As promised, I focused almost my entire day yesterday checking out the Wii U at Nintendo’s booth – by which I mean I stood in line for three hours and toured the demos for about an hour total. It was quite the ordeal, but fortunately booth babes were on standby with DSi and 3DS units so I could try out some other games while I waited. Once my ankles had nearly reached their breaking point, a Nintendo rep finally drew back the barrier and let me inside – and that’s when my Wii U experience began.

Was it worth the wait to check out those crisp HD graphics and that sleek touch screen controller? Was it a pure gaming device, or just a novelty tech piece? Do I expect to buy one on launch day? I’ve got the answers to all these questions and more.

Wii U – A Real Gaming Café

I can see where the codename “Project Café” comes from: this thing really does everything in terms of connecting you to your console and to other users – photo sharing, web browsing, system navigation, and of course it plays a role in real-time gameplay as well. Yeah, I know that a “café” usually means a place where coffee is served, but over time the term’s become associated with technology that brings people into a single virtual space – and that’s exactly what Wii U aims to do.

What’s really great about it is that the screen isn’t just limited to its touch functionality – which is on par with if not better than the DS’s second screen, as I found out from the “Measure Up” demo – it’s powerful enough to display impressive visuals which, while they’re not quite at the same resolution as the ones you can see on your TV, look pretty freaking good nonetheless. This was showcased especially well in the Twilight Princess “HD Experience” and the Japanese Garden tech demo, which were all about playing around with visual options for the two screens. You won’t really be able to see how good everything looks on the controller’s screen until you experience it for yourself – suffice to say that even though I went in expecting this, I was still a bit surprised by the quality. (Not nearly as impressed as I was by the fully upscaled HD, though – it’s everything you’ve ever wanted and could ever want in terms of graphics.)

Some games, like New Super Mario Bros. Mii, will display on both the TV and your controller simultaneously, meaning you can switch between the two views instantaneously (and other words ending in “taneously”). And personally I thought that playing a game using the built-in screen was just fine – although of course it’s not hard to New Super Mario Bros. look good at a lower resolution.

The gyroscope and motion sensing capabilities of the Wii U controller are ripped more or less straight from the 3DS – and that’s a good thing. There’s also a sensor strip on the back of the controller that works exactly like the infrared pointers on the Wii Remotes that makes the technology feel all too familiar, which means that outside of Motion Plus technology there’s a lot of potential for games that use the Wii pointer to be easily adaptable to the new format. This is particularly noticeable in Shield Mii, a rhythm game where players use their Wii U tablet to block incoming arrows. It all works just as well as it should, with my only real complaint being that the sensitivity settings on one of the games didn’t feel quite right for me.

What really wowed me, though, is how comfortable the controller is. I was expecting it to be moderately heavy, at least relatively speaking, but it seemed almost impossibly light! It’s a bit unwieldy at first due to its size but it didn’t take long for me to get over that since it’s designed to be pretty comfortable for a tablet-like device. Buttons and Circle Pads are all easy to reach – although I haven’t used a controller with both shoulder triggers and bumpers in a long time so that’s going to take some getting used to. And speaking of Circle Pads – the 3DS made me a convert from traditional analog control, but somehow the Wii U found a way to improve them by giving them a tactile finish that’s easier to grip – much like the Wii Nunchuk’s analog stick.

The touch screen is large enough that reaching all the way to the middle with your thumbs will probably be more trouble than it’s worth, but then that leaves enough room to have touch buttons on the left and right sides while leaving a ton of free space in the middle for other in-screen features. In general it feels like a bigger, more functional DS – which means that all the potential the DS offered for great gaming is still there, plus the wide open potential of a fully-loaded HD console.

I loved every single one of the first-party game demos. You hear me? Every. Single. One. That’s not to say they were perfect or anything, but they’re all games that I really, really think continue the Wii’s tradition of providing game experiences for everybody while broadening the horizons with new ideas like the Wii U’s second screen. I won’t give them all the same totally in-depth previews I gave the other E3 demos, but I’ll let you know what I thought of each.

