. The idea of having one player serve as a dungeon master against the others using a completely separate manner of play that they couldn't see was both extremely original and fun as all get-out.
One problem did come up fairly quickly. Many of the mini-games are not really that entertaining without at least two other players, something made apparent as it was just me and a rep going against each other. When I asked if Nintendo Land would support online play to allow for people that didn't happen to have an extended family at home to game with, my rep said he didn't know.
He was also unaware if Nintendo had any plans to offer DLC for Nintendo Land, which seemed like a no-brainer. While Nintendo Land promises a blast of a game party for a group of people (provided they all have their own Wiimote, by the way; none are included in either bundle), how much fun you'll be able to have on your own is up in the air. Oh well, the single-player ninja throwing stars game was all kinds of Shinobi fun at least.
Next up was the newest incarnation of the side-scrolling Super Mario Bros. Rendered in full HD, the game has never looked better. It also gave me an opportunity to see the feature where you can play a game on the screen of the controller while others use the TV for other purposes. The game plays as classic as you could want...but it does make me wonder if the world of 3D Mario adventures is no more.
An abrupt shift in tone was Zombie U, which is bar none the most realistic zombie gaming experience that you can currently play. First off, there's no health. You get hit, you can heal, but if you're bit then you're automatically a ghoul. Not only that, but the game can take your picture and zombify it so that when your character reanimates, your next character can hunt it down for the backpack full of items you were carrying when you got bit.
Plus, everything happens in real time, including looting, switching weapons and lock picking. You have to be constantly on your guard so you're not attacked.
Zombie U is where you start really getting an idea of what the tablet is capable of, and is also indicative of both its strengths and faults. You have to get used to the fact that not only do you have a tablet, your character does as well. When you use it to scan the area looking for loot or other clues, you hold it up and look around just as they would in the game. This is absolutely not intuitive at all, and will definitely require some practice to get used to. It's a whole new style of gaming after all.
Once you do get the hang of it, it is actually a very impressive step forward, but it still feels like some of the more annoying aspects of games like Spirit Camera on the 3DS. The Wii U is way better, obviously, but if you want to get the most out of the system, you are going to have tor relearn how you interface with your console.
Similar in approach was the Wii U version of Batman: Arkham City. Now, I played this game to absolute death on my PS3, so I walked into the demo pretty confident.
First off, one of the things I trumpeted awhile back about the Wii U's possibilities is readily apparent. Batman's map is right there on the tablet screen, and you can look at it without pausing or slowing down the onscreen action with load times. In fact, all aspects of Batman's menus are used through the controller.
The minus to the controller update, though, is that your detective mode requires the same hold and scan gameplay that Zombie U does. This is not only awkward, it's nonsensical. Batman's detective mode is in his cowl, not in the control pad on his wrist, and I imagine that players that used detective mode in combat to locate enemies will have a hard time switching back and forth.
I also noticed that the button placement changes the gameplay slightly in a way I can't really nail down. I found myself hitting A when I was aiming for B a lot. This will probably only affect people who for some reason played the game on one system and are now playing it here. One big plus side as well is that all the DLC missions of the earlier releases come standard on the game.
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My favorite play of the session was a lesser-mentioned title called The Wonderful 101, an action hero game from the people that brought you Viewtiful Joe. You control an army of up to 101 hilariously costumed vigilantes as they protect a city from alien invaders. It's part King of the Monsters, part Kirby Mass Attack. Your team gangs up on giant foes, forms living weapons and recruits rescued citizens for the league.
The gameplay was a garishly fun beatfest that had me instantly hooked. Switching back and forth from standard game grip to using the touch screen on the tablet to form the army in a sword or gun took some practice, but was still a highly addictive experience.
After an hour testing games, I have to admit that my arms hurt. The controller is light, but you do start to feel the weight after a while. I imagine that just as you could often play different styles between the Wiimote and Nunchuck and more standard grips, you'll have games that are more flexible towards using the tablet or the sold-separately Wii U Pro controller that has a more standard Xbox design.
Regardless, the Wii U ups the power of Nintendo into a realm where it can begin trying to attract more hardcore gamers with titles like Batman and Mass Effect, but still maintain the family entertainment style it pioneered with the Wii. It may truly be the best of both worlds.