If Nintendo's Wii controller the last time around was interesting, the Wii U's is positively groundbreaking.
Nintendo moves the gaming ball forward
It may have been hugely popular, but there are plenty of gamers who feel slightly stung by Nintendo's Wii console. That was despite the innovative, motion-sensitive wireless controller that doubled up as a bat, a sword or a steering wheel, enticing the kinds of people who would never usually consider themselves as gamers into purchasing a Wii. A staggering 86 million people since 2006, in fact. Its simplicity was its charm: no complicated button presses to hit a ball - just a well-judged swipe of the Wiimote, as they became known.
But, a large proportion of those consoles now gather dust under the television. The childlike games quickly lost their lustre, bullied into submission by the graphically superior Xbox360 and PlayStation3 consoles boasting realistic, blockbusting titles such as Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto. The Wii, somewhat grievously for those who admire Nintendo's commitment to the more cerebral elements of gameplay rather than the notion of simply blowing everything up, still had its multimillion selling games - but not enough of them.
So the next generation Nintendo console not only has to raise the bar in terms of innovation once again (it's telling that Xbox and PlayStation both ended up with motion-sensitive controllers for their systems), but also persuade those who looked longingly at the more realistic graphics and cinematic games on other consoles that the next Nintendo won't let them down this time. Nintendo's answer, at this month's videogame convention in Los Angeles, was the Wii U.
If the controller last time around was interesting, this time it's positively groundbreaking. Best described as an iPad with joysticks and direction-pads, it has a 6.2-inch touch-screen panel at its centre, which means players can run their games either on the television or their personal screen. Or, indeed, both. At the launch, a golf game showed a player placing the new controller on the ground. A ball appeared on the screen, and the gamer used the existing Wii remote controller to hit it... looking up to see the result of their expertly timed swing on the television screen.
The reaction on Nintendo forums was nothing short of ecstatic - but interestingly, it wasn't the prospect of the fancy new touch-screen controller that really got people talking. It may sound obvious, but what excited proper gamers were the games. And the promise of big-name titles such as Assassin's Creed and Batman: Arkham City - alongside the expected new versions of the traditional, character-based Nintendo favourites such as Zelda and Mario - was enough to make this a genuinely interesting launch. As Eric Hirshberg, publisher of Call of Duty (the world's most popular game but dreadfully underpowered on Wii) said to videogame magazine Industry Gamers last week: "It looks like this is a platform that's going to be even more relevant to the kinds of games we make. They're committing to HD, greater processing power, digital infrastructure, connected universe at the back end...Those are all the things we need to make a state-of-the-art experience for a lot of games."
Nevertheless, it is the controller that will make Wii U stand apart - for the meantime. Not least because all the well-rehearsed arguments about whether the living-room television is for gaming, watching television or streaming movies is set to be a thing of the past. If someone comes into the living room and wants to watch the news but you're half way through a tricky level, you can switch the action to the controller.
In fact, some of the other impressive features that Hirshberg points out - a camera, the ability to make video calls, browse the internet, even draw on the screen - have been somewhat passed over in the clamour to understand how the new controller might work within a game. An interesting tech-demo called Shield Pose has pirates firing arrows at the gamer, and the new controller - which is also motion-sensitive - doubles up as a shield. In another demo, a cut scene from Zelda HD, the controller's screen shows you the action from different camera angles. It also finally solves the issue that has annoyed gamers for years: with a screen on the controller, you don't have to pause the action on the television to look at the map. And Zelda HD in particular looks amazing too.
Interestingly, though, despite all the hype (and Nintendo proclaiming Wii U as its best-ever games console), the money-men have been less impressed. After the announcement, shares in Nintendo actually dropped to their lowest level since February 2006. Some of the discontent was no doubt down to a remarkably vague release date (sometime between April and December 2012) and the general sense that this was an evolutionary console rather than a game-changer. But then, the very same people were spectacularly un-moved by the first Wii, so it's best not to draw too many conclusions.
What it might mean for the future of gaming is, then, a little unclear. Wii U's impact in the years to come will probably depend on how successful it is. The Wii Remote was so popular it led to Sony creating Move for PlayStation 3 and Microsoft making Kinect for Xbox 360. So if the Wii U really takes off, Microsoft and Sony will no doubt develop similar things with their new controllers, but in slightly different ways.
What Nintendo's new commitment to HD graphics certainly proves is that, now, console games will have to look good as well as play well. In fact, a controller doubling up as a tablet could even tempt Apple into the market in the future, using their iPad as the base for a whole new console. Sounds ridiculous? It's not so long ago that Sony made Walkmans and Microsoft made Word. One thing's for sure, Nintendo have come a long way since Donkey Kong.