9:03PM EST November 18. 2012 - For Nintendo's next video-game console, the most important screen isn't that flat-panel TV in your living room. It's the one on your lap.
The Wii U, successor to Nintendo's blockbuster Wii console, presents several intriguing possibilities for interactive entertainment, thanks to a tablet-style controller, the GamePad.
The GamePad is highlighted by a 6.2-inch touchscreen, flanked by thumbsticks on each side, a camera on top and an assortment of buttons standard on most video-game controllers. Imagine stretching out a traditional controller and slapping a screen right in the middle.
At first glance, the GamePad looks bulky, but feels comfortable to handle for even the most complex video games.
Setting up the device is pretty straightforward. Nintendo wisely includes a HDMI cable with both the 8 GB and 32 GB models, and a walk-through makes it simple to prepare for play. Hopping among apps or games and the main menu is sluggish, though. The device itself is slightly bigger than the Wii, so it should fit into most entertainment hubs with little trouble.
Most of the Wii U's 30-plus launch titles leverage the GamePad in interesting ways. In the survival thriller ZombiU, players use their second screen to track inventory or hold it up toward the TV to scan an area. Madden NFL 13 allows players to call plays and change assignments on the fly by tapping or drawing on the touchscreen. In the mini-game collection Nintendo Land, players hold the controller vertically, flinging stars at ninjas by swiping fingers.
Most intriguing is how much gaming can be accomplished without the need for a television. The Wii U streams games onto the GamePad, so players can enjoy a handful of video games solely on the small screen, making it more portable than other home consoles. The GamePad's range makes it easy to move among rooms of a house while enjoying a game.
In the event that players prefer a larger screen, it's tough not to notice that Nintendo finally is entering the world of high-definition gaming. Titles such as New Super Mario Bros. U sparkle onscreen with rich, colorful graphics, and games normally found on rival consoles PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 hold their own on Wii U.
Nintendo also introduces a revamped online hub, Nintendo Network, which players navigate via GamePad. There's an eShop for purchasing games, a Web browser and social MiiVerse where players interact with their Mii avatar. Unfortunately, users must wait until next month for Nintendo TVii, which adds a sophisticated program guide, and apps such as Hulu, Amazon Instant Video and YouTube.
Whether the Wii U reaches the incredible heights of its predecessor remains to be seen. The Nintendo Wii had a clear target (casual players) and a game in Wii Sports that served as a shining example of motion-based gameplay that was easy to enjoy. The Wii U needs a similar kind of experience to sell players on a world with two screens.
Until we see Nintendo Network fully functioning with the TVii service and additional games that take advantage of the GamePad, it's hard to say whether Wii U recaptures the console magic.
Price: $299.99 (8 GB) or $349.99 (32 GB)
Release Date: Nov. 18
Score: *** (out of four)