Well, I finally got my hands on an actual Wii U today at a special Nintendo press event in New York City. It's much better than E3 2011, where I only got to tinker with the tech demos and the hardware wasn't even finalized.
Now I have actually used the final Wii U controller and played demos of actual games. I'll start off by talking about the hardware and Nintendo Land, one of the launch titles for the system, and then in future articles, give my impressions of the other games I played, which included Wii Fit U, ZombiU, Pikmin 3, Project P-100, and SiNG.
The actual Wii U console is similar to the Wii, but sleeker and sexier with its rounded edges. It's going to be available in white or black at launch (still only vaguely referenced as "this holiday season..."), but you know that if you wait long enough you'll get all kinds of special colors and bundles. The system is backwards compatible with all Wii game titles, although it's not going to have any graphical enhancements for them to make them extra-pretty and HD. Sorry!
The Wii U GamePad is surprisingly lightweight, and the touch screen is clear and bright. The response of the touch screen varied between game demos. in Project P-100, it was fine, but moving the map around in Pikmin 3's replay mode was draggy. I actually ended up playing Pikmin 3 with the Wiimote and Nunchuck controllers because the demo didn't have GamePad controls yet (the final game will, obviously), but I played the entire ZombiU demo with it, and while I have no idea how long I actually played for, it seemed like a while, and I never felt like the GamePad got cumbersome or awkward to hold after long periods of time. The touch screen was used for maps or menus, except for in SiNG, where it displayed the song lyrics for the lead vocalist, and in Project P-100 where at one point I entered a building and then had to play directly on the GamePad for a bit to solve a puzzle.
There were actually only two issues that I found with the GamePad. First, the dual analog thumbsticks are well positioned, but higher than I was expecting. So while playing ZombiU, I tended to overshoot as I was looking around. I was told that unfortunately, the demo didn't have the ability to adjust camera sensitivity, so I had to adjust to it, and by the end of the demo, I was a little better. My main issue is that the GamePad is very wide, so while the sides are very comfortable, and the thumbsticks and buttons and directional pad are all easily within reach, actually getting to the touch screen takes some effort. Luckily, in Project P-100, you only had to draw shapes, which could be accomplished just fine on the edge of the touch screen you could reach. But in ZombiU, you had to actually take your hand off the side and use your finger to work the menu screen or touch mini-games. Of course, the game takes that into consideration and works it into gameplay as you're vulnerable to attack during those times.
Instead of the AA batteries used by the Wiimotes and Balance Boards, the Wii U GamePad actually has its own internal rechargeable battery. Even if the battery gets low, you'll be able to continue playing if you plug it in, although it appears that it will be with an AC adapter, so that could lead to some awkward extension cord business depending on the layout of your living room! The GamePad is a mini-tablet, but it's meant to be a Wii U controller, so it won't do anything by itself. Certain games will be able to be played directly on the GamePad while someone else watches something else on the TV, simply by touching the TV button on the GamePad, but that will be software specific. You will be able to browse the web or continue watching Netflix movies directly on the GamePad screen, and there's a headphone jack so you don't bother the person watching TV. You can listen through the GamePad's speakers, but then you'd have to move to another room, and it's not yet clear how far exactly you'll be able to move away from the console and maintain a connection.
The graphics are definitely in HD, although obviously quality varies from game to game. Pikmin 3 was probably the most impressive, actually, with its cartoony characters walking around a borderline-photo realistic environment. Even Nintendo Land impressed, with the sharpest cartoon graphics you can imagine. That's the problem, though. Most of the games on display skewed younger and more cartoony with the graphics. However, Batman: Arkham City looks like the PS3 and Xbox 360 versions, and ZombiU had some really nice graphical flourishes. The system can clearly do impressive graphics... it's just up to the developers to show them off.
Nintendo Land will be a launch title, although it will not be bundled in with the console like Wii Sports. There may be a bundle of the console and game, but that hasn't been determined yet. Much like Wii Sports or Wii Play, it's basically a collection of mini-games that help demonstrate the various capabilities of the system. There are 12 attractions in all, but only five were available in the demo, and they were limited in scope. The final game's attractions will have more content than the demos. For instance, the Luigi's Mansion demo was just the one floor, while the full game will have multiple mansions. There will be single player games like Takamaru's Ninja Castle, where you hold the GamePad horizontally in front of you, aiming the side at the TV and swiping the screen with your fingers to shoot throwing stars at the various paper ninjas that run around the screen. I didn't actually get to play this one, but it looked like a lot of fun. The ninjas are paper, because the whole graphical style was papercraft. It was very cool.
The two demos I did get to play were Animal Crossing: Sweet Day and Luigi's Mansion. Both of them were multiplayer games that demonstrate Nintendo's big buzzword for the Wii U: Asymmetric Gameplay. This means that one person will play with the GamePad, while the others use Wiimotes. In the Animal Crossing attraction, the player with the GamePad controls two guards who chase after the other four players while they try to run around the screen gathering candies. They make it hard for the guards because the player controls each one with a separate thumbstick. The others hold the Wiimotes sideways and use the directional pad to move and the buttons to pick up candies. Most of the candies required more than one person to gather, though, and since we weren't very good at teamwork or communication, we failed miserably. We did a little better with the Luigi's Mansion demo, either because we were better at communicating or because instead of a Nintendo employee demonstrating it, it was another journalist playing as the ghost. It's an overhead map of a mansion floor with different rooms, and you have to run around in the dark with your flashlights looking for the ghost and hoping he doesn't get you first. Thing is, the ghost is invisible, so you can only tell when he's near if your Wiimote vibrates. When you're caught, you faint, and another player has to revive you with their flashlight, hoping all the while that they aren't set upon by the ghost. If you can keep at least one player conscious until the time runs out or if you can deplete the ghost's health by blasting it with your flashlight, you can win. We did not win. And the guy playing the ghost seemed to take a little too much pleasure in defeating us. That cackle came from him, not the game!
The Asymmetrical Gameplay is genuinely fun, and a different take on traditional multiplayer where everyone assumes the same role, gameplay-wise. I'm just not sure how often I'm going to have four additional friends over to play. Luckily, you can play the Nintendo Land mini-games with less people, but you're going to need a minimum of three or it won't work at all, really.
As I said, I'll discuss the other games I played in more detail in future articles over the coming days, but as for general impressions of the Wii U system itself, I'm... impressed. The GamePad is surprisingly comfortable in your hands, even when tightly gripped during a tense survival horror FPS, and the touch screen has a good resolution that looks really good. And already, even with these early titles, it's clear that the GamePad's touch screen is going to be used in some creative ways. (Can't wait to see what they come up with for the inside-facing camera on it!) I'm glad I finally got my hands on it... now if only I could've figured out a way to sneak one home with me! Damn security!