After placing third in a console generation with the GameCube, Nintendo showed that it was no longer willing to compete strictly on software with the 2006 launch of the Wii. The platform proved a phenomenon thanks to its motion controls, ease of use, and low price point, and while it may not have held sway with core gamers for long, the Wii showed that Nintendo could still work wonders with innovation.
The Wii U is the next step, and like its predecessor, it's something different from the pack. A brand new standalone console, the Wii U may initially offer graphics power comparable to the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, both of which have been on the market for several years, but that's not its main selling point.
What sets the platform apart is its focus on the new Wii U GamePad, a large amalgamation of a traditional controller and a tablet, featuring a 6.2-inch touch display that can work in tandem with what's being shown on your TV.
It's the center of the Wii U experience – a single, wireless input device that includes a bit of everything. In addition to the large screen, it includes two analog sticks, a directional pad, eight input buttons, a front-facing camera, and an NFC (Near Field Communication) sensor. It can even control your television.
And much as the GamePad is designed to supplement your big-screen games, whether as a standard controller, a screen for map and inventory info, or one of many other inventive uses, it can also work independently from the TV. Turn on the GamePad (which likewise activates the console) and many titles can be played entirely from the small screen, even in another room – though range varies.
The Wii U ships with a single GamePad, and while future games may support two, none do as of now – and they're not sold separately. Multiplayer games still utilize the last console's wand-like Wii Remotes and Nunchuk attachments, plus the new Wii U Pro Controller bears a striking resemblance to an Xbox 360 controller.
Beyond the innovative GamePad, the Wii U in many other ways seems intent on rising to the level of the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. While the Wii was a smashing success, its lack of high definition output – plus graphics technology barely above that of the previous generation of consoles – dated it quickly as HDTV sales surged and streaming media took off.
Early Wii U launch titles look very similar to current games on the other home consoles – in part because many of the launch titles are top games from other systems, albeit with modifications and enhancements. For Nintendo's part, the company has finally ushered some of its franchises into high definition with New Super Mario Bros. U and Nintendo Land.
And the Wii U is positioned as the center of your digital universe, though it's not quite ready to fill that role. Netflix is available, but apps for Hulu Plus, Amazon Instant Video, and YouTube – visible on the home screen – won't be activated for weeks, and the big Nintendo TiVii feature that lets users track and find their favorite media across services (as well as interact with TiVo boxes) won't be out until December. At least you can control your TV and cable box with the GamePad.
Considering its myriad parts, the Wii U seems to offer a mix of the new and novel and the old and familiar – but what is its worth to both owners of other current game consoles as well as those looking to upgrade from the Wii? And do its initial game offerings warrant early adoption, or should curious parties wait and see how it takes hold in the market?
The Wii U is initially available in two distinct packages. On the lower end is the Basic Set, which includes a white Wii U console with 8GB of internal flash storage, a white GamePad, separate AC adapters for the console and controller, an HDMI cable, and a sensor bar for Wii Remotes. The Basic Set is sold for $299.
For $50 more, the Deluxe Set serves up a black console and GamePad, the former offering 32GB of internal flash storage, and in addition to all of the accessories from the Basic Set, the bundle also features a charging cradle for the GamePad, as well as simple stands for both the GamePad and console.
The Deluxe Set also includes a boxed copy of mini-game collection Nintendo Land, which sells separately for $60, and owners earn points on digital purchases that yield credit to use towards additional purchases. All of that for $349.
It's extremely difficult to recommend the Basic Set by comparison. Even for those uninterested in Nintendo Land, which serves as a smart tutorial for the system's various features, the huge increase in storage makes it an essential purchase – especially since only 3GB of the Basic Set's storage is usable for games, compared to 29GB on the Deluxe console.
The Wii U console itself looks somewhat similar to the original Wii in general build, yet features rounded edges and is notably longer – it measures 10.6 inches long and 6.75 inches wide, with a height of just 1.8 inches. While it reads and plays older Wii games on standard DVDs, the Wii U's native games run on new 25GB optical discs. GameCube discs will not run on the Wii U.
On the front of the system, you'll find power and eject buttons, each 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.
Flip the system around and you'll find two more USB ports on the right, along with ports on the left for the HDMI cable, other types of AV outputs, power cable, and Wii sensor bar. 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.
Out of the box, the Wii U only supports Wi-Fi (892.11b/g/n) connections, though a Wii LAN Adapter connected to a USB port can be used for wired Ethernet lines.
