After a year of rumours and speculation based on developer leaks and inconclusive E3 2011 demos, we are now just days away from our first real look at the final version of Nintendo's new Wii U hardware. While controversy surrounds the spec of the machine and whether there is any kind of generational leap from the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, perhaps the more interesting topic is just how some of the world's greatest game designers will utilise the immense level of graphical performance a more modern GPU has to offer. In short, to what extent is Nintendo HD ready?
This is perhaps the most exciting aspect of the upcoming Wii U re-reveal: while the mainstream games industry has pursued ever more realistic game visuals since the launch of the original PlayStation, Nintendo's internal game development teams have taken their own path, transitioning across their signature 2D style into three-dimensional worlds, exploring the new gameplay opportunities this represents and creating some unforgettable games in the process. In comparison to PS3 and Xbox 360, the Wii is undoubtedly backward from a technical perspective, but this has not held back the artists and game designers who have continued to make unique, brilliant games.
Nintendo has been criticised for the lack of technological ambition in its console designs, and it's safe to say that a pattern is emerging of investment being placed into the controller rather than the rendering hardware. Wii is perhaps the most obvious example: the 180nm Gekko and Flipper hardware found in the GameCube was re-architected from 180nm down to a 90nm production process, with very mild changes to basic spec. The resultant Broadway and Hollywood chips were much the same as their predecessors, but running at a significantly higher speed. The sobering truth is that Nintendo's current console is essentially running on hardware first devised in 1999.
Despite this, the firm's internal development teams have performed miracles with the technology available to them. On this page, you'll see tentpole Wii titles rendered in high definition via the Dolphin emulator: instant "HD remasters" of Super Mario Galaxy 2, Mario Kart Wii and New Super Mario Bros, all looking quite wonderful, each title given a new lease of life simply by virtue of extra resolution, anti-aliasing, improved texture filtering and end-to-end digital reproduction from framebuffer to screen.
"Ironically, despite possessing the weakest console hardware, it is Nintendo that has demonstrated the biggest commitment to 60FPS gameplay in its key first-party titles."
Similar to the God of War and Metal Gear Solid HD Collections, these factors alone help "unlock" the full potential of the original assets, freed from the 640x480 constraints of the Wii's analogue video outputs. We see how less is sometimes more: lighting is exceptionally basic by current-gen standards, but the application in terms of the overall aesthetic is often flawless. Detail in the characters - both in terms of Mario himself and his antagonists - is often exemplary, scaling up beautifully into high definition.
The CG cartoon-style animation is also superb: flawlessly fluid, full of character. In the case of the Mario titles (and many others) this is helped immensely by the fact that Nintendo insists upon a locked 60FPS frame-rate. In an era where the major first-party HD exclusives usually operate at half that frame-rate, there is some kind of irony that it is the platform with the weakest architecture that is offering the most "must-have" titles running at full 60Hz. There's no doubt that Super Mario Galaxy 2 could be even more rich from a visual perspective were it to halve target frame-rate. The game's creators chose not to for a very specific reason: the interface between player and game is such a crucial component of the Mario experience that Nintendo refuses to compromise it.
If Super Mario Galaxy 2 represents the pinnacle of Nintendo's accomplishments, other key Mario titles also offer up some interesting insights. With Mario Kart Wii, the load of rendering so many vehicles does see a noticeable drop in poly count in both backgrounds and characters, and the transition into HD is not quite so successful - however, key stages can still look quite beautiful and there's still a palpable sense that you're participating in an interactive 60Hz CG rendered cartoon: a stark contrast to just about any current-gen HD racer you may care to mention.
"HD emulation 'unlocks' the potential of Nintendo's core assets. These are beautifully designed games built to modern standards with untouchable art, held back simply by the vintage rendering tech."
With New Super Mario Bros we see something quite intriguing: the HD emulation of the original Wii title is very similar indeed to the demo version of the same game we saw at last year's E3. While the game is 2D in nature, many of the assets are still rendered in three dimensions and thus scale up very well to provide a close match to the Wii U multiplayer demo. There are some obvious differences, however - some textures, UI elements and basic 2D art clearly possess a significantly higher resolution.
While in many ways the Wii may be operating with antique 3D rendering architecture, Nintendo's key titles will have had enviable development budgets and the best available talent working on them - and there would have been a modern-day approach to game-making applied to the older hardware platform. Those same attributes applied even to an Xbox 360-level of hardware must surely result in some must-have games - and based on the evolution of the franchise, we can make some educated guesses on where Nintendo will take Mario next.
The company has been CG-rendering its flagship character for years now, but as the HD renderings of the Wii title show, Nintendo is getting close to fully realising a complete CG Mario world in-game. We can reasonably expect the next key 3D Mario title to see his in-game incarnation far more accurately represent the reference model, while environments and lighting will obviously be significantly richer too. We should be looking for a Mario game that seeks to emulate the kind of look we see from Pixar movies, with that level of production values as the ideal.
Elsewhere it's really difficult to anticipate exactly how Nintendo aims to make use of the new rendering power available to its engine programmers and artists, much less how the tablet controls will be utilised. We can only hope the concepts are stronger than those demoed at E3 12 months ago.
"Nintendo's dev teams have punched well above their weight with their Wii classics - there's no reason we should not expect great things from Wii U titles regardless of its tech spec."
However, last year's "HD experience" demo using The Legend of Zelda assets look much closer to the established idea of a conventional current-generation game engine. The masses of light sources on tap might suggest a deferred shading solution (or at least demonstrate the pixel-shading prowess of the new hardware) while staple current-gen effects such as depth-of-field are all present and correct. Model complexity, texture detail, 720p resolution and a locked 30FPS also suggest a general level of parity with current-gen tech. What would elevate this game beyond the competition would be the "Nintendo difference": the quality of the art, the presentation and the gameplay genius that puts the firm's top-tier games in a class of their own.
"We do not focus on technology specs," Nintendo told Yahoo's Digital Trends in response to rumoured developer unrest about the processing power of the Wii U. "We understand that people like to dissect graphics and processing power, but the experience of playing will always be more important than raw numbers."
In putting together this feature and emulating the cream of the Wii's library at full HD, one thing becomes abundantly clear: what many describe as a cop-out response to developer gripes that the Wii U isn't technologically competitive with PS3 and Xbox 360 is anything but. Nintendo makes its own games to its own impeccable standards and raw playability is the primary focus. In terms of visual accomplishment, the videos on this page demonstrate that the firm is more than capable of producing experiences that belie the specs of the hardware hosting them.
Wii U opens up possibilities to Nintendo's developers that extend far beyond shader effects, poly counts and texture quality - the most exciting aspect is how these teams will utilise that power in terms of new game features. On top of that, its titles are platform-exclusive, so comparisons with existing consoles will be irrelevant to its core business, and Nintendo knows that its machines tend to sell based on the quality of its first-party titles. Where all of this leaves the third-parties who concentrate on multi-platform releases remains unclear, but thankfully we're just a few short days away from some firm answers.