Nintendo isn't afraid of different. It has thrown more crazy stuff at the wall—and gotten more of it to stick—than anyone. The Wii U is Nintendo's opinion of what's next.
Note: We'd originally planned on focusing on a rundown of the Wii U's TVii features, which let it operate as a Nintendo-powered cable box, and how it works as a media center with Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Hulu Plus. Those features have been delayed until December now, but we will give you a big update once they are available. For more granular coverage of the games themselves, or just hardcore gamer opinion, check out Kotaku's coverage.
Why It Matters
Nintendo makes gaming consoles your mom and grandma and racist-but-generally-amiable aunt get together and play around the holidays. This is the next version of that. A lot of families are going to be thinking about spending the $300 or $350 to upgrade this holiday season, and the overriding question is, Is it worth it?
Let's start with the GamePad, since that's effectively the face of the Wii U. It is a large controller with a 6.2-inch 854x480 (16:9) 158PPI touchscreen, built-in speakers, a motion sensor, and a front-facing camera. The button layout is fairly standard: two analog sticks, a d-pad, four face buttons, two shoulder buttons, and two triggers. It also has NFC, but it's gone completely unused at launch.
But you probably know all that. Or you could find it out pretty easily. What you want to know is what it's like to use—especially when it's not attached to a giant kiosk in the middle of GameStop. So: It's comfortable, lighter than it looks, and mostly quite good. It also, importantly, feels like (and is) something your kid can drop, repeatedly, and keep on working.
Implementation in games is a bit of a mixed bag, but when it's used correctly, the two-screen console experience is a firm step forward in Nintendo's modern identity: Original, creative, fun games that get more fun with more people.
In a lot of ways, the GamePad's touchscreen makes the Wii U a direct decendent of the Nintendo DS family. Two screens, with the metaphorically lower touchscreen being for more ancillary tasks like inventory management, menus, or maps. But once you peel away the familiar, it's the new functionality that actually works best. Using the gamepad as the "it" in games like Mario Chase, Luigi's Ghost Mansion, or Animal Crossing is a perfect way to stop screen peeking. And the Ninja Castle star-throwing game in NintendoLand is a great combination of the Wii and Wii U's tech. And being able to just walk away from your TV and keep playing is pretty freaking awesome, too. (Translation: You can continue your game of Madden in the bathroom.)
There are also downsides, of course. For one, having a console controller that needs to be recharged every few hours is a downer, and a big change from previous consoles. The disruption this causes to a weekend gaming sesh is not to be underestimated.
The onboard speakers are a nice touch in games that use the gamepad as a true second display, or when the music syncopates itself so it's augmented by the gamepad's speakers. But when they're used to simply mirror the main sound (like in Madden or FIFA) it creates a weird distortion effect. And the vibration effect in the gamepad is simply awful—it sounds like someone buried a buzzing iPhone in the middle of your controller.
The gamepad's screen isn't a great display—your phone's or tablet's is probably way better—but its sheer size and functionality make up for that. The color seems a little flat compared to the HD screens we tested it with, but it's totally fine for ancillary use, and even playing a whole game of Madden on it didn't feel cramped.
Visually, the Wii U can punch its weight with the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3. Traditionally, Nintendo's cartoony (and virtuoso) art direction meant its graphics could lag a little and still look fine. But seeing Mario and company running around in HD is wonderful. There's been some bellyaching about graphical hiccups in games like Mass Effect. I noticed some framerate drop in ME3 and Madden, and much more in FIFA 13, but chalked it up to port issues and them being launch titles. For what it's worth, ZombiU is strong graphically, and had no graphical slowdown.
The central question around the Wii U is if its conceit stands up: Is a gaming console with a second screen an interesting and compelling way to play games? The answer comes back a definite Yes... with a few qualifications.
