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Jun 08

Wii U: Analysis on a Potential Next-Gen Winner

Nintendo surprised us all again this year with Wii U, an innovative hybrid controller. But one thing from the presentation seemed to be missing: the base unit. Jaz Rignall ponders on what Nintendo has planned for Wii U.

I watched the Nintendo conference with a high degree of interest this morning. With rumors rife of a new console announcement, I was hoping to see something really spectacular. Particularly as the company had it all to play for: Microsoft's Kinect- fest yesterday was not particularly exciting. I get that moving into the mass market is important, but it does lead to some pretty bland stuff for those not interested in family gaming, and while Sony's Vita was cool, the press event itself was almost completely surprise free.

So after sitting through a lot of preamble, and getting to see some great-looking 3DS games, finally the time came for the big unveiling of... Wii U. And it's certainly a cool and interesting concept.

My initial cynical take was that it's like a Fisher-Price iPad, but I made that observation more for giggles than anything else. As we sat through the series of demos, the Wii U pad-machine-controller showed some amazing potential. It lets you interact with games in an innovative way, and really opens up some serious potential for new types of gaming. Here's Justin's in-depth look at the way it works if you want to know more.

But as I type that, I get this sinking feeling of déjà vu. I remember saying exactly the same thing about Wii. I was blown away by how cool it was. How innovative the controller was, and the more I thought about it at the time, the more I thought that we were on the verge for a new dawn of gaming. The reality is, though, we weren't. While the hardware was cool and interesting, the reality for most gamers is that Wii is one of the least-played consoles of recent years. It sold incredibly well – it was the machine everyone wanted to have. But the same can be said for the latest fitness machines: they are bought, they are played with for a while, and then they gather dust. And unfortunately that's also true for most Wiis out there.

Part of the problem is the games – there are simply very few truly great Wii games. Some might blame the Wii's weak technology for that, but I always felt that innovations in game mechanics driven by the controls would make up for that. But it seems most companies simply couldn't capitalize on that, and we ended up with a few shining examples of Wii games drifting in a sea of mediocre, unimaginative shovelware.

The other thing that didn't help is that Wii's architecture and tech is so out of step with 360 and PS3, publishers couldn't cross-develop games. That meant development costs were relatively high for Wii games because a unique team was required to develop games, and assets were difficult to port and share across platforms. Which then combined with a generally weak market for Wii software – many machines were sold, but users generally bought fewer games for their systems that users of others – and you ended up with a market that just wasn't particularly viable for a lot of publishers.

The end result was a machine that, for most gamers, delivered a lot of promise that it never really fulfilled.

So is Wii U going to change that? I really, really hope so, but I think there is a large amount of wait and see. One thing I'm wondering about is what Nintendo didn't show us. Is Wii U some kind of bridge between Wii and a new system? Something that works with Wii to give it some legs, but will also work on a new system that will be more on a par with Sony and Microsoft's machines? That would be great for players – but also for the industry. A powerful new system that enables publishers to cross-develop new games would be a massive, massive boost for most companies.

If something like this does happen, then I think we would really be looking at something very interesting. Casual consumers would be able to use Wii U with their Wii-based systems – making it reasonably cheap for the mass market, and appealing to the Moms, Dads and Grandparents who were sold on Wii and who don't necessarily want to upgrade everything. But hardcore gamers could keep their controllers and peripherals, and simply switch out the base Wii for a more powerful unit when they are ready for a hi-def system and want to enjoy cutting-edge gaming.

That sounds like a TRUE mass-market gaming system – one that truly does appeal to everyone, from the hardcore to the casual. And if Nintendo does deliver that, I think we might well have something that I would tip as the potential front-runner in the next generation war.

Here's hoping.