Shield Mii

This one’s probably the most popular of the Wii U demos because it’s the best showcase of what the Wii U controller offers in terms of Wii-like experiences. The game revolves around following cues on your TV and then using the Wii U’s screen to interact with objects. At first you’ll swivel and point the controller up, down, and to the sides to scout out enemy ships – it all works exactly like the 3DS gyroscope – then you’ll have to use the controller as a shield to defend from pirate arrows.

At this point, the game turns into a rhythm challenge. You have to keep tempo as the pirates shoot off their plunger projectiles and point your controller in the indicated directions to block the arrows. If you don’t stay in time you’ll miss the arrows, so you have to really be attentive. After you block a few, you’ll have to lower your shield to shake them off and then prepare for another round. It’s a lot of fun and looks like it could pave the way for innovative new ideas for franchises like Rhythm Heaven.

Battle Mii

Another demo favorite, Battle Mii shows off multiplayer functionality using Wii Remotes and the new Wii U controller. Two gunners, both dressed in Samus’s Power Suit (complete with a Morph Ball mode and Charge Beam), arm themselves with a Wii Remote and Nunchuk and set themselves against another player, in command of the Wii U controller, who flies a gunship (again themed after Samus’s equipment) and tries to take them out. The ground players point their Wii Remotes at the screen and move around with the analog stick to avoid the ship while they try to take it down, while the pilot maneuvers the ship using a combination of dual-analog control and the Wii U tablet’s IR pointer to avoid their fire while responding in kind.

The system for the ground gunners works really well. It uses only a few buttons – run around with the analog stick, point with the Wii Remote to aim, use the B button as your trigger. Holding the A button allows you to track targets by panning the camera without forcing you to shift directions as you move. You can shake the Wii Remote to do a quick dodging move, and holding the Z button engages Morph Ball.

The ship controls? Not so much. Not saying they don’t work – but splitting it up between both analog pads (which together are used to move the ship) and aiming with the IR pointer? It was a bit too busy for me. I would have preferred analog only controls, where you move the ship with the left Circle Pad and aim/point the camera with the right one. Still, it was incredibly fun, and a good entry level game in terms of the possibilities for multiplayer using both the TV and the new controller.

Chase Mii

This one’s based on the “tag” version of hide-and-seek, a game I’ve always wanted to see made into a video game – now made possible by the Wii U controller. The player using the tablet controller gets a 15 second head start to hide somewhere, anywhere, in a large arena, while up to four other players, all using Wii Remotes held sideways, try to chase after him. The character with the tablet gets a wider viewpoint than the other players, and has access to a map showing him their locations, but of course he’s outnumbered, so the advantage can only take him so far!

It was intense and fun – hands-down the best Wii U demo on the floor in my opinion. I loved everything about this game, from the concept to the Super Mario Bros.-inspired visuals to the fast-paced gameplay. I would seriously pay $50 just for more of this game (provided of course that it comes with more maps). Work in a Massively Multi-player online experience more akin to a real-life game of Capture the Flag… oh man, getting disturbingly excited by the prospects.

New Super Mario Bros. Mii

I love New Super Mario Bros. so one of my most-anticipated demos was the New Super Mario Bros. Mii station. Really, it’s exactly like what you’d expect from New Super Mario Bros. – the gameplay and aesthetics are largely based on the Wii version – but it’s been given some slight visual updates. It’s not a good showcase of HD, but it doesn’t have to be – Super Mario Bros. is not a series that relies on top-notch graphics to get the job done.

Those of you who liked playing as Toad will be happy to hear that you still can – but now you can also choose from your Mii characters, who’ll wear Mario-esque outfits. Also new to this version is the ability to select whatever character you choose when playing on single-player right from the outset. I personally played as one of the preset Miis just for novelty’s sake.

