Once the biggest change in Nintendo's strategy, the GamePad sold alongside the successor to the popular Wii video game console. It has now become a primary focus as the company attempts to turn around its business.
In a set of announcements at the E3 show on Tuesday, the Japanese game maker showed off a raft of games with new play styles it hopes will convince consumers the GamePad, and its accompanying Wii U console, are worth buying. The games include the ability to interact with real-world toys and rely heavily on the controller.
The effort is part of a larger strategy of making Nintendo's flagship product more appealing. Right now, that means all of the company's developers "are laser-focused on unlocking the potential of the GamePad," said Casey Lewis, a spokesman for Nintendo.
Nintendo has reason to focus. The Wii U so far hasn't seen its sales uptake as quickly as Microsoft's Xbox One or Sony's PlayStation 4, both of which were released in November, about a year after Nintendo's product. The company's financial results have taken a hit, with revenue falling 2 percent on a larger-than-expected loss in the last fiscal year.
Yves Guillemot, chief executive of game maker Ubisoft, said Nintendo was caught in tough circumstances. Chief among them was Apple's iPad tablet, which arrived in the market two and a half years before the Wii U and its GamePad, and became popular among casual gamers. "The extraordinary innovation there was not seen as impactful as it could have been if it came earlier," he said. Nintendo's machine "is not as different as it could have been."
Nintendo is hoping its new games will help to change those perceptions.
Taking aim with 'amiibo'
The standout new feature is a set of accessories called "amiibo" (stylized with a lower-case "a"). They come in the form of figurines that, when touched to a special area on the GamePad, send the corresponding characters into the game. Nintendo plans to offer about 10 figurines when the technology launches later this year, though it hasn't said which characters will be available at first.
Among the figurines Nintendo has shown are the company's mascot plumber-turned-superhero Mario, as well as Link, the protagonist of the popular The Legend of Zelda adventure games.
The toys use a radio technology called "near-field communication" (or NFC), which is also used by some smartphones and credit cards to transmit payment information to store registers. In Nintendo's case, the toys will communicate with the GamePad to learn information about how the character responds in the game, giving the toy unique qualities and capabilities, such as quicker response to attacks, that other players may not have.
"Even if you and a friend both buy Link figures, they won't be the same," said Bill Trinen, director at Nintendo's product development group in America, in a statement. "Your Link amiibo becomes your personal version of Link that you can train and customize."
The first game that will use this functionality is Nintendo's popular fighting game Super Smash Bros., though more titles will eventually support amiibo as well.
Another game that heavily relies on the GamePad is Splatoon, a cheeky team-fighting game in which players take control of cartoon squids attempting to spray the most colored "ink" in a set amount of time.
Players move the GamePad around in the air in order to move their character's field of view. The GamePad also displays a map showing how much territory has been covered by each side's ink, and where teammates are located. Tapping on one of them allows the player to quickly travel to their location.
Whether those games will help to make the difference is still unclear. When the device was first launched, Nintendo offered several games that used the GamePad, but Mike Vorhaus, president of Magid Advisors, said none of them were as revolutionary as Wii Sports, the suite of titles such as bowling and tennis that helped make the original motion-sensor-based Wii a sensation after its launch nearly a decade ago.
By comparison, the Wii U highlighted its standout feature, the tablet, by asking customers to perform tasks such as flicking their fingers across the screen in an effort to throw metal stars at cardboard ninjas on the television. Another game, Ubisoft's horror survival game ZombiU, allowed gamers to pull up the sights on a sniper rifle by holding up the GamePad in front of them.
None of these types of gameplay were particularly impressive, Vorhaus said. "It wasn't a big step forward."