With its tablet-like controller, the Wii U is a seriously weird piece of kit. But, yet again, once you get your hands on it, a multitude of new gaming experiences tumble out of it. And the machine will have more hardcore appeal, too.
The Japanese gaming giant showed a prototype of the new console, dubbed the Wii U, at the E3 game conference here. It expects to ship the product sometime between April 1 and the end of 2012.
Although Nintendo was coy on many features, the company said the console will offer high-definition graphics—one area in which the Wii has come to look increasingly deficient compared with more powerful systems like Microsoft Corp.'s Xbox 360 and Sony Corp.'s PlayStation 3.
Nintendo's new controller is likely to attract the most attention, emulating the touchscreen technology Apple Inc. popularized with its hit iPhones and iPads. Such devices have come to compete more seriously as game devices with products from Nintendo and other console makers.
The touchscreen on the Nintendo controller measures 6.2 inches–-roughly mid-way between the size of the iPhone and iPad displays—and is placed between more traditional game-control buttons. Inside the controller is an accelerometer, the same kind of orientation-sensing device that allows Wii controllers to respond to users' motions.
The company showed only early game concepts intended to illustrate the Wii U's potential. In one demonstration of a chase game played with five people, one player raced around a maze staring at an aerial map only visible to them on the touchscreen. Without the advantage of the map, the other four players stared at the television, trying to ferret out the location of the fifth player by roaming the maze using traditional Wii controllers and shouting to each other whenever he was sighted.
Another demonstration of a concept called "shield pose" allows a player to use the new controller to block a projectile shot at them by an opponent—in this case, a pirate firing suction cups. The motion-sensing capabilities allowed players to pivot their bodies around a room hunting for an opponent, causing their perspective on the game to automatically shift on the controller's touchscreen.
In an interview prior to the E3 presentation, Nintendo President Satoru Iwata conceded that "people probably won't understand right away" what can be done with the new controller, but he expects it stimulate game creators in new ways.
"This is going to be able to create what I call a new format or new structure of entertainment," Mr. Iwata said. "By taking advantage of this new structure of entertainment, great new ideas can be popped up by developers."
Yves Guillemot, CEO of French game maker Ubisoft Entertainment SA, believes the new console will help his developers strive to make innovative new games. "It will be a completely different experience," Mr. Guillemot said. "When you have a touchscreen there's a lot more that you can do,"
It's unclear yet whether the Wii U will possess one of the Wii's biggest advantages: its original $250 price tag, significantly lower than rival consoles when the Wii was introduced in November 2006. Mr. Iwata declined to say how much the new product will cost.
Nintendo's move shows how intensely the games industry has come to focus on innovations in game controllers, which are often criticized as overly-complex. The Wii controllers' motion-sensing capabilities shook up the business, but Microsoft and Sony have more recently introduced their own twists in motion game-playing with their Kinect and Move devices.
Mr. Iwata said Nintendo began looking seriously at touchscreens for its new product before iPad sales began to take off. Mr. Iwata said the new controller will also be well-suited for people who want to navigate through online libraries of movies and other forms of entertainment.
The Wii remains the top-selling home videogame system with 86 million units sold as of March 2011. But the Xbox 360 and PS3 have closed the gap on Nintendo, shipping more than 50 million units each.
After demand peaked in the fiscal year ended March 2009, Wii sales dropped 21% and 26% in the last two years—even as Nintendo cut the price of the game machine.
The PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 pack costly processing power which enabled it to play complex games with high-definition graphics, while the Wii does not. When high-definition televisions became the industry norm in recent years, sales of the Wii began to suffer.