OPINION: The Wii U Gamepad is the Best Controller Ever

Monday, February 4th, 2013

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Note: This article is the author’s personal opinion and may not reflect the opinion the website as a whole. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, and we’d love to hear yours in the comments below.

As a little kid, my parents wouldn’t let me own a Nintendo Entertainment System. Maybe because they knew I would spend all day glued in front of the television set. Maybe it’s because they saw the prices and knew it would become an expensive hobby. Maybe they just wanted me to be a normal kid and play outside. Whatever the reason, thankfully my older cousins and kindergarten friends all had open access to the NES. Meaning that although I didn’t have one to come home to myself, I still had ample opportunity to get my grimy little five-year-old hands on that now iconic rectangular gamepad.

In the time between then and today, I’ve managed to own every handheld and home console released by Nintendo (aside from the Virtual Boy), both the original PlayStation and the PlayStation 2, and an Xbox 360. I’ve also spent a considerable amount of time playing games on PC, from keyboard controls on DOS and Windows 3.1, to point-and-click adventures, and even a handful of flight-sims using a gigantic flight stick. I even have a dusty old Atari 2600 with some bulky joysticks that feature only a single button.

That means I’ve had my hands on a lot of different controllers. In the past, I always insisted that the DualShock 2 for PS2 was my favorite controller. It had the perfect button placement inherited from the Super Nintendo, silky twin analog sticks, comfortable hand grips, and smooth force-feedback (unlike the N64’s rumble pack… ouch). The GameCube came in at a close second place with the oversized A button and analog triggers. And then, the Wii U was announced.

It Starts

I was not in attendance when the Wii U was unveiled at E3 2011, but I had avidly followed the “Project Café” rumors popping up across the web and had seen fan-made art showcasing what looked like a Classic Controller Pro with a screen slapped in the middle. When actually shown off at E3, from where I sat in front of my computer, I was simultaneously overjoyed and completely dumbfounded. Overjoyed because it was a brand new Nintendo console. Dumbfounded because “Wii U”? Seriously? And that controller was the ugliest thing I’ve ever seen. Well, almost.  It looked clunky, bulky, and it didn’t even have real analog sticks, just little circle-pad sliders. Those fortunate to be in attendance said it’s more comfortable than it looks, but without getting my hands on the actual controller, I couldn’t really believe them.

how-could-the-wii-2-controller-work-20110415053115064_640w

Fan art posted by IGN before the official Wii U unveiling.

Fortunately I was able to attend E3 2012, and that’s when my perception started to change. Previously constrained to what I had been reading on some of the bigger video game blogs, my original thoughts were that the Wii U Gamepad was attempting to compete with the tablet market. Or maybe handhelds.  What was the Gamepad trying to compete with?

What kind of controller is the Gamepad?

Major gaming blogs were reporting all types of rumors about what type of tech would be included in the Gamepad; the touch screen would not feature multi-touch, and it would include near-field communication (NFC –what connects Activision’s Skylanders to the “Power Circle” and payment key fobs you may swipe when buying gas). It would be wireless, and by E3 2012, the circle-pads had been replaced with real analog sticks.

The biggest piece of misinformation that was being spread, however, was the comparison of the Wii U Gamepad to tablets. Some secular journals and even a majority of gaming blogs were trying to shoehorn the “tablet controller” descriptor onto the Wii U Gamepad, writing articles about how a “tablet controller” would be doomed to failure in an ecosystem where everyone already owns a tablet and smartphone.

But here was the underlying problem: the Wii U Gamepad is not a tablet. It is not in competition with tablets. It is not seeking to replicate the success of tablets. In fact, once I got my hands on the actual controller at E3, it all started to make sense. The Wii U Gamepad is a regular video game controller – with a touch-screen in the middle. That’s it. In theory, I could play any game for Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3 using the Gamepad.

Wii U Gamepad

IT’S NOT A TABLET.

