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This vertical integration--Nintendo characters appearing in Nintendo games available only on Nintendo hardware, all created by Nintendo's in-house wizards--is reminiscent of how Apple builds iPads, iPhones and Macs. But it's strikingly different from the business models of the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, both of which are more dependent on games produced by independent publishers like Activision and Electronic Arts.
For all the ways in which Nintendo has gone its own idiosyncratic way, the company has "been the best at innovating in this industry for many years," says Laurent Detoc, president of game publisher Ubisoft North America. "The way Nintendo creates new hardware is by having game developers work side by side with hardware engineers," says Reggie Fils-Aime, the president and chief operating officer of Nintendo America. "When the game developers have an idea that can't be fulfilled by the current hardware, that's what's next."
What's next includes the GamePad, the Wii U's new controller. It sports a 6.2-in. touchscreen, motion sensors, dual joysticks, a stylus and a gaggle of buttons, and no two games use it the same way. In The Legend of Zelda: Battle Quest, you can swing it around 360 degrees to view the world around you. In Takamaru's Ninja Castle, you flick throwing stars off the touchscreen onto the TV. In Donkey Kong's Crash Course, you rock the GamePad to propel a cart through a maze. (Those three games are part of Nintendo Land, a virtual amusement-park title.)
Like the PlayStation 3, Wii and Xbox 360, as well as boxes such as Apple TV and Roku, the Wii U streams movies and TV shows in HD with its TVii feature. It can also control cable boxes and TiVo DVRs, and it lets you use the GamePad to browse and search across all its sources, melding disparate video into one unified interface. "Our hope," Fils-Aime says, "is that the GamePad is going to sit on the living-room table and be touched by every member of the household at least once a day."
The Wii U's games and TV features are tied together by Miiverse, an ambitious social network that Nintendo plans to bring to PCs and phones as well as its own hardware, playing catch-up with the Xbox 360's wildly popular Xbox Live. Miiverse lets you share your high scores and other game achievements, as you'd expect, but you can also keep tabs on the TV shows that friends are watching, exchange messages and drawings and use the GamePad for video chat.
Gamewise, a big burden rests--as usual--on the tiny shoulders of Mario, who headlines New Super Mario Bros. U, one of 23 titles launching alongside the Wii U. But the console is also getting its own versions of grittier blockbusters like Batman: Arkham City and Call of Duty, and the console is the first to get Bayonetta 2, a sequel to a 2010 PlayStation and Xbox title about a pistol-packing witch.