Pros: Terrific controller, solid graphics, some solid online features, unique gameplay
Cons: Missing features, some poor implementations, slow menu load times
The Wii U is here at last, and over the next year we will find out if Nintendo’s latest gamble on innovation has paid off. The console has had somewhat of a rough start, with an update that bricked some Wii U’s, the delay of some features, and a series of announcements that suggest Nintendo still doesn’t quite get online gaming. But the Wii U is also a console that could revolutionize console gameplay more than the Wii did. If nothing else, it is a really cool toy.
The Wii U looks very much like a slightly larger Wii, about the size of a textbook. It is designed to lie flat, but the Deluxe Set comes with a stand that lets you place it on its side.
Some critics are complaining that Wii U graphics look “only” as good as PS3/360 graphics, as though graphics are the only reason to launch a console, but the games certainly look terrific, and will look better as developers familiarize themselves with the system.
The most notable feature of the Wii U is the touch screen in the middle of its rectangular controller. This is possibly the nicest piece of hardware Nintendo has ever produced, trading in their usual inexpensive-toy aesthetic for an almost Apple-like design. The buttons are well placed, and while it looks bulky, the gamepad fits comfortably into my hands. A ridge in the back also makes it comfortable to hold in one hand vertically, although holding it horizontally in one hand is awkward and tiring, which is a problem in games that rely heavily on the stylus.
The great flaw of the gamepad is its 3 to 4 hours of battery life. Fortunately it can be used while it’s recharging.
The tiled main menu is a retread of the Wii’s with the addition of a row of icons for features like a web browser and the eShop. Even though it’s basically the same menu, it takes much longer to load, as much as 20 seconds. Reports are that Nintendo is trying to fix this.
The gamepad also works as a TV remote; set up simply involved typing my TV brand. The TV control works at all times, even if a game is loading or the console itself is turned off. The big flaw is the lack of a mute button.
While the gamepad has its Wii-like menu, the TV screen shows a virtual public square in which Miis representing other players congregate around game icons while comments posted to Nintendo’s Miiverse social network pop up. This is surprisingly entertaining, offering a steady stream of impressive artwork (you can post drawings in the Miiverse) mixed with some questions and comments (“I don’t always kill zombies, but when I do it’s on the Wii U”).
Pause a game and you can access its manual. This is a terrific idea, since publishers now rarely include a proper manual, although I wish the manuals were searchable.
Nintendo has introduced a number of interesting online features for the Wii U. Miiverse is pretty good; you can enter it while playing a game, in which case it takes you to the appropriate forum and even lets you post a message that includes a current screenshot your game. You can also upvote comments. Unfortunately there is no search function to see if someone has answered a question you have.
The eShop is much improved over the Wii’s. There is a decent search function and each game’s detail page includes images and videos.
The Wii U Internet browser is not only better than the Wii’s browser, it’s the best browser I’ve seen on a console. It’s a nicely-designed tab browser, and the gamepad makes navigation so easy. My favorite feature is the ability to start playing a video on the TV and then continue to browse the web on the gamepad.
Voice chat works fine, but notifications of calls are problematic. Apparently if someone is calling while you're using the Wii U the home button on the gamepad glows blue, but good luck on even noticing that; my friend kept calling while I was immersed in Mighty Switch Force! Hyper Drive Edition. Voice chat itself has a couple of cute Nintendo touches; your friend appears as though from out of a pool of water and you can draw on each other's faces. On the down side, the image did freeze from time to time.
While the Wii U isn’t as revolutionary as the Wii, which radically changed the way players connected with games, it does add some cool things. Asynchronous gaming has potential, being able to play supported games entirely on the gamepad is great when someone demands access to the TV, and there is a lot of fun in games that use the touchscreen as a scanner or to fire arrows.
But for me, it’s less about the fancy gamepad tricks of games like Nintendo Land and ZombiU and more about the way a very basic gamepad implementation can create a more fluid style of gaming, ridding the main screen of maps and other distractions and improving menu navigation immensely. It is especially striking if, after playing heavy gamepad users like Batman Arkham Asylum: Armored Edition, you try a game like Assassin’s Creed III that uses it minimally. Using onscreen menus and losing touch controls doesn’t make the games bad, but they do feel relatively clunky and graceless. Once you have experienced the gamepad, you will want all games to offer touch menus and maps and weapon slots; a game without them will feel uncivilized.
You can also play Wii games on the Wii U, although the system is a little odd. Nintendo has essentially built a virtual Wii within the Wii U, so you have to open the Wii U's Wii channel which then loads just like a Wii, including the opening health and safety warning. This is a rather lazy way to do it, as it means the Wii U can't upscale Wii games to make them look better or let you play games on the gamepad, but it does work. The emulation is so exact that it's even possible to run homebrew within your virtual Wii.
The Flaws, Disappointments, and Delays
The Wii U’s entry into this world has not been smooth. First off there were a series of announcements prior to its launch that justified all the worries people had about Nintendo not being fully committed to the online space: The 360-style Wii U Pro Controller has no headset jack, online storage is inadequate and adding more overly complex, the id you use to buy games is locked to one console, and some features have been delayed.
All Wii Us require a huge update to add the Wii U’s online components, and impatient users who unplugged their Wii Us when they saw there was no simple “stop download” button bricked their consoles (it wasn’t until a couple of days later that Nintendo warned people that this could happen).
Some of these flaws are worse than others, but the totality of them is unfortunate, making Nintendo appear clueless and unprepared.
Verdict: Very Promising
With some features like TVii still missing and other features feeling incomplete, some critics are already writing off the Wii U, apparently forgetting how bare-boned and deeply flawed the now-loved PS3 was at launch. But I remain hopeful. Nintendo can tweak much of what is problematic via updates. And what exists now – a beautiful controller, some cool features, unique gameplay, fun games - makes me feel that to some extent the Wii U has already proven itself. While I cannot speak to the future, which some predict will contain consoles that are to the Wii U what a Porsche is to a tricycle, I can say that right now, today, the Wii U is the best video game console you can buy.