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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.

  • Text: Bengt Lemne & Gillen McAllister

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.


Nintendo used E3 to demo a wide range of titles for Wii U: we went hands-on with all of them.

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.


Watch: Gameplay

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.

The Luigi's Mansion mini-game from Nintendoland played near-identical to the Pac-Man Vs Gamecube/GBA title Nintendo demoed years ago.

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.

Animal Crossing's inclusion at least gave the GamePad player an extra headache by controlling two guards at once.

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.

Zelda and Donkey Kong: both felt more tech demo than full game: a surprise given these are some of Nintendo's biggest franchises.
in Ninja Castle you had to make sure you were gripping the tablet tight: we didn't want to find out out sturdy (or not) the GamePads were if we dropped one.

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: same 2D platforming transplanted to the GamePad screen. We may end up not even switching the TV on for SP sessions.

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