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What to expect from Nintendo at E3 2012: Wii U, 3DS, and a sense of purpose

Nintendo enters this year's E3 flagging, but with a new gaming console to show off. Can it finally recapture its lost thunder?

Sarah Tew/CNET

Heading into E3 2012, Nintendo is either the easiest of the Big Three gaming companies to handicap, or the hardest, depending on your perspective.

We know, absolutely, that Nintendo's next-gen Wii U gaming console will reappear at this year's show. We know that games will finally be unveiled for this system. Yet, we largely have no idea what those games are. Nintendo's veil of secrecy on its software lineup is a little more opaque than it is for Sony and Microsoft...or so it seems. Here's what we think will happen.

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The Wii U (if that's its final name): More than the tablet?
Nintendo's next system could be renamed, just like the Revolution became the Wii. Last year, we had extensive time with the Wii U's odd wireless controller tablet, an iconic peripheral that's become synonymous with the Wii U. All anyone did was play a series of detailed software tech demos and mini-games; no launch-window games were unveiled.

We already know that new Super Mario Bros. and Pikmin games will be on display for the Wii U. Super Smash Bros. is also in development, both for the Wii U and 3DS. It's a safe bet that a good handful of Nintendo's evergreen go-to franchises -- Starfox, Zelda, Donkey Kong, Kirby, Mario Kart -- will make appearances in one form or another.

We know nothing about the Wii U's launch date, price, game catalog, or even its software features. Also, we know practically nothing about the system itself, beyond the tablet. The Wii U's box, as seen at last year's E3, looked nearly identical to a Wii console. Looks can be deceiving. Will that be the Wii U's final design, or were those stand-in development hardware?

Expect a much better picture of the Wii U and its games, but not so much news on launch date or price: Satoru Iwata claims neither will be provided at E3. The Nintendo 3DS didn't get a launch date or price at E3 2010, either. Best guess for a Wii U debut: November.


Nintendo 3DS: Year Two (could there be a Slim?)
The 3DS had a rocky start, but has been gaining ground in sales thanks to an aggressively lower price and a library of games that, while not tremendous, covers the bases with recognizable franchises and strong quality (Super Mario 3D Land, Mario Kart 7, and the 3D remake of Ocarina of Time). A number of surprisingly good downloadable games have trickled in to the 3DS eShop, many at prices that finally match offerings on Apple's App Store (Pushmo, Sakura Samurai).

Nintendo can't let up on the software. A strong second wave of first-party games, and hopefully a greater flow of third-party games, considering the growth of the 3DS platform, should be on deck. New Super Mario Bros. 2 is already a definite. Expect Nintendo to celebrate the sales resurgence of the 3DS for longer than you'd care to listen.

The 3DS isn't a perfect piece of hardware, though. It lacks a second analog pad, and, more importantly, its battery life has always disappointed compared with the stellar life of previous Nintendo handhelds. Could an improved 3DS Slim be offered? Odds say no: Nintendo usually waits two years before refreshing handheld hardware. The DS Lite came out in 2006, two years after the original DS. In that case, a new 3DS could debut in early 2013, although that's unlikely.

A return to relevancy
That sounds harsh, but it's true: the Wii was a household name through the middle of the last decade, and the brand name has cooled off because of aging hardware and, you could argue, Apple's savvy theft of Nintendo's core casual games market over the last few years. iPhones, iPod Touches, and iPads, not Nintendo 3DS systems, have become go-to kid gaming platforms.

For adults, the Wii used to have appeal as a casual motion-based party system thanks to games like Wii Sports, or a light fitness machine with the purchase of a Wii Fit. The Xbox 360 and Kinect have taken the place of the Wii for many in that regard. Part of the reason: the Xbox 360 is also better as a set-top box for streaming-video content.

The Nintendo Wii was one of the first consoles to include Netflix support, but the Wii U will have to reach out more. With HDTV-friendly connectivity, could the next Wii finally be a set-top box for streaming video, too? That would go a long way toward earning a place in living rooms.

Nintendo has a second challenge: appealing to game developers with its aggressively unique hardware. The DS and its two screens and touch controls eventually won over developers, but that was before Apple and its gold-rush App Store put dollar signs in the eyes of indie programmers on shoestring budgets. The Wii U and 3DS both present willfully different hardware challenges compared with standard consoles. Getting larger studios and small independent game developers to pour in lots of quality offerings will be key; both systems still need killer apps.

We'll find out more soon enough. Nintendo's E3 keynote kicks off June 5 at 9 a.m. PT. Join us then for the live blog and the latest news.