The Wii U has a major innovation, a controller with a built-in iPad-like screen, but will it be enough?
Nintendo's new console system, the Wii U, is due in stores Sunday.
While the system is the first next-generation gaming console, it's also the first entrant into a gaming universe that has been upended by the rise of mobile devices.
Gadgets like smartphones and tablet computers, which also double as gaming devices, have been a disruptive force in video games, competing for precious eyeball time.
The Wii U is clearly a reaction to the rise of mobile, with a new touchscreen controller that almost resembles an iPad (albeit with a lot more buttons). It also features an accelerometer, gyroscope, camera, dual analog sticks, a built-in sensor strip and a built-in microphone.
That controller, called a GamePad, is what sets the new system apart. Gamers can use it like an old-school Wii motion controller, but it can also serve up extra information or act as a second in-game screen.
Nintendo representatives recently showed off the new system. In one demo, "Takamaru's Ninja Castle," I used the new controller to hurl ninja-style throwing stars. In a "Zelda" party-style game, I used it to aim my bow and shoot arrows at bad guys.
The GamePad is definitely the most advanced controller I've ever held. You can also use it to surf the Web, control your TV and even play some games away from the main system.
That last function has already won raves.
Stephen Totilo, an editor for the gaming site Kotaku, wrote that the Wii U will "reshape how I play console games at home."
"I'm not sure I can effectively convey how odd it is to have these new options for playing console games at home," he wrote. "It's not quite like the shock I felt in the late '90s when I got a cellphone and was suddenly able to make phone calls while walking down the street, but we're in the same ballpark at least. It's impressive and exciting to have these new options, and I'm curious to see how widely implemented the support for off-TV play will be."
Nintendo spokesman Hector Solis said the GamePad is not intended to replace a tablet. That's because it must be relatively close to the Wii U to operate -- so no taking it to work or school with you.
Still, it's definitely a nod to the new world where people are juggling multiple devices at once.
While the Wii U definitely sports some of the kid-friendly multiplayer games that its predecessor made famous, it's already making overtures to hardcore fans who fled for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360.
The Wii U's website is promoting games like "Mass Effect 3: Special Edition," "Assassin's Creed III" and "Darksiders II," all fare that would not have been seen on the old Wii. That's partly because graphically, the Wii was weaker than its competitors, but Nintendo was also shooting for a much wider audience with its games.
Now it's time to bring hardcore gamers back into the fold, Solis said.
"Their plan with the Wii was to bring in a whole bigger, different genre of players, which they did," he said. "They brought in all ages, from young to really old. And now that they have everyone's attention ... now they can make those [casual] games for those and then come work on [games for hardcore gamers], who want the bigger better graphics, game play and stuff like that."
Solis told me this while showing off a bloody zombie shoot-em-up called, appropriately, "ZombiU."
"Now you can do everything on one [system]," he said.
Whether the Wii U will be a success or not remains to be seen. With such a glut of devices that can play games, it's probably a tougher environment for a dedicated console system.
But Michael Pachter, a research analyst with Wedbush Morgan Securities, said there's still an appetite for a dedicated console system. The U.S. market will probably get 2 million consoles between launch and March 31, he predicted. "It's going to sell out," he said.
Solis said the Wii U has already sold out of presale orders.
"There's a lot of hype and anticipation," he said. "People are already waiting for this to come out."