A new Wii, a little bit like the last Wii, that gains a surprising amount from what sounds like a gimmick--even if every game doesn't take advantage of that.
The big criticism with Nintendo consoles is that they're engineered for kids. The original Wii was innovative and flat-out fun enough to make it all work--it seemed charming rather than simplistic. But the new Nintendo console, the Wii U, is careful not to seem too playful and innocent--launch titles, for example, have you playing as a brooding Batman and a space marine. And you'll be doing it with a goofy new controller, which looks like a PS3 controller with a 6.2-inch tablet between your two hands. And it usually feels really right, even if not every game makes the most of it.
What's New Well, there's the Wii U GamePad controller. It has a screen right in it--like a portable console that you also use to control a home console. Down there could be a list of items, weapons, a map, a minigame, or a clever way to hide something away from your opponent during a multiplayer game. You poke or swipe at it with a stylus or finger to make movements on screen, and the controller itself is also sensitive to a movement, so you might look around the room by moving it from side to side or motion it up to do a jump. There's a microphone embedded inside, which could be handy for trash-talking while playing online. (Also, weirdly, you can blow into the mic to make things happen.) It feels huge at first, but that feeling disappeared more quickly than I expected it would, and the overall weight of it wasn't a problem, luckily. You're not waving it around in the air all the time or anything like that.
Otherwise, I was surprised by how similar everything looked to the first Wii: your shiny cartoon-bodied Mii avatars are still there, and the home screen is pretty much the same as last time around. (I guess that's why there's just the U tacked onto the end, instead of giving the Wii U a whole new name.) Not that that's bad; that all worked out fine with the first Wii, though it's certainly not as transformative as that console. The games are also a little unexpected for a family-friendly, first-party-centric games company like Nintendo: big, critically acclaimed hits like Batman: Arkham City and Mass Effect 3 are here rather than Happy Feet and Tony Hawk's Downhill Jam. It also supports 1080p resolution for the first time on a Nintendo console.
What's Good I like this new GamePad. I really do! I'll use the Batman and Mass Effect games as an example, since those two are actually improved over the versions on other systems. As Batman, you turn on your detective tools and get a sort of annotated, x-rayed look at a place on the controller, letting you uncover secrets and clues, then go back to looking at the TV screen to pull off your karate moves on the bad guys. Sure, that sounds like a gimmick, but think of the alternative: the GamePad provides a much more immersive and fun alternative compared with pulling up a menu and selecting an option when you want to choose a new Bat-device. The same idea helps easily organize Mass Effect and its RPG leveling elements. If these games came out simultaneously with their PlayStation counterparts, I'd probably pick this version, and not because of the novelty of the GamePad. It's actually a better system.
The big worry is that constantly looking between screens could be annoying or distracting. But in practice, it isn't, really. Take ZombiU, the Wii game every review you read will fairly compare to the popular Left 4 Dead series, for example. It's not an especially good game from what I played--the story seems basic, and it's neither especially scary nor especially funny--but the second screen enhances it. Looking away from the screen makes things interesting when there's a brain-eating zombie coming up behind you every few minutes. That sounds annoying, but for me it upped the tension, making it more of a challenge than a distraction.
For my money, it's physically the best-looking console ever made. I tried out the deluxe version: sleek and black and nice-looking in your living room. That's not really a reason to buy it, but it doesn't hurt, if that kind of thing is important to you. Most of your old Wii games will work on it, too, and it has support for original Wii controllers.
It also has media center capabilities--Netflix, YouTube, Hulu Plus--but they're not up and running yet, and won't be for a few weeks, meaning they're not there for players at launch. Not a good sign, but hopefully they'll be here soon. We'll also have to wait until December for the TVii options--the live TV, TiVo, DVR service that we don't fully understand yet.
What to play: Arkham City and Mass Effect 3. If you already own those on another console, though, don't worry about them. Would recommend you try Nintendo Land land, too, even though there's a big caveat coming in the next section about that.
