Seen in a broader historical context, the new Wii U is a very different beast from the Wii, even though the former is created from the rib of the latter. While the Wii was an offensive move on Nintendo's part, the Wii U is clearly a defensive one, a hedge that responds to the many trends that have erupted in games, consumer electronics, and home entertainment since the Wii's 2006 release.
Those include: the launch of Sony Move and Microsoft Kinect; the iPhone, iPad, Android, Kindle and the entire app store economy; the Facebook platform and the whole social games sector; the launch of Steam and the diversification of Xbox Live Arcade and the PlayStation Network; the completion of the 2009 digital television transition; and a drop in HDTV prices by an order of magnitude.
The Wii U responds to each of these shifts in its own way. To its physical interface competitors, the Wii U re-entrenches, making no changes to its existing Wii remote controllers. So confident is Nintendo in its superior physical controls, it doesn't even include any in the box. Who doesn't already have some?
To Xbox, PlayStation, and the HDTV market, Nintendo finally caves and adds 1080p HD support and sufficient GPU power to make use of it. It's a move that silently acknowledges what everyone but Nintendo already knew: we like Peach and Samus, but we also like Marcus Fenix and Nathan Drake.
In fact, Gears of War has as much Nintendo lineage as it does Doom lineage; it's the first-person shooter as exaggerated cartoon. So-called "core games" have probably Nintendoified more than they have "matured," so why not play them on a Nintendo?
To Steam et al, Nintendo finally adds a usable online shop with downloadable versions of retail releases and original titles, including independent releases, available on day one. And to Facebook, Twitter, and the rest, Nintendo adds its own private social network, Miiverse, which creates a sharing channel unique to each game, accessible from a single controller button.
But the Wii U's most obvious and important response to a current trend is its answer to smartphones and tablets. The Wii U GamePad forces players to confront one of the strangest features of the contemporary media ecosystem: the tension between the television and the handheld computer.
It's easy to forget, but home console video game systems were designed around the television more than they were designed around the video game. In the 1970s, long before the VCR, the Magnavox Odyssey and Atari Video Computer System had to teach their players about the very idea of connecting a box to their televisions in the first place. And to produce interactive images and sounds, those early consoles were engineered to couple directly with the cathode ray tube television. In the intervening years, we've forgotten how novel, weird, and difficult it was to make video games playable in our dens and living rooms in the first place.
The design of the Wii had already attempted to draw a new, explicit connection between the television and the video game console. The Wii remote was meant to be approachable and familiar thanks to its physical and operational similarity to a television remote. And the Wii menu was divided into "channels," borrowing its organizational logic from television and cable, paradigms everyone who had been alive at any point since the 1960s already understood.
With the Wii U, Nintendo tacitly admits that the Wii took this metaphor too far. Everyone knows how to point a remote in the general direction of the television, but using the Wii remote as a precision pointing device proved tricky and frustrating even for the most experienced and agile players. While the remote can still be used on the Wii U menu, the GamePad presents a more obvious interaction model on boot-up: a grid of channel buttons that can be touched to select and activate.
This feeling -- that of looking at a big, HD television display while holding a GamePad in your hands and not knowing where the real action is -- this is the central premise of the system. The Wii U is a home console connected to your big, high-resolution plasma display and your 250-watt home theater, which you ignore in favor of a low-res handheld device that can't even leave the room. Except when it's a substantial, fast-running handheld computer with a large LCD touch-screen display that you ignore in favor of your 50" flat-screen.
The sensation of being split between the television and the handheld computer feels strange and awkward. But isn't this precisely how all of us feel today, all the time? Torn between the lush absorption of newly cinematic television and the lo-fi repetition of streams of text and image on our mobile phones and tablets? If the Wii attached to television's past, the Wii U couples to its present: still seemingly unassailable, the most powerful mass medium around, delivering more and more immersion annually, yet substantially eroded by tiny devices delivering quips, quotes, and cat photos.
Entertainment industry pundits have coined the term "second screen experience" as an explanation for this crisis. Television provides a high-gloss, low-information experience, and now that tablets, phones, and laptops are nearly ubiquitous and literally in our hands already as we sit on the couch, TV viewers increasingly split their attention between the prepared, cinematic experience of HDTV and the data-rich reference function of the internet.
But "second screen experience" is far too neat-and-tidy a name for this phenomenon. For one thing, it subordinates smartphones and computers to televisions -- perhaps wishful thinking on the part of the studio executives who deploy the second-screen rhetoric. But more importantly, it describes a far more stable and comfortable situation than the one that actually exists in today's dens and family rooms.
Whether it's tweeting real-time reactions during a presidential debate, looking up a seemingly-familiar actor on IMDB, or just scrolling through Facebook while a mediocre sitcom or drama drones on around us, we are no longer watching TV or using our computers -- nor are we doing both. Perhaps we're neither watching television nor conversing on the internet, in fact, but rather interacting with the strange, uncomfortable space between the two. Like a lap only appears when you sit down, this weird interstitial space only exists when we activate both sorts of devices. It's not a two-screen experience, but a no-screen experience.
Many will miss this innovation and mock the Wii U for not being just another incremental change sold as faux-revolution. Internet purists will scoff, wondering why Nintendo was too timid to integrate directly with Twitter and Facebook. Hardware snobs will mock the GamePad for being neither fish nor fowl, not portable, high resolution, or general purpose enough to replace an iPad or a DS. They'd be right, but they'd also miss the point.
If earlier Nintendo systems made video games safe for homes and families, the Wii U turns the tables: it attempts to make the current trends in the internet and consumer electronics safe for video games. It's the first earnest, sustained, hardware-invested example of such an effort, and it's full of risk and danger.