One of the reasons the original Wii was so immediately relatable was that its tech-demo-cum-launch-title Wii Sports used such familiar metaphors. You would swing a golf club or baseball bat, or you would roll a bowling ball. Your aunt and uncle could pick up a Wii Remote and immediately have some idea of what to do. The Wii U's demo title, NintendoLand, needs to explain itself a little more. Its incessant tutorials are a pretty apt metaphor for the fact that you're going to need to explain how games work to your mom and dad. It can feel like a step backward in how we interact with video games, especially Nintendo's.
But that doesn't mean it's not fun and different. Multiplayer games especially can use the GamePad to create fun gameplay and scenarios. Think about a traditional board game, the predecessor to the Wii as a familial gathering place. Board games rely on you being able to withhold some information from the other players, but that's hard to pull off when everyone's staring at the same TV. The gamepad changes that, and opens up a lot of new ways to play games. One of the launch games, Rabbid's Land, makes you pass the gamepad around as players take turns on an actual game board. This seems like the manifest destiny of using the Wii U in a crowded room.
For single player, you're left with some of the more basic stuff, like maps and inventories. The most useful applications are usually in telling your team where to go in sports games or squad games like Mass Effect. That typically clunky function is handled by just drawing a line from where your teammate is to where you want him or her to go. It's a nice addition to AAA games, but not nearly as useful as it is in made-for-multiplayer stuff.
Other times the implementation of the GamePad feels tacked-on, or worse, totally disruptive to core gameplay. A good example is FIFA, which has a few useful actions like sending players on runs by dragging them on the touchscreen, and buries them in a labyrinth of menus and features. Hey, jerks, I'm trying to actually play the game, not make granular adjustments. But on the whole, even after-the-fact touchscreen additions are generally more of a positive than a distraction.
The home interface is a little frumpier than the Xbox's (formerly) Metro facade, but it's just flat-out more functional, especially with the gamepad. Ironic, since Microsoft went so all-in on touch with Windows 8. But having a home screen full of icons that you can tap on to launch is simply more convenient. The touchscreen turns one of the Wii's big weaknesses into a strength, and it will be a lot more important as the online features are added.
Navigating around on the gamepad is more responsive than you expect from a console OS, as are touch events and sensitivity. It's not to the level of, say, iOS or Android, but it's miles better than using the touchscreen on a 3DS. That's all undercut, though, but interminable load times you encounter while switching apps. Maybe that'll be fixed with an early patch (Amazon's Kindle Fire HD had enormous load times for movies and apps just a few days before it launched, but fixed them in time), but for now, it's infuriating.
If you're an Xbox user, though, you might miss being able to just shout at your Kinect to pause a video or launch a service or run a search.
There isn't really anything to report here. Nintendo has big plans for its online features, with Nintendo Network accounts, access to online streaming services like Netflix, Hulu Plus, and Amazon Prime (free, unlike the Xbox). But we haven't had much time with them yet. Miiverse and the eShop just went online, but we haven't had a chance to use them yet. We'll update within a few hours.
Registering for the Nintendo Network ID is relatively simple. You just click a prompt to create an account, choose a username, and provide some basic personal information. After you've signed up, you can choose if you want to require a password whenever you sign into the Mii you've linked with your account, since it will have access to information used in the eShop, etc.
The first time you fire up the Nintendo eShop, it asks if you want to link your Club Nintendo account. From there, you're dumped into the store, which resembles Apple's iTunes layout more than the labyrinth dungeon-stores on the Xbox and PlayStation. That said, once there are more games available, it's going to need better filter options. Overall, it's a nicely laid out store, though. We still have to test out the external storage performance to see how good an option it is for buying your games, though.
The Wii U's browser is just as extraneous as a browser on any other game console, but it at least seems to render pages faster than the Xbox's Internet Explorer, and has a responsive tab row at the bottom of the screen. You can also access Mii-specific bookmarks. It loads the full versions of sites, just like the Xbox, and just like the Xbox, that can cause some problems with navigation. Thankfully, the gamepad is more responsive than SmartGlass, which can be choppy.
In-person multiplayer is a huge amount of fun on the Wii U. It's not as immediately intuitive, and you'll have to give everyone a few more instructions, but it's still simple and creative enough for everyone to pick up quickly. It's also nice to be able to play games other systems get, like Mass Effect or FIFA, with modern, HD graphics, and without having to figure out how to use a Wii Remote to control them.
