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Nintendo Wii U: What you need to know

wii-u-press-conference

Nintendo’s upcoming console has had a lot of rumored names and codenames. Some call it Project Cafe; some call it Wii 2; others believed it might have a simple name: “Nintendo.” However, we’ve now learned its true name: Wii U. The Wii U is Nintendo’s next generation videogame console, a true successor to the Nintendo Wii. This makes it Nintendo’s sixth home gaming console since 1985 when it launched the NES.

Describing the system during Nintendo’s E3 2011 pre-show conference, Nintendo Global President Satoru Iwata emphasized that it intended to make a console that was for “we and you,” where the ‘we’ refers to the broad casual gaming audience that the Wii attracted and ‘you’ points toward hardcore gamers, who have largely stayed away from Wii due to its lack of realistic HD graphics, the oddness of its wand-like motion controller, and lack of third party game support from major publishers. Iwata called the system “Infinitely complex and perfectly simple at the same time” and “a system we will all enjoy together, but that is especially tailored for you [hardcore gamers].”

Below we’ve compiled a list of topics that should explain everything we know about the Wii U (more pictures here).

Article updates:

  • Update 6/22/2011: Miyamoto confirms Wii U will be more powerful than PS3/Xbox .
  • Update 6/16/2011: Rewritten with more info and news of Nintendo’s online plans.
  • Update 6/8/2011: Added links to recent articles written about the Wii U controller.

The Wii U is a new console with a new touchscreen controller

Nintendo Wii U controller tvSo what is the Wii U? Well, its a new console and a new controller. The actual console looks a lot like the Wii. It’s white, similarly sized, and has that familiar blue light emitting from its disc drive. Aside from some rounded edges and a longer footprint, one might actually mistake it for a Wii. Until they see the controller.

The Wii U controller has all of the gyroscopic and accelerometer capabilities of the Wii Remote, but Nintendo has abandoned the one-handed design that helped make Wii such a success. The new controller has a large 6.2-inch resistive touchscreen (with stylus) on it, front and rear cameras, a microphone, speakers, and vibration. Those features may be cool to casual gamers, but hardcore gamers (the U) will be happy that the Wii U controller is also very similar to the PS3 and Xbox controllers. It has two shoulder buttons, two trigger buttons, a directional pad, two control sticks, four face buttons (ABXY), a power button, a home menu button, and start/select. If you’re wondering why it has so many buttons, Nintendo has made it clear: it wants hardcore game series like Assassin’s Creed and Bioshock on its system right alongside Wii Sports and Super Mario Bros.

“You want what you’ve always wanted, but you want something new,” explained Nintendo of America President Reginald Fils-Aime. “You want comfortable and you want surprise. Contradictions? No problem. They come with the territory. Is it fair to ask or possible to deliver something for everyone?” Nintendo, he claims, is aiming to satisfy everyone.

>> Our hands-on with the Wii U motion controller

A second screen for your games

Nintendo showed off eight demos on the E3 2011 show floor, most of which took advantage of the console’s second screen in different ways. A Legend of Zelda demo used the extra screen for inventory, while several other multiplayer demos showed how the Wii U touchscreen can be used in conjunction with up to four Wii Remotes in different “pass the controller” type games.

Other new ways to combine the screen of the controller with the TV were shown but not demonstrated. These include using it as a gun sight, setting the controller on a table and using it as a multiplayer board game, and setting the touchscreen on the ground and using it as a virtual tee and ball for a game of golf (you swing with a Wii Remote). You can even make video calls with it, says Nintendo. The demos were highly impressive, but we still have a lot of questions.

Wii U Controller Mario

Finally, for games that enable the feature, with a push of a button, you can switch your game from your TV straight to your controller and play games without a TV at all–a useful feature if your girlfriend or parents would like to watch something on the big TV, but you aren’t ready to stop playing. Imagine playing Wii Fit without having to turn on your TV at all.

>> Our hands-on with Nintendo’s Wii U game demos

One Wii U controller, many Wii Remotes

Satoru Iwata has confirmed our early guess that the Wii U only supports one touchscreen controller, but he has not elaborated as to why this is the case, instead hinting that the high cost of the controller or limits to its streaming technology could be to blame (we speculate a new controller could cost in upwards of $100). In any case, the Wii U will come with a single controller and Nintendo currently has no plans to sell extra controllers separately. Having said that, the Wii U is not a game system for the lonely. It is fully compatible with Wii controllers and the Wii Balance Board, supporting as many as four Wii Remotes in addition to the Wii U controller. That makes Wii U the first system that can technically support five players at a time.

Wii U Controller

We’re hoping that Nintendo changes its stance and chooses to support more than one Wii U controller, especially if it hopes to target hardcore games, which often need two controllers for split screen or multiplayer gameplay. Without multiple controller support, many of the crazy possibilities Nintendo has opened up with the Wii U may not be possible.

