The Only Thing that Matters with the Wii-U is Usability

One Christmas while sniffing around for presents under the tree I noticed a large and heavy box wrapped-up next to a bunch of smaller rectangular ones. Even as a kid I knew what small rectangular boxes meant; games! But I had no idea what the larger one was. Once I opened though and saw the Nintendo logo I became unreasonably excited – it was a Power Pad. I must have been drooling one night when the commercial came on and my parents figured “Why not? He could use the exercise.” So while I was ready to “become the game” my parents were simply hoping I would take a liking to track or at the very least accidentally get some exercise. Unfortunately the experience was a little too much exercise and not enough of me “being the game.” As I found out in high school years later when I joined the actual track team, the power pad was actually more work than the real thing.

The Power Pad was a mind blowing concept to a pre-adolescent like me and I loved it before ever plugging it in. It smelled like a new car, unrolled like a big silver fruit roll-up, and to me was the greatest invention in the history of science. Neil Armstrong who? I plugged it in, slide in World Class Track Meet, and started playing. The games themselves were fine but the Power Pad itself wasn’t very responsive. Gracefully running in place got you nowhere and every game degenerated into some form of stomping contest with the game handing out first place ribbons seemingly at random. It was fun at first, but the novelty wore off quickly. After all of that stomping some of the pads stopped working and eventually I didn’t want to go near the thing. I would have been more upset about it, except that a buddy of mine got the R.O.B. so comparably I had a much better Christmas.

An example of how much fun you won’t be having

I fell for it again a few years later, where again I was most likely caught drooling over a commercial, this time for the Super Scope 6, by my parents. This time I was excited for a gun bazooka that was “laser accurate,” giving me unheard of precision, as Nintendo puts it, “to a single television pixel.” Wow. I loaded up the cartridge which had 6 games and went through the process of adjusting the targeting on my screen when images of an exhausted and disappointed 8 year-old boy sulking over a Power Pad began to form in the back of my mind. Again the games weren’t the problem; the accuracy of the peripheral just didn’t feel right, even after adjusting the system with Nasa-like precision. It didn’t matter how many games I had, after only an hour of playing through one squinted eye I was sure I permanently needed glasses. Eventually it ended up in my closet alongside my old silver Power Pad.

Are there directions for avoiding the early onset of Astigmatism?

I learned the lesson though, eventually. It’s better to be critical in lieu of excited when you see a new toy, because while the concept may look cool, it’s the execution of that concept that really matters. Maybe this all comes from a jaded childhood of broken down Nintendo peripherals, but to me, the most importance aspect of the Wii-U’s new gamepad will usability. I don’t think the concept of the gamepad alone is a either good or bad thing for the Wii-U, at least not yet. A peripheral like this, something that looks kind of clunky and unyielding, is going to be either good or bad for the console based on how simple it is to use. The Wii was successful not because of the games or the concept, but because of the execution and the simplicity behind the design. How many non-gamers picked-up a Wii and found themselves with a new hobby or a simple pastime? Basically if the gamepad sucks the Wii-U will suck and vice versa. So how does the gamepad look so far?

The first thing I worried about was just holding the damn thing as its much larger traditional console controllers. But so far those who have gotten their hands on it don’t seem to mind its size, and it doesn’t seem to be that heavy either. The basic tablet functions of the gamepad seem to be on par with every other tablet out there, but I’m more concerned with how easy it us to use in-game as i’m hoping I don’t need to make room in my closet next to my old Power Pad and Super Scope.

Actual size of the Wii-U gamepad according to some

There were some early reports of the Wii-U only supporting one gamepad at a time which is technically correct. Apparently Nintendo attempted to add a second but the console’s framerate dropped by about 50%, to 30 fps. The say that now the problem has been fixed, but so far they haven’t shown off this functionality. This isn’t great news, especially while they’re attempting to build hype, but it seems as if Nintendo’s solution, for now at least, is to design around it.

First, the Wii-U will be able to interact with the current Wii’s controllers, the Wiimote. Besides being a good idea to create synergy with its enormously successful predecessor, it’s also incredibly courteous to the consumer. I haven’t seen a company do something this courteous since the TurboExpress allowed the same cartridges to be used in their handhelds as they did in their Turbo Graphx 16. Also, the Wii-U is compatible with previous Wii data and save files so users can transfer everything to the newer consol. It’s clear that Nintendo is hoping to convert former Wii users into futures Wii-U users.

Bonks Adventure > Mario Bros. 

So while the Wii-U might not fully support the use of two gamepads simultaneously, there is the capability for one gamepad and four last-gen Wiimotes which opens up some interesting gameplay avenues. By having what’s essentially an auxiliary screen that can be hidden from other players, Nintendo seems to have found a way, at least partially, to mitigate one of the earliest known forms of cheating; screen peeking. It’s still all a matter of what developers do with the tech, but there is the potential for all kinds of games, in a group setting, that never existed before.

An example of this new type of auxiliary screen gameplay can be seen in the newest iteration of Luigi’s Mansion. Skip to about 0:40 in the video to see what I’m talking about, but essentially there is one person playing as a ghost on the gamepad with four others just using the Wiimote. The ghost player can see the others via the gamepad while those with just a Wiimote have only their controller’s vibrations to lead them. There’s also a new Zelda dungeon crawler which allows the gamepad user to play as lone archer among a pack of sword wielding heroes. These are simple examples of what this tech can do in a group setting, and it will be interesting to how other developers utilize this new function.

I don’t have to hold it like that, do I?

There is also some unique single player functionality, specifically in Batman: Arkham City Armored Edition. The gamepad here is used to control most of your inventory as well as a few items, like guided batarangs, which users will control directly with the gamepad. Kind of like your own pseudo Batman utility belt, if it works correctly.

So a lot of this stuff seems pretty cool, in concept. But since the tech is so reliant on my ability to use it, I’m pretty sure I’m not going to run out to the store and buy one until I’ve given it a try. When a big event like E3 comes around its pretty easy to get caught up in the hype either for or against a specific product, company, or way of thinking. The Wii-U’s release, like many others, will be full of exaggerated hype, cynical columns, happy fanboys, and angry haters. But like all the others, none of it matters. The only thing, in the end, that matters is whether or not the tech works properly and is easy to use. The only way to be sure is to try it yourself.

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  1. Every single person and family I know that bought a Wii is currently letting it collect dust. I just don’t see the them or the older folks who got a Wii putting down money on a new system. With the. We Sony and MS systems on the way, I smell a flop.

  2. Agreed, the Wii was neat until kinect and move came out, then it became novel and the plus addition did little to improve the experience. Nintendo needs to seriously beef up their hardware to achieve the immersion and usability the wii was known for, and compete with any other consoles that may be coming out. Releasing first and being modestly priced won them the last console war, and the release window is closing very fast. These delays and pressure will result in delays or pushing an unfinished product out the door and patching it later

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