Nintendo's Wii U GamePad Transforms The Tablet, Doubles The Gaming Stakes

The Wii U starts at $299 with 8GB of flash storage and is available Nov. 18. It also comes with the GamePad, a hybrid joystick-tablet that radically changes gameplay—and maybe even the way you watch shows and movies.

At a press event in New York today, Nintendo of America's president Reggie Fils-Aime announced that the Wii U will launch on Sunday Nov. 18. A Basic set (white finish) system with 8GB of flash storage will cost $299. A Deluxe set (black) system with 32GB storage, a controller charging cradle, and a stand will cost $349. The deluxe package also comes with Deluxe Digital Promotion, a subscription service that serves as an exchange for digital credit.

But the standout feature is the new tablet-like controller called the GamePad. The Wii U plus the GamePad create a unique second screen experience to enhance games or create new kinds of play. The controller also gives users a way to comment on Facebook, Twitter, or Nintendo's Miiverse while playing or even watching shows or sporting events. GamePad will show stats and extra info about shows, too—cast and credit info from IMDB, reviews from Rotten Tomatoes, or overviews from Wikipedia. Users can also use the GamePad to see what shows friends on Wii U and Facebook have marked as favorites.

"Wii U is the only game console with a seamlessly connected, fully integrated second screen," Fils-Aime said.

Nintendo has come up with a new way for its Wii users to access shows themselves, too. Fils-Aime previewed a new, free service called Nintendo TVii and said the company is working with Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, and TiVo to integrate it into the new TVii portal. Plus, there's a new slew of apps for browsing shows, movies, and more.

The new console is compatible with old Wii games and Wii motion controls. And the deluxe set also comes with Nintendo Land, a game with a dozen mini games based on Nintendo franchises. Activision also announced Call of Duty: Black Ops for Wii U, a huge score for Nintendo, plus Skylanders Giants, 007 Legends, and Transformers Prime.

It all amounts to a hefty effort by Nintendo to compete in today's era of gaming and sharing on Android and Apple phones and tablets.

It is easy to forget, in today's smartphone-enabled Temple Run world, that Nintendo was once the 800-lb gorilla of handheld gaming. And the company has innovated the form in ways both big and small since releasing the Game Boy in 1989. By 2001, an advanced version of the handheld was faster, had a high-resolution color screen, and backward compatibility with older games. The Nintendo DS with its two screens—one a touch screen—launched in 2004. And the Nintendo 3DS, with a 3-D screen and augmented reality capabilities, came last year.

All of that has been eclipsed by the popularity of smartphones and tablets—66% of 25-to 34-year-olds have a smartphone, according to Nielsen, and the games they offer are good enough to make a dedicated device obsolete. But Nintendo is not about to lay down without a fight: The company believes the Wii U can still beat your phone when it comes to bridging the worlds of on-screen console and handheld gaming.

"Console games have always been about the interaction between players and the machine; with Wii U we are going to alter that paradigm by expanding it to a unique and fully integrated second screen controller," said Scott Moffitt, executive VP of Sales and Marketing at Nintendo of America. Just like how the Wii's motion control Wiimote provided new kinds of game experiences that differentiated it from Microsoft's Xbox 360 and Sony's PlayStation 3, the Wii U's GamePad offers new ways to interact with the screen. Using a second screen enabled with touch capabilities, players will be able to fling ninja stars at enemies with a flick of their fingers or pluck a string on a digital bow and let loose arrows.

In the upcoming zombie apocalypse survival game, ZombiU, whenever the character needs to go through the items in a backpack, the player uses the GamePad's screen as a kind of virtual pack. And as the player's fingertips swipe through the items, the character on the TV screen rummages through the backpack as well—vulnerable to an attack by the living dead. It's a dose of physical realism added to a genre which would typically pause the action to display a menu of items.

"Having two screens instead of just one creates a great deal of value, especially in games with a lot of tension," said Ubisoft's Guillaume Brunier, the producer of ZombiU. "It allows us new ways to look at games."

The GamePad also provides a new layer to social multiplayer gaming. While four players use existing Wiimotes for a typical game, like controlling Mario and friends in Super Mario Bros. U, a fifth player will be able to use the GamePad's touch screen to help the others by creating platforms with just a tap. In one minigame inside launch title NintendoLand, four of the players are ghost hunters trying to find the fifth player controlling an invisible ghost; that player on the GamePad is the only one who can see themselves and so can try to knock out the hunters. Moffitt said, "One player that has secret information on the GamePad can have an advantage playing against other players that don't have that screen and don't have that full map and information. However, if the non-GamePad players cooperate, then they can offset that advantage and potentially prevail."

There are other advantages to having a second screen, such as the ability to seamlessly move games from the big screen to the small. "A child is playing a game on the big-screen TV and perhaps a parent comes into the room and wants to use the TV; the game player does not have to interrupt their experience," said Moffitt. "They just transfer the game down to the GamePad and continue to play, while another family member watches the TV. It enables people to have different experiences, but stay in the same room together." And with support for Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon video, Wii U's video offerings can be moved from the TV screen to the GamePad as well.

As enticing as those features are, Nintendo is going to have serious competition from the second screen experiences on tap from PlayStation's Vita and Microsoft's SmartGlass. And while the company has succeeded in introducing several breakthrough products, it's rarely come up with the most technologically savvy products on the market.

Yet the GamePad's ultimate success depends less on how souped-up the guts are, and more on whether or not Nintendo can use it to create new ways of playing games that have never been tried before. "When they released the Wii a few years ago, I don't think developers—and Nintendo—anticipated how big it would become. I think this is going to be the case with the Wii U too," said Ubisoft's Brunier. "Touchscreen interfaces are so common to everyone right now, that having this as part of a gaming platform is really going to get Wii U further than Wii got."

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