After E3 was over, I couldn’t be more excited to actually own a Wii U. Sure, I would have preferred a different console name (seriously? Wii U?), and yes, Nintendo should have done a better job of explaining what made the Wii U so unique. But all told, I personally couldn’t wait until Wii U launch.

What I really didn’t understand post-E3 was how the internet continued to blaze with comments about the so-called “tablet controller”. Some developers even went on the record to say that they couldn’t port their future multi-platform games to Wii U because it was such a radically different controller interface.

My question is this: Did any of these people actually get their hands on the Wii U Gamepad?

Why the Wii U Gamepad is Possibly the Best Video Game Controller of All Time. All Time.

Now you know why I’m writing this piece. It has been over three months since the Wii U launched. I’m having a blast playing games with it, while many others, some even long-time Nintendo fans, have already dismissed the Wii U as a gimmick.

I’m here to tell you that the Wii U is not only not a gimmick, but in many ways improves the standard controllers of the last-gen Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.

First, the Wii U has nearly everything you’ve come to know and love about standard controllers:

  • Four well placed face buttons (A,B,X,Y)
  • Start (+) and Select (-) buttons
  • Four digital shoulder buttons (L, R, ZL, ZR)
  • Twin analog sticks that can be clicked down to function as auxiliary buttons
  • D-Pad (a real one, not like the mushy Xbox 360 ones)
  • Home button (instantly takes you to the eShop, internet, or Miiverse without leaving a game)
  • Force-feedback/rumble
  • Gyroscopic sensors (similar technology to Wii Motion Plus)
  • Accelerometer (not simple 6-axis, this is the same tech as the original Wii Remote)
  • Infrared sensor
  • Wireless (although battery life does leave something to be desired…)
  • Ergonomic design

On top of these standard features, the Gamepad also has:

  • The signature touch screen with stylus
  • Built-in speakers with volume control
  • Built-in microphone
  • 3.5mm headphone jack (meaning any headset, including those with a mic, will work – no more proprietary headsets)
  • Near-field communication (although we’ve yet to see any titles make use of it)
  • Front facing camera (used in some games and for the console’s free video chat service)
  • “Sensor Strip” (technically a Wii sensor bar built into the Gamepad – could potentially be used to play Wii games on the Gamepad off-screen in a future update)
  • Universal TV/device remote

Wii U Details

Now, the list of features above in itself may not hold much weight by just reading them, so allow me to try to explain… First, take everything you love about the Xbox 360 “S” controller or DualShock 2/3, stretch it out slightly, and add a screen and speakers, and THAT is the Wii U Gamepad. In addition, unlike the DualShock and S controllers, the Wii U Gamepad fits quite comfortably in my hands, for both one handed play using a stylus, or classic play with both hands. The Gamepad is slightly larger than last-gen controllers, but for someone with bigger hands such as myself, that is actually preferred. The shape of the Gamepad is nicely contoured so your fingers naturally slide into place with your index finger resting on the shoulder buttons.

The touchscreen on the Gamepad is crystal clear. And unlike my TV, which has a locked-in overscan that the Wii U can’t compensate for, the Gamepad displays the full extents of the screen, providing in essence a “bigger”, more vibrant picture than my 1080p TV (technically, the Gamepad has a 6.2 in display at 854 x 480 resolution with 158 ppi).

The built-in speakers provide a much better sound than the Wii or 3DS. Although that’s not saying much and there are always higher quality options, the speakers are more than adequate, and some games even make use of the built-in speakers to create a “surround” effect, even with a stereo set up.

Currently, most Wii U games only support wired headsets that plug directly into the Gamepad, and games with online multiplayer (such as Call of Duty: Black Ops II and Trine 2: Director’s Cut) support voice chat nicely using wired headsets. Another nice thing is that the headset jack is standard 3.5mm, meaning you won’t have to fork out extra cash for a proprietary headset if you already have one for your PC, smartphone, or MP3 player.

