Hands-on with the Wii U at CES


Unfortunately, if you are looking for details on the Wii U–things like when it is due out, how much it will cost, what launch titles will be available, what hardware it will pack, whether or not it will allow two of the tablet controllers on one system, or even what colors the system may ship in–you are out of luck for now.

But just because the info is scarce doesn’t mean that Nintendo and the Wii U are shying away from the light of the public. Although there was nothing new to unveil, I was given the opportunity to go hands-on with the Wii U in a private room at CES, away from my 100,000+ closest friends in attendance at the convention.

It is one thing to see the new console on display and maybe even play it in a crowd, but it is another to actually have a few quiet moments to stare longingly into its digital eyes.

Although the Wii U is going to feature souped-up stats (that are still under wraps, but if the current reports are to be believed it will likely be one and a half times as powerful as the Xbox 360 and PS3) and HD graphics reaching 1080i and 1080p, the emphasis is once again on fun, just as it was with the Wii. The name “Wii U” was chosen with care. The name “Wii” was meant to conjure images of community. The name Wii is an obvious allusion to “we,” meaning the system is for everyone. The new title includes the “U” to signify that it will still be for everyone, hence the “Wii,” but there will also be an emphasis for games for more hardcore gamers—hence the “U”—as in the console is for “we” and “you.”

So far, what we do know about the Wii U is mostly about the physical characteristics of the system. It will measure 5.3” x .09” x 9”, none of which will likely have any impact whatsoever on the experience. Perhaps there will be a few people that are overjoyed to know that the console will fit in their 5.4” x .10 x 10” cabinet, but they will likely be in the minority. The Wii U will support HDMI connections, as well as S-Video and composite cables.

As for the media itself, Nintendo is going to be using a proprietary technology for the discs. The discs will rival blu-ray in capacity, but the Wii U will not support the blu-ray format. It will, however, feature backwards compatibility and play Wii discs.

All previous Wii peripherals will also work on the Wii U. There is still a question of whether or not the Wiii U will allow multiple tablet controllers on each system, but all the examples have shown only one tablet controller on a system, along with four current Wii controllers. The Wii U will recognize up to four Wii Remotes, including the original controllers, the motion controllers, and even more specific peripherals like the Wii Balance Board.

The Wii U will also have internal flash memory, hard drive storage that can be expanded, and the ability to add SD and USB memory. The CPU will be an IBM Power-based multi-core processor, and the GPU will feature an AMD Radon-based HD chip.

So there you have the Wii U’s specs—or at least what we know of them so far. They are the same specs that were announced at E3, and the same specs that have been brutally scrutinized over the months. They can paint a very rough idea of what the Wii U is, but what it can’t do is tell you what it is like to play.

The demos I was shown were the same that debuted at E3. One was a tag-like game where the person with the tablet was “it, while the other players tried to chase him or her and tackle them in the allotted time. The person that held the tablet used the device as both a screen and a controller, and had a split-screen to look at—one side showed a general map, while the other showed an overhead view.

The second demo was a battle-based game where one player used the tablet to control a spaceship to attack the other players, while the others attempt to shoot at it from the ground level.

While both demos were available at E3, the experience is different in a quiet room. The push seems to be for a party-like offering that should appeal to more experienced gamers than some of the previous Wii-party games that anyone could pick up and play.

The controller features dual analog sticks, four shoulder buttons, four standard buttons, a touchscreen, an on-board gyroscope, 2 built-in speakers, and a front facing camera–all of which was known months ago. What is harder to tell from the press releases is the feel of the controller. Despite its bulky size, the controller fits well in your hands. It is light weight, and the screen is big enough to give you plenty of display to work with.

The gyro works well, and movement will factor into the controls. Of course, it is still months away from release, which means it is months away from seeing how developers incorporate the hardware into their software and what new and creative ways they think of to use the new controller.

One example I was shown was a live-action video of a car driving down the streets of Tokyo. While the display image was an HD look at the city, the tablet controller showed the same image, but as you physically moved it in a circle, the tablet was able to change the POV of the image without the “car” slowing down. It offered a full sphere of vision that could zoom in and out on any detail from any angle as the main video continued to display a front moving image.

This CES Nintendo had very little to announce, but it wanted to make sure that it isn’t being forgotten as it ramps up toward the official announcements that will happen at E3. This June should answer the long standing questions about Nintendo’s new console, including specs, pricing and availability (my guess is $250 in November, but that is just a guess). For now though, there is still plenty to be excited about.

 We weren’t allowed to have cameras behind closed doors, but here’s the original Wii U teaser from Nintendo to give you an idea what it’s all about.

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