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Don’t expect much from the Wii U’s tablet controller

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Wii U controller

If you’ve been following Wii U launch coverage, you’ve probably read a sentence like this:

The Wii U, successor to Nintendo’s blockbuster Wii console, presents several intriguing possibilities for interactive entertainment, thanks to a tablet-style controller, the GamePad.

Reviewers are extremely intrigued by the thrilling potential of this tablet. They shouldn’t be. We actually already know what game developers will do with it — not much.

Since the days of the NES Power Glove, gimmick controllers have promised new frontiers of immersion and interactivity they could not possibly deliver. The mighty 8-bit mitt purported to “track the position of your hand in space” with “3D sensors.”  “Now you don’t just guide the action. You’re in the action,” the ads hilariously lied.

 
This early example of motion-sense technology made an infamous appearance in the 90-minute Nintendo commercial, The Wizard. Its functionality — as portrayed in the film — was ridiculously inaccurate.
 
 

Nintendo’s Virtual Boy console set the industry standard for chicanery when the futuristic virtual reality of its marketing clashed so violently with the migraine-inducing monochromatic hellscape of its games. But the main reason to doubt the Wii U’s paradigm-shattering potential is this: Nintendo’s been pushing the tablet’s basic ideas in one form of another for about a decade.

Mindful observers will recall the GameCube’s GBA connectivity, which introduced  “asymmetric gameplay” with a game called Pac-Man Vs.;  the Wii U launch showcase, Nintendo Land, features not one but two barely disguised versions of Pac-Man Vs. It takes balls the size of late-stage katamaris (of the Damacy variety) to promote your “revolutionary” controller with a ten-year-old game, but then this is a console with a 2D platformer for a killer app. How Will U Play Next? Like U always have.

Sega’s Dreamcast, always blazing crude trails, also had a playable screen in its gamepad. But Nintendo is borderline-obsessed with offering “second window(s) into the video game world.” The Big N has been making dual-screen handhelds since 2004. Developers mostly use window 2 for maps and inventories. Like the Wii U tablet, the DS and its follow-up, the 3DS, had touchscreens, but the portables pioneered no genres or playstyles. (Zelda got new controls.) Touchscreens only revolutionized casual games.

Which brings us to the Wii Remote. The first Wii was so popular and successful — a bona fide cultural touchstone — that people have convinced themselves its controller didn’t suck. It did. With the nunchuck accessory (usually necessary), it wasn’t even unique, just split in two; it needed more face buttons and a second analog stick. Inputs mapped to the motion sensor ruined games like The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess; enjoying Donkey Kong Country Returns or New Super Mario Bros. Wii meant holding the Wii-mote horizontally, turning it into the world’s least-ergonomic NES pad.

Two of the Wii’s greatest hits, Mario Kart Wii and Smash Brothers Brawl, required a GameCube controller for high-level play. For all its alleged noob-friendly simplicity, the Wii-mote’s synchronizing, calibrating, and battery killing made it considerably higher-maintenance than old-fashioned controllers. Only its games were simple.

Wii Sports was often called a tech demo, but it was no mere demo — it was the tech, entire. 5 years later, Skyward Sword‘s fencing fulfilled — in a small way — the hardware’s promise; it required a $25 expansion to play. Despite its Kinect-spawning sales figures, the Wii didn’t change the way we play games. Microsoft and Sony’s next machines will come with standard control pads. You can buy one for the Wii U, too.

After the Wii U’s underwhelming debut, games journalists (whose job it is to be excited about new products) decided Nintendo just hadn’t properly articulated the new tablet’s wonders. Nintendo favored this interpretation. “It’s a complicated device to explain in words,” a marketing director said. Maybe. Or maybe it’s not that complicated. Maybe you’re just conning casuals into blowing $299.99 on another hideously underpowered, flimflam system.

At least Link will be in HD.