What could Nintendo possibly cook up as a successor to the world dominating Wii console? On the market since 2006, the Wii features woefully outdated hardware and its two main challengers—Microsoft's Xbox 360 and Sony's PlayStation 3—have released me-too motion-control gaming products. It's time for Nintendo to update.
For the Wii's next act, I assumed HD output was a given, along with graphics capabilities on par with or better than the competitors. I could also imagine things like a vitality sensor, so a gamer's heart rate would impact their experience. Or 3-D output. Or something breakthrough. Maybe the Wii 2 would be a hologram machine.
I was wrong. The Wii U (a clangingly awful name, I think) turns out to be a touchscreen tablet, lined on the margins with familiar video game controller buttons. The idea behind this new controller is that players can expect even familiar game concepts to feel like an entirely new breed, just as motion control gave sword-fighting and tennis games a new raison d'etre.
In a Wii U demo called "Chase Mii," four characters trying to find a fifth run a maze using standard Wiimotes, the screen split into quadrants. The prey, however, plays on the Wii U screen, with his own personal view—because if the other players could see his screen, they'd know where he was.
That concept came from a game released back in 2003. Nintendo creative guru Shigeru Miyamoto designed it with one of his idols, Pac-Man creator Toru Iwatani. It was called Pac-Man Vs. and was released for the Nintendo GameCube. In Pac-Man Vs. the player in the role of Pac-Man would use a Game Boy Advance screen to run around a maze eating pellets, fruits, and pretzels, while others played on the TV as the ghosts chasing him.
The world wasn't as wireless as it is today, so a kiddie-looking connector cable was sold to link the game-playing devices required for Pac-Man Vs. Gamers had to obtain multiple copies of the game, plus two different consoles, and the cable, to play it. That's a lot of fuss and investment. The game bombed, then.
Miyamoto, though, fell in love with the idea of the connector dongle. He found more and more uses for it, linking up portable and console versions of familiar games (golf, tennis, Final Fantasy, Sonic) to port over information. What he was trying to do was create game playing experiences that could not be replicated by a PlayStation 2 or Xbox. Nobody seemed to care, though. His cable-linked gameplay was akin to a DVD extra in the market.
The designer's heart did not falter, though. Today, Miyamoto's dongle is back in concept in the Wii U. The console is devoted to swapping info from one unit to another. Switch your tablet view to the big screen, or reverse it! Bring games to your friend's houses in slightly less complicated ways! Purchase another copy of Mario Kart! Is this what gamers want?
Is the company out of ideas trying to "leverage their legacy" but making the same mistakes over again with the Wii U? Are they mixing up their Edsels and their Thunderbirds? Possibly.
Then again, Nintendo is an old hand at repackaging, recycling, and refurbishing. You can still buy a copy of Super Mario Bros. for the Wii's Virtual Console for $5: and try to find a copy of Pac-Man to purchase. Its recent porting of 1998's Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time to 3DS comes at full price. It is second to none in caring for and celebrating (and generating revenue from) its golden geese.
Third-party support suggests Nintendo's new console could be a huge success. Nintendo courted and won third-party heavies like Activision and EA to create and promote games for the Wii U. It helps that the Wii U concept is so clear: It's an extra-large Nintendo DS, the two-screen portable console that's been around since 2004. Everyone in the industry already knows how to design games to take advantage of two screens.
Finally, look at the original Wii itself. Motion control was an ancient idea, tied into two of the worst peripherals of the NES system: the Power Glove and the U-Force. They worked very poorly, and with very few games, but the idea behind them was sound. Nintendo brought motion control back the better part of two decades later with more reliable technology, and they made a triple-scoop mint.
People may laugh at Nintendo for what seems to be a bunt of a concept in the Wii U. But Nintendo has laughed all the way to the bank when their ideas were jeered before.
Jeff Ryan is the author of Super Mario: How Nintendo Conquered America, released this week.