While the Wii U was the first to kick off what will soon be considered the current generation of game consoles, we were left wondering what innovations Sony and Microsoft would be bringing to the table. With the Wii U we've had a major processor power upgrade over the Wii, which was expected, but the control innovation came primarily through the GamePad, and also the continuing support for the Wii Remote and Nunchuk. If you have your old Wii controllers and the new system, you've got diverse control options that, when used creatively, offer experiences beyond what was possible before. Now we have motion controls combined with a second-screen dynamic, all conveniently in one box.
The Wii generation brought major success to Nintendo, perhaps against the will of those that didn't appreciate its modest graphical output and online infrastructure, but a reasonable price-point and motion control innovation delivered an audience of nearly 100 million consumers. We all know that the Wii U is off to a slow start, but much will now be focused on a revival driven by exciting software and concepts best suited to the hardware's concept.
Until recently we were cautious about plugging the Wii U's potential unique selling points, as we weren't sure just how big Sony and Microsoft were going with their systems, or if any wacky new ideas were coming. Early and unlikely rumours for the PS4 suggested VR headsets bundled with the system, while the intriguing concept of full room projected images were mooted as a pack-in for the Xbox One. Both exist, in forms, but neither technology has progressed far enough to be manufactured, bundled in and sold at a sensible price, not if consoles are to cost less than a small car.
So early indications are that, aside from a small touch pad, rumbling triggers and enhanced versions of existing motion tech, Microsoft and Sony's new systems will be driven by powerful PC-style architecture and a lot of multi-functionality. In both cases social networking will play a role, while gamers will be able to capture and share in-game footage on the fly, rather like the Miiverse screenshot capability but with video. Yet in terms of game-changing control, we're seeing enhancement rather than evolution from Nintendo's rivals, with rumours of the new Xbox being bundled with a tablet-like controller also biting the dust — it'll rely on SmartGlass, which will make use of external hardware such as smartphones and tablets.
And so we can say, for now at least, that the Wii U GamePad and backward compatibility with Wii controllers are a unique offering, at least until a few years down the line if Sony or Microsoft bundle a basic tablet with their systems; it happened with the Move, let's not forget. The key difference between the Wii U's GamePad and SmartGlass-style workarounds is that the screen and controller are directly combined, and are integral to the system; with practically zero latency and no online requirement to function, we should remember how technologically sound Nintendo's two screen setup truly is.
In terms of how the GamePad and related Wii Remotes are used creatively, even in these early days we've seen some good examples. Some have been technical showcases, such as the asynchronous multiplayer in titles such as Nintendo Land, maps and inventory systems in many games and off-TV play. Yet what we haven't seen yet, arguably, is a title that utilises the point and click Wii Remote capabilities with the second screen 'tablet' as an additional interface. There are hints of it in titles like Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate — where the GamePad still functions even if using a Wii U Pro Controller — while an upcoming title looks set to explore it in greater depth. That happens to be a game that's one of the most long-awaited for Nintendo home console gamers — Pikmin 3.
It perhaps betrays the rumoured development time that supposedly stretches back to when the Wii was in its pomp, but Nintendo is plugging the Wii Remote and Nunchuk as the optimal control scheme for this title. And no wonder, as many Wii owners have often argued that for genres that require precise cursor control — such as first-person shooters — the Remote pointer and Nunchuk is second only to the mouse and keyboard. Whether you agree with that or not, the Wii pointer had a lot of good mileage on the old system, and it's only natural that selecting Pikmin and ordering them around the environment will be quickest and most intuitive — on the big screen at least — with the last-gen controllers. While GamePad-only play will be an option, we're seeing Nintendo make a play of the GamePad as a secondary information screen, always on hand for guidance and for additional touch inputs. It takes the second-player's assist buttons from something like Need for Speed: Most Wanted U and potentially incorporates it into a strategic single-player experience.
It's one of the first examples, aside from in-game gimmicks like those in LEGO City: Undercover, where a game is embracing the GamePad for its tablet-like aspects, with the Pikmin 3 setup potentially resembling the kind of thing we'll see with Microsoft's SmartGlass. The distinction is in the pointer controls, which suggests to us that genres typically reserved for the PC could make a transition to Wii U, but in fuller-fat varieties than are typically found in smartphone and tablet apps that attempt to re-create these games. In fact, the current partnership with SEGA got us thinking about two of its properties that are backbones of its publishing business — these are Football Manager and Total War.
The former, for those unfamiliar, is the biggest selling football/soccer management simulation in the world, and behind its glossy fonts is one of the most dizzying databases in any video game. You can manage one of thousands of football clubs around the world and manage anything and everything to do with your team, before watching the game after all of the preparation is done. Total War, meanwhile, is a large-scale war strategy title, with various spin-offs taking in a number of notable historical periods — the day-to-day gameplay is via a turn-based overworld, before you manage thousands of troops in epic real-time battles.
Both of these series have been PC mainstays, while Football Manager has also had a streamlined version for a number of years on PSP, iOS and Android. As it's already been given life on PSP and touch screen devices, this is the most natural fit for Wii U, while the at-your-own-pace preparation between matches would suit any control system. We've already seen the potential for the GamePad screen to be used for on-the-fly tactical changes in the otherwise unremarkable FIFA 13 port, and the various potential uses and interaction between the GamePad and TV seem ideally suited for the title. Off-TV play could be primarily touch based, while enjoying matches on the big screen while making quick tactical changes on the extra screen would be natural.
The Total War series is one that would push the boat out further, and perhaps incorporate some of the dual controller principles that look set to shine in Pikmin 3. It's easy to see why the dynamic real-time battles are no fit for traditional console controllers, which would make the Wii Remote pointer perfect for quickly moving around the field and selecting units. Even better, however, would be the option to quickly switch to the GamePad for stylus-controlled maneuvers, perhaps as a quick way to redirect reinforcements stationed on the far side of the field. The GamePad could be optional or even work, again, for touch screen strategy in off-TV play, but the level of detail and interactivity that would combine with all controllers in play would make the experience something fresh in the console space.
As with anything in big-budget game development, there are roadblocks to be considered. One is whether these experiences would work well on a technical level: Football Manager would potentially be download-only to enforce and avoid confusion over mandatory installation to the hard drive, while the Total War series would likely require serious optimisation to run on the hardware, as the 3D graphics engine and size of battles necessitate meaty PC rigs to run. Neither are impossible but bring us to the second issue — publisher and developer desire to pursue these sorts of ideas. In the increasingly strained development industry, would budgets and resources be sacrificed to make this happen?
Hypothetically, however, the Wii U does offer control schemes that could introduce PC/Mac-only gaming to a wider audience. While the PS4 and Xbox One may be able to deliver workarounds through their own motion controls or links to external devices, the Wii U perhaps has the benefit of the simplest, most streamlined setup. Games like Pikmin 3 set a potential guideline for Wii U controls enhancing genres such as real time strategy, but will others pick up the mantle?
Let us know what you think of these ideas in the comments below, and if you happen to agree we'd also love to know what PC gaming franchises you'd like to see on Wii U.