Microsoft talked momentum and platform exclusives, and Sony offered up an apology and a new PSP handheld. But the star of this year's E3 video game conference was Nintendo, which on Tuesday unveiled an HD successor to the Wii that will deliver a 6" secondary screen to hand controllers and unleash a new innovative wave of gameplay.
The new console, called the Wii U, will ship sometime next year, Nintendo said, and be compatible with existing Wii hardware and software. But the big news is the new stuff, and the somewhat surprising and fun ways in which Nintendo continues to drive gaming in new and exciting directions.
The only non-shocker, perhaps, is that the Wii U will finally support HD. This is 1080p HD no less, which compares quite favorably with the cartoonish standard-definition video that characterized the first Wii. But beyond that, things get weird.
First, every Wii U controller will have an integrated 6" LCD touch screen, which will be driven by the console (and not an internal processor) and offer a display that differs from that on the TV. This allows multiple gamers to participate in the same game but see different things on different screens, opening up new interactive possibilities. And for solo gaming, the second screen can be used to display maps and other sub-displays. Perhaps as intriguing, games can offer the player the opportunity to choose what he or she sees on each screen.
Some of the Wii U demos at Nintendo's E3 press conference were mesmerizing, even though none of them represented finished games. In one, the player "threw" a throwing star from the controller's touch screen and the object subsequently appeared on the main HDTV, seeming to have flown through the air. In another, the controller was physically held up like a shield as arrows shot by another player appeared to embed in the back of that virtual shield onscreen.
"Wii U is a system we will all enjoy together but also one that's tailor-made for you," said Nintendo America President Reggie Fils-Aime at E3. "Is it unique, unifying, maybe even utopian? The answer is also yes to all of this. It's different from anything you've played before. It's infinitely complex and yet perfectly simple at the same time. It can change the way you game personally, and it can change the way you interact with family and friends."
Normally, this kind of language can be seen for the hyperbole it is, but E3 press attendees routinely expressed their admiration of the new Nintendo console. Aside from the sheer brilliance of the design, many lauded the unique possibilities afforded by the small screen, including the ability of gamers to play certain games on just the controller's screen while other family members watched TV normally on the living room HDTV to which the Wii U is attached.
Oddly, investors appeared skittish at Nintendo's new direction, which some described as too focused on hardware and, in a first for the company, too focused on the hardcore gamers who usually lean towards the Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3. Shares in Nintendo slumped to their lowest level since 2006, before the original Wii launched.
But what's not to like? The Wii U controller features many of the hardware capabilities we now associate with smartphones or the iPad, including an accelerometer, gyroscope, touchscreen, and a camera that enables video calling. And Nintendo's dedicated developer base will no doubt create unique and unexpected games that will be lapped up by the company's over-eager fans. This looks like a huge win to me.
There's no word yet on pricing or exact timing, but Nintendo indicated that the Wii U would enter the market between April and December 2012. I expect pricing to start at $299 or less, as anything higher would compare unfavorably with the competition.