It's amazing, that in this age of technological wonders, with all the promise inherent to the advent of the next generation of video game consoles, that innovation can not only be boring, but downright disappointing.
Enter Nintendo's new Wii U.
After lackluster offerings from competitors Microsoft and Sony (voice-activated Kinect augmentations? PlayStation Network upgrades?), the Electronic Entertainment Expo in L.A. was Nintendo's to steal on Tuesday. Instead, it squandered the opportunity with its new box, which focused so much on its tablet-inspired controller it was confusing as to whether the Kyoto company actually had created a new machine or just another peripheral.
The specs were light, for the most part. We know the Wii U features backward-compatibility with Wii software and devices, it emphasizes downloadable content, it will support HD gaming and fosters a vision at Nintendo of catering more to a hardcore audience. Looking at that recipe, it's hard to get excited, because that's the same thing competitors (and Nintendo's own Wii) have done since 2005.
Not that the Wii U doesn't have its selling points: The giant controller boasts a 6.2-inch touchscreen, has myriad buttons more resembling a traditional controller (eliminating some of the whining we've all done about the Wiimote, which remains usable on the new box) and has a built-in rumble feature. The system also features motion controls courtesy of a gyroscope, voice activation via microphone, a camera for video chat and supports glasses-free 3D gaming, a la the 3DS handheld, Nintendo president Satoru Iwata confirmed.
The problem comes when you realize that despite Iwata calling it a "new structure for home entertainment," Wii U really looks like more of the same. The Wii and PlayStation's Move already do motion control. The 3Ds and PSP already do handheld gaming (Wii U doesn't even really do that — it simply allows you to keep playing on your controller if someone changes the TV channel). And both PS3 and Xbox 360 already foster robust online gaming communities full of hardcore players playing hardcore games.
If anything, this is the Wii Nintendo should have built in the first place — the two will coexist for now — and Iwata all but admitted as much.
"When Nintendo decided to adopt the second screen on the new controller, it was before society started talking about tablets, with the launch of the iPad," he told Forbes on Tuesday. "Now we have an easier time trying to explain what the new console can do, since people are already familiar with tablets." In other words, it took them so long to make it work, the world passed them by in the interim.
Luckily for Nintendo, Microsoft and Sony put up so little in the way of a fight at E3, the Wii U seems like blockbuster news in comparison. Sony unveiled its new PlayStation Vita handheld (another odd name), which comes across as a boilerplate upgrade to its PSP, and Microsoft's big announcement beyond YouTube and Bing-by-voice was a bunch of games we knew were coming, plus Modern Warfare 3 and Halo 4 — two releases possibly more anticipated than sequels for Nintendo franchise counterparts.
I'm just old enough to recall the Great Video Game Crash of 1983, when audiences weary from subpar products in a flooded market suddenly became bored and shoved consoles, including my own Atari 5200, under beds across America. Gamers are much more product-savvy these days, but that doesn't change the fact that the bulk of Wii titles are shovelware tied to the motion-control gimmick. This new console seems drearily familiar.
Looking at the Wii U, as it touts a hands-free golf game in which gamers place the controller on the ground so they can simulate a swing, it doesn't seem as if Nintendo truly has much new to offer the 86 million Wii owners. Given the history of that ubiquitous box, I doubt they will for this one, either.
It's a shame, because the eighth generation of home consoles deserves better. Or at least, something that's truly new.
— Joshua Gillin writes about video games and entertainment news for tbt*. Feel free to challenge his opinions at firstname.lastname@example.org.