The Wii U is now over 18 months old, and as any gamer will know, a hell of a lot can happen in that time. Most significant has been the launch of the Xbox One and PS4, which officially fired the starting gun on the new-gen race.
Meanwhile the Wii U has been slowly building up its arsenal of titles and attempting to lure us over to its unique style of GamePad play. Now it's had time to settle in, we've gone back and taken another look at Nintendo's latest console to see how it's coming along, and whether 2014 is the year that will make the U an essential buy.
Most games consoles owe a lot of gratitiude to the ideas born by their predecessor. Not the Wii U. In fact, if the Wii U hates anyone right now, it shouldn't be the Xbox One or PS4. It should be the Wii.
You see, after the middling success of the GameCube, Nintendo seemed to be caught by surprise when the Wii became such a hit. So when it came to creating the next console, the company was in a conundrum: continue to cash in this newfound casual demographic or win back the hardcore market that had seeped through its fingers during the reign of the Wii?
"Why not do both?" was essentially Nintendo's answer. It wanted a console that you'd enjoy for the serious shooters, while gran could still get a round of Wii Sports tennis in. The Wii's name was meant to represent people playing together. The Wii U was about bringing back the more personal "You". The message was confused from the start.
And it's frustrating because the Wii U is a great console with some intriguing features and a lot of ambition. Some developers won't even acknowledge it as a next-gen console; with the more expensive Xbox One and PS4 now out the door the U sits in its own halfway place between two generations, catching the odd multi-platform game but ultimately still waiting around for the lineup of killer exclusives that every Nintendo console should bring.
In a way, that was sort of Nintendo's plan - to pitch the Wii U as almost its own category entirely separate from Sony's and Microsoft's consoles. That worked with the Wii, but without anything as revolutionary as motion gaming to its name the Wii U was never going to be so lucky.
That's not to say the Wii U isn't powerful in its own right. It's certainly above the Xbox 360 and PS3 graphically, finally bringing Nintendo into the HD era. And lest we forget that power alone has never been a significant driver of any Nintendo console: the Wii was weaker than the 360 and PS3 and yet blew both out of the water in sales.
But at launch, the Wii U's lineup was lacklustre. And 18 months down the road, while there are some truly stellar titles on the console, they're few and far between. You'd expect that from two consoles that have just turned six months old, no from one that had a year headstart in the next-gen race.
But as I said, the quality games are there, most of them first-party. So whether you need a Wii U in your life will definitely depend on your history with Nintendo. If you love Mario Kart, Super Smash Bros and Donkey Kong but have been putting off a Wii U purchase, 2014 might be the year to change that.
Design and specs
The Wii U is available in two versions. The basic pack (£200 in the UK, $250 in the US) comes with a white console, a GamePad, an external power brick, an AC power adapter for the GamePad, a sensor bar, and 8GB of internal flash storage.
However, you're better of putting down a bit more cash for the premium bundle (£250 in the UK, $300 in the US). Not only because it comes with a more respectable 32GB of storage, but the black console is a lot nicer. It'll certainly look better sat next to your Xbox One or PS4.
Opting for the premium model will also get you a copy of Nintendoland, a minigame package that serves to show off how the Wii U GamePad can be used. It's the U's version of Wii Sports though it's not so much of a must-have.
Take away the GamePad and the core console doesn't look a world apart from its predecessor, just a little more rounded. At 10.6 x 6.8 inches, it's bigger than the Wii but extremely compact when put next to the PS4 and Xbox One. And with a height of just 1.8 inches it's a box you should have little problem fitting snugly somewhere under the TV.
Adorning the front is a power button and an eject button, both augmented by a small light. The white light by the eject button illuminates when a disc is in the system, while the power light changes from red to blue when the system is turned on. Below the disc slot is a hidden compartment with two USB ports and an SD Card slot for added storage.
Turn the box over and you've got additional USB ports to play with as well as a port for the sensor bar just like the Wii. External hard drives up to 2TB in size can be plugged into the system, though any hard drive will be formatted to work with the Wii U and cannot be used with other devices.
But as with any console, it's what's inside the box that counts. The tri-core CPU hasn't got a huge amount of might against the PS4's and Xbox One's 8-core AMD APUs, while 2GB of DDR3 RAM also pales in comparison to the 8GB on board Sony and Microsoft's consoles.
That's why, as I previously said, the Wii U feels a bit stuck between gens, and it's the reason developer support hasn't been fantastic.
Because of that lack of initial support, the install base has been slow to grow - which discourages developers to jump on board. And round and round the vicious cycle goes.
But take the Wii U out of the context of the next-gen race and it's perfectly powerful in its own right, and a noticeable step up from the Wii. Seeing Mario in HD alone should get even get a grin out of the most hardened of videophiles.
Nintendo has stuck to its tradition of focusing on the fun over raw power, and it's attempted to achieve this with some unique hardware choices. Which brings us to the headline act: the GamePad.
There's a reason Nintendo didn't show off the main console unit when the Wii U was revealed back in 2011. The GamePad would be what defined this console.
