Wii U's GamePad: Game Changer?
Both E3 and an extensive London Showcase event these last few weeks has finally allowed us to spend significant time both with Nintendo's newly announced titles and ports of third party franchises.
The big N's push for its newest console has hinged around a significant claim: that the touchscreen-enabled GamePad for the machine would give a unique gaming experience as well as reinvigorating existing titles. Does that claim ring true?
We tinkered, we touched, we experienced: here's our thoughts and initial verdict on what Nintendo are bringing to the living room.
GAMEPAD AND FIRST PARTY TITLES
The final Wii U hardware was on hand for testing at E3 with a large selection of titles that'll dominate the launch window (whenever that is) of both first and third party variety.
The slightly redesigned tablet controller - now officially listed as the system's GamePad - is just as light as it was last year, and comes with dual analogues and pretty much exactly the same buttons and functionality you would expect from a Xbox 360 controller or Dual Shock 3.
Nintendoland, the company's own virtual Disneyland with multiple mini-games themed around their iconic franchises, it was touted as the title that would introduce players to the benefits of the Wii U, in a similar fashion to what Wii Sports' tennis did for the Wii back in the day. At least Nintendo were pushing hard to get that message across.
Asymmetric gameplay is one of the interesting aspects of Wii U and we got to try these out in two of the five Nintendoland demos.
First of these was Luigi's Ghost Mansion, a more advanced version of last year's Wii Chase mini-game - or if you want to go back even further, the GBA/Gamecube connected Pac-Man Vs.
It's a top down perspective showing a multi-roomed floor in the mansion. Four players clutching flashlights have to move around the simple labyrinth layout using the Wiimote and Nunchuck, shining their torches in the hope of catching the fifth player - who's doubling as an otherwise invisible ghost - in the torch's beam.
The fifth player, holding the GamePad, is invisible to the other players, but can see his ghost on the controller's screen, which replicates the TV screen's action. The ghost can grab players and render them unconscious simply by touching them.
But the ghost hunters will feel a rumble effect as it closes in, and can shake unconscious players back awake (as long as they themselves aren't grabbed mid-revival). So communication is key, and it's easy to see how this can be fun with five dedicated players on the couch. On the E3 showfloor the ghost player kept winning as the hunters struggled to find an efficient strategy and failed to communicate.
The second example of asymmetric gameplay was Animal Crossing: Sweet Day - and this game presented more of a challenge for the fifth player.
While the setup was similar - one stage (big enough to demand a four-way split-screen on the TV to track each player), four versus one gameplay - the GamePad holder is control of two guards as they try to capture the candy-gathering foursome, whose goal was to collect as many sweets as possible.
The idea that players have to group together on switch pads to have candy drop from trees above made it interesting and tense as the guards closed in, and there was a bit more strategy to playing with the guards as you had more of a view of the map on the GamePad screen when they were far apart - but it was also more difficult to corner the candy burglars.
Both examples were fun, but none of them felt deep enough to truly get our competitive juices flowing. They felt very similar to the tech demos we tried at E3 last year in that regard.
The Legend of Zelda: Battle Chest gave another twist with three players swinging swords and the fourth in the rear using his GamePad to shoot arrows. It may not have been the Zelda fans would have liked to have seen on Wii U during E3, but it seemed popular on the floor.
Donkey Kong Crash Course is a mini-game designed to make use of the gyro found in the GamePad. It felt a little bit awkward holding the pad directly in front, and then using tilt to maneuver the little barrel cart through the maze. In a way the game reminded us of Trials, but it felt a bit less obvious how to tackle various obstacles, some making use of the touchscreen while most just required the right speed to progress. Out of all the mini-games on offer, Donkey Kong Crash Course felt most like a tech demo, and to be honest it left us disappointed.
Finally, we tried Takamaru's Ninja Castle, based on an obscure Nintendo Famicon Disk System title from 1986. It basically offered us a shooting gallery where we were taking out ninjas with paper shurikens. Laying the GamePad flat on our mitt (with a protective thumb gripped on one side) we used a finger to flick the shuriken towards the ninjas on screen. One nice touch was the ability to throw fast and slow shurikens depending on the speed with which you swiped the screen, but ultimately this was a very simple demo that's unlikely to see extended time with once the game is out.
