Nintendo calls its new split-in-two console Wii U, meant to signify "we, you," even if that sounds more like something you'd enroll in and eventually graduate from with a degree.
"Sure," Kung Fu Panda might say, "only a degree in AWESOME!" But then that's how kung-fu wielding pandas probably reason. Not us. We'll see how things look after Wii U ships next year. But I managed to summon enough enthusiasm to call it "fascinating" yesterday after Nintendo's E3 2011 press event. Because it is, even if it's not entirely clear what Nintendo plans to do with it.
What we can say is that it looks an awful lot like a Nintendo DS snapped in two—one screen set back at some distance (your TV), the other held in your hand (the controller). And Nintendo certainly knows a thing or two about dual-screen gaming.
The DS came out of nowhere, conceptually speaking. Two tiny LCD screens? One atop the other? (Or each beside, if held like a book.) Blowing into the microphone to extinguish virtual candles? To give objects lift? Who thinks like that?
Nintendo, that's who. And now they're thinking about what we might do with two screens, where one's independently maneuverable. They're also responding to Microsoft's "you are the controller" approach per Kinect with a resounding "you still need a controller, just a really frigging cool one."
Here's the thing no one seems to get at this point: Developers already know what to do with this thing. Because, like I said, it's essentially a Nintendo DS cleaved in two. And to be fair, Sega was already fooling with the concept years ago. Remember the Dreamcast's "Visual Memory System" cards for the console's controllers with their tiny inbuilt LCDs?
Will it "prove tricky to comprehend" as one of my colleagues wonders? I don't think so. The set top box works, presumably, just like a set top box (power on, power off, insert disc, eject disc). The standout gamepad's still basically a gamepad. Everyone knows without thinking where to put their hands on either side and bear down on the buttons and thumbsticks to initiate motion in a game or pan the camera. The touchscreen in the middle is still just a screen. And we're already intimately familiar with how gyroscopes and accelerometers work (hello, iPhone, iPad, Nintendo 3DS, et al.).
So no, I don't think it'll be tricky to get. In fact I'd argue it'll be simpler. With the Wii, you're holding a pointer in one hand that at best offers primitive audio feedback. Yes, it's sort of like a remote control, except when it's not—you have to keep the pointer within the sensor bar's relatively narrow, often finicky field of view. And that pointer's attached by a clumsy trip-hazard cable to another controller with a crude three-axis accelerometer. Simple? Not exactly.
And with Microsoft's Kinect, you have to figure out where to stand and how to hold your body or individual limbs...just...like...so, before you're in business. Move too quickly and the system loses track of you. Wave to wake up the system and you'll still often fumble for several seconds to get your hand synchronized with Kinect's virtual onscreen analogue. Kinect's a wonderful idea, but it happened too soon, before the technology was capable of high fidelity one-to-one motion tracking at an affordable price point.
With Wii U, you're back to gamepad simplicity, only benefitting from a tablet-style 6.2-inch crisp color touchscreen. The thumbsticks, buttons, and triggers aren't new. Neither is the camera or the gamepad's ability to sense motion if we're ruling in the mobile devices and handheld game systems of the past decade.
Combining the Wii U's tablet-gamepad with your TV...now that's the big trick. And yes, it's difficult to estimate what that'll amount to, short of the demos Nintendo showed of gamers using the screen to "catch" baseballs (like a catcher's mitt) or hold it like the stock of a rifle, using the nunchuk to aim and the tablet screen as your "crosshairs."
But we can imagine, right? Like: Playing a spy game co-op style with a friend and holding it up to view hidden information onscreen only your Wii U controller can "see." Imagine engaging in "drawing contest" mini-games (either standalone, or within something bigger, like a Final Fantasy or Kingdom Hearts title). Or: Holding it like a racing wheel (in a racing game) where the touchscreen can be any number of alternative views, including a dedicated "rearview mirror." And how about: Playing co-op games where you're sharing the controls of something like a submarine, one of you controlling motion on the TV while the other uses the gamepad as a periscope to probe for enemies.
But that's all pie-in-the-sky stuff, and I'm probably woefully under-imagining here. At minimum, Nintendo's designed a game system that'll work just like an Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3. You want to play Batman Arkham City on Nintendo's new console with the same basic control setup as either of the latter two? The Wii U has you covered, ostensibly (and then some, with touchscreen and motion-sensing extras).
The point is, you don't have to think outside the box to get this thing going in a way that instantly appeals to pretty much everyone. That Nintendo's managed to stratify the Wii U's functionality in a way that allows developers to add control dynamism incrementally, well, that's just icing on the cake.