Opinion: Why Nintendo could win the touch generation

Was E3 really as bad for Nintendo as the critics would have you believe?

Opinion: Why Nintendo could win the touch generation
iPad + Android + 3DS ...

Ever since the Nintendo DS emerged to general bewilderment in late 2004, it was only a matter of time before the gap was bridged between the touchscreen and the TV. The only surprise is that it has taken this long to become a reality.

As former colleagues will ruefully attest, I fully expected the DS to act as a touch screen controller for certain Wii titles. For whatever technical reason, that never happened.

At the time, it seemed a pretty obvious idea. Both the DS and Wii were wireless consoles, both had unprecedented crossover markets, and would have offered players the kind of instant point and click precision that's neither possible with traditional joypads, nor the Wiimote.

It also provided the Wii with access to the kind of innovative gaming experiences that, at the time, were only possible on the DS itself. Surely extending these to the big screen was an obvious opportunity, and would have provided Nintendo with another massive point of difference over its rivals.

Ambitious direction

Given the Wii U's functionality, Nintendo agreed, but fancied going about it in an altogether more ambitious direction - a console that covered off both touch screen gaming and tablet gaming in one fell swoop.

Say what you like about Nintendo's lacklustre E3 press conference, but can't deny that it took some serious risks at this year's show.

In the face of conventional wisdom, it decided against playing its hand too soon, and focused on titles that, aside from Pikmin 3, didn't exactly blow the roof off. Another Wii Fit. Another 2D Mario. A bundled set of multiplayer minigames. Third party ports galore. Hrm.

If experience has taught us anything, it's that Nintendo always has plenty of solid gold first party titles under wraps - only this time it decided that now wasn't the time to talk about them.

All it had to do was mention a new Zelda, or an exciting new Miyamoto-lead project and the mood may have been very different. Instead, the golfing applause towards the end of the press conference was cringeworthy.

In reality

And yet for those of us who actually bothered to visit Nintendo's E3 stand and check out the playable games, the mood was decidedly different.

The Nintendo Land minigames that looked slightly lame and unfathomable during Nintendo's ill-judged demo session felt instantly intuitive and displayed a creative spark that outclassed 98 per cent of the flashy derivative me-too titles hogging the headlines on the show floor.

As someone who has spent most of the past three years being consistently surprised and enamoured with the creative spirit of tablet and smartphone gaming, what Nintendo is doing with Wii U takes what's possible with touchscreen gaming to the next level.

Taking a bite of the Apple

Although Apple can rightly claim to have pioneered touchscreen-to-TV gaming via Apple TV's Airplay integration, the results so far have been, to put it politely, limited. The lag on most games, for starters, makes for a frustrating experience.

It's a near miss, and it's hardly surprising that few developers have elected to take advantage of this brilliant innovation.

What Nintendo has managed with Wii U works on several levels. Firstly, assuming the lag has been conquered (I say 'assuming', because the Wii U's tablet was actually tethered to the device), the general responsiveness thrashes Apple's implementation.

Secondly, two tablets can work on the same console, and several of the minigames I tried involved five player multiplayer, with one person in charge of the Wii U tablet, while the remaining players viewed the TV and controlled their characters via Wiimotes.

The multiplayer possibilities - even from brief tech demos - instantly elevate the Wii U's tablet gameplay above anything else out there. When you've got one player viewing something the other players can't see, the hide and seek options open up all sorts of ideas for game designers.

Designed for gaming

Another factor generally overlooked is how comfortable the Wii U is to hold, with its ergonomic curves designed to sit nicely in the palms of your hand. However sexy the iPad might be, anyone who has tried to play Airplay compatible games over Apple TV will know that it's not designed for comfort.

And on top of all that, the Wii U has something every touchscreen device lacks: physical controls.

Not only that, they feel good, and allow game design that mixes and matches tilt, touch and physical controls into one compelling, comfortable whole - something that no-one else has attempted, or are even close to attempting.

Elsewhere, of course, Microsoft did its best to tick the touchscreen box with the upcoming addition of SmartGlass capability to the Xbox 360. Although it definitely has potential, and a wealth of practical applications, it's one of those additions that's likely to amount to little of substance.

A few of the bigger names will add tactical HUDs, or allow for extra nuggets of in-game information, but it's debatable whether games will be built around it.

The problem, as ever, is that developers will always develop around the lowest common denominator - and that's a problem Nintendo definitely will not suffer from with Wii U, because every developer knows precisely what it can design around.

Smarter than SmartGlass?

On Microsoft's side, it has the advantage of supporting not only the gazillions of iOS devices out there, but also Android and Windows Phone. That's a vast potential user base right there, and something that will give many developers and publishers the confidence that a big proportion of users can actually utilise any SmartGlass features they decide to implement in 360 titles.

Then again, like Apple TV's rather limp Airplay game support, there's always the chance that its potential won't be realised quite as everyone would hope. With Wii U, there's already enough convincing evidence on show to make it a convincing proposition, and with so much more to come.

And, who knows, maybe Nintendo will also decide to bring the 3DS into the picture and make its handheld interactive with the Wii U as well, and give even more unique practical applications and gameplay possibilities.

As usual, you write Nintendo off at your peril, but yet again people were lining up at E3 to stick the boot in. When will they ever learn?

Kristan Reed
Kristan Reed
There's no such thing as 'not enough time' in Kristan's world. Despite the former Eurogamer editor claiming the world record for the most number of game reviews written before going insane, he manages to continue to squeeze in parallel obsessions with obscure bands, Norwich City FC, and moody episodic TV shows. He might even read a book if threatened by his girlfriend.