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Tech Analysis: Nintendo Wii U

Digital Foundry on the make-up of the new console and its E3 demos.

Six weeks before E3, Nintendo confirmed the existence of its next-gen console, Project Cafe, and the rumour-mill engaged at full pelt in leaking out an almost complete technical specification of the new console. A few red herrings aside, the information turned out to be eerily accurate in most key respects: the machine would have an IBM CPU, a graphics core from AMD and the centrepiece of the experience would be a brand new joypad controller, integrating a 6.2" touchscreen.

What was missing from the rumours and speculation was the key ingredient: the core concept behind the design - the special x-factor that would elevate this from a collection of familiar-sounding tech into a distinctive, must-have, next-generation Nintendo console.

The message from the platform holder at E3 was all about the controller. The introduction video kicked off by showing gameplay on an HDTV being transferred onto the tablet/joypad hybrid, then showed various other interesting concepts - touchscreen sketching using the stylus, remote play of simple games, the use of the controller as a pointing device with the player "throwing" stars at the screen and even showed the use of the tablet's camera with a videochat concept that looked very similar indeed to Apple's Facetime.

The machine gained a name: Wii U, and we learned that it could run all original Wii titles and is compatible with all existing peripherals. Existing Wii Remote Plus controllers were even shown used in split-screen multiplayer concept demos, in concert with the tablet pad.

In this presentation, a bunch of Nintendo staff demonstrate the Wii U concept demos shown at E3, demonstrating the versatility of the controller.

The Wii U's controller is both technologically innovative and at the same time rather unsophisticated. On the one hand, the notion of a zero latency link between the controller and the screen is a hugely compelling proposition that has only just begun to be explored on PC, but on the other hand, the screen is bigger than PlayStation Vita's but seemingly runs with a lower native resolution. The touchscreen itself lacks multi-touch functionality; it's also resistive in nature compared to the capacitive spec of the iPad and most modern smartphones, requiring the use of a stylus for precision interaction.

Pre-E3 rumours on the Wii U spec proved to be eerily accurate, but what was missing was the core concept that would elevate this from familiar-sounding tech into a must-have next generation console.

In common with many of the more controversial elements of the Wii U spec, even the screen resolution has not been officially confirmed. However, a resistive 6.2-inch widescreen display sounds very much like the kinds of LCD screen utilised on satnav systems, so an 800x480 resolution with slightly rectangular pixels giving a 16:9 aspect ratio seems plausible and would tie-in with Nintendo's known modus operandi in sourcing off-the-shelf components and repurposing them in innovative ways.

Bearing in mind that the controller is the centrepiece of the Wii U offering, the overall spec of the screen does seem a little underwhelming, particularly when the demonstration video shown to E3 delegates even included a spot of web-browsing - a job ideally suited to a capacitive screen. A touchscreen-based keyboard is also going to be quite uncomfortable based on resistive technology - another factor counting against it as a browsing device.

There are other drawbacks too. If you look at the way the Windows 8 interface operates (or indeed a whole host of iOS games) with the emphasis on gestures and interaction with objects via multi-touch, it's clear that there are a great many gameplay opportunities here that Wii U will not be able to emulate. In this sense, Nintendo will be relying on the traditional joypad-style controls to make the difference.

Nintendo's initial introduction video for the Wii U remains the only direct feed source available for the Zelda HD Experience demo, and also showcases the wide ranging plans the platform holder has for the controller.

The platform holder's focus has been on the potential of new gaming ideas based on the new controller, ranging from the obvious - RPG-style inventory screens on the touchscreen, gameplay on HDTV - to the rather more ingenious. Brand new multiplayer concepts such as "hide and seek" style gameplay were demonstrated where the one player has a private view using the touchscreen, while Wii Remote-toting players use the main display only.

The multiplayer aspects are certainly intriguing ideas, but we also see another limitation here - as of right now, only one of the touchscreen controllers is supported. Everyone else has to use a traditional Wii Remote Plus instead. This means that obvious applications for the technology (for example, privately choosing plays in Madden) won't work for two players gaming in the same room.

There are other challenges in pursuing a multi-screen approach to gameplay too. It's safe to say that the player's focus can only really be concentrated on a single-screen at a time, and switching focus in a fast-paced game is going to be something that could only be handled with very careful design. There's also the basic reality of RAM: even if we assume that the touchscreen will be handling very basic 3D rendering (or none at all), the Wii U is still going to require a set amount of memory put aside to deal with the multi-screen set-up.

A curious observation we made at E3 concerned the Wii U's use of video transmission technology to switch gameplay from the HDTV to the touchscreen. Nintendo's display featured both screen outputs running on external monitors. At several points we witnessed the transition of gameplay from the HD display to the secondary monitor, and noted that the images were being re-rendered at the lower native res as opposed to being downscaled. Interestingly, this could lead to higher frame-rates on certain games as the fill-rate requirement drops immensely moving from 720p down to 480p.

Looking at the positives, Nintendo has always made excellent game controllers with great ergonomics, and in terms of the size and shape of the Wii U tablet/pad, it's remarkably light and easy to use. Regardless of the provenance or resolution of the 6.2-inch display, picture quality looks good and while there is a clear resolution deficit up against the iOS Retina Display amongst others, the image is bright and sharp.

Whatever the reservations about the limits of the controller's technology, there's no doubt that in hand, the pad feels new and different, and while not quite as revolutionary as the Wii Remote was in its day, there's a feeling that the raw tools are there to create gameplay opportunities that are fresh and different, backed up by the same level of visuals we see on the current generation of HD consoles. And there's something extremely cool about the concept of disengaging from the lounge display and gaming remotely - let's just hope that there's a useful amount of range and decent battery life.

Richard Leadbetter avatar
Richard Leadbetter: Rich has been a games journalist since the days of 16-bit and specialises in technical analysis. He's commonly known around Eurogamer as the Blacksmith of the Future.