LOS ANGELES--Though it won't be available in stores until at least 2012, Nintendo unveiled, and gave a name to, the hardware successor to the Wii, known at this point as Wii U.
True to many rumors and predictions, Nintendo unveiled at this year's E3 a new console with an attention-getting tabletlike controller, complete with its own 6.2-inch touch screen. This multifunctional tablet will form the centerpiece of what the Wii U will be about.
E3 2011: Complete coverage
The tablet controller
With a glossy white front face and smooth contours, the Wii U controller tablet has an uncanny resemblance to something Apple would conjure up. It also looks like a giant bottom half of a DSi XL, with dual analog pads added. The tablet is roughly the size of many 7-inch tablets, but with a larger bezel, thicker chassis, and more controllerlike feel. It's lightweight enough to hold for the sessions we used, but after a few minutes of motion use, it felt less ergonomic than a Wii remote.
No technical specs are known yet about the resolution, battery life, or processing power of either the tablet or its base console, but here's what we do know. The tablet controller has dual analog pads, a crosspad, buttons, trigger buttons on the back, a stylus- or finger-activated touch screen, a microphone, front- and rear-facing cameras, and a gyroscopic motion sensor.
The cameras and microphone will enable video chat, according to Nintendo, while the gyro motion controls enable augmented-reality-style movement of the 6-inch screen's viewpoint. Games demoed show how the tablet's second screen can be used for a unique player's perspective, or a device that can enhance, interact with, or magnify action seen on the TV. Aiming the tablet camera at the TV might enable a pitch-control interface in a baseball game, or a close-up sniper view in a shooter.
The tablet can act as a standalone gaming device while the TV connected to the Wii U is in use by someone else, but according to Nintendo and Shigeru Miyamoto, the Wii U's tablet is a living room device meant to be used in the home, preferably not far from the TV it's paired with. Technically, the wirelessly connected device could be used to play games on its own, but it sounds like the base Wii U console will need to be on in order to enable that gameplay.
The tablet's display was crisp and bright in our hands-on use, somewhere in the iPad 2 range of quality, and definitely better than a Nintendo DSi or 3DS. Resolution isn't known yet, but it looked as good as any 7-inch tablet we've seen.
We know very little at this point, other than a few firsthand demos of prototype games at E3. A few multiplayer games like Chase Mii and Battle Mii show off how the Wii U can be used for multiplayer games; one player sees his own unique perspective on the tablet controller, while other players interact using standard Wii remotes on the TV screen.
Another game showcased the tablet used as a shield defending the onslaught of virtual arrows. Nintendo has shown other potential uses in videos, including laying the device flat on the floor for a golf game, holding it as a readout with the Wii Fit balance board, or attaching it to a Wii gun peripheral for a sniper sight.
A number of third parties, including EA, have pledged support for the Wii U, but no official games are known yet. Nintendo did announce at yesterday's E3 press conference that Super Smash Brothers will get 3DS and Wii U versions.
Our best guess? The Wii U will focus heavily on multiplayer experiences, and also offer a number of unique games using unique multiscreen and view-shifting.
The Wii U console
We also don't know for certain what the base unit of the Wii U will look like. Firsthand demo stations on the E3 2011 show floor reveal a curved white box that looks very similar to the current Wii. Most of the focus at E3 was on the tablet controller, stealing attention away from the rest of the device.
The Wii U console will come with one tablet controller. That controller will be part of the new Wii U console, and will not be backward-compatible with the original Wii. On the other hand, it looks like many Wii peripherals and games, including Wii remotes and the Wii Balance Board, will work with the Wii U.
We know that the Wii U will support HD gaming, and the demos at E3 suggest graphics that put it at least on par with the current Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 hardware. Games looked sharp both on the TV screens and the tablet screens we played on.
Right now, it looks like internal storage will be similar to that on the current Wii. It's unknown how much improved the storage capacity of Wii U game discs will be, or what downloadable offerings the console will have.
Wii U vs. the iPad 2 and PlayStation Vita
In a few key ways, the Wii U has elements in common with the iPad and the newly released Sony Vita handheld. Like the iPad, the Wii U controller has a large screen and cameras. Its assortment of controls and inputs nearly match the PlayStation Vita's, minus the back touch panel. This makes the Wii U's controller resemble, in passing, a larger Nintendo version of the Vita, except it's paired with a console instead of being a standalone device. For that reason alone--the fact that it's meant to pair with a home console instead of function on its own--it's a significantly different device, more akin to a large-screened remote control.
Nintendo hasn't revealed a price for the Wii U yet, or a release date. We aren't likely to know much more until next year, but in the meantime consider our curiosity very piqued.