Nintendo hardware has a long history of being physically well built and reliable, and from our initial testing of the Wii U, we don't expect that to change. It seems sturdily assembled, though the glossy black plastic of the Pro unit is seriously prone to dust, fingerprints, and visible scratches.
The Wii U GamePad measures 10.2 inches wide, 5.3 inches tall, and is 0.9 inches deep, and weighs just over a pound. For what seems like a lap-centric device, it's actually remarkably comfortable in the hands, thanks to contoured grips on the lower back, as well as a ridge that sits between your middle and pointer fingers.
At the center of the experience is the 6.2-inch screen: a 16:9 widescreen, 854 x 480 (158 ppi) resistive touch display. Like the touch screens on the Nintendo DS and 3DS, it's a little muted in comparison to a standard screen, but at full battery-powered brightness (plugging it in provides one more level of brightness), it provides a clear image that is only occasionally pixelated in parts.
The screen will only recognize a single input, but like the DS and 3DS, it's equally useable with your finger or a stylus, which is conveniently stored on the top, to the left of the right shoulder button. Holding and dragging can be an occasional issue in both games and the web browser, though.
The GamePad takes a kitchen sink approach to input devices, giving developers a wide array of options for games. Traditional games can use the dual analog sticks and face/shoulder/trigger buttons. Motion games have the accelerometer and gyroscope, while the camera can be used for video conferencing or augmented reality games. An NFC sensor is included (but not currently used by any games) below the D-pad, plus there's an infrared sensor on the top.
The button layout does take some getting used to, though, especially for those used to controllers from other modern platforms. Having the sticks aligned and so far apart makes it an arrangement unlike that of any other input device. Fans of action games ported from other systems may prefer the Wii U Pro Controller, though the altered button layout can prove challenging to adjust to.
Many games, including New Super Mario Bros. U and Madden NFL 13, can be played entirely with the GamePad, letting you turn off your television or cede control of that larger screen to a family member for other purposes. With a large display and both external and headphone-enabled sound options, it's almost like a handheld game system, though the lower-resolution screen is a compromise you'll have to make for the sake of portability.
However, range is an issue. The GamePad reportedly works up to 25 feet away from the console, but walls and other sources of interference may well interfere. In the home office we tested in, with the system nestled between bookshelves, the GamePad worked perfectly from several feet away. Taking a few steps outside the door, it quickly lost its connection.
We moved the console to a much larger living room setting, with the Wii U standing free from boxed-in furniture, and tried again with better results. The GamePad then worked through one wall, allowing us to walk about 15 feet away from the console, but moving past a second wall killed the link. Others have reported significantly longer distances, though, so your mileage will likely vary here based on your surroundings and interference from other devices.
The GamePad is wireless, but the rechargeable (and replaceable) Lithium Ion battery doesn't last for long. Nintendo claims that it'll give you 3-5 hours of play on a full charge (which takes about 2.5 hours to accumulate), but with the brightness on max – which we found essential for getting the best-quality play experience – we struggled to push past that three-hour mark.
That's a big problem. Traditional rechargeable controllers usually notch a dozen or more hours per charge, making them ideal for lengthy play sessions and party scenarios, but the Wii U GamePad won't go the distance. While the GamePad can be used while it's plugged into the wall, there's currently no way to charge it through the system during gameplay via USB, akin to the Xbox 360's Play & Charge Kit.
It's an odd omission, seeing as the Wii U Pro Controller (sold separately from the console) does come with a USB charging cable, though it doesn't plug into the GamePad. Then again, the Pro Controller won't accommodate a headset jack for the multiplayer games it's designed for (you'll have to plug it into the GamePad), so both neither controller feels fully thought out.
Interface and TV control
If the GamePad's second screen makes the Wii U concept feel like a blown-up take on Nintendo's handheld ethos, the 3DS-esque interface and home screen only confirm that.
Upon loading up the console, by default the GamePad screen displays three rows of five icons each, whereupon you'll find access to whichever game is in the disc drive, settings, and installed apps and downloaded games. Below those large icons are five smaller, permanent ones that include access to Miiverse, eShop, the web browser, the incoming TiVii app, and notifications.
Five identical screens can be filled up with your games and apps of choice, and all can be navigated either via touch or using the physical inputs of the GamePad. It's a crisp, clean, and to-the-point approach that works well for the system and looks great on the smaller screen.
