Last year, Nintendo big cheese Reggie Fils-Aime made a passionate speech to attending E3 delegates about the extraordinary appeal of Wii and revealed an excellent range of both first and third party games. As a statement of intent about the power of gameplay over graphics and the fact that Wii was market leader with much to offer, it was strong stuff.
This year, aside from a Skyward Sword showcase tied in beautifully with an orchestra-driven homage to the Legend of Zelda on its 25th anniversary, Wii was conspicuous by its absence, with journos left to delve into Nintendo's E3 press pack to figure out what - if anything - of note was planned in the coming year for the console that has sold a staggering 86 million units in its 4.5 year lifespan. Was the Wii being put out to pasture?
Undoubtedly, the page had been turned: at this event Fils-Aime had his eye on the future, specifically in shoring up the fortunes of the Nintendo 3DS, and in unveiling the brand new Wii U console - the company's first foray into the era of high definition gaming.
The reveal of the Wii U name was met with a sense of general bemusement, followed by confusion about what the product actually was - a state of affairs later acknowledged by Saturo Iwata. The focus of the messaging was on the joypad/touchscreen controller hybrid, to the point where much of the audience was unaware of the fact that a base unit sits in the same room, attached to the TV.
We saw games running on the touchscreen, we saw a curious "magnification" effect whereby pointing the pad at the screen allowed you to zoom in on details, we saw on-controller images being "pushed" to the screen, we saw interesting HDTV/controller hybrid games, and the touchscreen even being used as a sketchpad. What we didn't see was much of the actual console itself, a slightly bigger, more rounded, modern revamp of the existing Wii.
We didn't get much of a taste of the console's visual capabilities either. In the initial introductory video, the only real semblance of an HD video game was a concept demo for the Legend of Zelda. In his excellent Wii U preview, Oli Welsh says it like it is:
"It's undeniably beautiful, although you can attribute this in part to Nintendo's exquisitely hand-crafted art assets," Welsh observes.
"The lighting is excellent, with many changing sources and a few particle effects in evidence - but my untrained eyes saw nothing here that an Xbox 360 or PS3 couldn't do. Perhaps Digital Foundry will say different."
Or perhaps not. The Zelda demo, or "HD Experience" as Nintendo calls it, is almost certainly running at a native resolution of 720p, with no anti-aliasing and seems to be locked at 30 frames per second with v-sync engaged (subsequently verified with a good look at a 60Hz feed taken from G4's broadcast coverage of the event).
The lack of any kind of hardware AA, combined with the sheer amount of light sources might suggest that this is Nintendo's stab at producing a deferred lighting engine (particularly when factoring in the player-controlled time of day element), but on the other hand, the engineers may simply be showcasing the shading power of their new hardware.
As it is, much of the aliasing is obscured in a depth of field effect, with character shading being rather CG toon-like - similar to what Nintendo use on their Miis, but with better edge silhouette lighting to give it a kind of unearthly glow. The art style is certainly different to the run-of-the-mill Xbox 360 title, with a fast fall-off in lighting around an object: Link is bathed in shadow very quickly once he stops being directly lit.
It's a good demo, but as Oli says, it's very difficult to see this as anything other than affirmation that Nintendo's technical vision of the next generation is to effectively match the rendering performance of what's in the marketplace already. Once again, the platform holder is relying on ingenious controller-based concepts rather than cutting-edge tech.
The only other hint we received about the technical prowess of the Wii U came from the Japanese garden demo, which shows a bird taking flight, landing on a tree branch which blossoms into flower, before returning to the skies again, soaring over water, where the scenes shifts to a fish leaping out towards the camera.
The water effect is one of the most impressive elements of the demo. The surface looks similar to the tessellated fluid surfaces added to Unreal Engine 3 during the Gears of War 2 development work, with a pleasing 3D volume to the effect that's most especially noticeable when the fish is just above or below the water line.
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