It is with great sadness that I write in front of you today to remember a console, a much-loved console, hindered by a lack of software and a convoluted introduction way back during E3 2011. With its predecessor’s inclination toward capturing the casual market through intuitive motion controls and dynamic marketing campaigns, the Wii U always had big boots to fill. Now, in 2016, with the gift of hindsight rendering the comparison between Wii and Wii U sales reductive, it is here where we can focus on what Nintendo’s black sheep did right, or at least what it was trying to achieve. It is here where we remember the Gamepad.
With its 6.2-inch LCD touchscreen, built-in accelerometer and gyroscope, along with an in-built camera and microphone, the Gamepad certainly went a long way in securing a progressive path for the modern Nintendo gamer. Games like Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker encapsulated the very essence of what the Wii U set out to accomplish by incorporating the accelerometer and the gyroscope into their core gameplay; Treasure Tracker couldn’t exist on its competitors’ platforms. It was always fun to watch friends holding the Gamepad as they twisted around looking for solutions to devious puzzles, and the addition of two screens meant social interaction was actively encouraged throughout the experience.
None of us are perfect, and the Gamepad was no exception. Its appeal was short-lived for many, and I’m not talking about its abysmal battery life (waits for laughter). The aptly-titled The Wonderful 101 incorporated the Gamepad’s touch controls with varying degrees of success and a lot of heart. On paper, the simple premise of The Wonderful 101 acts as a shot in the arm for top-down, isometric action strategy games, and the ability to morph the town’s diminutive residents into gargantuan weapons to battle enemies sounded suitably crazy. The only issue that stops the game from attaining greatness is the imprecise touchscreen tracking, and what should have been an intuitively wacky adventure soon becomes bogged down by the increasing frustration of the Gamepad misreading your simple motions. Our beloved Gamepad was never going to compete with the iPad in terms of performance, but maybe this is the problem: did Nintendo confuse its audience for tablet users? Did it confuse its developers? Do any of us know who we really are?
It’s easy to confuse Nintendo for the game company that just approves family-centric software, but they’re also no strangers to adult-themed content. Enter ZombiU, a first-person zombie survival game where once the player’s character is dead, they stay dead. By planting the player into a completely different character’s shoes every time a previous character meets their maker, a rewarding sense of attachment and carefulness follows the player at every turn. The Gamepad’s gyrometer and accelerometer prove essential when scanning for items the player would otherwise have missed entirely, while also heightening the tension and player vulnerability as the television screen shifts to a static third-person view. It’s these kind of gameplay innovations that consolidate the Wii U’s original intentions for the Gamepad – in what other console game could the player zombie-fy their own face? Some may argue the game’s integration of the camera functionality to be gimmicky, but hey, it’s fun as hell, and isn’t that the point?
Fun is what the Wii U was all about, and it’s a testament to the strength of this idea that so many of you are with me today reading this article about a most-treasured friend. Memory is a funny thing; it shapes what we play and what we will play. The white Wii U’s lackluster 8GB internal flash memory baffled the Nintendo faithful, but these are not the memories we ought to dwell on. Remember Nintendo Land, a prime indicator of what the Gamepad could contribute to the Wii U’s core gameplay experience. This eponymous amusement park showcased games like “Mario Chase”, where one player adopts the role of a Mii dressed as Mario, and 4 other players, dressed as Toads, attempt to capture the Mario before the timer expires. The Gamepad offered the Mario character a top-down perspective of the map and the location of the Toads, whereas the Toads would be playing third-person on the television screen. While it may have been fun with friends, this raised an important question: would this switch between the television and Gamepad perspective prove too difficult and daunting for solo sessions?
The release of Star Fox Zero in 2016 was a culmination of everything the Gamepad had teased in the past, but up to this point never fully realized for a big release title. With its commendably aggressive insistence on the Gamepad transporting the player into the Arwing cockpit, and the television displaying everything happening outside, the player was forced to constantly switch between aiming at foes through the Gamepad and dodging obstacles via the television. A commendable demonstration of immersion turned off many players, as the usual simplicity of a Star Fox game transformed into a high-maintenance, and often stressful, sci-fi flight simulator. For those who could tackle the fragmented cohesion of its multiple perspectives, Star Fox Zero exemplified the Wii U’s stride towards originality and different ways to play. The game received mixed reviews and became the poorest-selling installment for the franchise in Japan – though it also didn’t help that, by this point, Wii U hardware and software sales had dipped considerably. A great, yet flawed idea marred by its platform’s poor adoption rate.
You all know the high caliber of games Nintendo released for the Wii U; a title like Super Mario 3D World may have introduced gamers to the (then) untapped potential of the Captain Toad puzzle segments, but it did little else to justify the need for a controller so different and off-putting for many. Personally speaking, the limited integration of Gamepad functionality in 3D World pulled me out of the experience. For every inspired Gamepad-centric title like Kirby and the Rainbow Curse there was an equally great game in the form of Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze that barely entertained the idea of touch/motion controls. If you’re like me, you’ll remember the Gamepad as a brave and robust attempt at changing the way we play games. It wasn’t a pretty looking controller, but its spirit will live on through its dedicated fans.
I understand the Nintendo Switch would like to say a few words…