The big Nintendo console surprise no one's really surprised about turns out to be called "Wii U," but it managed to startle us at Nintendo's E3 2011 press event anyway. Imagine a console that's not really a console, or a controller that's not really a controller. In fact we're still not sure what exactly to call it, besides "fascinating" (at this point, anyway).
The new system's basically a set-top box, like the Wii, but interlinked wirelessly with a tablet-style gamepad. That gamepad's about the size of a trade paperback turned sideways, with standard Nintendo dual thumbstick, trigger buttons, and stereo speakers on either side of a 6.2-inch touchscreen that's set smack in the middle. Think micro-tablet with physical controls. Oh, and it's loaded with an accelerometer, gyroscope, microphone, inward-facing camera, and rumble support.
The Wii U (pronounced "we, you") actually allows you to switch from playing games on your TV to playing on the controller itself, say someone walks into the room and wants to watch TV or a movie (the images are piped wirelessly with "zero latency" from the Wii U set-top box to the new controller). Nintendo made much of this capability, trotting out industry bigwigs like Ken Levine (BioShock) to sing its praises. It's not clear how much of an issue TV-to-tablet gaming really is for gamers. I guess we'll find out.
You can use a stylus to draw on the controller's touchscreen (the demo teased fairly high screen fidelity capabilities, as someone sketched a high-def picture of Zelda's Link). You can play games with someone else in the same room, using the new controller as a game board (the game demoed looked like Othello, but that's a guess from someone who's never actually played Othello).
It's not clear how precise the motion-tracking system is at this point, but Nintendo demonstrated the Wii U controller used in concert with a TV screen to catch a ball (hold the tablet up in front of the TV like a baseball mitt). There's also an "augmented reality" angle: Place the Wii U controller on the floor while playing a golf game, like a tee stand, and you can actually see the dimpled golf ball on the floor before you swing to hit.
If you want to weigh yourself on the Balance Board by way of Wii Fit, you can do so without the TV: Just hold the new controller while standing on the board to get Wii Fit's assessment. Another demo showed someone holding the Wii U controller in one hand while positioning a Wii Nunchuk behind with the other (the Wii U's screen became the crosshairs on a ranged weapon). The combinative possibilities seem endless.
What about the specs? Nintendo's keeping mum at this point, but demonstrated the system's processing prowess by showing an extremely detailed bird in flight through some sort of Japanese setting with blossoming trees, zillions of pink petals rushing through the air, and complex shadowing and liquid rendering. High-def? Definitely. We also got sneak peeks at games like Darksiders II, Dirt, Aliens Colonial Marines, Metro Last Light, Tekken, Ninja Gaiden 3: Razor's Edge, and heard Assassin's Creed, Batman Arkham Asylum, and Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon Online, as well as a new Smash Bros. game (that'll dialogue with the 3DS) are headed to the system.
Nintendo's core message: We're making one game console that'll meet the needs of both hardcore and casual consumers.
What else. The Wii U will be backwards compatible with all Wii games, Wii remote controllers, and accessories. You can use the Wii U's controller to make video calls, browse the web, share stuff from the new controller to the TV (flick your finger across the controller's touchscreen toward the TV to "send" images instantly). And, of course, "get more detail with the new controller" Nintendo DS style, with separate informational readouts in games like Zelda (see the pic up top as example).
In fact you might say the Wii U is just the Nintendo DS dual-screen concept snapped apart and enlarged for the full home theater experience. And Nintendo went well out of its way to assure everyone the Wii U isn't designed to supplant the DS and 3DS experience. It's not 3D, and it's only usable in proximity to the Wii U.
When can you buy one? Sometime, 2012. That's all we know today. No word on price or specific release timeframes yet. But one thing's certain: Nintendo, like Sony, believes players want to hold something in their hands. All of which means the coming years are going to see an all out conceptual war between Microsoft's "you are the controller" approach, and Sony/Nintendo's "you still need a controller, just a really frigging cool one" rejoinder.