After a good 16 months with Nintendo’s newest idea, here’s some food for thought.
It’s almost amazing to think once, corded controllers were the norm.
I have, to be fair, been rather evangelical about the concept of the Wii U’s Gamepad – or the U-Pad, as I’ve come to refer to it as. There are many reasons for this; chiefly among which was the initial concept of dioing away with a pause-screen menu system. Zombi-U typified this right from the off; giving a sense of danger and urgency to what was otherwise a rather typical horror-game offshoot, it was the first and arguably the greatest usage of the potential of the U-Pad to date. It allowed action to flow uninterrupted, as well as providing a very intuitive and interesting system of tap-and-touch inventory control. Of course, Zombi-U wasn’t the only game to employ this; it was, however, the only one to also make use of much of the hidden technology inside the U-Pad – creating something that was far more interesting than it first appeared. Titles like Darksiders 2, and Resident Evil: Revelations HD have tried to utilise the screen in a similar way, but fallen through technical hitches of their own making; Darksiders 2 was a slow, lumbering port with horrendous loading issues, whilst Resident Evil: Revelations HD simply wasn’t sharp enough in its controls in order for the game to feel intuitive, let alone fun for long periods of time.
This of course shows up something quite shocking; Nintendo has, for the most part, taken to cheap tricks and gimmicks in order to show the worth of the U-Pad; it has yet to, itself, create something that is truly the epiphany that the U-Pad requires in terms of video games. For all the amazing design nuance of Super Mario 3D World, and Pikmin 3, and even The Wonderful 101 with Platinum Games, the U-Pad has become something of a ball and chain around the ankles of the Wii U; it’s there in the box, but is still somewhat far off the essential piece of equipment that the Wii Remote enjoyed.
That’s certainly one big statement; but Nintendo, in its quest to over-simplify, missed out on so much of what made the Wii Remote so successful, so essential for the games by which it was tethered to. From the immediacy of Wii Sports, and its basic handle-like conceptual design, through to the likes of Resident Evil 4: Wii Edition and Metroid Prime: Trilogy, the reality for the Wii Remote was not that it was awful – but that it was, in a very good way, suited for certain titles more than others. This was a reality third parties were unable to capitalise on with any real merit; sure, there were interesting diversions along the way, but only a solid handful of projects ever found themselves with such an enviable connection with the Wii Remote. As the years rolled by, rather than capitalise on the truly amazing potential that lay within the Wii Remote, and insisting on more projects like Resident Evil 4: Wii Edition, people gravitated away from it, instead deciding that trying to outdo Nintendo with Wii Sports or Mario Party clones was the best use for the hardware in question.
It’s sad, but perhaps unsurprising when you consider the industry in general. Where the Wii U is obviously a typified console in the traditional sense, the likes of the PlayStation 4 are indeed closer to the ideal of PC Hardware; this makes it, unsurprisingly, easier and more straight-forward to put games onto the machine, and that’s a wonderful thought. But it obfuscates the ideal of console hardware; PC technology is rampantly expedient in terms of progress, and a £400 graphics card now will be next years £200 version – the depreciation is staggering. Consoles have in a sense often been accused of holding back the PC Gaming sphere, as companies try to connect their PC releases to aging console architecture. Presented with new mechanisms, new ideas, the industry often looks to sharing the games across multiple platforms; this usually means that unique and novel ideas rarely get the time or investment to truly shine.
No-where was this more evident of late than with Resident Evil: Revelations HD. That it was ported from its ideal 3DS home is neither here nor there – I’ve already covered this before, and I thought it to be a mistake. However, the U-Pad in and of itself wasn’t much of a leap from the 3DS; it had the gyroscope, the second screen, the foundations were there to utilise the hardware. But in order to do so, Capcom must have realised that it would make the Wii U version the de-facto release; the one people would recommend above the others, and this seemed either to be a difficult sell (mostly to the likes of Microsoft, who demand release parity!), or an idea that just didn’t seem worth the minuscule effort. The end result, for me, was a good game ruined. With none of the slick feel or intelligent motion of the 3DS version, it felt like a hacked-up port shedding functions in order to be Resident Evil 5. And I think enough time has passed for us to admit Resident Evil 5 – or even Resident Evil 6 – are hardly worth idealising.
When it came to Zombi-U, UbiSoft admittedly balked at the lower-than-anticipated Wii U sales, and wasn’t content that a release title could achieve 400,000 sales in a month (which isn’t that bad for a launch title; no Wii Sports, but as Nintendo proved with Nintendo Land, Wii Sports is a hard thing to top…). Rather than capitalise on the solid execution of the U-Pad, and throw some money towards UbiSoft in order to get another ball rolling for a year or so down the road, Nintendo let UbiSoft cancel a sequel; and failed to stand up to UbiSoft in other ways too, such as its insistence that Rayman Legends couldn’t sell more on Wii U than other platforms (a statement that UbiSoft has and will continue to come to regret making, no doubt!).
