The video game industry is in an uncertain place. No one knows what the future will look like, as consoles look like dinosaurs compared to platforms on Facebook and iPad that draw growing audiences.
In times like this, everyone looks to Nintendo for guidance. The Japanese company has long been one of the industry's innovators. It's the trendsetter. When Nintendo released the Wii, Sony and Microsoft followed suit with their own motion controls -- the Move controller and Kinect, respectively. When Nintendo launched fitness games, dozens of copycats followed suit.
So what will the next generation of consoles look like? Well, if Nintendo's new system, the Wii U, is any indication, the future will be a combination of controller and touch-screen. It's a design that tries to appeal to core crowds used to playing "Call of Duty" and casual gamers who are fans of "Angry Birds."
Used in conjunction with a high-definition TV, the Wii U and its GamePad open up new forms of asynchronous gameplay. That's when two players in the same game have different experiences. That's shown off in the minigames of "Nintendo Land," where four players can go against one person in games like hide and seek. The player using the GamePad uses her personal touch-screen to hide, while the other four look on the TV and use the Wii remotes to search for her.
Elsewhere, it extends the control scheme in single-player games, transforming the touch-screen to a launching pad for shooting stars. The GamePad also can be used to move Mii characters via balloons.
These are new forms of play that previously were impossible on consoles, and they have a way of redefining on-the-couch multiplayer -- something that's been neglected in an age when most play competitively over the Internet. But there's a magic to playing with friends in person. It's more visceral, more euphoric. It's the difference between listening to a record and hearing a band live.
But building a social console nowadays means more than reinventing local play. It requires something on the software side; with a recent update, the Wii U adds Miiverse, which is essentially a Twitter-like service that players use to talk about games. They can share screenshots or touch-screen doodles. They can even ask for hints if they're stuck.
If 100 characters isn't enough to get a tip across, they can always video chat with friends. There's an excellent camera built into the Wii U GamePad that allows players to talk to each other from their living rooms. Unfortunately, both players have to set up the call. It's not as casual as calling someone during a gameplay sessions. But this is the social glue that binds everything together.
Room to improve
Despite some visionary ideas, the Wii U has some limitations and problems. In terms of power, it's comparable to current generation systems, so it won't impress gamers with visuals. But the bigger problem is the Wii U's small hard drive. As more games go digital, consoles need the space to store them, but Wii U's two models -- 8GB and 32GB -- are not enough.
Furthermore, if Nintendo wants to make sure its system is built for the future, it has to be a box at the center of the living room. It should be able to stream movies and TV shows and also go on the Web. It can partly do that with Netflix and its own browser, but players will have to wait on the more impressive feature called Nintendo TVii.
That's supposed to be the one-stop place for players to access video content. Users will be able to search for shows such as "Modern Family" on services such as Hulu Plus or ABC's website. Wii U is also supposed to be able to add a social function so that players can tweet or add their own commentary to content such as live sports. Unfortunately, that functionality isn't in the system yet. Nintendo says it will add it in December.
That makes the Wii U a solid but incomplete console at the moment. Like all modern consoles, Nintendo's system will evolve and change over time. The Wii U isn't static. It's malleable and has the chance to improve.