Talking Point: Wii U's Graphical Grunt is Laid Bare - Shall We Play Games Now?
Posted by Thomas Whitehead
As with Wii, developer talent and creativity will be vital
Today perhaps brings a little closure, for those inclined to allow such a thing, with details and analysis emerging of the Wii U's GPU. Since before its release Wii U has been scrutinised by some in terms of its graphical capabilities, and there are plenty of people who focus on that area when debating whether it's "next gen", a term with no solid definition in the gaming industry — it means different things depending on who you talk to. The CPU speeds of the system were reportedly reverse engineered and clocked last year, so an understanding of Wii U's graphical grunt both now and in the future rested on the setup of the GPU, which Nintendo itself has said is the focus of the system's infrastructure.
Rather unlike its rivals, Nintendo withholds detailed specifications even from developers, leaving them to benchmark on their own and avoiding the leaks and details that we've seen for Sony and Microsoft's next offerings. Gamers and enthusiasts can't be denied, however, and today's revelations of highly magnified images of the system's GPU chip-set, accompanied with a knowledgeable assessment from Digital Foundry, mean that the specifications of the system are now largely known. There are still unknowns, of course, but what is clear is that the system is generally fairly strong, but that upcoming rivals (codenamed Orbis and Durango) are "in a completely different league".
We'd argue that this is no real surprise, as anyone with eyeballs can see that — while a major leap over Wii — Nintendo's new system is capable without revolutionising visual fidelity in gaming. Titles later in the console's lifespan will look better, and we can expect some stunning results in the future, but it's been obvious to those who've played it, and from various developer comments on different sides of the fence, that the graphical technology in Wii U is no major enhancement for the industry.
Wii U, for the very reason that it's criticised — its technical specifications — can potentially attract projects and developers interested in more diverse experiences put together with non-triple A budgets.
But then, Nintendo gamers should already know that. GameCube was the last time that Nintendo actively participated in the graphical arms race, and both that and N64 struggled (comparatively) in the face of tough competition. With Wii — and DS — Nintendo shifted priorities from technological superiority to conceptual creativity. 3DS continued this — over-powered by but outselling the PS Vita to date — and so does Wii U, and we can only hope that today's revelations perhaps draw a line in the sand so we can all move on. Wii U won't be as powerful — again, purely in graphical terms — as the next systems from Microsoft and Sony. That's just the way it is, beyond any reasonable doubt.
Perhaps if we move on, we can assess and consider what this will mean for Wii U as a system in the long term. To start with a negative perspective, despite Wii getting close to nearly 100 million sales worldwide, its latter years have been typified by exceptionally light release schedules and a rather sad fall from the limelight. In part it's down to a simple truth that third-party and multi-platform release support wasn't strong enough, and that Nintendo simply couldn't do the work all on its own in 2011 and 2012. Concerns do remain in terms of third-party support and multi-platform games on the new system, with a number of big titles on the way not yet confirmed for Wii U — GTA V is a notable example. We'd love nothing more than another Wii U Direct where third-parties show their wares that include some of these potential monster-hits, but only time will tell.
Yet third-party support wasn't all bad on Wii, perhaps in spite of popular opinion, and it was undeniably different. The latest Call of Duty may have only had modest returns on the little system, but some memorable exclusives such as Monster Hunter Tri made their mark, while a number of smaller studios brought excellent titles such as Muramasa: The Demon Blade and No More Heroes. The Operation Rainfall trilogy — Xenoblade Chronicles, The Last Story and Pandora's Tower — also showed that Nintendo was willing to fund, publish or support titles unique to the console. There are many more intriguing gaming experiences that could be named, many of which either appeared first on Wii or, in some cases, have remained exclusive to the platform.
When you add the impressive range of first-party titles from Nintendo, there was a sizeable and diverse library before it fizzled out. Can we expect the same with Wii U? Possibly. There may be something to be said for claims that the boundaries and gulf in graphical capabilities are getting narrower, and that developers may be able to downscale assets and game engines — for those multi-platform hits — to fit Wii U without too much effort. It may not be as simple as that, but it's too early to determine, with some missing ports in the coming months potentially down to the lateness of Wii U dev kits arriving at some studios last year, a "wait and see" policy to see how the system sells in its first year, or more time needed to adjust to the infrastructure.
We may come to a point, however, where Wii U will have to diversify and find its own path while some blockbuster entries duke it out on rival consoles; this will arguably repeat the pattern of its predecessor. As we suggested earlier in this article, anyone who's followed Nintendo for the last 7-8 years shouldn't be surprised, and if — unlike Wii — the games library can maintain momentum beyond its first few years, perhaps we're in for more innovative, imaginative treats. It's common to read complaints — particularly vocal during E3 2012 — that large parts of the games industry have become a blur of brown environments and shooting enemy soldiers/aliens/monsters in the face with big guns. Wii U, for the very reason that it's criticised — its technical specifications — can potentially attract projects and developers interested in more diverse experiences put together with non-triple A budgets. Less twin-stick FPS action, more GamePad innovation.
Nintendo, of course, needs to sell this to developers of all sizes, and by extension sell the console to enough people to make it worth these studio's time. Similarities to Wii are apparent in that the mass market success will likely need to be driven by Nintendo's games and "experiences", with the expected hype for new Zelda and Mario games accompanied by big sales of franchises that defined the predecessor's success, such as Wii Fit U. The buzz created by Wii U Direct shows that a key audience of Nintendo fans is still out there and ready to be convinced, whether they're fans of platforming, adventure, creative living-room exercise experiences or a variety of other genres.
We won't know how Wii U's multi-platform library will fare in the coming years until it's actually happened, of course, but Nintendo's success and appeal isn't solely down to that market or mind-blowing graphics. Graphical comparisons will be made later this year, and Wii U will finish third behind hulking graphical power-houses from competitors, but that doesn't mean Nintendo's system is destined to lose the bigger battles.
Lessons need to be learned from where Wii went wrong, and Nintendo gamers will be consistently reminded by others that their system is churning out less advanced visuals. Yet perhaps we should focus on what truly counts when playing a Nintendo system in recent times — the games and the experiences it gives us.