It is a tablet? Nope. The Wii U's main controller is more akin to the bottom half of a 3DS blown up to about five times the size.
At 10.2 inches wide, 5.3 inches tall and 0.9 inches deep, it's a chunky beast, but a deceivingly lightweight one. It feels a bit cumbersome when you first pick it up but spend some time with it and you'll appreciate the brilliance.
Despite its rectangular shape, the moldable grips and weight make the the 'Pad perfectly comfortable for long gaming sessions. Yeah, it's plasticky - certainly not up to the design standards of the likes of the Nexus 7 if you're still comparing it to an actual tablet - but it's been built with budget in mind.
And slap bang in the middle is a 6.2-inch resistive touch screen that's brights and vibrant, even though it only crams in a 854 x 480 resolution display. The screen only recognises a single input at a time but you can opt to use either a finger or the stylus that comes stored in the top of the pad, both of which are equally effective.
But the only thing that matters is that the games look good - and they do. The onboard speaker isn't quite as crisp but there's the option to plug in headphones if you wish.
But Nintendo isn't ditching the classic controls. You've still got dual analog sticks as well as face, shoulder and trigger buttons to play with. There's also an NFC sensor below the D-pad and even an infrared sensor on top, allowing you to use the GamePad as a basic TV remote control if you set it up to do so.
Having your hands so far apart is an odd thing to get used to after generations of compact controllers but it doesn't take very long to get used it. After all, each hand is essentially in the same place it's always been. They're just a tad more distanced.
So that's everything Nintendo's crammed into its new controller, but what will you be using the Wii U GamePad for? As well as being a touchscreen controller for gaming, the 'Pad can handily act as a mirror for whatever you're playing on the TV - even with the television switched off.
All the processing power is done in the console unit, so if someone in the family wants to watch a film and you're mid-way through tearing Bowser a new one you can just switch to the GamePad and continue as you were. In fact, so long as the game supports off-TV play, you can play a game from start to finish completely on the portable screen.
There's zero lag when using off-TV play but there is a tether, and it's a frustratingly short one - a limitation that's even more annoying when the PS Vita lets you take the portable anywhere around the house. 10 metres is the average distance that the GamePad can be taken from the main unit, though I found that any wall that got in the way would diminish that distance.
Another tether of sorts is the GamePad's disappointing battery life. Somewhere between three and four hours is the average time span on a single charge (though it's mostly closer to three), which isn't great. Luckily the charging cable is pretty long and you can squeeze out a bit of extra life from the controller by lowering the brightness, but we'd have hoped for more juice in there.
But the biggest problem with the Gamepad right now is that it simply still isn't being pushed to its attention. Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze, which was released February 2014, completely shunned it. Seriously, a Nintendo first-party game released over a year after the console and the GamePad screen is blank the entire time.
And yet we've seen glimmers of just how brilliantly the GamePad can be used when developers approach it in the right way. Take ZombiU, where the Wii U GamePad transforms into your character's rucksack. - every time you need to rummage for an item you have to do so using the touchscreen, keeping one eye on the controller and the other on the TV screen for approaching brain-feeders. It really does foster a sense of panic.
Nintendo realises that the Gamepad is the console's unique feature and promises to utilise it more in the future, so fingers crossed it keeps to its word. Just off the top of my head I can think of a number of ways ways it could make multiplayer amazing. I reckon we all can.
UI and Online
The Wii U's UI has improved significantly since launch and it's set to get even better.
Upon loading up the console, the GamePad screen will display rows of icons containing apps and games in the style of the 3DS. You can also access Miiverse, eShop, the web browser, notifications and Nintendo TVii through the touchscreen.
As on the Nintendo 3DS, tapping the Home Button on the Wii U GamePad pulls up a hub menu that includes a battery life indicator, date and time, access to controller settings, and links to the Friend List and Download Management screen. As with most Wii U menus, what you see on the GamePad is also what appears on the TV.
Meanwhile on the television screen you'll see your created Mii character among friends' creations and a mass of other random Miis standing near floating apps and feature icons in the sky. Messages posted by those people on the MiiVerse forums will pop up above their heads (yes, it's also a clever way of advertising games too), but the whole thing is localised so if you're in the UK you'll only see European Miis in the plaza.
Nintendo has historically been pretty behind with online gaming, and though the Wii U hasn't quite caught up to the Xbox One or PS4, the Miiverse is a wonderful coming together of online play and social networking. Stuck on a particular title? Jump into one of the sub-communities and find the help you need.
These Miis can also pop up in-game if you allow them to. Boot up Mario 3D World and you'll see random comments, and the Miis that posted them, scattered around the game's map. It really does add an enjoyable new element to the whole experience and is an element of the Wii U that deserves more celebration than it's getting.
Overall the UI is clean, inviting, and a lot faster than it used to be. Nintendo's been pushing out firmware updates to speed up the process of jumping between apps and menus, and there's plan to make it even faster with another big update this year.
