Since its announcement, journalists and the public alike have been trying to wrap their heads around the Wii U controller. It’s a touch-screen tablet, plus it’s a gamepad that’s fitted with sticks, buttons, and triggers. It’s also a perfectly adept motion controller, like the Wiimote, that can either be aimed at the television a la cursor or gyroscoped this way or that.
I’ve finally figured out the Wii U remote in a way that satisfies my mental taxonomy. The Wii U controller is every style of controller you’ve ever seen, all stuffed into one chunk of frankenplastic. It’s Nintendo’s take on "The Homer." It’s a sundae with all 31 flavors on top. And as yummy as that sounds on paper, no one likes peanut butter and gummy worms in the same bowl.
It’s too early to say whether the Wii U will be a fun, novel gaming system like the original Wii, but this week, Nintendo debuted a new functionality called TVii. It’s their attempt to leverage the Wii into a living room entertainment box (yes, another one!). And from Nintendo’s very brief presentation on it, despite promising features like a second screen for play-by-play football and integrated TiVo support, the Wii U remote could make TVii a total mess.
It all comes down to the above picture. Look at all those virtual buttons to control video playback. Despite the fact that much of TVii’s interface features big, finger-squishable icons that are perfect for a tablet screen, all of that careful arrangement devolves into a DirecTV remote.
How many buttons are on this thing now? I count 27 on that virtual dial alone (and I’m not acknowledging the fact that the outer ring spins to reveal more). This is in addition to the 14-ish buttons on the Wii U remote’s face, along with the four, I believe, hiding on the top and backside. Despite being able to play an episode of Breaking Bad with a single tap, there are 45 buttons sitting around at all times, waiting and generally getting in the way.
Not so long ago, I talked to the head of television remote design at Vizio. I asked why our remotes were so absurdly overloaded with buttons, and he laughed, acknowledging his own industry’s ridiculousness. Then he explained that Vizio had developed a lot of very sleek remotes with gyroscopes and no buttons. Focus testers would opt for them over the old button-laden designs without fail. Then they’d take the chic remotes home, and within a week, they’d be begging for their old clunky remotes back.
For however silly our giant remotes look, never underestimate the value of muscle memory and a clickable thing that works every single time. When I look at the Wii U with all those virtual buttons, I realize just how confused an idea the Wii U remote may turn out to be. (Stay with me for another tangent. I’ll come back to this, promise.) Remember when the first iPhone came out? Everyone who used a Blackberry said the touch-screen QWERTY would never catch on because it wasn’t 100% accurate, because you couldn’t feel the buttons. Well they were right about the accuracy, a platform weakness for sure, but the touch screen came with so many bonuses—more room for content, flexible UIs, etc.—that it was more than worth the trade off. The pluses outweigh the minuses, and now every premium smartphone uses the exact same touch-typing scheme.
In combining all of these advantageous elements of various controllers, it feels like the Wii U may have stacked their UI weaknesses too high, building a superhero with unlimited promise but an allergy to not just kryptonite, but sunlight, water, and air, too. The Wii U remote might feature the worst of gamepads, touch screens, and motion controllers so much so that it overshadows all of its bests.
The Wii U remote has a bunch of buttons that are great for gaming, but they’re lousy for watching TV. They also bulk up what would be a sleek tablet, and sit around to be erroneously struck during the most dramatic climax of your favorite show.
So the touch screen saves the day. The approach makes logical sense. It offers a second screen to expand content, and it can fill in all of those specific play, pause, and skip functions that a game controller might lack. But those controls cut right into all of its fancy content, destroying that second screen’s core value. And those primary controls aren’t nearly as good as real, muscle-memory-fueled buttons for controlling TiVo anyway. The trade-off is lousy all around.
At this point, Nintendo doesn’t appear to even bother with any clever motion control stuff to solve the problem. Because motion control is generally even more finicky than the hard buttons and the soft buttons. All of this hardware, this expensive, bulky, battery-sucking hardware, is sitting right in your lap. And all you want to do is change the channel.
Maybe the Wii U will be the most fun I’ve ever had gaming. Only time and software developers will tell. But it doesn’t look to be the uber-convenient second screen entertainment revolution that it so hopes to be. No, as unromantic as it sounds, that revolution will probably just be your iPad, right alongside that horrid, trusty DirecTV remote as backup.