When the Wii U was first announced, the confirmation of the GamePad controller — complete with a second-screen bursting with tantalizing asymmetrical gameplay possibilities — caused quite a stir. The reaction from the industry and general public was mainly positive, and certainly not as vitriolic as when Nintendo first showed off the (then) unfamiliar waggle-based mechanics of the Wii back in 2005. When the Wii U eventually broke cover, the concept of second-screen gaming was already starting to evolve on other platforms, and it appeared that Nintendo was once again stealing a march on its rivals and laying down the foundations of a fresh generation of entertainment.
Fast forward to the present day, and some would argue that the GamePad is now a curse rather than a blessing. Outside of a handful of titles — such as Nintendo Land and Game & Wario — the GamePad's asymmetrical possibilities have been all but ignored, with the vast majority of developers choosing to either use it for basic inventory management or off-TV play only. Third parties can possibly be forgiven for this — especially when they're attempting to retrofit GamePad functionality to titles that already exist on other systems — but somewhat more telling is Nintendo's lack of enthusiasm for its own technology.
Look back at some of the key Nintendo-published Wii U games in 2013, and you'll notice a worrying trend — most can be experienced perfectly well without the GamePad. Pikmin 3, The Wonderful 101 and The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker all offer support for alternative control methods, which means the GamePad isn't being used to anywhere near its full potential — if it was, then we'd have more games that simply couldn't be experienced without it. Even the console's most important title yet — Super Mario 3D World — makes only passing use of the controller; while it contains special levels which use of the GamePad's touch-screen, motion controls and microphone, most of the game can quite easily be played using either the Pro Controller or Wii Remote. Super Mario 3D World is an absolutely stunning video game, and easily one of the best titles of 2013, but shouldn't it be utilising the Wii U's unique selling point a little more convincingly?
Moving forward, things become even more concerning. The first big Wii U game of 2014 — Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze — effectively reduces the GamePad to little more than a massive Pro Controller. Our suspicions that this would be the case were aroused when we played the game shortly after E3 last year and were forced to use the Wii Remote and Nunchuk combo, rather than the GamePad itself. At the time, we assumed this was merely to illustrate that the sequel would control just like the beloved Wii original, but having spent some quality time with the title recently, we now guess that it was to mask another issue: when you're playing Tropical Freeze, the GamePad's screen is switched off entirely.
The fact that a first-party Nintendo game doesn't make any meaningful use of the GamePad outside of off-TV play speaks volumes about what a hard time the company is having with this unique interface
The fact that a first-party Nintendo game doesn't make any meaningful use of the GamePad outside of off-TV play speaks volumes about what a hard time the company is having with the unique interface it has created. Also, whatever happened to support for more than one GamePad? This was something that was spoken about upon release but we've heard nothing since — another indication that Nintendo perhaps isn't all that concerned with pushing the controller as far as it can go. All of which predictably leads us to speculate about the future: could Nintendo seriously be considering dropping the GamePad? Is this part of Satoru Iwata's bold new strategy? While the idea sounds outlandish and even counter-productive, it would actually make a lot of sense on many levels.
Firstly, there are the cost implications to consider — and we all know that Nintendo wants to get its profits back up after the dismal figures revealed recently. We know that the Japanese giant is taking quite a hit on the GamePad itself — it's reported to cost around $70 to manufacture and bundle with the system. By removing it from the equation, Nintendo would have the room to drastically reduce the overall cost of the Wii U, making it vastly more appealing for consumers. This could also potentially remove some of the confusion which has hounded the console since its launch; without the GamePad, it arguably becomes an easier system to sell: "It's a Wii, but in HD!" Throw in a Pro Controller and Wii Remote, and you've got a hardware bundle which — when armed with the right selection of games and the correct price — would surely make a considerable impact at retail.