And the best news is that Nintendo has abolished the friend codes and replaced them with your Nintendo ID to make things much more straightforward. If you want to post a screenshot to the MiiVerse during gameplay, you can do that too.
As far as core online multiplayer, the real test will come with the release of Mario Kart 8 and Super Smash Bros this year. So far, the signs are good.
But in this age of vast multimedia options, Nintendo knows that the Wii U can't be all about the games. Therefore you've got a bunch of other entertainment options such as Netflix and Lovefilm to choose from.
They've all been designed to fit the Wii U's unique setup. Take Netflix - you can browse the library and select a title all on the GamePad touchscreen screen, which also works as a handy buffer tool when video is playing. Or you can switch it around and have the video playing on the GamePad instead if someone else wants to use the TV.
If you're in the US you'll also be able to jump into Nintendo's free television service, TVii, but the UK and Australia won't get it until later in 2014. TVii lets you find the program you want to watch and then select the source you'd like to stream it from. Right now, Netflix, Amazon Instant Video and Hulu Plus are all supported, as are cable and satellite channels.
With the Xbox One vying for the position of the living room hub, it's a shame that TVii's rollout hasn't been faster. But as it stands it's a solid service and we can't wait for it to expand more globally.
There are some really strong titles on the Wii U right now, we'd just like a lot more of them. Even for a Nintendo console many of the classic characters are currently MIA. Mario Kart 8 is just tearing in, but 18 months down the line and Super Smash Bros and the Wii U Zelda are yet to arrive.
Super Mario 3D World is the game to beat right now. Jam-packed with some of the most inspired levels to date and taking the best from Super Mario 3D Land on the 3DS, it's proof that Nintendo is still top of its game when it comes to software.
Rayman is just behind the Italian plumber, with Rayman Legends offering an phenomenal platformer experience bursting with creative ideas. Like Mario 3D World, you've also got the option of local co-op.
Pikmin 3 tooks its sweet time to hit the U but it was definitely worth the wait. Fans of either of the first two games will know exactly what to expect from this strategy game. If you've not played either then, well, frankly I'm envious that you get to experience Pikmin fresh. It's a beautifully crafted adventure, if a little short. I'd also point out that the game still works best with the Wii Remote.
And last, but certainly not least, is The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker HD. Again, if you never played the Wind Waker on GameCube then you have no idea of the joys that await. For those who have played it, there are enough visual and gameplay improvements here to warrant a purchase. Sailing across the ocean in cel-shaded HD will have you as elated as felt more than 10 years ago.
There are others, too. The Wonderful 101 and Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze are both worth picking up. And a number of multi-platform games have made their way onto the U too, including Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag, Call of Duty: Ghosts, and the upcoming Watch Dogs.
2014 will be the year that makes or finally breaks the Wii U. For a long time it feels like Nintendo's home console has been treading water, kept afloat by the odd but brilliant first-party title.
But the PS4 and Xbox One are now in living rooms and the new-gen race has officially begun. Nintendo needs to speed up its output of games and show developers why the GamePad makes the Wii U like no other.
By the end of the year, the Wii U could well be a four-star console. For now, its small (but growing) library is what's really holding it back.
The Wii U's GamepPad is a bold move but it's what makes the Wii U truly stand out - we just need to see it used better. It's a well-designed, comfortable device, offering a wide array of features for developers to play with.
Asymmetric gaming – where one player with a GamePad faces off against those with Wii Remotes – is a particularly neat twist that we especially want to see more of.
Online is also significantly improved, with MiiVerse making the Wii U feel like part of a larger gaming community, not just connected to your personal friends. But the infrastructure for more serious multiplayer is also in place.
Then there are the games. There might not be as many as we'd like right now but there are already some killer exclusives to Nintendo's platform. With so many titles shared across the Xbox One and PS4, the Wii U could become an essential console to have alongside your other new-gen console, rather than an 'instead of'.
Ok, I've already mentioned the small library of games, but the lack of GamePad innovation being tapped into right now needs re-emphasis - this is its biggest weapon.
18 months down then line and still nothing has truly blown us away, but the potential is sitting there like a big flashing, singing, dancing, neon sign.
GamePad battery life is very weak, coming in around 3 hours for us on a full charge with maximum brightness. It can't be plugged into the hardware, either, which seems an odd oversight for something you'll be using constantly.
The tether between the GamePad and the console is also frustratingly short, and it seems unlikely that Nintendo will be able to change this.
The Wii U might be unable to compete with the Xbox One and PS4 in raw power, but it's a console packed with some unique features and good ideas that are waiting to be properly tapped into.
Pushed to its potential, who knows what it might achieve? There are some strong games in its lineup right now but Nintendo needs to get more of its own titles out the door if it wants to lure more developers on board
Most importantly, it needs to show just how brilliantly that GamePad can shine. It's not going to change gaming in the way that the Wii's motion controls did, but with a bit more effort it could offer gamers an experience unique enough that the power differentiation with the Xbox One and PS4 becomes moot.
It's not too late to turn the Wii U's fortunes around. The potential is in there.