Wii U GamePad controller hands-on

The version that will ship with the diminutive console has vastly improved thumbsticks that can also be pressed in to serve as buttons, a sleeker body and molded grips.

Viewed side-by-side with its prototype predecessor, the sleeker retail version of the Wii U's GamePad may look like a device subtly changed.

But those minor tweaks to the touchscreen-sporting controller add up.

The version that will ship with the diminutive console has vastly improved thumbsticks that can also be pressed in to serve as buttons, a sleeker body, and molded grips.

Perhaps the most significant change to the Wii U's controller, though, is that gamers will be able to use two of them with the console.

Last year's unveiling of the GamePad — a video game controller that packs motion controls, touchscreen controls, a camera, thumbsticks and a bevy of buttons into an oversized device — included news that the Wii U could only support one of the special devices. Other players, Nintendo said at the time, would have to play games using simply the Wii Remote.

But during a private meeting with Nintendo prior to today's press conference, Nintendo officials told Polygon that the final version of the Wii U will support up to two GamePads, though they wouldn't say how many would ship with the console when it goes on sale. They also declined to say how much or when the console would go on sale.

During the hour-long meeting, which took place in a metal room with a locking hatch for a door specially designed to block all radio frequency signals, Nintendo representatives reiterated some of the information unveiled by Nintendo president Satoru Iwata days earlier during a video presentation.

Nintendo's Wii U console experience is built on three pillars: Social interaction, entertainment, and games, they said.

At the heart of all three experiences, though, is the Wii U's unique GamePad.

Last year's prototype GamePad sported twin disc-like "circle pads" sliders instead of true analog thumbsticks. The design allowed Nintendo to create a controller that they believed was more aesthetically pleasing, but that gamers didn't respond well to. The design also didn't include the ability to press down on a thumbstick as an extra button press, a feature built into both the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 controllers.

The final design fixes that issue by replacing the sliders with rubberized thumbsticks. The sticks will feel very familiar to gamers accustomed to the thumbsticks found on both the Xbox 360 and PS3 controllers.

The GamePad's original design, while relatively sleek, also felt precarious when holding the controller sideways, something some games require.

This retail design solves that issue with plastic molded grips built into the backside of the controller. A ridge of plastic about a quarter of the way up from the bottom of the back of the device can be easily gripped when holding the controller sideways.

Interestingly, the ridge of molding has several holes built into it, one of which looks like a place to screw in a metal bolt, or perhaps a tripod or stand.

While the new thumbsticks may be the most noticeable physical change to the controller, it's not the only one Nintendo made: the final GamePad design has redesigned shoulder buttons; the face buttons and direction pad have been slightly moved toward the screen and redesigned; and the final design also now includes a near field communication (NFC) button, enabling Skylanders-esque functionality. While the controller still has a 6.2-inch touchscreen, the overall device is a little bit longer and a little bit thinner.

The end result is a controller that feels very comfortable to hold and game with.

We tried our hands at a number of games, holding the controller regularly to play motion and touch games as well as standard games without any difficulty. We also tried playing games that required holding the controller sideways, and still didn't run into any issues.

Playing games on the touchscreen, with the television off, was also a hitch-free, slightly surprising experience with the game's diminutive, HD graphics running without any snags.

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