Feature: The GamePad - From Waggling Remotes To Dual Sticks and a Touchscreen

Is the Wii U's controller a revolution or evolution for gaming?

For a number of Wii U early adopters here on Nintendo Life, there have now been plenty of opportunities to try out a variety of games, incorporating various styles and genres while giving us a good glimpse of what the system's GamePad controller is capable of doing. After the Wii Remote and Nunchuk defined the Wii, it's safe to say that Nintendo has once again diverted onto a new path; the question is, has it found a solution to last a generation?

From simplicity to complexity

The Wii Remote and Nunchuk may still have a role to play on Wii U, notably in multiplayer and in upcoming title Pikmin 3, but the vast majority of titles naturally use the GamePad as standard and, in some cases, only the the new controller. Looking at the GamePad compared to its predecessor immediately highlights the change in approach from Nintendo, but let's outline it clearly, staying away from optional controllers available at an extra cost.

The Wii Remote and Nunchuk incorporated analogue control, but titles that required a secondary analogue input (whether aiming crosshairs or manipulating a camera) used either the infrared sensor for pointing or — in the case of camera control — the d-pad at the top of the Remote. The Wii Remote on its own could be used sideways in an NES style, and in total the setup had six buttons (excluding Home and Power), though perhaps they weren't all instinctively to hand for those familiar with more conventional controllers; buttons 1 and 2, for example, weren't necessarily used often when the Remote and Nunchuk were in use together. Then, of course, there was motion control in both parts of the control setup, with the original Wii Remote having limited functionality — prompting the term "waggle" — and the Wii Remote Plus adding greater precision far closer to 1:1 feedback; tilt controls, such as those in Mario Kart Wii, work well with the original Wii Remote.

The default Wii controllers were unique — until Sony's PlayStation Move mimicked the setup — in that you'd hold a separate controller in each hand, and despite detractors gave the Wii its vital accessibility. The Wii Remote motion controls, in particular, made simple activities like bowling, golf and sword swinging instinctive to gamers and, more importantly, those new to the hobby.

So against that context we have the GamePad and, as is obvious, it's a long way away from that simplicity on Wii. An obvious point to address early on is that the new controller is immediately more familiar for experienced gamers and many developers, with the standard two sticks, d-pad, four face buttons and four shoulder buttons all included. Aside from the back shoulder buttons (ZL and ZR) being digital as opposed to analogue, all of the expected button inputs from the Wii Classic Controller, Xbox 360 or PS3 equivalents are there. Motion controls are accommodated with an eight-axis gyroscope being joined by an accelerometer, and an NFC sensor that is unused to date, but about to be called into action when Pokémon Scramble U arrives in Japan with separate figurines available to buy.

What gives the GamePad its noticeable size is the 6.2 inch touchscreen right in the middle of all of these inputs. It's an integral part of the controller's functionality, and is resistive, so once again is single touch only and most effective with a stylus — as opposed to capacitive multi-touch screens familiar on smartphones and tablets.

How the GamePad is used

With the Wii Remote and Nunchuk, control variety was predominantly delivered via pointer and motion controls, yet the GamePad has already gone well beyond those approaches. Below are some basic outlines from various games, with each entry choosing a particular control "feature" that's a little different.

Nintendo Land - Asynchronous multiplayer: Nintendo Land is a terrific showcase of a number of GamePad control features, and we're choosing its demonstration of how multiplayer can have a new approach. While a number of players use Wii controllers and follow the TV, mini-games such as Mario Chase give the GamePad player a different view as they play exclusively on the controller's screen, enjoying a broader perspective of the action to see more than the other players. The single GamePad player has the advantage of greater oversight, but faces the odds of a team of rivals.

LEGO City Undercover - A personal computer: The latest LEGO game certainly isn't the only title to take this approach, as it literally frames the GamePad as a tablet device used by the in-game character. As Chase McCain you use the GamePad to answer calls, set way-points on a map and scan the area via motion control.

New Super Mario Bros. U - Off-screen play: A feature highlighted a great deal by Nintendo, as it advertises Wii U as the key entertainment for the living room TV and, when necessary, able to play remotely. Within the streaming range of the console, this Mario title like various others allows you to continue play solely on the GamePad's screen.