Secondly, a system which doesn't rely on the GamePad should — in theory, at least — be more attractive for developers. Third parties won't have to invest additional resource to add GamePad streaming or optimise their existing code to run on the system. Granted, the GamePad offers the opportunity to make games even better and vastly more immersive — and many indie developers have spoken publicly of how much they love the unique possibilities it brings to the table — but it's just as valid to suggest that it's proving to be a deterrent to some companies. Large third party publishers are only going to take the financial risk of adding GamePad functionality to their multi-format software if they can be confident that bumper sales are waiting upon release, and at the moment that simply isn't the case.
This potential scenario doesn't mean that the GamePad is totally consigned to the scrapheap, but rather it becomes an optional extra
Of course, this potential scenario doesn't mean that the GamePad is totally consigned to the scrapheap, but rather it becomes an optional extra. The controller could be sold on its own, or bundled with certain games which rely on it being present. Just as Microsoft proudly printed "Better with Kinect" on the packaging of many Xbox 360 titles, Nintendo could do the same — the GamePad would live on, but in a slightly reduced capacity.
The biggest headache is addressing the many titles already out in the wild which require the controller to function. Super Mario 3D World, for example, still needs the GamePad to be present, even though it is only used for a small percentage of the time. To solve this issue, Nintendo could issue patches online which modify the game's code, allowing the touch-screen sections in Super Mario 3D World to be bypassed or tackled using button presses instead. True, it would be a less enjoyable experience, but it's better than totally locking people out of the game unless they own the correct controller — inspiration can perhaps be taken from the 360 and PS3 uses of Murfy in Rayman Legends. More problematic titles — such as Nintendo Land, which simply cannot be played without a second-screen — would have to make it very clear before purchase that a GamePad must to be used.
In the right hands, the GamePad is an amazing tool which enriches the games we play and brings an additional dimension to the entire experience. Anyone who has enjoyed the underrated Nintendo Land with friends or laughed their way through Game & Wario's hilarious "Fruit" mode will attest to that. However, outside of a handful of examples, the controller has been criminally underused — both by Nintendo itself and third parties — and as a result is becoming a dead-weight which is slowly but surely dragging the Wii U down. Cutting the console's reliance on the GamePad seems drastic, but given the signs, it could well be what Nintendo has planned — and this about-face may be what is needed to reverse the console's fortunes. The Wii U already places a fair amount of focus on the Wii Remote, so it would be very easy for Nintendo to change its marketing to reflect this. "Here's the system you've loved over the past seven years, and it now has better visuals!" While many experts insist that the Wii's "casual" user base has largely transitioned to smartphones, it's important to remember that the name still has a fair amount of brand allure — Nintendo could easily play on that, especially now that Wii Fit U and some Wii Sports events are available — the latter would need those retrofitting patches we've referenced earlier, though Bowling and Tennis primarily use the Remote Plus anyway.
Apologies in advance for the rather gory analogy, but when Aron Ralston found himself trapped in a canyon in Utah, he chose to cut off his arm rather than die of thirst and starvation. You could argue that Nintendo finds itself in a similar situation; it may be that it needs to sacrifice a core component of the Wii U's functionality in order to keep the console alive. By removing the GamePad, the appeal and the uniqueness of the system is unquestionably reduced, making it "just another console", but it could arguably deliver the boost required to grow its user base — and when you've got a system that's selling, it's much easier to attract developer support. Befuddlement over exactly what the console is could also be removed, it will be cheaper and therefore more likely to sell, and third party developers will find it easier to support with their cross-platform games. Who knows, Nintendo could even re-brand the system as the "Wii 2", which would surely eradicate any confusion and inform the consumer of exactly what they're investing in.
Do you think Nintendo is about to drop support for the GamePad? Do you think it would be a wise move, or a potentially disastrous one? Make sure you vote in the poll below and also share your thoughts by leaving a comment.
Should Nintendo reduce its focus on the GamePad? (720 votes)
- Yes, the controller hasn't been as successful as hoped and is holding the system back25%
- No, it's the Wii U's most unique element and just needs to find its killer app61%
- I'm not sure14%
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