The overall impressions of the five playable mini-games (out of 12) from Nintendoland is that they each have very limited lasting appeal. We also learned of a sixth mini-game based on F-Zero during E3, where one player using the GamePad will place obstacles on the track as other players race. And while they may be a good introduction to some of the features afforded by the Wii U GamePad, most of the good ideas also require a full set of Wiimotes (and Nunchucks in some cases).
Nintendo also had a couple of more traditional core games on offer at E3, with New Super Mario Bros. U and Pikmin 3 proving popular with gamers on the floor.
New Super Mario Bros. U
Watch: Announcement trailer
New Super Mario Bros. U gave us three brief levels to play using the GamePad to control Mario in what came across as your typical 2D Mario experience. The game didn't seem to make much use of the GamePad in single player, but you could of course continue playing on the small screen if someone else in your household would demand access to the TV. In fact, we found ourselves increasingly staring at the controller screen instead of the TV, treating the GamePad as a glorified 3DS.
In multiplayer (which we didn't get to try) one player can place extra blocks using the GamePad to assist (or impede?) the progress of the other players.
What felt new and fresh about the game was the key role that Yoshi plays as a power up. There are Yoshis you can inflate and fly like a balloon, Yoshis that will help you illuminate dark areas and Yoshis that blow bubbles at enemies. The flying squirrel suit was also available in one of the levels and shaking the GamePad granted extra elevation.
There is little doubt that New Super Mario Bros. U is going to be great, and playing it with Mario himself, Charles Martinet by our side at E3 (assisting with bonus sound effects) was something we won't forget anytime soon.
Read on for the return of Captain Olimar, a superhero scrap with alien robots, and the results of third parties giving their titles the Wii U makeover
Watch: Announcement trailer
As far as Pikmin 3 goes, it left us a little confused about the control options. For a more in depth impression of Pikmin 3 you can read our hands-on article: our time with it was mainly through Wiimote control - the GamePad sat in a stand and used as a (rather useless) overhead map, with the touchscreen panning the camera around on the TV screen.
Game & Wario
It came as a complete surprise though that Game & Wario, an offshoot of WarioWare, Nintendo's brilliant and demented mini-game series that has run riot on its handhelds through the years, caused us to stifle a yawn in boredom.
The two mini-games we played lacked the frantic energy that came with the usual quick-fix of the franchise's challenges. One was another One Versus Four mini-game, top-down perspective, this time on a city block rammed with traffic and milling Miis.
The TV screen action mirrored on the GamePad screen with one notable difference for the latter: the tablet player was in control of a thief who was running amok on the streets.
Other players had to watch the throng on the TV and come the round's end guess the identity of the Mii thief - who's objective was to steal apples from around the stage without being spotted.
The GamePad player could use the cover of passing buses and sewer warps, as well as blending in to the crowds to snatch apples without arousing suspicion. At home with a crowd this may have potential: on a show floor enthusiasm for the objective on both sides zapped away quickly.
Another had us using the tablet as a bow, moving it to target an on-screen reticule at swarms of oncoming dinky toys and flicking our finger on the screen to fire arrows. Despite a really cute moment that had us crushing toys that'd managed to make it off the TV and onto our GamePad screen, the eventual appearance of a stage boss was too long in coming: length something we'd never think an issue with a WarioWare type game.
Watch: Announcement trailer
Boredom wasn't an issue with Project P-100, an otherwise stellar title in its own right thanks to creator Platinum Games' continued strive for fast-paced action and bizarre setups. The game's the undeniable black sheep of the Wii U line-up.
We'll have an extensive write-up soon, but the isometric viewpoint follows a growing group of civilians-turned-superheroes tackling skyscraper-sized alien robots, with our new recruits combining Power Rangers fashion into mammoth fists, swords or guns.
It's phenomenal both as an idea and as a visual, but the implementation is currently an issue, forcing you to either sketch a very accurate shape of the object through the control stick or with a finger on the touchscreen. Neither work as smoothly or as easily as you need.
Much better is the instance where we enter a warehouse, with the GamePad screen becoming focus of our play as it flashes up a third-person view as we try to find a mammoth three number lock between shelves. We've got to arrange the numbers to match the trio splayed on the exterior walls of the warehouse (on the TV screen) to unlock the gate and progress. Hopefully we'll see more creativity like this the more we see of the game.
