Nintendo's pre-E3 address lays down a pile of details about the Wii U.
We already know that the Wii U is coming and it's bringing with it a funky, handheld controller that makes the original Xbox gamepad look positively petite, but what's all that hot new hardware actually going to do for us? Much of what it brings to the party is fairly conventional stuff: the final production design of the creatively-named Wii U GamePad is slightly different from the prototype that was displayed at the last E3, and now boasts two thumbsticks with integrated buttons as well as a few cosmetic changes designed to make it more comfortable for long stretches of gaming. It also sports a touch screen, is motion-sensing and features a near field communication reader/writer and a universal remote control. For gamers who prefer the tried-and-true, the Wii U will also support all previous Wii controllers, including the Wii Remote, the Nunchuk and the Balance Board, as well as the new Wii U Pro Controller, which looks identical to a standard current-gen gamepad.
Greater innovations are to be found in how the GamePad integrates with the rest of the system. The two-screen design allows for what Iwata referred to as "asymmetric diversity in gameplay," which essentially means that the small GamePad screen will display content and perspectives different from what's on the television. As an example, Nintendo showed the GamePad screen being used to pitch and catch a baseball, while the big screen displayed a field-level view of the game. In a similar vein, content like videos and pictures can be viewed on the GamePad screen independently of the television, but can easily be served to the television when desired.
Nintendo appears to be banking on integrated connectivity as the console's big selling feature. The start-up menu will actually display a gang of real-world Miis milling around your screen; they'll cluster around tiles representing the game they're playing and speech bubbles will pop up displaying their actual communications. The purpose of this "MiiVerse" is to "add not only information, but also a new degree of empathy between players," Iwata explained, adding that it can be accessed at any time, from any Wii U title, without having to exit the game. Text messaging will be supported, as will handwritten messages and even teleconferencing using the GamePad as a camera. It won't be ready at launch, but the long-term plan is to make the MiiVerse available away from the console, via the 3DS, PC or any web-enabled mobile device.
The one thing Iwata didn't touch on is how it will actually play games. The broadened social tools look very cool and if Nintendo is able to tap into the zeitgeist that made the original Wii so huge with casual gamers, the Wii U could turn out to be another big hit. But if it misses that mark - or worse, if that mark is simply no longer there to be hit - there's nothing on display here that makes this console look like it will be able to punch with whatever comes next from Sony and Microsoft. There's no doubt that it will do what it does very well; the only question is, will anyone care?