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Wii U Preview: Just What Is Asymmetrical Gameplay?

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New Super Mario Bros. U (Nintendo)

Nintendo has put a lot of emphasis lately on the Wii U’s “asymmetrical gameplay,” brought into existence through its touchscreen controller, the GamePad. The term simply means a co-op experience where two or more players play the same game together but in totally different ways.

During a Nintendo event in Toronto we got a chance to try out the Wii U’s new asymmetrical gameplay in New Super Mario Bros. U, Rayman Legends, and Nintendo Land. The games we sampled at the event generally worked, but Nintendo still left us with more questions regarding the value of Wii U’s approach to co-op than any definitive reasons to love it.

Both NSMBU and RL play as traditional platformers—seemingly offering little in terms of new platforming gameplay. All the new gameplay in both games seems relegated to the player using the GamePad. In NSMBU the player with the GamePad taps the touchscreen to create platforms the other players can jump on. In RL the player using the touchscreen can, with a swipe of his or her finger, cut ropes holding up objects to create new paths for Rayman. The player can rotate the GamePad at certain times to rotate platforms to allow team mates to proceed through the level.

As well, both games allow the player to attack enemies on the touch screen by tapping them. In RL we were able to use a slingshot on the touchscreen to knock enemy dragons out of the air. Both NSMBU and RL showcase how players can alter a game’s environment to either help or hinder other players.

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Rayman Legends on the Wii U (Ubisoft, Nintendo)

Unfortunately, for an avid gamer, creating platforms in NSMBU isn’t nearly as interesting or entertaining as actually traversing the environment. As we played with the GamePad we felt distant from the action—more an observer than a participant. At least with RL the touch screen functions feel like an essential part of the game (if the player using the GamePad screws-up then Rayman dies). It’s important to feel like you’re a part of the action and not a bystander to what is happening on the big screen.

In Nintendo Land (a mini-game compilation that has players going through different amusement park attractions in a fictitious Nintendo-themed park) we only got to play one: “Luigi’s Ghost Mansion.” Four players hold the Wiimote sideways, and from a top-down view maneuver their respective characters through a haunted mansion while trying to catch a ghost with their flashlights. The ghost is controlled using the analogue sticks on the GamePad while the player uses the tablet’s screen to see and catch the other four players (the other four players cannot see the ghost until it is caught in a flashlight’s beam).

Surprisingly, we had fun playing the mini-game and unlike NSMBU, Nintendo Land promises a bit more variety for the player using the GamePad. The “hide and seek” nature of “Luigi’s Ghost Mansion” fit the GamePad much better than NSMBU and RL, but with only 12 mini-games it’s hard to say whether Nintendo Land can hold a gamer’s attention for long.

So, in general, asymmetrical gameplay on the Wii U works. The problem is that each game we played would be fun regardless if they used the GamePad or not. It seems that Nintendo is showing off games they know will sell—the types of games that sold on the Wii (a Mario game, a mini-game compilation, and a platformer similar to a Mario game). The appeal of the asymmetrical co-op is not in what Nintendo, and others, have shown thus far but more in imagining what this co-op could look like in other genres—and that’s the problem. Nintendo’s offering of games is so safe as to be nearly sterile and devoid of any truly interesting co-op gameplay.

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Wii U Tablet on Mario Bros U
Utilizing the tablet controls in Super Mario Bros. U (Nintendo)

Nintendo needs to show off what this co-op will look like in genres other than platformers and mini-game compilations. How can this co-op be used in a real-time strategy game, first-person shooter or sports game? Can asymmetrical gameplay be used to create new genres? It seems like Nintendo is trying to recapture the Wii audience with this asymmetrical gameplay as opposed to creating experiences that challenge how we think games should be played. Of course, this safe approach with sequels and generally simple co-op gameplay may be an attempt from Nintendo to get “casual gamers” and those who mainly play games on tablets interested in console gaming.

Touch screens are commonplace and it’s no secret that games sell on tablets and smart phones – just look at Google’s recent rebranding of the Android Market to Google Play. But is simply including some basic swipe controls on a console controller enough to entice casual gamers and those who game on tablets to try out console gaming? Do those who mainly game on tablets even care about console gaming? And do those of us who primarily play on consoles care about (or want) simple swipe mechanics in our games?

If I had the choice between playing as Mario or making platforms appear I will choose the former because Mario is the game. There is definitely potential for Wii U’s new approach to co-op and having the analogue sticks, bumpers, face buttons, and triggers on the GamePad may entice some non-console gamers to try out, and even enjoy, console games. So the Wii U is in a particularly unique position to expand the gaming market with asymmetrical gameplay.

However, even though we had fun with NSMBU, RL, and Nintendo Land none of these games really show how the GamePad changes how we can play games or why an avid console gamer should want a touch screen controller. From what we’ve seen, one or more people are playing the actual game while the player with the GamePad is playing a series of mini-games that just happen to correspond with what the other player is doing.

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If Nintendo wants to entice console gamers to use the GamePad then the it has to be more than a “mini-game controller” – it has to offer an equivalently challenging and compelling gameplay experience to what the player with the Wiimote is experiencing. The potential is there, we just need someone willing to take a risk and make the GamePad an essential gaming controller.

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