ZombiU - Real-time inventory management: A feature used in various titles, and a truly definitive part of Ubisoft's survival-horror title. Inventory management and maps are likely to be the go-to option for developers on the GamePad in many cases, and in this case it allowed an experience not possible without the Wii U's controller. Rather than pause the action when managing items, you have to deal with your inventory while the world continues as normal, all while your eyes are dragged away from the TV; you never know when a zombie will creep up on you.

Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed: Good-old motion controls - The motion controls on the GamePad have been used for "scanning" worlds in a number of titles, as mentioned in the LEGO City Undercover entry, but this Sonic racer showed that there's still life for motion control steering on Wii U — the recent patch for the game also improved this control option. Sumo Digital's game also used the screen for rear-view mirrors and following weapons; with Mario Kart for the system set to be playable at E3, we can expect to see plenty of GamePads being tilted on the show floor, even if analogue steering will also be an option.

Too complicated, or a natural progression from DS/3DS?

One ready and natural comparison to make with the GamePad is with the DS/3DS family of handhelds. It's in the portable space that Nintendo has popularised dual-screen play, and while the Wii U controller does have valid comparisons with tablet devices in its standalone capabilities, it's with the use of the extra screen to influence gameplay where the most impact is felt. It's a comparison that Shigeru Miyamoto made himself in a recent interview with CNN.

There was a period when we first released the Nintendo DS that people would say there's no way people can look at two screens at once.

I almost feel like, as people get more familiar with Wii U and these touchscreen interfaces, that there is going to come a point where they feel like 'I can't do everything I want to do if I don't have a second screen'.

In a sense that's a valid point, as besides the second stick and additional shoulder buttons, the setup should be largely familiar to those that enjoy playing a 3DS. We explained LEGO City Undercover to a keen handheld fan of the franchise by often saying "it's similar to playing a game on 3DS", and that player often lets the in-game camera do the work — ignoring the second stick. Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate is an example where Capcom literally took the touchscreen controls from the 3DS version and bolted them onto the Wii U GamePad, even with the original ratio. Moving a viewpoint with the gyroscope? That was done in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D.

Even with that said, there's no denying that the "one controller does everything" philosophy has its sticking points, as it can scare some away that would happily recreate a golf swing with a Wii Remote. That's why, alongside the reportedly high cost of the Wii U controller, the Wii Remote and Nunchuk's days are far from over, as they're borderline compulsory for most multiplayer experiences on the new system, and the preferred control method in some new releases such as Pikmin 3. The GamePad is less pick-up-and-play, and in most cases is a far more detailed controller.

So, a revolution like the Wii Remote, or an evolution?

This is where we want to know what you think. With a good variety of different experiences now available to play on Wii U, we've seen a lot of what it can do, where it enhances experiences and where, potentially, it makes things less intuitive. As the primary controller it's a major change from the humble Wii Remote, but the question remains whether, five years from now, we'll be talking about the GamePad as a controller that helped define a new generation of gaming. The Wii arguably achieved that, so let us know whether the Wii U and its hulking, do-it-all controller can do the same in the polls and comments below.

What's your favourite gameplay feature of the GamePad? (292 votes)

Off-TV play


Asynchronous multiplayer


I like the motion controls for "scanning" or steering


Use of the touchscreen for maps, inventories etc


"Conventional" inputs (two sticks, shoulder buttons)


Using the touchscreen for drawing, writing or swiping


I'm not sure if I can pick a favourite feature


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What's your least favourite gameplay feature of the GamePad? (261 votes)

Off-TV play


Asynchronous multiplayer


I don't like motion controls for "scanning" or steering


Use of the touchscreen for maps, inventories etc


"Conventional" inputs (two sticks, shoulder buttons)


Using the touchscreen for drawing, writing or swiping


I'm not sure if I can pick a least favourite feature


Please login to vote in this poll.

Do you think the GamePad is a revolution or evolution for Nintendo gaming? (285 votes)

I think it's a revolution


I think it's an evolution of what we've seen before


It's too early to say


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