Playing on the controller’s screen is pretty nice actually – the visuals are still better and clearer than those we saw on the Wii version. I also found out that some of the motion control options have now been mapped to buttons as well for those who don’t like relying on waggle controls for key functions, so you’ll be able to play with whatever style you choose.

I’ll actually be doing a short piece explaining each of the levels for this one, since I get the feeling it’s planned to be a full retail release (or perhaps a preloaded or downloadable title) some time down the line.

Twilight Princess: The HD Experience

Come on. You’ve already seen it. Now watch it again.

Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Online

The first demo for a conformed Wii U title! Honestly, there wasn’t much too this demo – just a brief overview of how the second screen will work with the new controller, as well as a showcase of the game’s visuals in its alpha stages. It’s clear this one’s pretty early in development – there were tons of unfinished graphical touches including shadowing effects, etc. – but it still looks way ahead of anything we saw for the original Wii.

The game’s going to be heavily class-based, according to the Ubisoft rep I spoke with on the show floor. You’ll also permanently grow your characters as you play, giving you access to more weapons and presumably maps and competitive ladders as well. As for the gameplay – most of it’s standard FPS stuff, like dual-analog control, shoulder trigger shooting, and the ability to take cover behind objects in the field – I won’t even try to do it justice since the only shooters I’m familiar with are Goldeneye and Perfect Dark way back in the N64 age – but the Ubisoft rep did show me some interesting features involving the Wii U screen.

As with most DS games, the second screen is used mostly for map viewing. You can tilt the controller to adjust the viewing angle – although honestly I didn’t really feel this was the strongest use of the gyroscope based on the wireframe map style. You also have access to some other options via the touch screen – you can place a beacon alerting your teammates to your location or send out a drone to scout for enemies in the vicinity, which will then be flagged both on your map and on the TV screen.

My demo mostly consisted of me running around killing small spider drones. It didn’t last very long, so I only got a cursory look at the experience. It was enough, however, to show me that third-parties really are serious about making Wii U work for them, both graphically and in terms of gameplay.

The rep also mentioned a social network created just for the game called “Ghost Feed,” which you can use you access info and communicate with friends even while the TV is powered off. And one more tidbit – the online is account-based, so you can log in at any friend’s house if you want to start playing, but it seems like the account is game-specific, and there won’t be a network-wide account for all your Wii U games.

Final Impressions

So what did I think? I think it’s got a lot of potential – that controller is freaking excellent, and I honestly had no issues with its size, button placements, or any of that. I’m a bit worried that limiting the system to only one tablet period is going to hurt Nintendo’s competitiveness in the multiplayer space, but it sounds like they’re working on adding support for at least one more. Still, the multiplayer potential even with one tablet and four Wii Remote is already really unique compared to what the Wii already offers, and it’s still going to be an HD Wii, so I’m still pretty freakin’ excited.

As was the case with the 3DS, though, a day one buy for me is going to depend on what kind of software support Nintendo manages to muster up. It’s been almost three months since the 3DS launch and I only just today bought mine so that I can properly review Ocarina of Time 3D (the unit’s sitting on my charging deck right now, but I get the feeling it’s not going to be done juicing up before I have to leave – ah well), and with Nintendo already pledging to give third parties the same amount of space in the early months of the Wii U’s life, I worry that they’ll pull the same stunts again. That they’ve already got several levels for a New Super Mario Bros. game gives me hope that they’ll be able to launch it with Mario, but it’s not exactly a confirmed retail title, so who knows?

What I do know is that the Wii U, despite the shortcomings of offering only one tablet, still has given me the biggest blast I’ve had with any multiplayer game in a very long time (since the release of Super Smash Bros. Brawl). If they can pull off the 3DS-as-controller as a possible solution – and it sounds like they’re planning to do just that – then I can only imagine that the potential for great shared experiences is going to increase even more. I can’t wait to see what Nintendo has in store. (More Chase Mii? Please?)

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