One of the main distinguishing features the Wii U has from its predecessor is the gamepad. Nintendo seemed to have decided that two screen gaming was so successful on the DS (and later the 3DS) that they wanted to give gamers roughly the same experience on a console. The problem is that so far it has been underutilized, which is a shame because the gamepad has shown it holds quite a bit of potential over the past year, and not just for off screen gaming.
Some gamers might feel that the gamepad is large and clunky. This is understandable as so much of the gaming experience is built around the controller that your body actually develops a muscle memory for a particular controller. If you spend a lot of time playing on another console, transitioning to the Wii U gamepad as a controller can make you feel as though your hands are worlds apart. That is unavoidable, and honestly I feel is part of the aversion some gamers may have to giving an honest chance to trying games on a new platform. Yes, the gamepad needs some adjusting to, but it’s nothing major and not something that can’t be played past in a few good hours of Rayman Legends or New Super Mario Bros U.
The problem right now though is when gaming on the Wii U you can’t escape the feeling that the gamepad is woefully underutilized. But why is that? Part of the problem is the fact that gamepad included features aren’t entirely natural feeling. You generally have to look down at your hands to look at the gamepad. How often do you look down at your hands while playing a game? I would venture to say almost never. I don’t. There hasn’t been any reason to. I’ve been gaming just as long as Jeremy Peeples has, and have contorted myself into many odd varieties of body and hand placement while playing games over the years, but it’s never involved holding my hands in a way where they are quickly viewable at a glance or partially obstruct my view.
Why would I be looking anywhere other than where the action is, which up until now has been only on the TV screen? This may sound like nothing at first, but the problem for Nintendo is that after decades or years of gaming, maintaining strict focus on the screen while doing playing a game is something that is very much embedded into the habit centers of gamer’s brains. And habits are hard to break.
The 3DS gets around this by having the second screen in close proximity to the primary screen, so a quick eye shift is all that is necessary to shift between screens. The gamepad does not possess this benefit and it is very evident when playing games that require attention to shift between screens. Some sort of visual or audible clue is necessary to inform the gamer that they need to look down at their hands if it’s actually part of the game play. Which is fine, but if the gamepad is really going to find use it needs to embrace the attention shifting nature of the gamepad and make it as natural as possible. Or implement the attention shift so that its inclusion feels seamless or fits the gameplay in a way that doesn’t feel intrusive.
Say for a Fallout game (yes Bethesda seems to not want to release on Nintendo consoles, but just for demonstration purposes) the gamepad can be your dialog selector, pipboy, and Geiger counter. How about with Mario Kart, instead of simply launching green shells directly in front of you the player could flick their finger across the screen (while driving with their left hand) to shoot the shell in the direction of their choosing. Not to mention that the Wii U would be the perfect platform for another Okami or even RTS style gameplay. Perhaps the controller should be able to use the camera to recognize head movement automatically pausing the game and brining up the menu when looking down at it. Or taking that a step further allowing the gamepad to recognize hand movements or gestures that are done over the camera, say to throw a fireball or grab an onscreen object. Seriously, with all the tech embedded in the Wii U gamepad game developers should be having a field day with it.
Utilizing the gamepad, the Wii U’s permanently installed “killer app,” in a fun and efficient way should be Nintendo’s number one goal with every first party release on the system. Nintendo opted to maintain their standing as the more value oriented option this generation, but that doesn’t mean that the main distinguishing feature should continue on underutilized. While some gamers feel that the best way forward would be to abandon the gamepad and update the Wii U to accept a more conventional controller approach, Nintendo should embrace the gamepad and show third parties and the general public just how well it can be utilized should the proper effort be applied in doing so. Oh, and Nintendo: it would be great if you could add a “menu” button to the cable box remote function. Thank you.