The Wii U GamePad is Not a Mistake

I think it’s safe to say that Pikmin 3 isn’t a strong showcase title for the Wii U GamePad’s potential as a controller to offer new experiences. At best, its main advantage lies in its ability to display a dedicated map screen. Whoop-de-do. We’ve seen this a million times on DS already. Nintendo even seems to be promoting the Wii Remote & Nunchuk combination as the best control scheme for the game, no doubt to offer some familiarity for Wii players.

NowGamer’s Adam Barnes has decided that because it’s not a GamePad showcase title “Pikmin 3 proves Wii U was a mistake.” However, I couldn’t disagree more.

Let’s analyze the salient points of the piece.

The first point is that because Wii U’s use of the GamePad as a dedicated map isn’t “inventive,” it’s therefore wrong. Barnes cites the difficulty other companies have had in defining uses for the GamePad as proof that there’s simply no utility.

While there’s something to be said here, let’s consider another important point: the games in question here originated on other platforms that don’t make use of dedicated second screens. Pikmin already worked without a touch screen, and if you ask me, the fact that Nintendo didn’t try to change this is a good thing. As much as I loved the touch control in Nintendo Land‘s Pikmin Adventure attraction, trying to force it into this game would get in the way of some of Pikmin‘s finer mechanics at best, and force a superior form of control to depend on an inferior screen at worst.

pikmin-3-gamepadThe same is true for third-party games. Most third-party publishers don’t wish to make games that they can’t take multiplatform. That means these games will be designed to the lowest common denominator in terms of control features – and that lowest common denominator doesn’t require a second screen. You should’t expect completely innovative GamePad-centered gameplay from titles like these. The best you should expect are the most accessible benefits of a second screen, and that’s off-screen management of things like maps, inventories, and so on.

What the GamePad does offer Pikmin 3 is a detailed reference map that’s available at all times, so you don’t have to constantly pause the game to coordinate between captains or plan your next move. Previous Pikmin titles didn’t even have mini-maps, and now you have a pannable, zoomable, bona fide full-color overview right at your fingertips. And let’s be clear – for a strategy game, that’s a pretty freaking gigantic deal.

The obnoxious dimension of this point is that he even admits that DS was innovative. And yet, how did most DS games use the touch screen? For inventory management and maps. Second screens may not be the New Shiny anymore, but that doesn’t mean their benefits are magically less useful.

His second point involves the GamePad’s ergonomics. In Pikmin 3, you can perform an evasive dodge roll maneuver by pressing the D-pad, but that means that you’ll have to quickly slide your thumb off the left analog stick to pull it off. According to Barnes, that’s a bit awkward and often results in wrong button presses.

It’s a fair point… but once again, I feel it’s a bit unfair to apply this complaint only to Wii U. Switching between a primary analog stick and buttons is awkward on any controller. It was awkward on the GameCube controller. It’s awkward on Classic and Pro Controllers. It’s awkward on Xbox controllers. It’s even awkward on PlayStation DualShock controllers, though their configuration is considerably better-suited to this kind of control.

If there’s anything that I find fault with in this scenario, it’s the fact that Nintendo mapped a reaction-intensive dodge move to the D-pad in the first place – why not use the L or R buttons, perhaps in combination with the left stick? This is an issue of clumsy game design, not clumsy controller design. There’s a reason why most games don’t require these two directional inputs to be used in tandem to perform action moves.

His third point is best summed up in his own words:

Now you could argue that PIkmin 3 can be played with three different controllers, the GamePad, the Wii Remote and the Pro Controller – the latter being a more traditional option.

Yes, that’s true, but resignedly doing so would kind of prove my point. All I’ll miss out on is the lack of a quickly accessible map, but shouldn’t the GamePad – the Wii U’s selling point – feel a little more, well, mandatory?

Wii-U-pro-controller-forcedThis is probably the crux of the entire article. If Wii U doesn’t really require the GamePad, then why is it there at all?

But this hearkens back to one of the most enduring complaints about Wii. Because Wii Remotes were the primary controller for the system, and because Wii Remotes offered a totally disparate control scheme to the controllers available for other consoles, that meant that every Wii game that appeared on the system more or less had to be designed to the Wii Remote’s unique specifications. Most major developers didn’t really want to do this.

The GamePad offers control parity with Xbox and PlayStation controllers… and it also has extra features that, as Barnes rightly points out, aren’t mandatory. In theory, this should mean that developers can simply leverage the GamePad’s second screen for Off-TV Play, as a map or inventory management screen, or even not at all. And because so many Wii Remotes, Nunchuks, and Classic Controllers are already out there, they can also leverage these controllers. While developers felt restricted control-wise by Wii, they’re now unrestricted on Wii U.

But apparently encouraging this level of choice and freedom for both players and developers isn’t an asset for Wii U, it’s a problem. If that GamePad isn’t absolutely mandatory, then it has no reason to exist.

That said, I’d be lying if I didn’t acknowledge that the GamePad has caused Wii U some issues. For one, it’s dominated the system’s image to the point that a number of consumers believe it’s a standalone add-on for Wii. Incidentally, I don’t think it’d be able to survive as an add-on – its benefits don’t really justify being sold as a standalone product. However, as an included feature of a full-blown console, the GamePad adds all its value – including diverse capabilities as a traditional controller, touch controller, and motion controller as well as Off-TV Play – on top of access to an entire generation of Wii U titles.

WiiU-GamePad-FeaturedAnd I don’t think Barnes is totally grasping at straws here. Wii was able to justify its $250 price, which while low compared to its competitors was considered high for a Nintendo console with its hardware specifications, because people were captivated by the Wii Remote and Wii Sports. Wii U’s trying to justify an even higher price point, but without Wii levels of consumer appeal. The added cost of the GamePad is just too high for what people are willing to pay, and without a standout title to drive its popularity, Wii U’s having trouble taking off. That’s a pretty big problem.

But in the end that’s more a problem of price and a weak software lineup than the controller per se. DS and 3DS have demonstrated that people are comfortable with the idea of a two-screen system, and if there’s anything we’ve learned from 3DS’s first year it’s that the right price paired with the right software sells systems. If the Wii U Deluxe Set were sold for $250 and Nintendo managed to release a key title at least every month or two during this first year, I’m confident it would have largely avoided these early momentum issues.

So has Nintendo made mistakes? Sure. Is the Wii U GamePad the cause of those mistakes? Perhaps, but only to the extent that Nintendo made a poor gamble in deciding what it would be worth in the marketplace. As far as the second screen concept goes, the GamePad is as much of a “mistake” as DS was, since it wasn’t the two screens that sold systems – it was top-notch software.