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Nintendo Wii U Hands-on Impressions [CES 2012]

With the show floor now (finally) opened, the main event, at CES 2012, has begun. My first stop on the tour this morning was at a private showing for Nintendo, who was giving select members visiting the show the opportunity to go hands on with their newest toy, announced at last year’s E3, the Wii U.

While the games being demoed were noted as being little more than ‘concepts’ it was a great first opportunity to get an idea of the look and feel of the new console that Nintendo plans to unleash on their consumer base before the year’s end.

The most immediate impression was of the controller, which was also prominently featured at last year’s E3.

Before I got to the convention my main concern was with the weight of the device. With Nintendo talking about how they were, once more, going to try and appeal to the ‘core’ gaming market, the idea of holding a tablet for extended game-play sessions was not an appealing one. Through my time with the console it seemed as though the tablet was a LOT lighter then I would have originally suspected, and I commented on the fact. It turns out that there were multiple ‘demo’ units available, and the one that I had was a corded model, which turns out to be quite a bit lighter than what will actually be launching later this year. There was an alternative available (mainly for product shots) which I was told would be much closer to the feel of the final model. Unfortunately, it was much heavier, and improperly balanced.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not as though you’ll be expected to hold something of significant weight; in comparison it’s probably that much more weight than the current version of the Wiimote. However, it was noticeable within a short time holding it, and more importantly the weight wasn’t evenly distributed. The weight of the controller is primarily at its bottom, which is lends to the sensation of a steady downward tug from the controller during play sessions. Of course, the sensation is minimal and it’s not something the casual market is likely to even notice, much less focus upon, but it is definitely something I could see being a problem for extended play sessions.

The team demoing the unit assured me that the design is not yet finalized and there is plenty of opportunities for changes to the controller leading up to the release later this year. It is an issue, for me personally, though and I do hope to see it change.

While Nintendo wasn’t giving details on the tech-specs of their new console (my walkthrough was constantly referenced as an ‘experience’ and ‘test drive’) they were nice enough to confirm that the console will be capable of a full 1080p output.

During my time with the unit, I was provided with a couple of brief (2-3 minute) concepts of what gameplay might be like on the Wii. The most interesting feature of which was the information that the new console will be backwards compatible with the current system, Wii’s, controllers and in fact two of the titles that I played utilized both the Wiimote and the new Wii U controller.

The first ‘experience’ that I was presented with was a concept that felt a little like a Mario Party mini-game called ‘Wii Chase’. Again, keep in mind that none of these ‘experiences’ are games, or planned games for the Wii U, merely an opportunity to get a feel for some basic concepts of how the system and its controller work. In Wii Chase the idea was simple: Three players try to catch one person, whose job it is to evade the other players for two minutes. The three players running around trying to catch ‘player 1’ have the advantage of numbers and communication (while using the classic Wiimotion controllers NES-style for movement) as the ‘rabbit’ character uses the new Wii U tablet controller to evade (with the assistance of a full-view map, and icons to display the location of the three other players. It serviced as little more than a concept of “individual viewing” on the local screen for the single-player, and gave an idea of what kind of information can display to a single person, while suggesting ideas for how one player, with a screen, can change their game-play dramatically from others with the standard Wiimote.

When it was my turn with the screen, I found that it was a smooth play-through. There were no issues, and the controller felt natural in my hands, it easily proved the concept of a Mario-Party-esque title where in the 3-vs-1 mini-games could provide the advantage that single-player needs in order to balance the idea of three people taking on one.

The next demo was of ‘Wii Shoot’ which was a Metroid-themed third-person-shooter features a 2-on-1 game where two players wandered around a digital obstacle course as the third player flew around overtop in a space-ship. Again, the idea is simple, the two players (each with three hit-points) were to try and take down the member in the spaceship (which has six hit-points) before being taken out themselves.

For the two people using the Wiimote, the controls were not far removed from Metroid for the Wii. For the person controlling the ship though, things were dramatically different.

The ship utilized both concepts of the Wii U controller: traditional gaming controls (dual analog sticks and series of buttons) while the view-mode/targeting was done with the controllers motion controllers (utilizing the new motion controllers and viewing screen to become a sort of ARG turret). The controls seemed to function well, though it carried over the problem that I have with the 3DS in that playing ARG requires a lot of movement (standing up, rotating in full 360 degrees, etc.) though it was a problem that I was able to ‘game’ through use of the analog sticks (manipulating the ship into position instead of using the turret-style view finder) proving that no matter what your play style the console/controller can accommodate.

After playing a couple of concept games to get an idea of how the games of the Wii U would be played, it was off to a couple of tech demoes, showing off some concepts of what the hardware itself is able to accomplish.

The first demo for the console was brief: A video of a vehicle driving through a city in Japan. It showed off how the Wii can run video (low-resolution, not displaying the quality so much as the integration of the controller) and allowed the person viewing through the Wii U tablet controller the ability to look around the world, periscope style, while the car progressed through the world. There isn’t much to say here honestly, the ARG concept was one already proven by Nintendo hand-held console, the 3DS, and functions here just as well.

The final demonstration was of the Nintendo Wii U’s HD abilities. An active video playthrough of a Zelda concept was showcased, while the ‘game’ wasn’t playable it did offer options to move the camera about, change the day/night cycle, and change cameras, showing that everything was live and ‘in-game.’

Of course the concept of an HD Zelda is an attractive one, and the seams that were visible (some slightly pixilation around the edges of some layers) were minimal and needed to be focused on to be seen. Overall the experience was a positive one, when the new console launches later this year we will finally have the high-definition console that the fans have been rabid for since the dawn of this latest generation.

The only hesitations or criticisms that are to be had, by myself personally, so far would be the weight of the controller (which could be a problem for extended play-sessions, especially with the distribution) and the knowledge that we’re nearing the announcement of new consoles (potentially at this year’s E3) from both Microsoft and Sony, which will once more put Nintendo a full generation behind its competitors; once again forcing it to rely on the mechanics that they established (in the motion controller and individual viewing screen).