When Nintendo first broached the idea of multiple-screen video games in 2004, many critics were skeptical that players could focus on two images at once. Yet the handheld DS, blending one touch-sensitive screen with a slightly larger video display, became a runaway hit.
Turns out the portable DS may have just been a dress rehearsal for Nintendo's latest home console, the Wii U, which blows up the dual-screen concept to living-room size. It goes on sale in the U.S. on Sunday, starting at $300.
The Wii U is the heir to the Nintendo Wii system, whose motion-based controls got couch potatoes around the world to burn calories as they swung virtual tennis rackets, bowled and flailed around in their living rooms. The new console still allows you to use your old "Wiimotes," but its major advancement is a new controller, the GamePad, with a built-in touch screen that measures 6.2 inches diagonally.
The GamePad looks like the spawn of a tablet computer and a classic game controller. Its surface area is a little smaller than an iPad's, but it's about three times as thick, largely because it has hand grips that make it more comfortable over prolonged game sessions. It has an accelerometer and gyroscope for motion-controlled games, as well as a camera, a microphone, speakers, two analog joysticks and a typical array of buttons.
It's the touch screen that really makes the difference. In some cases, it houses functions that are typically relegated to a game's pause screen. In others, it allows a group of people playing the same game together to have different experiences depending on the controller used. Nintendo Co. calls this "asymmetric gaming."
In the mini-game collection "Nintendo Land," you can shoot arrows or fling throwing stars by swiping on the touch screen. One of the games in the collection, "Mario Chase," uses the GamePad to provide a bird's-eye view of a maze through which you can guide the hero. His pursuers — up to four players using Wiimotes — see the maze from a first-person perspective on the TV screen.
"New Super Mario Bros. U" brings the asymmetric approach to cooperative action. While Wiimote-wielding players scamper across its side-scrolling landscapes, the GamePad user can create "boost blocks" to help them reach otherwise inaccessible areas. If you're going solo, you can play the entire adventure on the GamePad screen, freeing up the TV for family members who might want to watch something else.
On a more basic level, the GamePad lets you select your next play or draw new routes for your receivers in Electronic Arts Inc.'s "Madden NFL 13." You use it to adjust strategy or substitute players in 2K Sports' "NBA 2K13."
Ubisoft's "ZombiU" — the best original game at launch — turns the GamePad into your "bug-out bag." It's where you'll find all your undead-fighting supplies, from bats and bullets to hammers and health kits. It lets you access maps and security-camera footage as you navigate the devastated streets of London. If you hold it vertically, you can scan the virtual space in three dimensions to locate zombies who are lying in wait.