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Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2012
Wii U controller lacks punch but GamePad is no gimmick
This is a tale of controllers: the Wii U GamePad and the Wii U Pro Controller.
For years, Nintendo gamers have wanted a hardcore game controller like those that come with Microsoft's Xbox 360 and Sony's PS3 consoles — instead they have the Wii Remote. With the upcoming release of the Wii U, however, their wish may be about to come true. And on top of that, they are also getting another completely new style of controller. But are either of them any good?
When the Wii U is released this month in the West (it doesn't hit Japan until Dec. 8), there will be two brand-new controllers players can use, along with the current Wii Remote, which the Wii U supports. The included GamePad resembles a tablet computer, complete with a 6-inch touchscreen, while the Pro Controller, which is sold separately, looks like a traditional video-game controller and is highly reminiscent of the aforementioned Xbox 360 controller in shape.
All indications show that Nintendo is keen to make the Wii U much more of a hardcore gaming console than the current Wii. For example, the system is getting hardcore titles such as military shooter "Call of Duty: Black Ops II" as well as eagerly awaited action game "Bayonetta 2."
Gamers who pick up "Black Ops II" or "Bayonetta 2" will probably want to use the Pro Controller as it can recreate the traditional gaming experience you'd get on a Sony or Microsoft console. With the Wii, gamers had to struggle through hardcore games using the Wii Remote, which has a totally different button layout and design than traditional controllers, making it feel unintuitive. For gamers, sometimes it felt like being told to play piano with your elbows.
It's fantastic that Nintendo is now catering to more hardcore games with the Wii U Pro Controller. But it's a shame that the controller doesn't quite feel up to scratch. Good controllers are important, and what makes a controller good can often be broken down into two basics: how it plays and how it feels. The Wii U Pro Controller is serviceable in the play category, but comes up in short in how it feels in the hand.
At this year's Tokyo Game Show in September, there were Wii U Pro Controllers for the press to check out, so I had the chance to try one. It felt light. Good controllers need to have some weight to them, so they feel solid and feel like their buttons can take hours of intense punishment. However, it is a delicate balance to make sure the controller has enough heft, but doesn't feel burdensome to hold. The Pro Controller felt too light, like you could accidentally flick it out of your hands.
One of the worst things about the PS3 when it was first launched in 2006 was the lightweight controller that came with the console. The other horrible failure was that the original PS3 controller didn't have force-feedback, aka "rumble." Sony later updated the PS3 controller and released a revised version with rumble, and it's now a great controller.
The Wii U Pro Controller also has force-feedback — which is very important in allowing gamers to physically experience a game through their hands. However, the rumble in the prerelease Pro Controllers seemed anemic, like it was wheezing out rumbles.
Worse still was that the Wii U Pro Controller felt cheap. These days, many third-party companies who specialize in peripherals are releasing controllers for the Xbox 360 and the PS3 that use soft-touch plastics that feel good to the touch. The Wii U Pro Controller uses hard plastics that, combined with its light weight and meek rumble, make the controller feel like it was kind of slapped together. It's not a premium product.
The shape, however, is quite nice. It should be fairly easy to hold; though using some of the buttons might be difficult for children with small hands.
But while the Wii U Pro Controller is a bit of a letdown, the Wii U GamePad, the Wii U's main controller, is a revelation. In the summer, when Nintendo first showed the Wii U GamePad at the E3 gaming expo in Los Angeles, it seemed gimmicky. In recent years, Nintendo has been accused of relying heavily on "gimmicks," whether that is motion control for the Wii or glasses-free 3-D for the 3DS. Worse yet, the Wii U GamePad is enormous, and looks like it would be exhausting to hold. The Wii U GamePad, however, is no gimmick. It's brilliant.
OK, I'll admit that when you first hold it the Wii U GamePad feels a little like holding a tray (it's big). But once you get over that initial reaction it's actually easy to hold in the hand. After multiple playthroughs with it at this year's Tokyo Game Show, the GamePad never felt exhausting. Its large shape actually made it easier to hold and it's a great controller.
But the Wii U GamePad's true brilliance is how it does multiplayer. There are two kinds of multiplayer in video games: online (where you play with people via the Internet) and local (where you play with people nearby).
The Wii U GamePad, however, offers a fresh take on local multiplayer. Instead of all players having the same controller, one player has the GamePad (it's doubtful many games will support two GamePads as extra ones are ungodly expensive), while the other players either use Wii Remotes, which the Wii U supports, or the Pro Controller. The new dynamic is that the player with the GamePad — who along with the other players is watching the game on the TV — can also see things on the controller's screen that other players can't. It makes for an entirely new dynamic — something that traditional gaming really hasn't done before. At this year's Tokyo Game Show, Namco's party game "Tank! Tank! Tank!" offered a chance to check out this local multiplayer feature, and it was a blast. At times, not having the GamePad in your hand made you want to sneak a peek.
Nintendo is lucky. Its games, whether they are "Mario" or "Zelda" titles, appeal to a large spectrum of gamers. Many hardcore gamers will buy the Wii U, because they'll want to play Nintendo's games. Compared to the Wii, the Wii U is powerful enough to run big games from other studios. So when hardcore players buy the new Nintendo machine, they'll probably pick up a Wii U Pro Controller to enjoy games that are traditionally aimed at them, whether that's the latest "Call of Duty" or the eagerly anticipated "Bayonetta" sequel. Nintendo is satisfying that demand but what will make the Wii U special is the GamePad and its fresh gameplay. Hardcore gamers, take note — this is no gimmick.
Brian Ashcraft is a senior contributing editor at gaming website Kotaku.com.