Last week I attended the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3). If you are not familiar with E3, it is a large video game trade fair exclusive to those in the industry. Despite being closed to the general public, E3 manages to be one of the largest video game expos. I was only able to attend one of the show’s three days, so I had to be selective about what I could see. I wanted to spend a lot of time at the Nintendo booth to check out their new console, the Wii U. The Wii U consists of a new console and a GamePad, the new controller sporting an independent screen. All the Wii U promotional videos talk about the Wii U GamePad being revolutionary to gameplay. In fact, Nintendo introduced a new term for it, “asymmetric gameplay.” The hypothesis is that the GamePad will give the gamer an opportunity to face somewhere else than direct at the TV, a first in the console gaming world.
The E3 2011 Wii U trailer and this year’s presentation aimed to display how truly unique and flexible this new console is. The principle of combining the TV/console unit with what is essentially a mobile device does provide a new set of possibilities, but I was interested to see how well the Wii U games would integrate the GamePad display into the gameplay.
Nintendo’s booth featured the Wii U and an array of its upcoming titles, many of which I got to try first hand. From Nintendo titles for the Wii U, I tried Nintendo Land and New Super Mario Bros U. From third-party companies for the Wii U, I tried Batman Arkham City Armored Edition.
Nintendo Land consists of twelve mini-games. I played Donkey Kong’s Crash Course and The Legend of Zelda: Battle Quest. In Donkey Kong, the main screen showed a large map while the GamePad showed the section zoomed in around your character. Essentially you were mostly playing on the GamePad, though a quick occasional glance at the main screen could help you position yourself in the world. Similarly, in the Zelda game, the player with the GamePad would play as an archer where the GamePad screen was pretty much the only thing you actually needed. Adding credence to my fear that the GamePad — while asymmetric — didn’t add to the gameplay so much as transfered it, in New Super Mario Bros U‘s multiplayer mode the GamePad player only exists as a “boost” player. The boost player can make life easier or harder for the main characters: You can help the character players by freezing enemies, or annoy them by placing blocks in their way. Great feature if you have one more player than you do Wii remotes, but hardly a role anyone would fight over, I imagine.
I was more impressed with WB Games‘ use of the GamePad during gameplay in their re-release of the Batman Arkham City. The main screen features the main game while the GamePad represents Batman’s wrist-mounted Batcomputer. The Batcomputer can be used to control weapons, tools, and maps in a way that provides a certain level of augmented reality to the game. As the Batcomputer, the GamePad is truly integrated in the game, not as an either/or option stealing attention from the TV screen but as a truly dual monitor game. You better pay attention to both, or else!
Nevertheless, Nintendo definitely doesn’t come short in resourceful ways to use the GamePad. You can move a game from the main screen to the GamePad screen if, for example, a family member walks in demanding TV access. That is pretty cool. The same applies to video, as demonstrated to me for Netflix on the Wii U. Yes, that means when your favorite show is about to start on cable TV, you can move the kiddo’s Curious George to the GamePad (with earphones!). My toddler doesn’t allow me time to have favorite shows, but I’m sure that could be an attractive feature for families with older kids! Another feature is “performance play” as showed off in SiNG, a karaoke game that actually lets your face your audience instead of the TV thanks to the GamePad screen. There’s also been a lot of talk about Miiverse, a social environment displayed on the GamePad during games.
I had the chance to interview Cindy Gordon, vice-president of corporate affairs at Nintendo of America, with my additional questions.
GeekMom: It seems like Nintendo has more family-friendly games than other companies, is there something about the console hardware that makes it easier to produce family-friendly games or is it more of a brand thing?
Cindy Gordon: No, what it really is is the Nintendo brand. Nintendo’s approach is to be very welcoming to anyone and everyone, so even if you’ve never played a game before, you won’t be intimidated to come and play. That’s why the Wii sold 100 million units in the world, because frankly a lot of women started to play, whereas it used to be only gamers and we completely changed that with Wii Sport and Wii Fit. It really is the gameplay that is so inviting and that’s Nintendo’s brand. To be fun, social, and a healthy inviting welcoming environment. So even with parental control, all that is thought through.
GM: That’s another question with the Miiverse, what kind of control is there over what you see and what people say?
Cindy: All that’s still being figured out. We’re being really aggressive in figuring out what that is. There’s still going to be some level of parental control like in our other systems.
GM: I’m kind of thinking even just for myself, I don’t want to read unhelpful or destructive comments. Who’s doing the moderating?
Cindy: There will be some filtering and some moderating. It hasn’t been decided yet [about who will do the moderating], but it could be the community, for one. Another could be people at Nintendo. Between now and launch [Holiday season 2012], we’ll really focus on that. It’s important to Nintendo.
GM: Would third-party games have access to the Miiverse?
Cindy: It’s built-in the hardware so every game is automatically connected to Miiverse. That’s why when you walk in to the main plaza of Miiverse, you see icons that look like billboards on main street. You don’t put those there, I don’t put those there, Nintendo doesn’t put those there. They are put there based on what people are playing and what’s trending as a topic. If a lot of people are talking about the new Lego game for Wii U, it doesn’t even matter if you have it, you’ll still see it so you can go over and see what’s this game all about.
GM: Can you download a game right away when you see it on your Miiverse? Will you still have physical games too then?
Cindy: Yes. What we said is that every game for the Wii U, and this is true for the Nintendo 3DS too, will be available in both packaged as well as digital. It’s really about choice. What I remember as a parent, I prefer the download because I won’t lose the disk. But some people thrive on [having the physical game], to each his own.
GM: Is there a way you can play your games on another Nintendo, for example if I go to my parents’ house and want to play on their console?
Cindy: You’ll have an account system so you’ll be able to access your account anywhere.
I’m really excited about the new console and can’t wait to explore all the ways in which the GamePad can change the gaming experience. What do you think, will Santa be bringing you one this year?