Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Why a PS3 game reminded me the Wii U may just be a mega-success

I think it’s safe to say the Wii U’s launch in the US has been mired with controversy. From the massive day one update, to long load times, to the console’s big exclusive releases receiving mixed scores, Nintendo’s next generation of hardware has not had the happiest first 24 hours in existence.

It’s easy to get caught up in that negativity. Indeed, there seems to be a portion of the gaming community that are taking a perverse joy in the console’s failures. And, yes, there are legitimate criticisms of the console that need to be resolved before it has a hope of replicating the success of the original Wii.

There is a message that seems to be lost amongst all this criticism though, and it’s one that I feel is important to point out because it means that ultimately the Wii U has more than a fighting chance in the market – it’s likely to be a successful venture for Nintendo. That message is that this console is damned fun to play, and just as crucially it’s fun for significantly different reasons that Sony and Microsoft consoles are fun to play. Nintendo would have fallen on its sword to try and do what its rivals are doing. It hasn't though, and the different focus of the Wii U should see it occupy a very specific, and quite lucrative, niche.

The Wii U doesn’t launch here in Australia for another ten days, but a couple of local Digitally Downloaded folks have had the opportunity to play it either at a recent gaming expo, and again at a pop-up shop “experience” that Nintendo has set up in Sydney. At the bottom of this piece you can read the impressions of Digitally Downloaded’s Sam, and they’re impressions I completely agree with.

Before we get to that though, I’m going to tell a little story that explains where I think the appeal – and ultimate success – of Nintendo’s Wii U lies. Over the past few weeks I’ve been playing a lot of Dead or Alive 5 on the PlayStation 3. After originally playing the single player game enough to run a review of it I largely left it alone. It’s a good game, but as a single player experience it is, like most fighting games, limited.

But then my wife finally got around to buying a PS3 controller of her own, and we have since sunk dozens of hours into the local multiplayer of this game. It’s simply more fun than online multiplayer. Knowing the person that you’re playing with means it’s far less likely you’re going to get offensive slurs thrown your way. Competing with someone sitting right next to you is just generally a lot more fun.

In short, Dead or Alive 5 was a spectacular reminder of just how important local multiplayer can be to the experience of a game. A game that is of middling value becomes spectacular when another person with a controller walks into the room.

Now, consider this: the Wii U is built almost entirely around the local multiplayer experience.

Yes, the ports of games like Mass Effect 3 or Assassin’s Creed 3 are not as spectacular as we might have liked. Yes, the GamePad doesn’t add a whole lot to the experience of those games, or the single-player game in general. And yes, Zombie U’s single player may well be a limited experience.

But even some reviews that slam Zombie U’s single player admit the local multiplayer is a lot of fun. The NintendoLand minigames are a riot when there is five people playing together. The New Super Mario Brothers Wii U is a very traditional Mario platformer, and that’s going to disappoint a few people. In multiplayer though? It’s a great time, and the GamePad support means that even the most inexperienced gamer can join in to this game and have a good time.

We often forget that the real strength of the Wii was that it brought families together. The likes of Just Dance, Super Smash Brothers and Wii Sports were almost universally dull games in single player, and the online options for most Wii games was really poor. Because of those two factors, the console got a reputation for being a failure amongst serious gamers. It wasn’t, because it was the best console, bar none, for local multiplayer.

Now my wife and I can play local multiplayer with the PS3, we’ve quickly come to realise how limited it is for that function. There’s the fighting games, and they’re great. There’s also a couple of Warriors games that we both like (such as Warriors Orochi 3). But there just are not that many local multiplayer games that are high-quality, and have an appeal universal enough that both my wife and I – two very different people with very different tastes in games – can sit down and enjoy together. We still play more Wii games together, in fact, because that console has a broader range of neutral, or universally appealing local multiplayer games.

So, the Wii U. Yes, it’s going to face some market challenges such as its price, and I strongly suspect that the nature of Nintendo’s architecture and design philosophy means that the console will not convert many gamers that were dissatisfied with the Wii.

But, once it hits the right price point, and once Nintendo’s marketing machine breaks into the family environment? Yes, I do think the Wii U will again bring families together for gaming sessions, and I do believe that the Wii U will be another long-term success for Nintendo.

We all just need to remind ourselves of what Nintendo does well, and stop lambasting it for failures that will ultimately not affect its sales for anyone but the N4G crowd.

Wii U Preview

As we do have to wait until November 30 for the first Digitally Downloaded staff to get their hands on the Wii U, take Sam M’s following in-depth impressions on the experience of the Wii U as our pre-review review:

Last Thursday, Matt and myself were invited to play Nintendo’s newest console, the Wii U. There was quite a lot on offer with servings of Mario and NintendoLand, but also offered a few third party titles including Darksiders 2 and Assassin's Creed 3.

But first, the tablet itself. It does feel very light in your hands, which is surprising. The main problem I had with the controller is that it feels spread out. When holding any of the controllers used with the current systems, I can reach everything without having to move my hand. They’re accessible. Even on the 3DS, I can touch the touch screen without having to move my hands. But the Wii U, given its size, requires too much activity for my hands to be able to cover its entire real-estate.

I hate saying that I don’t like playing with the GamePad though, because ergonomics aside playing with it is so much fun. The code that we played NintendoLand on had four multiplayer games on offer; Metroid Blast, Mario Chase, Luigi's Ghost Mansion, and Animal Crossing: Sweet Day. I didn’t get to try out Animal Crossing, but the other three are a lot of fun.

Metroid is an absolute blast. Four players work together to attack the gunship, which is controlled by the gamepad. The controls feel like they were taken out of a Metroid game. Both Luigi’s Ghost Mansion and Mario Chase are also a blast to play. What makes all of these games so fun is how all the players work together against the gamepad player. It’s more prominent in Luigi and Mario, as there are visual and rumble cues you can use to communicate with your allies to your advantage. In Metroid Blast, the design doesn’t feel like there are many visual landmarks, so it’s normally a case of every man for themselves, scan the skies and shoot.

Mario is still Mario. New Super Mario Bros. U brings the same hectic nature that was found in the Wii game. The gamepad can be used in two ways to both assist and hinder. It would be great for young players who aren’t so experienced with the platforming aspects of Mario, and still want to be part of the adventure, but it can also be used to block jumps, sending your friends (or foes) plummeting to their deaths. Mario looks very nice in HD, and this looks to be very promising.

Assassin's Creed 3 looks and feels very nice but the demo I played didn’t make great use of the touchpad, rather, it showed the same information available to me that was already available on the screen. Darksiders 2 uses the gamepad as an inventory management, which allows for real-time management. I was playing Darksiders 2 in standard definition, according to my booth man, and it still looked really clear and crisp. The same can’t be said for the gamepad that the game was streaming to, though. Because the screen is so small the text is near impossible to read.

I’m really looking forward to seeing what the Wii U will do for multiplayer. We already saw a big change in the way families play games after the Wii, and I don’t think it will be any different this time round. The single player experiences have yet to deviate from what I can pick up on the console equivalents though, and I don’t think we will see some revolutionary developments in that area for quite some time, that is, until Nintendo steps in to show us all how it’s done.
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