It can be annoying playing games that aren't based around the Wii U's non-standard tech (a good and necessary thing!), but you're constantly compelled to use the touchscreen for stuff that could just as easily (or often more efficiently) on the main screen. Just let us play the game, and chime in with something useful if it's actually useful.
I also can't stop thinking about the Kinect.
Just Dance 4 is a launch-day title for the Wii U. It's probably a testament to how much we like pretend-dancing (where no one makes fun of you for actually trying!) that the game remains pretty damn fun even with just the Wii Remote. But it's not the same. The Kinect is the logical technological successor to the Wii's nonstandard interaction with your console, and even the current version sort of makes the Wii U look outdated. The Wii U holds it off by just having more good content that uses its tech, but it feels like this might be the last generation with which Nintendo can stem the tides of technological advancement without making another push of its own.
- Time Played: NintendoLand: 6 hours (multiplayer); Mass Effect 3: 3 hours; New SUPER MARIO BROS. U: 3 hours (multiplayer); ZombiU: 3 hours; FIFA Soccer 13: 2 hours; Madden NFL 13: 2 hours; Ninja Gaiden 3, Razor's Edge: 1 hour; Rabbid's Land: 1 hour (multiplayer); Just Dance 4: 30 minutes (solo, because I am a very sad human being)
- Barring the Day One patch fixing the load time issue, it's as a big a misstep as Nintendo could have made. These things seriously last forever. [Update: Nope, loading the main manu, or other apps, still takes forever. Actually using the menus, though, remains smooth.]
- The Pro Controller—Nintendo's version of the now-standard PlayStation and Xboxian gamepads—is a fine controller, and actually pretty comfortable. The main gripe against it is the right analog stick placement, but I adjusted to it fairly quickly in FPS games. In games where you're using the face buttons, though, it's actually less comfortable than than the gamepad.
- We didn't get a chance to test the USB storage additions (you can use USB-based hard drives though compatibility is still fuzzy), but that's going to be a big deal, since the Wii U's OS only leaves about 3 GB free on the standard 8GB system, and even the 32GB system is a little cramped for 3GB+ downloads.
- The TV Remote actually works great, and it's an awesome addition. Sure, selecting channels is pretty impossible, but that's more the job of TVii, which isn't out yet.
- Seeing your big fat head on the screen through the Wii U's gamepad camera is a nice and really fun addition to multiplayer. It really does add to the experience as your friends are chasing you around, calling you an idiot.
- Seems to run a little bit louder than other consoles, which is a very minor note, but I noticed it whirring above the sound in games (and my idiotically loud radiator) a few times.
- Holy good god does the deluxe black version collect dust and smudges. I just have a dusty apartment to deal with, but after a week it already looks like a piece of gum I dropped in the dust bin. If I had any pets it would probably look like a cat you feed CDs into.
- The system does, though, fit into more places that you'd keep a gaming console, unlike the original Wii which looked out of place everywhere.
- All of your Wii Remotes will work just fine with the Wii U, but you should know that some of the minigames in Nintendoland, the aforementioned Rabbid's Land, and presumably other titles require both the nunchuk and the motion plus controller, which is a change for the usually super backwards compatible Nintendo.
Should You Buy It?
Yes, if you know you want the next version of the Wii. While technologically, the Wii U sort of feels like the step you'd take before you get to motion controls in the Wii, that doesn't mean it doesn't totally fit into Nintendo's ethos of interaction. It's fun. It's something your family will enjoy using.
If you're looking for a network-enabled media center, like the Xbox or Apple TV, though, definitely wait before purchasing this. The demos we've seen have looked pretty decent, but not being ready for launch isn't a great sign. Same goes for the robust third party support of traditional, big-time games that never quite made it to the original Wii. It could be that everything will work wonderfully once it's out, but being cautious never hurt anyone.
Photos and video by Michael Hession