When Reggie Fils-Aime came out and said the Wii U’s launch marked the start of the next console generation I found myself asking, “Just what the heck does “next-gen” mean today?” To interperet literally, it means the next line of consoles from each manufacturer. The Wii U is certainly a new console from Nintendo, however technically, its specifications are much more in line with the current crop of consoles offered by Microsoft and Sony with the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 respectively. When I began pondering my gaming history and the history of consoles I tried to look for specific trends throughout the evolution of console gaming.
From the beginning with the Atari 2600, to the NES, Sega Genesis, Sony PlayStation and so on, each console generation has brought with it, a huge step forward in terms of graphics and visual fidelity. Since consoles are generational and do not receive much in terms of hardware upgrades during their lifecycle, their technology stagnates but provides a consistent platform for developers to work on, and over time they familiarize themselves with the intricacies of the hardware’s architecture. To get a perfect example of this, I encourage you to go back through the Uncharted series. All three games were built on the exact same hardware yet each sequel raises the bar significantly on a purely visual level. The skin textures are the most noticeable to me. In Uncharted: Drakes Fortune, they all kind of look plastic’ish but in Uncharted 3 their skin looks much more life-like. There are other things as well, the lighting is better, water effects are improved throughout the series. The progress is quite impressive. This is a phenomenon unique to consoles because the PC is an ever-evolving beast. The world-conquering rig you build in the morning is a has-been, past its prime sprinter by the time evening rolls around. Now I’m exaggerating but it’s not far off the mark. New cards are coming out all the time with mind boggling specs that keep pushing what is capable. If you’ve seen the things that people are able to do in Unreal Engine 3 it is staggering.
So a leap in graphics is quite common when greeted by the next generation of gaming consoles but it is not all those systems usually have to offer. My good friend James Pope discussed the evolution of control in one of his features, and until very recently each new console usually featured a new and improved controller. Nintendo took us from just two face buttons on the original NES to four face and two shoulder buttons on the Super Nintendo for example. In the latest generation, motion-control has been introduced and, like it or not, it has had an impact on the way we play games.
Another seismic shift in console gaming has been the development of the internet. Online multiplayer and other things that were never thought possible are now done with ease through online networks like Xbox Live and the PlayStation Network. There are online marketplaces, voice and video chat, movie streaming and so on. Now developers tend to focus on online multiplayer over split-screen experiences. Online connectivity with others through friend lists, achievements and other online communities has made the home console a multimedia hub of the living room and while this development is a very recent one it certainly is not going away any time soon.
I noticed I wasn’t the only one questioning what was or is “next-gen” and so I decided to ask a couple people for their opinion on the matter as well to get a gauge of where I fell:
Q: What does the term “next-gen” mean, in terms of consoles, to you?
Dexter Jaekal of TheTechFixation.com
“When talking about consoles, I consider Next-Gen to be the next major step towards utilizing the best tech that is available to the masses. For PC gamers, they are constantly upgrading and don’t ever get that breathtaking moment of moving from the old [generation] to the new [generation]. I like that us console gamers get to have our socks blown off by a major graphical and processor advancement. Just thinking about some of the Unreal Engine 3 videos is giving me goosebumps.”
Chris Locke of LevelSave
“It’s hard to say anymore what “next-gen” really is. With previous generations of consoles there was some sort of jump, be it from 8 [bit] to 16 bit or from [standard definition] to [high definition]. The current generation was the latter but another jump happened in the background that throws a wrench into what we would normally call “next gen.” The jump to to online connectivity. Every system can connect, out of the box, to the internet now and because of this we saw the growth of the downloadable game markert. Games like Assassin’s Creed needed the current generation just to exist, but games like Braid and Bastion could have easily existed on PS2 or Xbox. So I’m not sure what “next gen” is, but I know it can’t be determined exclusively on [hardware] power.”
So where does that leave the Wii U? The Wii U to me does not fit my idea of what a next generation console is. While it is literally the next generation of Nintendo consoles, it is currently lacking in some key areas for me when it is compared to the current offerings from Nintendo’s competitors. I’ve been severely underwhelmed by everything I have seen on it. It was lauded as being more powerful than the PS3 and Xbox 360 but it appears to be just as powerful, at best. In the areas where videophiles concentrate today, the Wii U has thus far been unimpressive. Textures in many games look bland and some third party games seem to suffer from poor frame rates. This could be due to unfamiliarity with the system architecture and dealing with multiple screen rendering but considering how polar opposite the Wii U is from the usual ‘bleeding edge’ tech offered at the start of a more traditional generation cycle, I was imagining they’d have that part a bit more sorted as their dev kits should have been rather easy to produce.
