I have a Wii U, so I shouldn't be complaining. I'm not. I'm observing. And my observation is this, my friends: observing a Wii U game is a brand-new skill I have not yet mastered.
When I play this new console, I'm looking at the wrong screen half the time! Or I think I am. Maybe I am. I just don't know.
Panic not, Nintendo people. I'll explain.
The Wii U, like the Nintendo DS and Nintendo Wii before it, is a gaming machine that is designed to be used in ways that we've not used gaming machines before. Getting one of these wacky new Nintendo contraptions is like spending one's lifetime turning keys to start ignitions and then getting in one of those cars that start with the push of a button. I need to learn to get used to this kind of thing!
The Wii required us to learn how to play games with
swings of our arms flicks of our wrists that we fooled the machine into thinking were swings of our arms.
The DS required us to look at two small adjacent screens at once and somehow control games with a stylus. What a freakshow! (And, man, what a great, great system it turned out to be.)
The Wii U has a screen in its controller and still pumps out graphics to your TV. That's the main hook. Trust me: while this may be the best console innovation of all time (too early to say), first-time Wii U owners are going to be looking at the wrong screen a lot. And when they're not looking at the wrong screen, they're going to be wondering, "Am I looking at the wrong screen?", even though they're looking at the correct one.
I've played two games on the Wii U that Nintendo delivered, via FedEx, to me earlier this week. New Super Mario Bros. U's graphics are displayed identically on the TV and the game's controller. With that game, you simply choose. You can look at the TV or look down at the screen in your hands. Which one will it be? You decide. Ever walk into an electronics store and marvel at all the TVs in the TV section playing the say channel a few dozen times over? Which do you look at? Or do you take them all in? What kind of crazy person does that? Oh... just you when you're playing New Super Mario Bros. U. It's only on two screens though, so it's not that insane. Just odd. (Having the game play on two screens at once is awesome for giving the TV up to someone else and going somewhere else in your home to continue playing the game off of the screen controller.)
Let's travel to Nintendo Land, where the question of which screen to look at is more vexing. Nintendo Land is essentially a WIi U instruction manual masquerading as a game, or vice versa. All of its Mario/Zelda/Metroid/etc. "attractions" (read: mini-games with heft) teach you different ways to use the Wii U GamePad and Wii controllers. The Donkey Kong physics maze shows off the tilt sensor in the GamePad and also introduces the idea that a Wii U user might want to look at either a zoomed-in view of the game they are playing on the GamePad or a zoomed-out view on their TV. OR! The player might want to focus on the GamePad's zoomed view while someone else watches the more spectator-friendly view on the TV. Do you get how weird that is? You could be sitting in my living room (hi!) while I'm playing Nintendo Land's Donkey Kong game; you could be watching me play; but we might actually looking at two different screens. I could even have my back to you! Next thing you know, dogs will be marrying cats.
If two people play Nintendo Land's Metroid, Mario or Zelda games, the question of which screen to look at is solved. The game tells each player which screen to look at. Spectators should also look at the TV. (Respectively, the GamePad player is the person playing as the person in Samus' spaceship, Super Mario, or a Zelda archer.)
If you're playing the single-player Balloon Fight-inspired game (pictured up top), you're in for more of a brain-bender. The game's tutorial informs you that the trick to playing the game is to keep glancing back and forth between both screens. It turns out that this Balloon Fight attraction is terrific. Its high quality either excuses or even justifies this bit of instructional madness. The gist of Balloon Trip Breeze is that you swipe the stylus on the GamePad screen to create gusts of wind that will push a man tethered to some balloons through an airborne obstacle course. You can make these stylus swipes on the GamePad screen blindly, while keeping your view fixed on the TV.
If the floating man gets close to a floating enemy, you'll want to tap that floating enemy's balloons. You can see that enemy and its balloons on the TV, but popping them blindly? That's not happening. So you need to look down at the GamePad, where you see a zoomed-in view of the action. Pop the bad guy's balloons. Then look back up at the TV. Nintendo Land's F-Zero game is like this, too, but in reverse. You race around a track primarily while looking at the GamePad screen. The view on the TV is for spectators. But if you enter a tunnel? Then you need to look at the TV to steer through it. This is not hard so much as it is odd. It feels, basically, like Nintendo Land is teaching me new ways to control games. I sure hope my new skills are going to be put to use in some amazing Metroid or Ice Climbers game in the future!
I was showing Nintendo Land to a co-worker yesterday. I was running my Mii character through the theme-park plaza that serves as the game's attraction hub. He was watching the TV. I was watching the GamePad screen. The two screens were essentially showing the same thing. The problem for my co-worker and for his sense of not being nauseous, was that the camera angle in Nintendo Land's plaza is controlled by tilts of the GamePad. I thought I was holding the GamePad steady as I was running around to show my co-worker stuff. My poor colleague was just trying to not lose his mind. I didn't realise it, but my hands were shaking and jostling just enough -- I thought I was holding the GamePad steady. The view on the TV was in a perpetual earthquake. Sorry, beloved co-worker! I switched to looking at the TV and instinctively, held my hands in a more stable manner. Suddenly, we were both happier.
Back when the DS was coming out I interviewed a gaming executive about that system's oddities. Did he worry that people were going to be uncomfortable having to play a game that showed graphics on two screens instead of one? He told me he was not concerned. There are "mutant kids" who can pick this kind of thing up right away. The young are adaptable, he argued. People can learn this stuff. The unspoken final clause of that was "...if the games are good enough."
I can learn this Wii U. It's not that hard. It's just strange. It's different than playing a DS. It's different than glancing down to your phone to text someone while watching a TV show. It's a stranger scenario that compels you to look at one screen or both while both play the same game. It's a whole new thing to care about how people in the room can spectate. The two Wii U launch games I've played are full of prompts that tell you where to look. It's clear that Nintendo's designers know they're training us to do some new things. I feel a little like a test subject, a little like a pioneer. I like it, even if it feels a bit nuts.
Slowly, I'm learning where -- and how -- to look.