It's Ubisoft that has thus far shown the most interesting, enjoyable and smart use of the GamePad to improve the gaming experience, making pre-existing titles feel markedly different and giving a unique flavour to our standard gameplay practices that we're eager to experience more of.
We've written extensively about ZombiU, but the use of the GamePad screen to check inventory as well as interact with game world elements such as security door locks without pausing the game is a feature that'll have gamers take notice. It's also a feature that works brilliantly in execution, furtive glances up from our interactions to check for any danger an interactive version of a cinematic given in any zombie movie worth its salt.
Watch: Demo walkthrough
Rayman Legends continues Origins glorious remake of the limbless platform star with gruelling levels in need of perfect timing by the players. The studio's penchant for a bizarro cast continues with a character specific to the GamePad and who compliments the existing gameplay mechanics.
The winged Murfy is controlled by tracing a finger across the touchscreen, which replicates the big screen action but offers extra and unique interaction: slash fauna to clear the other players' view and uncover treasures, and trace along lines of Lums to illuminate them into their double-bonus point forms. Poke island-sized titans in the eyes to irritate them into revealing secret rooms, grab and dangle enemies for other players to punch.
Crucially the GamePad player doesn't feel superfluous, but an integral part to executing the multiplayer timing needed to finish levels with full points. The stage that ended its conference showcase plays just as thrilling as it looks.
Batman Arkham City: Armoured Edition
Batman: Arkham City was the hardest sell at Nintendo's conference for all its marked differences. So assured are we now to instant gadget swopping via a tap of the D-Pad on other versions, that the GamePad additions feel like unnecessary extra hurdles.
A glance down and finger press on a selectable gadget screen isn't as instant as a memorised D-Pad tap, and while scanning for evidence in Detective mode is serviceable by lifting and panning the GamePad, that there's no visual translation on screen (Batman switches his mask's goggle type with a tap of his fingers) means the action is counter to, and destroys, the illusion ("Im Batman!").
The powered up attack activated by tapping the GamePad touchscreen button during combat adds zero to the battle flow, but at least guiding the Remote Batarang with the GamePad's gyrosensor and controller screen display has potential for attempting elaborate flights and takedowns with the gizmo.
Ninja Gaiden: Razor's Edge
Ninja Gaiden: Razor's Edge keeps the action firmly on the TV screen, with the GamePad serving as a touch-enabled weapon selector, objective re-locator (ie: camera snap) and a scrolling reminder list for Ryu's staggering amount of combos. Attempting chained attacks through drawing them would have been a massive mistake anyway, so while it's a limited use of the touch functionality, it was the most logical choice to make.
Watch: Announcement trailer
Scribblenauts Unlimited gets away with the excuse of not doing very much with the GamePad due to its very nature. The obvious - touchscreen keyboard - mixes with more obvious - using the touchscreen to lift and move objects in the world. The larger nature of the levels, with multiple objectives to solve within each, leeches the charm of self-contained themed stage, but perhaps the multiplayer element, which we didn't get to see, will grant good reason for larger levels.
And its still the only game on Wii U, and likely on any console, that bore witness to a three-way scrap between a rainbow-coloured Cthulhu, a bearded and gun-wielding Wrathful God, and King Kong after we asked another user to "create something happy".
Final Thoughts and Verdict
It was disappointing that Nintendo had nothing on hand to show what the use of dual Wii U gamepads could bring in terms of new gameplay twists. Most of the demos we tried at E3 felt like reworked and fleshed out versions of the tech demos we explored one year ago.
The line-up was for the most, disappointing, the use of the GamePad except for some rare cases offering little more than the most obvious implementations - a weapon, extra space for HUD elements, or just a replication of what was happening on the TV. Those titles making the trip from other consoles to Wii U weren't necessarily better for the move; unique applications only worthy of a bullet point on the back of a retail box.
It's a far cry from the Wiimote debut, which gave the entire industry a shake, and felt like something truly groundbreaking. With tablets a part of everyday life for so long, the GamePad can't sell itself as cutting edge tech as its motion-sensing remote predecessor did: what it needs to sell itself on is unique experiences found nowhere else in the game space.
That will be decided by the imaginations of its creators and the studios working on it - ZombiU comes closest, but the console hasn't a killer app yet. One may yet come in the months and years after launch, but for the moment we're left wondering just how Wii U will fare once it launches later in the year.