Control freak

Six years ago, Nintendo rewrote the video game rule book. This year the company hopes to do it again.

In 2006 the Japanese gaming powerhouse surprised everyone by allowing games played on its Wii console to be controlled with near-normal actions such as hitting a ball with a tennis racquet or baseball bat, or standing on a board that sensed movement well enough to tell if a player was off-balance.

It seems strange in retrospect, but right up until its release the console's performance was viewed as underpowered and impractical compared with new machines from Sony (PlayStation 3) and Microsoft (Xbox). Most industry commentators believed the Wii would never sell and would be remembered as Nintendo's swan song.

In fact, the machine that could not possibly succeed blew the competition away.

Despite its inferior graphical capabilities and unconventional motion-sensitive controller, the Wii outsold the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 by a wide margin. At its peak it was selling as many units as both of its competitors combined.

This Christmas shopping season, history may be set to repeat itself, with Nintendo again bringing a new console to retail shelves, hoping to win customers over with its unusual controller. The new machine is called the Wii U and its key selling point is the WiiPad, a unique hybrid of video game controller and tablet device. The blocky hand-held controller features a touch-screen flanked by the familiar thumb-sticks and buttons from a standard game controller. It is also equipped with motion sensors, just like the original Wii Remote.

The chief executive and president of Nintendo, Satoru Iwata, has said the original inspiration for the device came from his concern about the living-room game console monopolising the television. Why not put the screen right there on the controller?

Apart from playing games without occupying the family television, this self-contained display has given rise to what is referred to as ''asymmetric'' gameplay. In most games with multiple players, everyone is operating on a level playing field. Each player uses the same controls, has access to the same information and is trying to achieve competing but similar goals. However, if one player has access to secret information, displayed on a personal screen rather than on the television where all can see it, they can have their own goal and work against the other players.

Examples of this style of play were exhibited at the recent Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) in Los Angeles last month. Nintendo unveiled Nintendo Land, a suite of mini-games including Luigi's Ghost Mansion. In this game, a team of four ghost-hunters explores a dark mansion, trying to track down and corner an invisible ghost. The ghost is only visible on the WiiPad, which is used by the player controlling the ghost. The ghost-hunters need to track down their quarry using deduction and teamwork, while the ghost tries to creep up on each of them in turn and eliminate them from the game.

The Wii U's new controller will also allow new ways for gamers to control their single-player games. Since it now has the grunt to run the same games as the Xbox and PlayStation, the Wii U's library of games will include many of the same titles found on competing consoles, but with added touch-screen features that promise new ways to interact with these digital worlds.

Nintendo hopes this new controller and the myriad possibilities it offers will lead the Wii U to repeat the unexpected success of its predecessor.

Working in its favour are the popularity of the Wii brand and its association with family-friendly entertainment, along with its support for existing Wii games and controllers, including the Wii Remote and the extremely popular Wii Fit balance board.

There is only one question mark hanging over the impending launch, but it is a big one: How much will the Wii U cost?

The Wii succeeded at least in part because it was relatively inexpensive. Launching at $400 in Australia, it cost $250 less than the Xbox 360 and was more than half the price of the PlayStation 3. The Wii U's price has not been announced, but greater processing power and the inclusion of a touch-screen controller almost certainly will mean higher cost. Nintendo is tight-lipped.

Will it take off? No doubt its competitors are working on trying to outdo the new concept, so expect more to change in the interface between gamer and game.

The story Control freak first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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