The most interesting and impressive gadget I saw at the 2012 Consumer Electronics Show this week was Nintendo's next video game console -- the Wii U. It was also one of the riskiest products I saw, outside of Nokia's new Windows Phone handsets.
Despite not offering games with high-definition graphics, Nintendo's Wii home console changed the way people play video games, introducing motion sensing controllers called Wii remotes and a then-new level of casual games that appealed to millions of people who in the past didn't consider buying a gaming system. But since the Wii's launch in 2006, the gaming landscape changed as well.
Microsoft's Xbox has controller-free motion gaming with its Kinect technology. Sony has motion-sensing controllers with its PlayStation Move controllers for the PlayStation 3 console. Casual gaming is increasingly taking place on smartphones and not home consoles.
The Wii U intends to have an answer to all of its rivals, Nintendo of America's President Reggie Fils-Aime told me this week in an interview and hands-on demo of the new system in Las Vegas (you can see a video of our hands-on above). The demos we played were the same demos Nintendo showed off at the E3 gaming expo in Los Angeles last year.
The most obvious feature that separates the Wii U from rival hardware is the system's new tablet-like controller. Traditional buttons, triggers and joysticks are found in the Wii U controller, as is a 6.2-inch touchscreen in the middle of the unit that can be used by hand or with a stylus. The controller was 5.3 inches tall, 9 inches long and about 1 inch deep. There's also a built-in accelerometer and gyroscope, with a front-facing camera, microphone, speakers and a motion-sensing strip to interact with the remotes introduced on the Wii.
So what can this new controller actually do? One gaming demo, called Chase Mii, was essentially video-game hide and seek. My character in the game was the one being chased and, with the Wii U controller's screen, I saw an entirely different view of the game then those I was playing against with an included map of the terrain I was using to hide from my chasers.
In another demo, Fils-Aime and Nintendo spokesman J.C. Rodrigo showed me a recording of a car driving around a street in Japan. The same image that was on the HDTV that the Wii U console was connected to showed up on the Wii U controller in my hands, but when I moved the controller to either side or above my head, the view changed. I could see the street in 360-degrees; the sky, the cars passing by, a rear view, all just by moving the controller around.
The potential that this sort of technology offers video game developers is hugely exciting if you love playing video games, as I do. The military shooter genre is hugely popular right now -- how about the ability to see a digital battlefield in 360 degrees while not disrupting the view on your TV? Maps and menus on the Wii U's controller are an obvious choice as well.
The most important feature of the Wii U for video game developers, however, might be that it can handle high-definition gaming, up to 1080p in resolution. This can allow for developers to more easily develop games for Nintendo's new hardware alongside high-definition titles being made for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.
I saw a demo of a Legend of Zelda game in HD and it looked outstanding. The main character of the game, Link, had texture details in the fabric of his clothing that simply weren't possible on the Wii's lower-powered hardware. I was able to change major environmental details, such as being able to switch the scene from night to day and back, with just a tap on the Wii U controller's touchscreen.
The touchscreen also seemed to me to be a play to court developers who are building for smartphones and tablets. The Wii U's hardware will enable it to be a console that (if enough games are made) can offer something for the hardcore gaming crowd and something for the smartphone set. Angry Brids or Cut the Rope on a Wii U controller? Yeah, I'd love to see that and I'm sure Nintendo would too.
The Wii U controller's second screen can also act as the only screen for gameplay too. For example, if you're playing a game, and your roommate or partner wants to watch the latest episode of their favorite TV show, the Wii U can stream the game to the controller so you can keep gaming. Despite looking like a tablet, the Wii U controller isn't a tablet and isn't usable without the Wii U nearby.
But as impressive as the demo was, Fils-Aime and Nintendo didn't show up to CES with much new information about the Wii U. We still don't have a price for the system, launch titles haven't been announced and hardware specs are few and far between. The Wii U will play downloadable games and games on-disc. It will also be backwards compatible with Wii games. It will also have some undetermined amount of internal flash storage, four USB ports and at least one SD card slot will also be included for expanded storage. IBM is supplying a multi-core processor and AMD is supplying a graphics processor as well.
Fils-Aime also wouldn't say whether or not the Wii U will be able to support multiple Wii U controllers or not. This, in my opinion, is a huge question for an otherwise solid-looking piece of hardware. If the Wii U only supports one Wii U controller, I think Nintendo will be making a mistake. Unlike the Wii Remotes, the Wii U offers the experience of a traditional controller. Some games are better played by pushing buttons and using joysticks rather than flailing your arms. For example, with fighting games and shooters, many gamers prefer the precision and speed that a regular-old controller can offer. If only one person can use a Wii U controller at a time, playing the sorts of games with friends on the couch won't be as fun. Hopefully the new console will support multiple Wii U controllers and give gamers the ability to choose the gameplay set-up they prefer.
Nintendo still also hasn't offed any details on what it will offer in terms of online multiplayer. In my opnion, Microsoft's Xbox Live service is the best in console gaming and allows gamers to play with their friends online and talk in real time as they play in their respective homes. Online multiplayer has been something that so far Nintendo has flatly failed to include in a compelling or easy-to-use way with its home consoles. For that reason most games for the Wii are single-player games. I believe Nintendo has to get online gameplay right in order for the Wii U to succeed.
So, when will our questions be answered? Hopefully at E3 2012 in June, which will be the next time Nintendo makes a big push before the press with the Wii U.