Updated Sunday, November 18, 2012 at 11:16 PM
With Sunday’s launch of the Wii U, Nintendo is once again disrupting the rec room with an unusual new machine designed to advance the notion of video entertainment.
Exploring its capabilities will keep buyers and game developers engaged for years.
The Wii U’s signature feature is its GamePad controller, a wireless tablet with a 6.2-inch touch screen flanked by buttons and joysticks.
Having this second screen can add a fun new dimension to games.
But after trying the console with a stack of launch titles over the past week, I think it will take time for some developers to figure out the right mix of what to display on the TV and the auxiliary screen.
In the meantime, the Wii U is still a nice option for people looking for a high-definition game console that will appeal to a broad range of players. Nintendo gave the system enough horsepower to run most premier games, whether or not they take full advantage of the GamePad.
The Wii U starts at $300 for a white model with 8 gigabyte of storage. A $350 deluxe version has 32 gigabytes of storage and comes with “Nintendo Land,” a collection of a dozen starter games.
All versions of the Wii U support 1080p video, which finally gives Nintendo parity with Microsoft’s Xbox 360 and Sony’s PlayStation 3. There are 29 packaged Wii U games available at launch, including top-tier action titles such as “Assassin’s Creed III” and “Call of Duty: Black Ops II.”
The Wii U is the first in a new generation of consoles that will arrive over the next year, including new models of the Xbox and PlayStation. All are likely to use multiple screens, and the next wave of games will be designed with this in mind.
On the Wii U, some games keep you focused on the GamePad screen, and others are mostly played on the TV. Most have you glance back and forth, using the tablet to navigate, aim or select weapons, for instance.
This new approach reflects the way people tend to have a phone or tablet at hand while watching TV nowadays. At work, in the car, everywhere you turn there are multiple displays to navigate and monitor the flow of information in our lives.
Including a tablet with the console may help Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft stem the loss of players who are turning toward inexpensive games on mobile devices and social networks.
The addition of touch screens will help consoles continue their evolution from game machines to hubs of entertainment and communication in the living room. A tablet with an on-screen keyboard works better than a game controller or TV remote if you want to send a text message or choose a movie from an online video store.
For Nintendo, this may be a more radical interface than the motion-controllers that debuted with the original Wii in 2006. They were quirky, but generally tracked familiar motions like swinging a bowling ball, a bat or a sword.
I found the Wii U to have a notable learning curve because it doesn’t feel as natural to divide your attention between the GamePad display and the TV. This might be because I was trying multiple games with different screen mixes.
As a guy who juggles the remote, a tablet and a phone while watching TV, I thought I was pretty good at multitasking.
But Wii U action games such as “Ninja Gaiden 3: Razor’s Edge” and “Madden NFL 2013” put my advanced couch-potato skills to the test as I tried to focus on the TV and the GamePad while madly pushing buttons and tapping the display. My technique — or a software bug — caused “Madden” to completely freeze the Wii U at one point.
Among the action games I tried, Ubisoft’s “ZombieU” and Warner Bros. “Batman: Arkham City Armored Edition” made especially good use of the small screen to display maps and sonar for locating enemies and manage collections of tools and weapons.
Nintendo, with its own games for the Wii U, has done the best job so far of figuring out how to have fun with multiple screens.
On its “New Super Mario Bros. U,” the player using the GamePad can help other players get through the game. Tapping the pad can add bridges or bump aside enemies, for instance.
This is a great way to even things out between players with different skill levels, as long as they don’t fight over who gets to use the GamePad. For now the system only works with a single GamePad; other players use standard Wii remotes.
“Nintendo Land” introduces a variety of GamePad controls. You blow on the microphone to activate an elevator in “Donkey Kong’s Crash Course,” you flick the screen to shoot throwing stars at targets on the TV in “Takamaru’s Ninja Castle,” and you simply rotate the tablet to steer a car in “Captain Falcon’s Twister Race.”
In “Luigi’s Ghost Mansion,” one player uses the GamePad to guide a ghost through a haunted house. Other players use Wii remotes to navigate through the house displayed on the TV set.
Multiplayer games require a combination of the GamePad and Wii remotes. Remotes have to be paired with the GamePad, which can be a little tricky, and I never could get a remote to work properly on “The Legend of Zelda: Battle Quest” game in the “Nintendo Land” suite.
A big promise of the Wii U is its ability to play some games and watch streaming video on the GamePad, separate from the TV.
Unfortunately, the Wii U’s wireless system wasn’t strong enough to let me roam with the GamePad beyond the room with the console. It lost signal in the adjacent room, so I couldn’t continue a game in the kitchen or bedroom. Maybe that’s just as well.
The GamePad has the potential to be a truly great TV remote control, especially for navigating online video services. Apps for Netflix, Hulu Plus, YouTube and Amazon.com are preloaded on the system.
But Nintendo wasn’t able to finish these features in time for the console’s debut, and it will activate them through software updates over the next month.
I wish Nintendo had gone a bit further and enabled the Wii U to also play DVD movie discs, so the device could replace the DVD player. Instead the Wii U uses proprietary discs with a thick, durable-seeming coating.
Another cornerstone of the platform is a new social network called Miiverse, which connects players online. It will be used to set up multiplayer games, share hints and tips on games and chat while watching TV shows and other video content.
Miiverse was not activated in time for my review, but Nintendo said it will be running at launch.
Assuming the video and networking features work as promised, Nintendo has produced an exciting successor to its groundbreaking Wii that should thrill buyers and inspire game developers to explore the GamePad’s potential.
Brier Dudley’s column appears Mondays. Reach him at 206-515-5687 or email@example.com
The New Super Mario Bros. U is one of several games available with the launch of Wii U. One player uses the GamePad to control the part of the action while others use Wii remotes.
Nintendo Land on the Wii U includes a mini-game with characters that are moved through a course on a TV’s big screen by flicking a stylus on the GamePad controller.