The Wii U Gamepad also functions as a universal TV remote, allowing you to change channels and input or turn the TV on or off without the need to dig around for a remote. This may not sound like much at first, but the first time you can’t find the TV remote but the Gamepad is sitting on the arm of the couch, you’ll be thankful that Nintendo included the feature. The TV remote feature even works when the Wii U is off, meaning it could effectively work as a substitute for a standard remote in the event that your dog eats some of the buttons (hasn’t happened to me yet).

Now for the big clincher – every multiplatform game that makes its way to the Wii U will always be better on Wii U, not because of gimmicks or special UI assigned to the touchscreen, but for just this one feature: Off-screen play. The ability to seamlessly switch my game from the main family TV to the Gamepad is fantastic. Now, I prefer to play on the big TV in the living room. But I’m not the only one in the house. My wife likes to watch shows and movies on Netflix, and she also enjoys playing the Zumba games and Wii Fit. In the past, if I was hogging the big TV with an intense single-player game, and my wife wanted to use the bigger TV, one of us ended up S.O.L… Now, we have a smaller TV in the bedroom, but it isn’t always practical to unplug the Wii U and move it every time I want to play my game in the other room. With off-screen play, I no longer need to turn off the game. Sometimes, I don’t even need to pause the game. I just switch from the TV to Gamepad play, and voila – I can keep playing Tekken Tag Tournament 2 and the wife gets to enjoy Jillian Michaels or Pretty Little Liars. I actually don’t even need to leave the couch. Now this – for someone with a family – is a godsend. Granted, not all games include off-screen play, and some (such as NintendoLand and ZombiU) require both screens, but the games that allow it are that much better for it. Next time a developer says they can’t create a multiplatform game for the Wii U because of the “unique interface”, I can confidently reply with “bullcrap” while pointing to Call of Duty BO2, Assasin’s Creed 3, Tekken Tag Tournament 2, Ninja Gaiden 3 Razor’s Edge, Warriors Orochi 3 Hyper and many other multiplatform games that have been released that include off-screen play as the only real touch-screen feature.

Now, in the midst of all this fawning over the Gamepad, don’t think it isn’t without its faults. First off, the battery life is atrocious. At best, I can only get 5-6 hours straight from a fully charged Gamepad until the red warning light starts flashing. Compare that with the Wii U Pro Controller with its 50-70 hour (some report over 120 hours between charges) charge lifespan, and you get the picture. This could easily be fixed with an extended battery. The Gamepad also lacks analog shoulder triggers, preferred by some for racing and first-person shooter games. It isn’t a huge omission, but it may be missed by some gamers. Again, for them, there is always the Wii U Pro Controller. But these are only minor quibbles in comparison to everything else the Gamepad has to offer.

controller_pro_big

Don’t like the Gamepad? Get the Pro Controller.

Conclusion

As a kid, I fell in love with the rounded contours of the Super NES controller. Later on the DualShock took that same design, added twin analog sticks, two more shoulder buttons, and comfortable hand grips. All these years I’ve been waiting for the next evolution of what I considered to be the perfect controller – and the Wii U Gamepad does just that.

If you haven’t had a chance to play a game with the Gamepad, seriously find a friend with a Wii U or try it at a demo kiosk. But be warned that real value in the Gamepad will really shine through when you are at home and realize you want to play splitscreen Call of Duty with your own screen or play Tekken on the toilet or let your wife and kids watch Netflix or play Wii while you sit next to them playing Assasin’s Creed.

Now if only developers would move out of archaic development practices and move on to modern console development, we’d see more third-party games on Wii U.

Move over waggling and flailing in front of the TV. Forget oversensitive tablets that absolutely suck for gaming. The Wii U Gamepad is just about everything you want in a controller, and is the best video game controller of all time.

What is your favorite controller? Have you had a chance to play games on the Wii U Gamepad? What are your thoughts? Have you accidentally dismissed it as a tablet wannabe because of reading other gaming blogs? Let us know in the comments below!

Haven’t bought a Wii U yet? As Reggie would say, “What’s wrong with you?!” Buy one from Amazon today!