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Nintendo Wii U enhances experience with GamePad

| Saturday, Nov. 24, 2012, 12:01 a.m.

Nintendo's Wii felt like a gaming revolution. Unlike its increasingly complex, button-riddled competitors, the Wii's controller was a magic wand. Simply stand and point, it seemed to be saying, and leave behind the burden of pressing a combination of X's, Y's, squares and triangles. Since its 2006 release, it's estimated to have put a spell on nearly 100 million users worldwide.

In contrast, Nintendo's high-definition Wii U console (sure to be in short supply this holiday season) feels less otherworldly and more bound to existing technology.

The powerful system puts forth a valiant and ambitious solution to a video game quandary: How does a gaming console — that box tethered to a television by one of those unsightly, old-timey cords — survive in an era dominated by the intimate touch screens of smartphones and tablets?

Simple: Join them.

The Wii U has traded the traditional controller for a touch screen that Nintendo has christened the GamePad. It's not sleek and sexy — think part iPad Mini, part child's first tablet — but it works wirelessly with the console's operating system.

The idea is that our individual screens shouldn't be stand-alone devices but should interact, so the GamePad now allows you to play the same game on its small screen and on your TV screen at the same time.

Why would you want to do that? Because what you see on the GamePad as opposed to the TV isn't always the same, and that dynamic aspires to add a new dimension to gaming. But more on that later.

The GamePad also works as an entertainment hub: Tap it to turn up the volume on the TV, change the channel or, soon, browse Netflix. And, if your annoying roommate wants to watch “Honey Boo Boo” while you're engrossed in the “New Super Mario Bros. U,” switch Mario and Co. to the GamePad — even while the game is in progress. Crisis solved. The game can then be played entirely on the GamePad, which for me worked just fine up to two rooms away from the base system.

All this makes the Wii U perhaps the most versatile gaming system ever invented. And today, amid the current cloud-driven digital revolution, convenience is power.

As for Wii U's drawbacks? Simply put, it's difficult to explain why a tablet that interacts with the TV is a necessary gaming advancement, and the initial Nintendo advertisements haven't exactly helped. They've highlighted the least impressive aspect of the Wii U — how it simplifies karaoke — by heavily showcasing Nintendo's “Sing Party.” It's nice that the person holding the GamePad can select songs with a swipe of the screen and then read the lyrics on the handheld display, but that's a minor perk of a system that runs $299.99 or $349.99, depending on the configuration.

It also lacks the surprise-like wonder of the Wii. When it was released six years ago, it felt space-age imaginative. The Wii had but one rule it needed players to understand: You, the person holding the controller, will stand up and wave your arm.

Perhaps not since the invention of a pinball machine had a piece of gaming equipment made so much sense. Soon, activities such as tennis and bowling suddenly found themselves needing added clarification. Did you actually go bowling, or were you Wii bowling?

Nintendo is on the forefront of multi-screen gaming, and one doesn't need to have the Wii U turned on long to see that the system is full of pleasantly unexpected surprises. For instance, it took all of 30 seconds for the system to sync with each of the two TVs it was attached to, and then — voila! — the Wii U GamePad was a remote.

You can play your old Wii games on the system, but they won't come with the benefits of new games designed for the Wii U.

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