Nintendo of America President Reggie Fils-Aime stopped by CNET's New York office on Thursday to talk about the company's upcoming console launch, the Wii U. The system marks the first new home gaming hardware introduced to the U.S. market in six years.
The Wii U also represents a major shift in strategy for Nintendo, deviating from the strict games-only design of previous systems. The Wii U will not only be just for playing games, but also controlling your TV and discovering and streaming other content from the Internet.
Using a tablet and conventional controller hybrid system, the Wii U's claim to fame is that it provides a unique two-screen gaming experience. While other consoles seem to have quietly done away with local multiplayer, the Wii U will play party games that allow for up to five people in a room to take part. There's no doubt the tablet controller will be the most sought-after way to interact with Wii U games, but as of now, Nintendo will not be selling additional tablets separately. I've been told the console does support up to two, but there won't be any software to make use of that at the launch window.
Those familiar with the original Wii's graphics will be blown away by the ultra-clear, smooth, and crisp visuals the Wii U puts out. It's the first HD console Nintendo has ever manufactured, and the jump in picture quality is significant. NintendoLand (a pack-in with the $350 Deluxe Set) is a solid introduction to the new system and its controls. Surely Nintendo is hoping it can do for the Wii U what Wii Sports did for the Wii.
Nintendo faces a potentially bumpy road ahead, with a lukewarm media reception of the console that has been looming since its announcement back at E3 2011. Since then, disappointing earnings reports and lowered revenue projections have positioned the Wii U as more than just a console successor, but perhaps a hail Mary pass to the end zone. The company has even had to do a bit of damage control as some outlets had confused the Wii U's tablet controller as just an add-on accessory to the original Wii.
But that's not all the adversity surrounding the console. Game library is something every potential Wii U owner needs to consider. Just a quick glance at the launch and launch window lineup only renders a short list of totally exclusive software. For most of the gaming public that owns another console, it'll be a tough sell convincing those gamers to switch to a new system only to play a game they can already enjoy. It's here where Fils-Aime stresses that the Wii U is more than just a gaming console.
Fils-Aime spoke about how the Wii U is a transitional device for the company, not just a new gaming system. To convey this, he looked to Nintendo's past. Founded in 1889, nearly 100 years passed before the first console was ever birthed by the Japanese game maker. Instead, Nintendo was in the business of manufacturing Hanafuda playing cards as a means of entertainment.
That mantra is echoed today with the Wii U. Fils-Aime explained the console will not just revolve around video games but instead will look to become more of a jumping-off point for home entertainment altogether. "I want to see that [tablet controller] sitting on the living room table in every home in the U.S.," he said. And for what the Wii U's built-in Nintendo TVii service aims to offer, that might make sense.
Perhaps under-discussed by Nintendo -- and certainly the press -- the Wii U has the potential to be the ultimate universal remote control. Using the combination of a touch interface and infrared blaster on the tablet's front, the Wii U can control a TV and cable box, even selecting the appropriate source input. (We'll have to wait and see if it can also handle more devices like other consoles or an audio/video receiver.) Instead of reaching for the remote, imagine picking up the Wii U tablet and scrolling through your cable guide or a video content portal like Hulu Plus or Netflix. On paper it's certainly a much more intuitive way to browse through programming, but whether it can provide total access to everything you can watch and listen to remains to be seen.
This ambitious desire to become the centralized hub of living room entertainment isn't a foreign concept. Both Microsoft and Sony have been competing for that crown for years now, so Nintendo certainly has a lot of work to do, even though its approach is unique by incorporating a consumer's pre-existing TV service.
Nintendo TVii and service partner i.TV have created an interface that allows users to search for content across multiple platforms -- including live TV -- and provide shortcuts to watch the shows and movies they seek. Let's say you searched for "Sons of Anarchy." TVii would then theoretically pull up results from older seasons on services like Netflix or Amazon, and perhaps any live instance currently airing on TV.
It sounds great in theory, but there are already some inherent hurdles blocking total Nintendo TVii immersion. First, the service was constructed with only TiVo DVR compatibility built in. For the majority of cable and satellite subscribers who use a carrier-specific DVR, TVii will not be able to access or control that directly. TV grid scheduling information will still work, but all control must rely on infrared commands. Fils-Aime followed up saying that the company is in talks with a handful of carriers to add advanced DVR functionality, but we've heard the same story from Google for years and still have nothing to show for it. Maybe Nintendo will have better luck.
Of course no universal remote can interact directly with DVR, so it's feasible that TVii will adopt the same approach controllers like the Logitech Harmony line have done and force users to navigate through their own recorded content manually.
Then there's the notion of "TV tagging," Nintendo TVii's attempt to socialize the TV and movie-watching experience by providing relevant timelines, screengrabs, and posts from Facebook and Twitter. It's ambitious to say the least, with the potential to change the way we watch content together. However, the DVR shortcomings will limit the experience. Look for much more on that subject in my Wii U review. Nevertheless, it's tough for me to deny the sheer joy that "instant TV meme creation" will bring to the Internet, something Nintendo TVii promises to deliver.
It should come as no surprise that not once during our time with Fils-Aime did the words "casual" or "iOS" come up. Unlike today, when the Wii went on sale in 2006 there was almost zero competitive pressure from emerging platforms like Apple's iOS and Google's Android. Fast-forward six years and the landscape is a completely different beast. How that plays into Nintendo's game plan moving ahead hasn't been totally disclosed, but there's no doubt it's been taken into heavy consideration. If anything, it certainly raises the question: if there was never an iPad, would the Wii U have a tablet controller?
With the holiday season drawing near, it's fair for those seeking out the Wii U to begin to worry. Will it suffer (or enjoy, depending on how you look at it) the same fate as the Wii back in 2006? If you recall, it was by far the hottest holiday gift and limited quantities left many parents with frustrated children. Supply was so scarce that it seemed complete fulfillment wasn't reached until an entire calendar year later.
According to Fils-Aime, preorders for the Wii U are already exhausted at most retailers save for Wal-Mart, which is still is finalizing a selling strategy. GameStop has begun taking Wii U preorder information from prospective buyers and claims to have a list of more than 250,000 interested parties.
"We're anticipating demand will outpace supply," Fils-Aime said.
Better get in line now.