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To Save Or Not To Save The Wii U’s Gamepad?
Not a day goes by that the Wii U doesn’t seem to find itself a hard sell to gamers. Nevertheless, it’s seemingly one problem in particular that folks are quickest to turn to: the gamepad. An often puzzling piece of technology behind an equally puzzling system, critics and gamers alike have questioned its merits on a frequent basis since its launch. Should it stay or should it go is the question everyone asks, but either seem about as easier said than done.
It’s hard to describe the gamepad itself. A sort of lovechild of an I-pad and a standard controller, the gamepad’s somewhere between the former’s tablet, touch screen controls and the Wii’s pro-controller button placement, albeit it with topside control sticks rather than bottom ones. Part TV, part game controller, it’s a step beyond the remote-like qualities of the Wii-mote and just a step away from a tiny laptop. In tandem with the TV, its dual screen functionality act like a giant 3DS and its asymmetric gameplay back and forth between the two seem like one step away from Back to the Future’s television screens. Such descriptions are terribly hard to comprehend and even odder to explain to a friend or relative and so it speaks to its tremendous strengths and confounding anomalies.
Speaking at their recent conference call, Nintendo’s CEO, Satoru Iwata, spoke of the Wii U’s gamepad as the system’s “greatest weakness” in spite of its continued role with the system. All the same, if the gamepad isn’t going anywhere, then it’s confounding where it will, and maybe that’s what speaks to its problems. By their own admission, though, the company’s one and only console isn’t in simple need of a facelift — it’s in need of a realizing its own identity.
At face value, the common calls for removing the gamepad are a tempting one. It’s guesstimated that the gamepad makes up at least $50 of the system’s retail price and to date, only a few games require it. Beyond launch titles like Nintendo Land and the commercially ill-fated Zombi U, little to none of Nintendo’s own games have made the gamepad into a game-changer beyond Super Mario 3D World‘s Captain Toad offerings. New Super Mario Bros. U and Pikmin 3 had little to no use for it and those that have used it exclusively, like Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag and Lego City: Undercover have used it halfway. Eliminating the gamepad could lower the cost of the system to a more attractive $250 and a smaller, more traditional controller could be packaged in bulk to catch more traditionally minded gamers. Repurposing the gamepad as an add-on could be the Wii U’s fastest way out of its lagging sales. Or it’s own worse nightmare.
It should go without saying that the move would be an extreme one, maybe to a fault. Severe the hand to save the body people argue, but it’s hard denying that that kind of hardware dismissal could be infectious. If the naysayers are confident now in the gamepad’s hindrances, than taking it out could only marginalize it and the system’s value more, not to mention putting all of its manufacturing costs at a total loss. More than that, the gamepad;s already a unique face to a system struggling to maintain attention in an arena dominated by X-Box Ones and PS4s. Outright replacing it with the Wii U’s pro-controller now (or something like it) would only worsen its appeal for players looking for something different.
That said, there’s something about the gamepad that goes deeper than image. Think back to Nintendo Land or Zombie U and you’ll likely recall plenty of wildly successful single and local co-op modes. You’ll also recall games impossible to play without its asymmetrical gameplay for new Wii U owners picking up a theoretical bundle sans a gamepad. The former’s Mario Chase or the latter’s co-op survival mode distinctly separate each players’ experiences between two different screens not bound by one another in the same room is a definite kind of immersion you can’t find anywhere else, much less one that its games don’t benefit from when they happen. That’s not to even mention the off-screen play that’s finally allowed your gaming habits complement your significant other’s Downton Abbey addiction.
It just may come down to the gamepad’s unrealized potential rather than it’s lack of it. Two years later, it’s still too often that it hosts conveniences than necessities. Offscreen-play and TV controls are nice, yet they’re not what makes us remember a game differently. It’s wonderful to think where its drawing capabilities could go in a game. Think Scribble Naughts meets Okami. Why not draw your own world to life via a level editor? How about the touchscreen? We should be moving our stylus on it for a reason. How about allowing us some fighter opportunities, give us combo swipes, or seeing what the tablet’s NFC communicator actually does. The possibilities are endless as they are worth seeking out.
In the short term, Nintendo’s at least making the small moves at the right time. Extending the battery life and speeding up its offscreen access are all as nice as what they seem: small steps to be followed by a lot more. With as little doubt as games like Bayonetta 2 and Zelda U aren’t likely to hold back on gamepad’s second screens for item menus and swiping controls, it’s time to make the gamepad relevant as it deserves to be. The question is what title will do that and do it right.
The Wii U is a solid system with solid games to back it up. It’s not perfect, nor will it ever be, but can it strive for more? The answer is yes, and the gamepad is the start of turning over that new leaf. Nintendo’s stated intention of using the gamepad as the device for experiencing the Wii U is a noble one we all want to see, and that’ll come with the right games. If Mario Kart 8 and Super Smash Bros. are primed to champion better days to ahead for the console, those days shouldn’t be without a spotlight for that special controller to make its own name in our hearts.