E3 Press Conference: Nintendo reveals the Wii U

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This morning, Nintendo was the last of the "big 3" to hold their E3 press conferences. We knew what their big reveal was going to be: a new console. How'd we know? Nintendo told us a few weeks ago. We'd finally see "Project Cafe" in action.

But before we got to the good stuff, Shigeru Miyamoto, aided by a live orchestra, talked at length about The Legend of Zelda which is enjoying its 25th anniversary this year. Lots of Zelda titles headed our way. Link's Awakening is coming to the 3DS e-shop today, the 3DS version of Ocarina of Time hits stores next weekend, Four Swords is coming to the e-shop in September and then Skyward Sword launches for the Wii this holiday season.

Once they'd wrung everything they could out of this Zelda anniversary, Nintendo's Satoru Iwata took the stage to talk about gaming in general. He said there are game systems for core gamers, and game systems for casual gamers, but no game systems that offers something for everyone. Until now, at least. He was referring to the new console...and then he told us we'd learn more about that later. The new console is for 2012 but 2011 is about the 3DS handheld.

And with that, the human marketing-machine known as Reggie Fils-Aime took the stage to talk about upcoming Nintendo 3DS titles. Word on the street is that the 3DS isn't selling as well as Nintendo had hoped it would, and they're trying to address that by bringing out new games for the system.

Five "headline titles" were mentioned: Mario Cart 3DS (Holiday 2011), Starfox 3DS (September), Super Mario 3D (2011), Kid Icarus Uprising (2011) and finally Luigi's Mansion 2 (no release date mentioned). That's a nice lineup of titles for die hard Nintendo fans, but to me it just looks like a bunch of rerun IPs. Maybe I'm too old and bitter to drink the Nintendo Kool-Aid, though.

Third party support for 3DS looks more interesting, and we saw a montage consisting of Resident Evil Mercenaries, a Mario and Sonic sports title, Tetris, Cave Story 3D, Resident Evil Revelations, Ace Combat, Pac Man and Galaga, Tekken 3D, Driver: Renegade and finally Metal Gear Solid: Snake Eater 3D.

It's hard to argue that there's not something for everyone in that lineup, but the problem with the 3DS is that you can't really demo it on-camera very well. That meant there was no hands-on gameplay during the Nintendo press conference, which gave the whole thing a bit of a sterile feel.

Anyway, with 3DS out of the way, and the Wii barely mentioned, it was on to Project Cafe, which got its official name: Wii U. There's some esoteric theory of "Wii" sounding inclusive and "U" sounding personal, but I've long since given up on understanding video game hardware naming conventions.

The press conference focused exclusively on the curious Wii U controller. It has a 6.2" touch screen, two analog circle buttons (think analog sticks, more or less), 4 shoulder buttons, a d-pad and four face buttons. It's got a speaker, an accelerometer and a front facing camera.

It gets content from the Wii U console itself. All images are rendered on the console (which was barely mentioned and not shown) and sent to this large controller. They showed a lot of fancy stuff to do with the controller. At one point someone is playing a game on the TV and a second person announces "It's baseball time!" and turns on the game. The player looks down and the game he had been viewing on the TV was now displayed on the controller screen, and he could keep playing.

In a golf demo, the controller is laid on the floor. It shows the golf ball, sitting in a sand trap. The TV screen shows the course. The player swings a Wii Remote to hit the ball, which flies off the controller and onto the screen. In another example, a baseball game, the player holds up the controller and moves it around to indicate where a pitch should be thrown (presumably a 2nd player can't see the screen on his controller). After the ball is hit, the waves the controller around so that a cross-hair on the display lines up with the flying ball, in order to make a catch.

You can draw on the screen via a stylus, too. And all Wii accessories will be backwards compatible. In one example a person checks into Wii Fit using the WIi Balance Board and the Wii U's remote, never bothering to turn the TV on. Yet another example showed the player holding the remote flat, and 'flicking' throwing stars off the surface of the remote and 'into' targets on the TV screen.

Oh, and you can video chat via the controller, too. Nintendo seems to finally be embracing online. In short, there's a lot of interesting gameplay ideas, but unfortunately, again, there were no live demos at the press conference.

Check out this reveal video from the press conference. Skip the first 2 minutes or so if you want to give Reggie a pass:

We did see another montage of 3rd party titles coming to Wii U, and they included games like EA's Battlefield and Rocksteady's Batman Arkham City. The montage was heavily loaded with mature games running in high resolution: clearly an attempt by Nintendo to grab the attention of the 'core' gamer.

In an interview with G4 TV after the press conference, Reggie Fils-Aime stated that the Wii U does 1080P output, so finally Nintendo joins the high definition age.

We didn't get a launch date more concrete than 2012 and "after March" so that leaves a 9-month launch window. Based on the fact that there were no live demos and that Nintendo seemed to want to keep the console itself under wraps, I'm not expecting Wii U to launch before Holiday 2012, but I'd be happy to be proven wrong.

I think Nintendo has a hit here. It was the first thing in all the E3 coverage I've been watching that made my girlfriend, who is a geek but not normally a console gamer, to sit up and take notice. She was immediately fascinated by the possibilities of the unique controller, while I was very excited by the idea of high definition, mature gaming coming to a Nintendo console. It's a pretty safe bet that we'll have a Wii U in our living room on launch day.

So, Nintendo's press conference rating? I'm giving it an A-, based almost entirely on the Wii U reveal. No offense to Shigeru Miyamoto, but the Zelda section bored me, and I'm still not convinced the 3DS is going to enjoy the success that earlier Nintendo handhelds have. The Wii U was really interesting but still seems like it's a long way off. And poor Wii owners were left wondering what's to become of their console. Zelda Skyware Sword was the only Wii title mentioned in the entire conference. It almost feels like Nintendo has given up on the Wii.

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