The Wii U, through its troubles in its first 18 months-or-so, has been the subject of a lot of analysis and opinion around its GamePad controller. Its presence with the system adds to its cost and, as the hardware has struggled to grab the public's attention in the same manner as its predecessor, it's been a justifiable source of debate. Some minimalist use of the controller in major games — particularly in Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze — has brought its value into sharp focus.
The issue for the GamePad has not necessarily been that Nintendo hasn't tried to show it off, but more that efforts to do so haven't had anything like the impact that the Wii Remote and Wii Sports did in the early days of Wii. Nintendo Land and titles like Wii Party U show off interesting gameplay with the GamePad, for example, but haven't driven systems off store shelves and into enough living rooms. As an entertainment device it's struggled to act as a useful focal point for Wii U.
Calls for the controller to be dropped from the system haven't been entirely without merit, as at launch it was estimated to add around $80 to the console's cost, and naturally limits how low Nintendo can go with pricing for the Wii U — as one of the Wii's strengths was also its budget price point, it's an inevitable point of contention. Nintendo did drop the system's price last year, of course, and these are happier moments for those of us in the console's corner as it's enjoyed a burst of interest and sales since Mario Kart 8 arrived at the close of May.
With E3 drawing to a close, however, we've had further definitive proof that the GamePad is going nowhere. Good to Satoru Iwata's word to investors in January, the company has made the controller an integral part of its messaging. On the Wii U front Super Smash Bros. has been shown off primarily with the GameCube controllers — with an exception that we'll touch upon below — to promote the Wii U Controller Adapter, but in plenty of other games there's undeniably active use of the controller.
To start with a continuation of control methods we've seen before, titles such as Kirby and the Rainbow Curse make use of the touch screen, while the concept titles from Shigeru Miyamoto — Star Fox, Project Guard and Project Giant Robot — make particular use of motion controls, also utilising the second screen as a window into the game's world as the TV gives a wider perspective. The much hyped Splatoon, meanwhile, includes gyroscope aiming and extensive use of a touch screen map to add extra precision and strategy to an intense shooting experience — we've enjoyed our time with it so far. These are ideas that are fairly familiar, but could no doubt be as enjoyable as previous efforts mentioned above.
In terms of potentially pushing the importance of the GamePad forward, however, it's Amiibo that's the most vital product on show at E3. For one thing, the figures themselves look utterly charming, and in office discussions — ages ranging from 29-35 — we've all admitted that we'll probably spend more money than we initially intended on the collecting the range. From a personal perspective this writer doesn't play Skylanders or Disney Infinity, but this is Nintendo. It's nostalgia talking, and it's that alongside the strength of the brands with younger gamers upon which Nintendo will aim to capitalise.
The GamePad, up to this point, has houseed that NFC (near field communication) chip that has been woefully underutilised, aside from some minor usage in Pokemon Rumble U. This range of figurines could change that not just due to its variety, but in the multi-game approach that Nintendo is taking. With titles as diverse as Super Smash Bros., Mario Party 10, Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker, Yoshi's Woolly World and Mario Kart 8 all to use figurines, Nintendo will be able to promote the multi-use feature and the fact that no portal or "starter pack" is required. That integrated feature that was reportedly announced to the world before the GamePad developers knew about it years ago, which has been considered a throwaway in recent times, is suddenly leaping to the forefront.
There's certainly an argument that Nintendo is merely following the trends of others with this and is perhaps later with it than is ideal, but it's also the case that its offering is unique. It'll be vital that the company persuades retailers to provide plenty of shelf space, naturally, but advertisements showing players enjoying a game, placing the figurine on the GamePad and rapidly transforming the experience will be key. The opening to Nintendo's Digital Event did this briefly, with Satoru Iwata placing a Mario figure and rapidly turning around a tough Smash Bros. battle with Reggie Fils-Aime.
Debates around the GamePad often come down to a sense that, in producing a controller so different to that of its rivals, Nintendo creates a rod for its own back and a pressure to maximise this potential. That's a flipside with Amiibo, too, as there'll be an expectation that any game supporting the figurines does so in a fun, accessible way. There are unresolved questions too, around whether all figurines function in every game. If not, how does Nintendo communicate that clearly and avoid disappointed consumers? We'd suggest that, as a minimum, every figurine should provide a benefit in compatible games, even if Peach doesn't literally appear in Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker, for example.
With the recent system update also enhancing the GamePad with a quick start mode and a neat notification feature, the controller is finally feeling like a distinctive part of the system's infrastructure. Nintendo appears to be aiming to make it a 'living room tablet', to coin a phrase, that can actively provide updates, play at any time when the TV is busy, and also enhance Nintendo experiences. Making that pitch to consumers is Nintendo's ongoing challenge.
When you combine Amiibo with more interesting games using its motion controls and touch screen, the GamePad has the potential to finally shine on a sustained basis. It's the toy range, ultimately, that can maintain the controller's relevance even in games where standard physical controls are the core focus — if titles like MK8, Smash Bros. and the range shown off at E3 can drive the Wii U to a reasonable userbase, there's obvious potential for the toy platform to expand and be utilised in a number of first-party games. If it succeeds enough then third-party options could follow.
The Wii U has a huge 12 months ahead of it, in which it needs to win over consumers and move towards a userbase that's sufficient to sustain a full generation's lifecycle. Nintendo has demonstrated that it's not stepping back or retreating from the console, with new games revealed and, of course, a hugely ambitious Legend of Zelda title also on the agenda for 2015. Diversity is the key, and even the GamePad's critics will surely concede that the controller is set to contribute greatly to that range of experiences.
The GamePad is staying, and it could yet redeem itself and become an integral part of the living room.