Remember the Wii U reveal trailer from E3 2011?
Remember how incredible the GamePad looked?
It could be a scope, a game board, a drawing pad, an inventory screen. There was something really cool about lining up a golf shot by pointing the remote at the controller on the floor, then watching the ball sail into the distance on the TV.
To make all that possible, they crammed a hell of a lot of tech into that controller: a touchscreen, gyroscope, camera, microphone, NFC reader, rumble, an infrared sensor bar, plus all the standard sticks, buttons and triggers.
Whether you call it a gimmick or an innovation (the two can be hard to tell apart) the Wii U made sense as Ninty’s next step. It was the perfect marriage between the Wii and the DS. Even with the sceptical initial reception, I remember diving into the hype headfirst.
The launch lineup was smart as whip. It very carefully showed off the GamePad’s versatility. Ubisoft’s ZombiU made good use of the touchscreen for inventory management, and in a survival horror setting, demonstrated the tension that can be wrung from trying to pay attention to two screens at once. Scribblenauts Unlimited used the second screen as a keyboard, letting you quickly type objects into existence.
But the clear winner on day one was Nintendo Land, which was not only a damn good launch title, but remains one of the best games on the system. A much meatier tech demo than Wii Sports ever was, its twelve minigames had you flicking ninja stars off the tablet at targets on the TV, tracing paths around obstacles for Yoshi, and tilting the controller like a marble maze.
Ninty’s main course were games featuring something they dubbed “asymmetric gameplay”. Basically, one player has the GamePad, and through the virtue of their own private screen, has different objectives and viewpoints from players sharing the TV.
A few of Nintendo Land’s minigames were set up to showcase the idea. In Mario Chase, the GamePad player runs through a maze, pursued by up to four others. The chasers, with limited third-person viewpoints, have to coordinate to find their prey, while the chasee evades them with the help of an overhead map on the second screen.
Luigi’s Ghost Mansion has the GamePad player, as a ghost, hunting the other four. The twist is, the ghost is invisible on the TV, only trackable via the rumbling of the controllers. The team has to communicate to locate and catch the ghost player, before it catches them.
ZombiU also featured a competitive multiplayer mode in which one player fought off a horde of zombies with a Wii remote and nunchuk, and the other used the GamePad to spawn them in, trying to overwhelm their opponent.
Even the Mario Party clone, Rabbids Land, included some surprisingly creative asymmetry in some of its minigames, as well as an interesting mechanic in the meta-game: when a player picks up an item, it’s shown to them privately on the GamePad screen. You never know what other players are packing, and if they lay a trap, it could be anywhere.
It might not sound like much, but the implications of that are huge: players can have secrets in a same-room game! So long screencheating, now we can have all the privacy and competitiveness of online play, without losing the social aspect of being within jeering distance of your friends.
You know what else manages that? Board games. Players having a handful of cards, keeping things to themselves until they’re ready to spring a carefully-constructed strategy onto their unsuspecting opponents – that’s a staple mechanic.
In fact, that’s pretty much what the GamePad’s potential boils down to: one player has info that the others don’t. Combine that with the design lessons Nintendo could’ve pulled from the DS, as well as the rise of tablet gaming, and the opportunity seems criminally missed.
I was dreaming of an asymmetric Mario Kart mode: four players race split-screen, while another has a birds-eye view of the track and can place traps or powerups to help or hinder. The console is absolutely perfect for a Pokemon Snap sequel where the GamePad is the camera. How about a D&D-style game, where the Dungeon Master has their own little screen to control the action? Even plain ol’ Pictionary: draw on the touchscreen, have the guessers watch the TV.
Instead, Nintendo seems to have run out of ideas for their hardware pretty quickly. Three years on, the Wii U library looks a lot like the Wii’s: there’s some really great games in there, but the best ones basically ignore the console’s central gimmick. The newest Mario Kart, Smash Bros, Pikmin, Donkey Kong, Yoshi and Mario platformers, both 2D and 3D, are all arguably the best entries in their franchises, but almost exclusively relegate the GamePad to Off-TV Play. Even the so-late-it-doesn’t-matter-anymore Minecraft port doesn’t use the touchscreen for inventory or crafting. It’s baffling.
Don’t get me wrong – Off-TV Play is great. I can play from my hammock in the backyard. But the tech can do so much more. We could have more games like the fantastic Super Mario Maker, which probably wouldn’t exist without the tap-and-drag placement a touchscreen provides. Kirby’s latest outing had you drawing platforms. Mario Party 10 and Wii Party U featured some great GamePad-centric minigames and modes. And Rayman Legends had those Murfy levels, where one player uses the GamePad to move platforms and obstacles, cut ropes, stun enemies, and generally open the path for their buddies running through the level. With some careful timing and coordination, they were the platforming equivalent of synchronised swimming, and every bit as frustrating, and satisfying, as you’d expect.
There are just enough examples to show us how good it could’ve been, but assuming innovation is little more than a well-supported gimmick, there aren’t quite enough to push it over that line.
Maybe, in some beautiful parallel universe, the Wii U is blessed with plenty of games played with various combinations of the GamePad’s many features. They might be sharing their Pokemon Snap 2 snaps over a parallel Miiverse, browsing an eShop bursting with 30 years of Ninty classics. And maybe that mysterious TVii button actually does something!
Oh well. If nothing else, seeing Nintendo’s crazily-colourful worlds in HD almost makes up for it. And bae has promised us something new with the NX! Maybe this time they’ll deliver on whatever insane idea that turns out to be. Right?