Nintendo has, of late, simply been missing the point; Gunpei Yokoi, Nintendo’s chief original architect, was very serious about the idea of games selling hardware. It’s a painfully simple conceit; if you make a game that is essential enough and simply couldn’t be played on another system, or other hardware, then you will find people buy the hardware in order to play the software. This was a reality in the early days of the Game Boy (which this week turned 25 years old!), and continued onwards through the years. For all the talk of shiny new plastic and chipboards, the painful truth of all the current new consoles is we haven’t seen the must-have game yet; Nintendo bottled Super Mario 3D World, which whilst admittedly not the next full-fat Mario, was still perfectly playable with a Wii Remote or a Pro Controller; both sold separately, but both more ideally suited to the game.
Of course, it’s not simply about games making use of the U-Pad; there are other considerations.
Chiefly among which is the power consumption issue; even with the new battery, the U-Pad is a considerably greater power-drain than you’d expect. Admittedly, the U-Pad has more to run; both in terms of firmware and hardware, but after a good eight or nine years of cordless gaming with battery life that stretched into weeks and months, the constant recharging of the MAIN controller input mechanism is something of a step backwards, and many still simply keep the U-Pad plugged in endlessly, effectively making it a corded controller. I find myself lamenting this fact sometimes; whilst it’s true my mobility makes most movement painfully annoying, it is still something that sits in the back of my mind, a little niggle, wriggling away, creating doubts and criticisms. Had Nintendo simply created a corded link between it and the Wii U main box…
I’m also not a fan of the control sticks; not their design, nor their placement. They’re not solid enough, resistant enough, sharp enough for some games. Again, Super Mario 3D World rears its ugly head but it’s important to say that I much preferred the Pro Controller for that game than the U-Pad; the Pro Controller is a much more meaty piece of controller, and the sticks don’t feel like some kind of depressing afterthought. With the raised circles, I’d even go as far as to say I’d have preferred nubs akin to the 3DS; they’d have looked better, wouldn’t look out of place on the U-Pad and probably not end up rattling.
Of course, the U-Pad does do some things right, right now; chiefly among which is the “Off-TV Play”, and whilst no, this isn’t exactly a perk for newer releases, it’s an essential godsend for retro releases via the Virtual Console; keeping the visuals crisp, clean and sharp where most modern HDTV’s would upscale (badly), I personally couldn’t imagine playing SNES or GBA games any other way. Oh, except the Nintendo 3DS. Oops. And like it or not, I’m a big fan of Miiverse; I like the Wii U firmware very much, I think it’s much crisper and nicer than what Sony or Microsoft use right now, and I dare say it’s they who in the coming years will have to catch up with the little but important advances that Nintendo has made.
But overall, the problem the U-Pad has is very simply that until Nintendo ensures serious games are made to make serious use of its serious change, it’s very hard to take the U-Pad seriously. I like the U-Pad; admittedly, some changes are necessary in a redesign that will be inevitable another year or two down the road, but there’s plenty of potential in this hardware. But then, there’s also still plenty of life left in the Wii Remote; so much so, that even Nintendo is struggling to shake it off, even though it seems like it wants to. Nintendo wants to streamline its technology; there’s no shame in wanting to simplify things, but at the same time, it’s become clear that no controller is an island unto itself; there is no one-size-fits-all model to employ. This leaves the U-Pad in a quandary – it currently has a couple of third-party titles that make some use of its potential, but nothing super-essential or universally adored. Until it does, then even the upcoming Mario Kart 8 could simply end up with people resorting to the Wii Remote, or the Pro Controller, over the U-Pad as the better control mechanism. The same may be said for Super Smash Bros. – another title that’s hardly going to push the boat out and make use of the hardware inside the U-Pad.
In order to sell the Wii U, and the U-Pad, Nintendo can no longer sit back and go “Look, isn’t it a good idea!”. It has to prove WHY it’s a good idea; and that means it has to deliver games which simply couldn’t be done without the touchpad. Be this the new Legend of Zelda game with a sharp menu/inventory screen, the admittedly lovely-looking “X” and the promise of a cleaner menu system on the touchpad, or simply something as daft as Wario Ware, we’re coming up to the second E3 now since the Wii U was released and we’re still impatiently looking for that hook, that spark that says, “… and THIS is why we made the controller the way we did!”.
Gamers cannot live on potential alone. We want, expect and demand some fulfilment at some point. Nintendo is usually spot on with this – that it has so spectacularly forgotten this with the Wii U is troubling, for sure. However, Nintendo does have games which we all know could make the U-Pad look good; Metroid, F-Zero, Advance/Battalion Wars to name but a few. We’re looking for a reason why the U-Pad exists; because as time goes on, it really is becoming harder to genuinely feel anything but indifference for it. And that’s when people could rightly pull the Kinect argument on the U-Pad; if you’re not going to use it properly, Nintendo, why have it in the box at all? Surely taking it out would make it cheaper too?
This is Nintendo’s biggest fight yet – proving that the U-Pad wasn’t a conceptual mistake. And that fight starts now.
Good luck, Nintendo. You’re going to need it.