What's Bad I've been trying to figure out how I feel about the launch titles, and my thoughts fall somewhere between annoyed and hopeful. Because, out of those I played, the best are games that were already good before they were on the Wii U, just better now that they have the dual-screen functionality. The only game that really feels unique to the Wii U is Nintendo Land. It's Wii Sports, only instead of, say, having a Mii'd version of you bowl, you have a Mii'd version of Link shoot a bow in a Zelda-style mini-game. (Sort of a cross between Mario Party and Wii Sports, really, since it takes the vintage Nintendo theme and puts it in a format where you make motions like swinging a motion-controlled sword. I don't know if it's going to be as popular as either of those, though.) And it's fun, especially with a friend. But it doesn't take full advantage of the Wii U technology--some games you could literally turn off your TV and just stare at the GamePad the whole time. If all of the action happened on the TV instead, it could be a game for the first Wii. Philosophically, this might be a problem. But I also liked the minigame where you threw ninja stars, so take that as you will.
Then there's New Super Mario Bros. U, which was just silly. Not that it's not fun, but it's a little unoriginal at this point: it's a copy of a copy. First the old-school sidescrolling Super Mario was transplanted to a game for the first Wii and hand-held Nintendo DS. Now the Wii game has been made for the Wii U with minimal changes. If there's anything really bad about the Wii U, it's that it doesn't always take full advantage of the hardware. The Wii U has so much potential, and the best games for it use that potential brilliantly. But that also makes it especially frustrating when something doesn't use the dual-screen capability as well as it should, or at all.
I love the young game series Scribblenauts, a game where you type in whatever you want and it appears to help you solve mini puzzles. (Example: need to climb a building? Type in "ladder" and it appears. Or "giant bird" and it appears, though it might not behave like you wanted.) I just don't care all that much about it being on the Wii U besides the fact that it means more levels to play. The Wii U version uses the GamePad to type in the objects you want, but I'd be just as happy playing it on the iPad, which hurts to say because I like the controller and the game so much separately. I don't know how to fix that, exactly, and I'm still going to play the hell out of this game, but when I was looking for what was going to be life-changingly different in the Wii U, I thought a creative game like Scribblenauts might be the one to deliver. (Still an awesome game, though.)
Oh, and there's also the "Pro Controller" that comes with the system. It's an Xbox controller, basically. I think it's a way to tap into the first-person shooter market, maybe as a more efficient shooting device. There might be some situations where you'd want this, but it seems like if you're investing in a Wii you'd want to focus on the GamePad and Wii remote technology--otherwise you'd might as well get an Xbox, which caters to the hardcore shooters much more. It's $50 to a Wii remote's $40, too, so calculate how much that helps accordingly.
What to avoid: New Super Mario Bros. U. Not enough new there. And, I can't with a good conscience tell you to avoid Scribblenauts, because it's still really fun, but I will say again it feels like it could do a little more.
Price The 8GB basic set is $300, white, and comes with the GamePad and console. It's $350 for 32GB deluxe version, which comes with Nintendo Land and a Pro Controller in addition to the GamePad. (By comparison, you can get an Xbox with Kinect for $300. Part of Nintendo's pitch on this is probably that it's offering those big titles that PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 players usually gravitate toward.) The deluxe version comes in the shiny black, too. Should you go for the 32 GB one if you're already considering the 8GB one? Probably. This will be the first new Nintendo console we'll get in a while, so the storage will help for long-term use, and most people will want Nintendo Land, too.
The Verdict The Wii U is really fun, even though there's just the slightest twinge of disappointment in some of the exclusive launch games. I'm going to buy the system, don't get me wrong--it's a neat step forward and nicely, surprisingly, never felt gimmicky--but it just feels like I'm doing it as an investment right now, covering my bases for when the Great Wii U Game--maybe Pikmin 3?--comes out. In the meantime, it's enough for me to try out games like Arkham Asylum and Mass Effect, which really do get a boost from being in this format.