The Wii U also suffers from some archaic online and account management pitfalls. While the new friend management system is far superior than what was offered on the original Wii, it still seems a rather obtuse system when compared to the offerings of Live and PSN. Even more of an issue though is the managment of user profiles and accounts. If my PS3 disc drive breaks tomorrow and I have to get a new system, I can quite easily transfer my account and all of my content to the newly purchased system. You would imagine that would be a no brainer feature for a system coming out 6 years later. Unfortunately it was not. The Wii U user account is tied specifically to that one piece of hardware. Frankly I’m incredibly disappointed that Nintendo didn’t have the foresight to integrate friendlier account management features into their firmware/network. I know Nintendo really marches to the beat of their own drum and has had success going against the grain of popular opinion, but they could have looked at the structure of PSN and Xbox Live to meet their standard or even exceeded it to create an even more consumer friendly experience. The Mii verse has potential to become what Sony wished Home could be but it will take time to find out how successful and how big of an impact it has on the Wii U’s success.
The success of the Wii U will most likely depend on developers integrating the GamePad into game play and creating provacative experiences exclusive to the Wii U. One of the biggest Wii U bullet points is asymetrical game play. Many of the games shown off at events this year featured offline multiplayer games like Chasing Aurora that allows one player to use the game pad and the others to use the television screen. It is an interesting game play concept for those that play a lot of offline multiplayer. One of my biggest gripes with the GamePad is that it doesn’t feature a multi-touch screen so don’t expect it to be as accurate as your iPad or Android tablet. It’s possible that a multi-touch screen could have made the GamePad more expensive but in gaming, split second decisions and twitch reflexes are often neccessary and accuracy of input on the GamePad screen could become incredibly frustrating to gamers.
The most frustrating thing for me was that I wanted to be excited about the Wii U. When I first heard about it codenamed as Project Cafe, I wanted to believe that this was going to be a new console for the hardcore gamer. Now that we’re post-launch, and many stores have plenty of Wii U’s sitting on store shelves, it seems that consumers aren’t going mad for Nintendo’s new singing and dancing product. Think back to the Wii’s launch and it was crazy. It was insanely difficult for consumers to get a hold of one. The shortage was so great that many were purchased second hand through outlets like Ebay. Nintendo had an opportunity to go all out here. If they had utilized current hardware that is significantly more powerful than PS3 and Xbox 360 the launch titles would not look like Xbox games that are six years old. Also rendering on two screens would not tax the system nearly as bad. I’m not sure if unit sales will pick up as Sony and Microsoft prepare for the launch of their new consoles but as it stands now, consumers have more incentive, due to the Wii U’s price and small library, to go with the Xbox 360 and PS3.
Dexter from TheTechFixation.com
“I think the Wii U will do well for itself. It may take a while, but after the casual market gets a firm grasp on what the Wii U is, Nintendo will get a lot of sales. I also think it will suffer as long as Sony and Microsoft are using the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 as their main platforms. That’s some stiff competition for Wii U. The [Xbox 360 and PS3] are cheaper, fully established, and have massive libraries of great and cheap games for anyone looking to jump in. After Sony and Microsoft release their next-gen consoles Wii U will have its time to shine. It will be the cheaper console and it will have the cheaper games. I really think we will see devs make games on the Wii U that also run on the PS Vita and the rumored Xbox Surface. The same thing happened with Wii and PSP.”
It is obviously too soon to predict the success or failure of the Wii U right now but as I said before, it will hinge largely on third party developers fully utilizing the GamePad. I have no doubt that Nintendo will play the hits (Mario, Zelda, etc.) and come up with unique things to do with their hardware. They always do, but Nintendo has often struggled with third party support. It will be crucial for Nintendo to get developers on board soon and if possible, with exclusive projects. Once we find out how powerful the new consoles from Microsoft and Sony are, it will be interesting to see how third party publishers work with Nintendo. If the Wii U is struggling to run Madden 13 at 60fps, I can’t imagine how well the hardware will run games designed to run on superior hardware. As hard as I am railing on Nintendo, understand that I believe the strength of Nintendo, Microsoft and Sony are essential to the health of the console market. Nintendo makes amazing games and many possess that innocence that is wonderful for young gamers to experience. Not all of their games are for children but many of them are perfect for younger gamers with epic adventures from some of their classic stable of games. The Miiverse could become what Sony wished for Home as well. I just feel that by sticking with the Wii hardware philosophy, they may have left the Wii U fighting off of its back foot.