E3: Is Wii U a genius concept or a Frankenstein-box?

Monday, 4 June 2012 09:31 GMT By Patrick Garratt

Nintendo courted both casual and core in its pre-E3 Wii U conference last night . Is it possible to truly bridge the two markets, asks Patrick Garratt, or has Iwata created a Frankenstein console as dangerous as it is genius?

We’re left with questions. Is Wii U core or casual? Motion or physical? TV or tablet? Young or old? Is Frankenstein’s monster a beautiful creation or a mad experiment, a dangerous mismatch of life-giving necessity?

Nintendo’s Wii U showing last night told us a great deal more about the console and its maker’s aspirations for it than anything we saw during E3 2011, signalling the arrival of a Frankenstein box being forced to house both the casual non-gamer and the core.

We saw a machine that must serve two groups. There is the “Nintendo gamer,” the demographic invested in services like Wii Fit that probably doesn’t own another games machine and would never play anything like Call of Duty, and there’s the core. Wii U will play core video games, and, in a tacit admission that motion controls don’t work for precision software, it will have a specific, Xbox 360-like pad on which to do so.

The newly-named Wii U Game Pad, too, has been core-ified, with proper twin-sticks and a revised ergonomic design for playing for long periods.

Wii U, we were told, will finally herald Nintendo’s arrival into the world of true, constant online connectivity. Miiverse, a social system by which the Miis of friends and others playing the games you own will be viewable and presumably accessible through Wii U’s UI, was seen for the first time. We also saw a Nintendo Network icon at the centre of a diagram promising cross-platform connectivity and presumably cloud features, although, in typical Nintendo fashion, PC, mobile phones and the like won’t be connected until some time after launch. Twitter and Facebook were nowhere in sight.

While the theory is obviously that the machine can capture the illusive core while reaping the monstrous rewards of appealing to the casual, the duality could be troublesome. On the one hand, as a conceptual piece of hardware, Wii U is enthralling. It’s driven by a concept of “together better,” according to Iwata, and it’s true that groups of people using traditional console hardware, tablets, TVs and mobiles can be worlds apart in the same room. Wii did an incredible job of pulling people together to play games, and Wii U will build on that success. The Game Pad is useful and well conceived, and will no doubt be imitated by the likes of Sony and Microsoft in their next generations – almost certainly by allowing control linking with tablets and mobiles.

Nintendo’s entire pre-E3 Wii U presentation,
revealing the new Wii U Game Pad controller,
the Pro controller and Miiverse.

What’s less convincing is the reaching out to the core and what we know about Wii U’s online services. It was obvious from the presentation yesterday that Nintendo now understands that having an inept online digital device in the modern age is laughable (quite how 3DS managed to get out of the door without robust online features is beyond me). What’s going to be difficult is timing. Nintendo isn’t so much late to the party with online connectivity as turning up to find people left the venue years ago, stopped taking drugs, got married and had children. Can Wii U’s online features really stand up to PSN and Xbox Live? Maybe for the casuals, yes, but for the core, with their friends lists, their cheevos and Trophies? Does a crowd of Miis round a Call of Duty icon represent a viable alternative to a decade of investment by millions of players into something like Live? It doesn’t seem likely.

The core aspects of Wii U we saw yesterday felt like an adjunct, as if Nintendo realises it has to court third-party software this time as the old trick of relying on first-party phenomena may finally prove too risky. Yes, it’ll be powerful enough to play current gen core titles, and yes, there’ll be a sensible controller on which to consume them. But it’s a casual machine first and foremost (quite rightly, given the ludicrous success of Wii), selling to the family and into age ranges outside of the traditional core. Note that even in the demo showing the guy playing his zombie game last night, an old man was included on the screen in the section about cam-chat. Nintendo can’t just “go core”: it has to keep one foot in the granny market.

And so we’re left with questions. Is Wii U core or casual? Motion or physical? TV or tablet? Young or old? Is Frankenstein’s monster a beautiful creation or a mad experiment, a dangerous mismatch of life-giving necessity?

What’s going to be difficult is timing. Nintendo isn’t so much late to the party with online connectivity as turning up to find people left the venue years ago, stopped taking drugs, got married and had children. Can Wii U’s online features really stand up to PSN and Xbox Live?

Hopefully the vision will be clearer after we see the software on Tuesday, because softness of focus in the console market can cause real difficulty. Sony suffered exactly the same shortsightedness with PlayStation 3: was it a media centre or an expensive games console? Microsoft’s billing with Xbox 360 was straight down the line at first, selling it as a core games machine, but we’ve since seen the company come under heavy fire for diluting the message by pushing games back behind services and introducing Kinect. It could easily be argued that Microsoft’s stab at the casual market with Kinect was ill conceived. In the early days, though, there was no confusion: Xbox 360 focused entirely on the core in the first few years of its life, and was successful against PS3 as a result, especially in building a premium service in Live. Wii, too, focused squarely at the casual user and blew the doors off all hardware sales records. Focus in the console business is key.

Is Wii U as clear cut a concept? It seems not, and the Janus syndrome of last night’s presentation may mean Wii U has a slow start later this year as people struggle to grasp exactly what it is and does. But at least Nintendo demonstrated it does understand now that connectivity isn’t an option any more, and it’s clearly grasped that core games are a specific thing that can’t be played using a casual interface.

Rather than fearing the monster, maybe we’ll all learn to love it. We’ll know better when Nintendo channels in the lightning and jolts it into life on Tuesday.

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