Wii U Has an Achilles’ Heel: Third-Parties Don’t Know How to Use It

Third-party developers and publishers faced a number of problems with Wii – and one of the biggest was a struggle to find impactful ways to make use of the game’s unique controller. Wii’s pointer control was touted as a revolution for first-person games, and while a large segment of the gaming population fell in love with games like Metroid Prime 3, other attempts at pointer aiming weren’t so successful.

Satoru Iwata acknowledges that this is a common sentiment. At the recent shareholders’ meeting, he responded to a question about whether this would be true for Wii U as well. “For the Wii,” he said, “it has been certainly pointed out that software developed inside Nintendo uses the hardware’s functions better than that developed by third parties… Therefore, we have been working to improve the development environment to let as many creators design games that take advantage of the features of a certain hardware as possible.”

The trouble is, after my experience with the Wii U at E3, I’m not entirely confident that most third-parties are doing much better at utilizing Nintendo hardware.

Don’t get me wrong: the ideas they’re coming up with are actually pretty smashing. I’m loving the idea of moving inventory and other menu interactions to the second screen for quicker equipment changing and less clutter on the main screen. The interfaces they’ve come up with for the GamePad screen look and are organized pretty well. But often the execution falls flat.

Let’s take Batman Arkham City: Armored Edition as a chief example. Here’s a list of a few of the game’s Wii U GamePad innovations:

- Inventory management on the GamePad
– Minimap display on the GamePad
– Detective Mode controlled via GamePad
– Activate items’ special functions on the GamePad
– Tilt control for Batarang

All of this sounds fine and dandy, right? Well, when I played the game, I noticed a few things that stuck out as… well, odd.

Inventory management is structured in pretty much exactly the way you’d expect. Items are laid out as a series of panels on the touch screen, and you tap them with your finger and move them over to the D-pad icon to equip them. On paper, it’s very similar to the praised inventory management setup in Ocarina of Time 3D. There’s one critical difference, however, and one that honestly killed the idea for me: you have to drag the item’s icon with your finger to equip it.

This doesn’t actually sound too bad, but in practice it was kind of annoying. Dragging my finger across the screen actually didn’t feel very satisfying – it works, for sure, but I felt a bit of friction against my fingertips that was… well, kind of uncomfortable. Occasionally the game didn’t correctly register my finger swipes, also, forcing me to try moving the item into place again.

Finger swipes are good for quick gestures like flipping between menus and screens. For inventory management, I found myself wishing that the game’s developers had elected to use a “tap-and-swap” setup instead that matched the Ocarina 3D setup to the letter. Tap one icon to select it, and tap a second icon or empty slot to move it. When you go through a game thinking about how you’d do the interface differently, it’s hard to walk away with a good impression. Maybe they’ll put this in the final game, but it wasn’t in the build I played at E3.

I had the same feeling about the batarang gyroscope controls. With most Wii U games, you’ll manipulate the gyro scope by holding the Wii U GamePad in front of your face, the screen in full view, while turning the controller either way like a steering wheel. In Arkham City: Armored Edition, you’ll instead hold the GamePad parallel to the ground while looking at the TV screen.

It works fine; don’t get me wrong. The controls are a little more sensitive than I’d like, but the motion input does exactly what it’s supposed to do. The problem is that after spending so much time with games that use a certain feature of the GamePad a certain way, when another game comes along that takes the same functionality and changes up the tactile feel, the result is that it doesn’t seem natural or intuitive.

I constantly found myself falling back into the groove I’d established playing other Wii U games on the show floor, shifting the controller so that it was parallel to the screen in front of me – but the game wouldn’t have it, and my batarang would drop off and run into the wall. I’m almost hesitant to say it’s a bona fide problem with the game and instead write it off as a “me” thing, but apparently I’m not the only one who had this issue.

The result is a series of ideas that are oh so terrific I just want to taste it in theory, but oh so awkward that it almost kills it in practice. I don’t doubt that given more time with the game, I’d get used to it – I got used to Kid Icarus: Uprising, after all. But I very much doubt that I’ll wind up walking away feeling as though that new control scheme that I thought was weird at first is actually more intuitive and accurate – I’ve already played a game that uses a touch screen inventory, and I already know its approach was vastly superior; I’ve played a game with motion-based remote control for a small drone, and it felt much more natural.

On the bright side, scanning clues in Detective Mode, planning your next move using the GamePad minimap, and using some of the other touch-related functions like setting off explosive gel by tapping a certain spot on the map all work beautifully. But a few well-executed ideas don’t make the problems any better.

Unfortunately, a lot of companies seem to be opting for ideas that fall in the “less satisfying” category. Ubisoft’s taking a bite out of both approaches to touch-managed inventories, with ZombiU utilizing a “drag-and-drop” method and Assassin’s Creed III using “tap-and-swap.” Sports Connection, also by Ubisoft, has you trace the path of your baseball on the touch screen to pitch it (I’m still not sure how I feel about this one). Project P-100 has you draw things on the screen to interact with various objects (of all the “finger drag” games, this is the one I liked best).

That’s not to say there aren’t some terrific cases. Rayman Legends‘s GamePad player interacts almost exclusively with the touch screen, making it a game that can be ideally played with a stylus. Its use of gyro controls for various puzzles is also top-notch and feels perfect. Rabbids Land has a wacky minigame that has you weaving a roller coaster car around incoming fireballs using motion control that works just as well. Using the GamePad to catch an incoming hit in Sports Connection baseball is also really satisfying. Scribblenauts Unlimited‘s touch keyboard is just the right size.

Still, just as there was with Wii, there’s absolutely no comparison between Nintendo’s first-party experiences and those offered by third-parties due to a few questionable implementations of certain new control functions – and I think that’s cause to be cautiously skeptical.

With Nintendo banking heavily on reining in third-party companies with the system’s added friendliness in terms of their needs, I have to wonder whether it’s going to be any more successful than its predecessor. Sure, third parties can always lean on that Pro Controller for traditional control options, but if that’s the case, will any multiplatform gaming fans really find Wii U to be worth the purchase? In the end, it’s going to depend on the success of Nintendo’s first-party efforts – and if a good number of third parties can really nail a few Wii U games along the way, more power to them.