E3 2011: Nintendo's new Wii U set for 2012

The console comes with an iPad-like controller, opening up new style of gameplay and adding video calls and Web browsing to its repertoire.

Jay Greene Former Staff Writer
Jay Greene, a CNET senior writer, works from Seattle and focuses on investigations and analysis. He's a former Seattle bureau chief for BusinessWeek and author of the book "Design Is How It Works: How the Smartest Companies Turn Products into Icons" (Penguin/Portfolio).
Jay Greene
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Nintendo's Reggie Fils-Aime showing the Wii U at E3 2011. Sarah Tew

LOS ANGELES--Nintendo got the next wave of console wars started today with the introduction of the next entry to its arsenal, the Wii U, at the company's E3 presentation.

The new console, with an iPad-like controller, will be available next year, as the company had said in April.

Nintendo didn't offer the price of the console or any technical specifications. But it nevertheless wowed a partisan audience at the Nokia Theater here in Los Angeles with a video of novel new gameplay. The company never showed the device itself or any live demonstrations of the console or controller.

Nintendo Global President Satoru Iwata addresses the E3 crowd Tuesday. Screenshot by CNET

But in the video, Nintendo showed how gamers could use a TV screen and the screen on the controller at the same time to play games, and how they could use each on its own. Using both screens, for example, a gamer playing video golf put the new controller on the ground, where it became a sand trap with a ball in it. The player took a swing with a Wii controller and the ball flew onto the TV screen and landed on the green.

In battle games, players can flick throwing stars at opponents with their finger on the new controller. The weapon then flies onto the television screen.

Using the screen separately, gamers could play a traditional board game like Othello, where they move chips over a the board by touching the screen. And they can also use the screen for video calls and for surfing the Web. The controller features a 6.2-inch screen, has a rumble feature, a microphone, two speakers, an accelerometer, gyroscope, and a front-facing camera.

Nintendo Global President Satoru Iwata said the company expects the console can be loved by hardcore and casual gamers alike.

"Mental boundaries still exist in how game systems are defined," Iwata said. "What we haven't achieved yet is a game platform that is equally satisfying to both game players. That's what we hope to provide with our new game system."

Iwata said Nintendo plans to accomplish the goal with a console system that is both deeper and wider. At launch, it will have games for casual players such as Lego City Stories, and hardcore titles such as Assassin's Creed and Batman: Arkham City.

"It will let everyone see games in a different way," Iwata said. "The goal of innovation is to solve every type of play. I believe our new platform is a major step to reaching our goal."

Game changer?
It was easily the most newsworthy and creative offering at E3 yet, surpassing the news from yesterday's Microsoft and Sony briefings. And even though there were few specifics about the console for the public, Nintendo partners lined up to rave about it for the company's presentation.

The chief executive of Electronic Arts, John Riccitiello, joined Nintendo executives on stage--the first time he's done that at E3, he noted.

Video conferencing on the Wii U Screenshot by CNET

"What brings us together today is a breakthrough in our relationship based on a stunning new breakthrough in game play," Riccitiello said.

He envisions gamers using the Wii U to call plays in football on the small controller while playing the game itself on the larger TV screen. And he expects to use the online features to let EA gamers connect to online content and extend their play to social networks.

In April, Nintendo announced plans for the new console. The company put out a three-paragraph statement, offering few details.

Money matters
Much is riding on Nintendo's new hardware. The game company has suffered financially of late, posting a 29 percent drop in revenue to $12.3 billion in its fiscal year that ended March 31. Earnings slid 66 percent to $946.7 million.

The new Wii U controller. Screenshot by CNET

Those problems start with the lagging performance of the Wii. Even though it's the reigning console champ, having sold 86.7 million units worldwide compared to 54 million Xbox 360s and 50.6 million PlayStation 3s, according to independent analyst VGChartz.com, the Wii's sales have been in decline.

In the last fiscal year, the once ground-breaking console sold slightly more than 15 million units, down from 20 million sold a year earlier. By comparison, Microsoft's Xbox 360 sales continues to grow year-over-year. Sales of Nintendo's DS handheld slid to 17 million units, down from 27 million.

And Nintendo doesn't expect improvement this current fiscal year. The company has said it expects to sell 13 million Wii units and 11 million DS units worldwide in the period.

Even its newest hardware, the 3DS, a handheld that offers 3D images without the need for special glasses, has underperformed. Nintendo missed its target of selling 4 million 3DS units in the last fiscal year, selling just 3.6 million devices.

Last week, Nintendo announced plans to update the software running the 3DS on June 6. The upgrade includes a new Web browser and Nintendo's eShop content-downloading service.

At the briefing, Nintendo of America President Reggie Fils-Aime showed a handful of new titles for the 3DS including Nintendo mainstay Mario Kart.

"It's a game you've enjoyed for years, but it's a tricked-out version you haven't seen before," said Fils-Aime.

Nintendo will also offer Luigi's Mansion and Kid Icarus games on the 3DS as well.

Updated at 10:55 a.m. PT with more details and analysis from the briefing.

Correction at 4:29 p.m. PT: An earlier version of this story alluded to speculation that the new console might go on sale as early as this holiday season. But Nintendo had already announced in April that the new console wouldn't be available until next year.