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What's up with that U?

“So, what, exactly, does it add?”

That’s the question Nintendo fans ask themselves every time a new system comes to light. In the past 16 years, Nintendo has introduced us to analog joysticks, dual screens, touch screens, three-pronged controllers, asymmetric button placement, rumble packs, glasses-free 3-D, wireless “street passing” multiplayer, and, of course, motion control.

Enter the WiiU. From a distance, it looks like we have a slightly reformed DS — a touch screen with regular controller functions stuck on either side — to compliment a more powerful Wii, right?

As is usually the case, it gets a little bit more complicated close up. Nintendo’s new system actually packs a whole lot of old ideas. From its GamePad controller, to “asymmetric” multiplayer focus, these are things we’ve either seen before from Nintendo in bits and pieces, or are seeing now on mobile devices such as the iPad or smartphones. But we’ve never seen them all in one place, and that’s what makes the WiiU a challenge to predict and a thrill to think about.

The controller and ‘asymmetrical’

The WiiU GamePad feels like a portable game system. It’s lightweight — not the metal, compact and heavy feeling you get from a smartphone, but not quite the lightweight freedom given by a standard Xbox or Wii controller.

The ergonomic grips on the underside make it comfortable to hold with one hand. Except for the giant touch screen in the middle, this is the closest Nintendo has come to a mainstream button layout since the SNES days. There are two thumb sticks at the upper left and right sides. A cross pad falls slightly under the left joystick, and a cross pattern of four buttons is under the right. In combination with the two triggers underneath, everything is easy to reach and surprisingly like a normal gamepad. I guess I was more expecting a tablet computer with a controller built around it, but this feels like a normal controller split down the middle, with a touch screen down the center.

The touch screen definitely had some issues. In two games, “ZombiU” and “Game & Wario,” the touch screen dramatically misbehaved during key action sequences involving touch. Without using the stylus to maintain constant pressure on the touch pad, I worry that developers will have to back away from forcing gamers to use this during fast-paced moments. There is a possibility that both games had unrelated development bugs, but it seems too coincidental they would both have those bugs at the same time.

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Other features of the GamePad are very encouraging, however. It’s basically a Swiss army knife of console controllers. There’s a small speaker, very accurate motion detection, rumble, headphone port, what looked like a recharge port, a button to control your TV’s channels and a spot for a stylus. The touch screen itself be substituted for the main TV screen in some games. Perhaps most interesting of all, there’s even a camera.

The system itself only supports two GamePad controllers. At a recent demonstration hosted by Nintendo representatives, all the games shown supported only one GamePad, and sometimes not even as the primary controller. No details about cost — for the system, games or extra GamePad — have been revealed. For multiplayer, the WiiU will want you to pull out some Wiimotes. Reuse of the Wiimotes is probably the most perplexing thing about jumping to the next generation of consoles. It’s will definitely save you money if you’ve already invested in the Wii, but it also raises questions about how fair multiplayer will be. After all, if you sit four kids down and only give one the new controller, there’ll surely be some fighting.

As it turns out, most WiiU games count on this. Either in co-operative mode or competitively, players with Wiimotes end up doing most of the fun stuff together, while someone with the GamePad is relegated to helping or hunting on his or her own. Nintendo calls this “asymmetric gameplay,” and it was present in every multiplayer title shown. (It’s as if Nintendo is calling out to your living room: Never mind playing fair, bring on the infighting!)

Almost every piece of software on display, especially the more original titles, came back to the emphasis of fun in the living room. These are games you play as a family or with a group of friends. Not since the Nintendo 64 days have I seen so many multiplayer experiences, especially right off the bat. As someone who’s been playing Nintendo since the early days, and also embraced the Wii’s motion controls wholeheartedly, I must admit I was hugely skeptical going into this hands-on demonstration. But I left tremendously confident that the Mario factory is on to something extremely fun and quite unique.

For impressions of the WiiU games we got to sit down with, please check the 'related links' tab.

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