Nintendo has been making fun into a business for decades and its newest console, the Wii U, is total unabashed fun. I've spent about a week with it, burning up time and extra lives to see what it's all about.
The short version of this review: I really like the Wii U and would gladly recommend it to my friends. I would buy it for myself. Obviously there's more to it than that, so keep reading for the details.
The Wii U console itself struck me as unremarkable. Not in any sort of "wow-they-clearly-didn't-care" way at all, but simply in the sense that it's a black box just as most other consoles are black boxes. But the physical appearance of the console doesn't matter to me when the Wii U GamePad is as magical as it is.
The Wii U GamePad is the "controller" for the Wii U, but to call it a controller doesn't do it justice. It's as much a gaming element as your TV screen is. It's larger than your Xbox 360 or PS3 controller, but that's only because it has a beautiful touch-sensitive display embedded in the middle of it. You have the conventional D-pad, trigger, start, and select buttons, but you can interact with the screen with your finger or with the included stylus. It opens up a lot of interesting gaming potential.
For example, in Arkham City: Armored Edition, the TV can display a standard gaming environment while the GamePad's screen can give you a menu of tools and powerups to choose from.
This is clearly where Nintendo poured lots of design effort, and it paid off.
Nintendo brings the friendly and colorful operating system we've come to expect since the release of the Wii six years ago. There's an extensive social layer to the Wii U as well – while browsing the menu to fire up a web browser or a game, you see virtual representations of other players around the world huddled on your TV screen. Every once in a while one of them will display a speech bubble with a short burst of text or a picture, at which point you can view it, comment on it, or give it a "Yeah!"
I wasn't too interested in this aspect of it, so I mostly ignored it.
The Nintendo eShop is a place where you can buy downloadable games and other bonus content. I love the fact that the company has been making ports of its classic games available since it put out the Wii, and you can still scoop them (and brand new games as well) up here for a fee.
The Internet browser (hilariously named "Internet Browser") is a bit of a snooze. If you want to check something out online, just use your computer. Interacting with the web with a stylus feels hokey nowadays. Regardless, it still works and it's there if you want it.
The console is Wi-Fi enabled and supports HD content, so Netflix, Hulu+, and Amazon Instant Video all look great. Because the Wii U GamePad has the previously-mentioned screen embedded in it, you can mirror video playback to the controller while someone watches something else on the TV screen. It's a really nice solution for a family that always seems to be a screen short.
The last major feature to talk about is Nintendo TVii. If you're a television junkie, you'll really love this. The Wii U will ask you about your favorite movies and TV shows, ask about your cable provider, and then build a custom TV guide around your preferences. Remember, the Wii U GamePad acts wonderfully as a remote control, so imagine if your remote control had a big easy-to-read touch sensitive screen in it. Nintendo TVii is a really nice feature.
If this seems like Nintendo's trying to throw its hat into the ring to compete to be your "second screen," that's probably because it is. But I'd never use it this way –– a tablet is far easier for web browsing and tweeting than the Wii U is right now.
Should you upgrade from the Wii?
Possibly. The Wii U is backwards-compatible with your old Wii games, so you'll still be able to play them while also gaining access to newer Wii U games. It just comes down to personal preference, really.
"The Wii U is the most fun I've ever had playing games on a console hooked up to a TV. I'm emphasizing fun. Not necessarily the best graphics (which are nevertheless great) or most in-depth storylines. Just loads and loads of unadulterated diversion."
So if games are more about escapism for you, the Wii U is a great fit. If you'd rather get bogged down in the minutiae of hardware specs and pixel count, look somewhere else. Fun is probably a bit of an alien concept to you anyway.
If you want to give the Wii U a try, it'll cost you $300 and $380 for the 8 GB and 32 GB models, respectively.