It’s more powerful than a PS3

While Nintendo used to boast about the specs of its systems–the Nintendo 64 was named 64 for a reason–it has been shy about specs for the last decade or so, instead emphasizing new hardware features and possibilities. We know that the Wii U is capable of outputting HD graphics, has an IBM processor, and has an AMD graphics card.

Nintendo Wii U Console

IBM confirmed that the system’s processor is multi-core and based on the same tech that was in the computer that ran Watson, an AI program that won Jeopardy some months back. It also appears that the console will use a last-generation ATI Radeon graphics processor and support DirectX 10.1 (AMD owns the ATI brand). However, though its not top of the line, the processing power of the Wii U should be above that of the half-decade old PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. One analyst estimates it’s as much as 50 percent more powerful.

In an interview, Nintendo Senior Managing Director Shigeru Miyamoto confirmed that the Wii U will indeed be more powerful than the Xbox 360 and PS3, but was reserved when asked exactly how much more powerful, explaining that Nintendo is trying to do it all here, but some sacrifices in power will have to be made to accommodate the expensive price of the touchscreen controller. “We’re very sensitive, of course, to trying to do all of this at an appropriate price,” explained Miyamoto. “So I don’t know that we would be able to sit here and say that it’s going to necessarily dramatically outperform the systems that are out now. It’s part of the balance that we strike in terms of trying to find entertainment that is new and unique.”

According to the official fact sheet, the system will have built in flash memory, but also support SD card external storage. This is in line with the rumor we heard a few weeks back that the system will have 8GB of internal flash storage. In an interview with investors, Satoru Iwata also confirmed that the new console will not use DVD or Blu-Ray discs. Nintendo will instead have its own proprietary disc format, which may hold 25GB of data each. It does have a disc drive, it appears.

The image above was taken during E3 and shows some of the Wii U’s cooling vents, two USB ports, the three standard Wii ports, and an HDMI port, proving its HD capabilities. Currently, it appears that the system is intended to sit flat, much like a DVD player, though Nintendo may invest in a stand before launch. It’s also apparent that the unit is a bit longer than the Wii.

Games are already in development

In a surprise move, Nintendo showed off several hardcore games to cap off its E3 Wii U unveiling. In a highlight reel of gameplay footage (though the footage was from PS3 versions of the games), the following games were unveiled for the Wii U.

EA also took the stage to pledge much stronger support for Wii U and a strengthened relationship with Nintendo, though it did not make any specific game announcements.

Iwata also confirmed that a version of Super Smash Bros. is being co-developed for the Wii U and 3DS and that both versions will be able to interact together in some fashion. His wording implied that 3DS players will be able to face off against those playing on a Wii U.

Wii U Zelda

Finally, Fils-Aime also made a point of introducing Lego City Stories as a Wii U title during the E3 press conference, revealing that more than half of the 60+ million Lego game sales have been sold on Nintendo systems. The new game will feature a whole city full of Lego vehicles, but no in-game footage was shown.

Being a Nintendo console, we can expect versions of Mario and Zelda to be in development. At its booth, Nintendo showed off a more detailed version of a Ghoma boss battle from Zelda: Twilight Princess, but the demo was non-interactive.

>> Will third parties “get” the Wii U?

It will have a “flexible” online system

We now know that Wii U will have an online network and that it will be different from the Wii, but we don’t know Nintendo’s full plans yet.

Speaking to investors at E3, President Satoru Iwata was quite vague about Nintendo’s online plans, but hinted at a less structured online platform than Microsoft’s Xbox Live and Sony’s PlayStation Network (PSN), where publishers could better create their own unique experiences.

“I think that Nintendo’s past console business has often included this idea of a set and fixed online structure,” said Iwata. “So, I think that, going forward, the question is really to what degree Nintendo can create a more flexible system for its consoles. And, what we found at this point is that, as we discuss the online structure with different publishers, the things that the different publishers want to do are in fact seemingly rather different. Our current direction is how we can take the desires of the third parties and create a system that’s flexible enough to enable them to do the types of things that they might want to do.”

He also confirmed that capabilities like VOIP, video chat, and connectivity to social networks like Facebook and Twitter are also in the works, but it’s going to be up to developers how to use them. So far we haven’t heard much mention of Friend Codes, which makes us happy.

It’s coming in 2012

Nintendo has unveiled the Wii U, but its debut has left us with more questions than answers. We expect to continue to learn more about the system in the coming months, but full details and playable games may not come until the 2012 Game Developer’s Conference in February or E3 2012 next June. Hopefully we’ll have a better idea of Nintendo’s online plans by then as well. As for the actual release of the console, we did think it would hit shelves in Nov. 2012, because that’s when the Wii and GameCube launched, but recent rumors suggest a spring or summer 2012 launch.

We will continue to update this article with hands-on links and new information as we learn more about the Wii U.