This year’s E3 may have cemented Nintendo’s position as a genuine innovator of gameplay through technology. The most exciting thing about the Wii U (the big hardware story of the show) is that it is not just another console with some better graphics playing catchup to other consoles. In fact, the Wii U is shaping up to rival Nintendo’s own history-making gamechanger six years ago with the Wii, again because of its potential to revolutionise gameplay through motion and pretty much create a market for social gaming. I’m trying not to sound too enthusiastic, but when I think of the experience of playing some of the games I tried at E3 it’s difficult to not get excited.
When Nintendo coins a new term for a gameplay type we know that something interesting is going on. Company reps all use the phrase “asymmetrical gameplay” to describe the new potential of this technology, and they seem to be doing more than reading it off a script, because everyone lived up the spirit of it. To help understand what it means it’s worth revisiting the current state of play. We’re all very used to the idea of multiplayer in both cooperative and competitive modes, whether online or splitscreen. This is “symmetrical gameplay”, whereby all players are in the same space, with the same objectives, and headed towards the same goals, even if they are in opposite directions – i.e., they are competing. Now this is yesterday’s story.
The Wii U features the four-player Nunchuk system that we know and (perhaps) love from the Wii, and supplements it with a game controller with its own touchscreen and full range of controls, including two analogue sticks and the standard console button configurations (d-pad etc.). The key is that the player with the Wii U GamePad can play on a different screen, in a completely different direction, with or against the other players. A simple example is a Zelda minigame from Nintendo Land: two players use the nunchuks in a third-person perspective to melee battle enemies, while the GamePad is used for ranged attacks and can be moved around in real space to aim. This is really only a hint of the possibilities though.
The real fun started to be had at, of all things, Animal Crossing: Sweet Day; I honestly never thought I’d like Animal Crossing this much. The simple premise is that the Wii U GamePad is used to separately control two beasties that pursue the other four with a knife and fork across a map, which zooms out when the two get further apart. The four nunchuk controllers direct the hapless little things on 4-way splitscreen towards trees which unlock fruit, 50 of which have to be collected before the creatures are “caught” by the central player.
It’s kind of like multiplayer Pac-man in reverse, and the four players need to communicate where the enemies are to escape, and share out the fruit lest one become too slow. The main player, on the other hand, needs to use tactics (a pincer movement works well) to trap the other players. Snaps to the Nintendo staff who made the whole experience as much fun as it could possibly be: this was obviously part of the party line. Luigi’s Ghost Mansion has a similar mechanic, although the four players are unable to see the main player until they get very close. Obviously, these are simple applications of the technology but they demonstrate the potential for other titles.
This potential became much more evident in the much-touted ZombiU, which was high on my to-do list. I was keen to see how the Wii U would work in a single player survival horror mode, which is what the Nintendo press conference seemed to indicate. However, I was surprised to see two-player multiplayer on offer, and indeed pleasantly surprised to experience an excellent example of “asymmetrical gameplay”. It was nice to step into the shoes of a zombie horde for once.
In multiplayer ZombiU, one player uses a Wii U Pro Controller that looks and feels much like – ahem – an Xbox controller. This side of it is a pretty standard objectives-based zombie survival FPS, with capture the flag, a pistol, shotgun, crossbow, deployable turret, and limited items and ammunition. What is different is that the main player plays as the Zombie horde, and has a view of the whole map on the game controller that can be snapped to the position of the player at any time (in contrast, the “survivor” has no map and no idea where the zombies are coming from, and one-way screen cheating is probably an unintended possibility). The “infected” player needs to deploy different zombie types who mindlessly pursue their objective to capture the flags and entrap the survivor. This is something like Zombie Master, a Half-Life 2 mod that has a small cult following. This simple notion of playing competitively but also against the grain of each other’s gameplay is what the Wii U is all about. It was very fresh and a great deal of fun.
Long descriptions aside, while the games currently on offer may look a little bit limited, it is clear that that the Wii U has enormous potential that may be tapped by the right games. I should curb my enthusiasm because we will need to see how the software lineup develops, but I am cautiously hopeful that Nintendo has created another gamechanger. The key here is gameplay innovation through technological development in the right hands. There are a good number of third-party developers (Warner Bros., Ubisoft) who are extending the potential of the new console beyond the Nintendo core franchises with new entries (Batman, Assassin’s Creed), although there will, of course, be more Mario. I for one have never seriously considered buying a Wii product, but that has certainly changed now that Nintendo finally seems to be reaching out to my gaming preferences.
Chad Habel likes long walks on an irradiated beach, and surviving deadly test chambers. His favourite dish is hadouken stirfry, and his Achilles Heel is gibbing headshots. In an alternate reality he works at a University.