Meanwhile, on your TV you'll see your created Mii character amidst friends' creations and a mass of other random Miis standing near floating app and feature icons in the sky. It's just another way of viewing the myriad abilities of the Wii U – plus little dialogue bubbles suggest things to check out – and you can swap the two screens at any point.
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.
Also a trend throughout the Wii U menu experience: sluggishness. It's everywhere you turn, whether it's waiting 15 seconds for the settings menu to load up or the same delay in getting back to the Wii Menu after exiting an app. The interface is in clear need of optimization and refinement in that regard, as getting from one place to another proves a slow-paced venture.
Another awkward element of the Wii U interface is its handling of original Wii games and content. Not only does that all take place on a separate screen, but the hardware actually reboots and simultaneously shuts down the GamePad, forcing you to use a Wii Remote with the sensor bar – and what you'll get is a perfect facsimile of the Wii menu screen in all its jagged, low-resolution glory.
Inelegant seems too kind a description for what's essentially a closed-off console within a console. Even getting content from your old Wii to the Wii U is a drawn-out and cumbersome process requiring both being connected online while using an SD card to transfer the actual content. It works, and the step-by-step process is well explained, but not ultimately having that content accessible with the GamePad and via the Wii U menu is disappointing.
While the Nintendo TiVii feature has been delayed until December, one helpful TV-related ability is here on day one. You can use the GamePad to control both your TV and cable/satellite box, and the setup process is absolutely breezy. We simply tapped in the name of the TV manufacturer and cable provider and it worked for both on the first try.
Once that's done, simply tap the TV Control button on the lower right of the GamePad to pull up a black remote overlay, which lets you input channels, access the guide, change volume, and toggle the power of either device. It could replace the standard channel surfing routine for many heavy users; for others, it'll still be a helpful perk for when the remote's too far away.
Out of the box, the Wii U is able to play disc-based games and let you create little Mii characters. What it's not able to do is hop online or utilize the many network-connected features of the platform, nor does it even show off the completed launch interface. For that, you'll need to download a patch.
And what a patch it is. On the evening before the system went on sale, we spent about 90 minutes downloading the update, though we've seen others speak of up to three-hour download times. Luckily, the update itself only takes about 10 minutes, though that massive download is sure to harsh to buzz of some excited kids this holiday season.
Ultimately, though, the patch opens up a lot of possibilities for the system, and the Wii U is dramatically better equipped for online interactions than its predecessor. Case in point: instead of swapping randomized friend codes to connect with pals, you can register a free Nintendo Network tag of your choosing. That alone is a night-and-day improvement over the original Wii and even the 3DS (as of now), though like Xbox Live, you're capped at 100 friends.
The eShop is a much glossier version of the 3DS original, and it's well-stocked: the vast majority of retail games are also available as downloads (full-priced, sadly), while promising and prominently-featured indie games like Little Inferno and Chasing Aurora offer lower-priced experiences. Streaming video trailers are a nice touch for certain games, as well, though playable demos are currently MIA.
Miiverse is Nintendo's attempt at offering a baked-in social network of sorts for Wii U players, allowing users to swap stylus-based drawings, tapped-out messages, and other little challenges and observations in communities based on individual games. It's also a hub for seeing the notes and messages your friends send, making it an essential stop for well-connected users. Miiverse is shallow and restrictive, but lightly charming in its simplicity.
Day one jitters intervened regularly with Miiverse, though. We often had trouble connecting at all, and for most of the launch day, were unable to see any messages at all in any community. We also had issues with the Wii U Chat video feature, which lets you call pals (with an adorable ringtone) and scribble on each other's pictures as you talk. Calls failed to connect; ones that went through lagged and dropped quickly. With luck, both are early issues that Nintendo can scale up to avoid.
The Wii U Internet Browser is an OK choice for couch-based browsing on the TV, with the touch screen allowing you to tap in URLs and search terms and scroll the screen with relative ease (aside from occasional tap-and-drag issues). Multiple tabs are supported, as are favorites, plus you can surf privately on the GamePad by drawing virtual curtains on the TV screen – a cute touch.
But if you're planning to surf solely on the GamePad and already have a smartphone or tablet, you're probably better off using that, particularly if it runs at a higher resolution than the GamePad – and has native apps for services like Twitter and Facebook, which Wii U lacks.
We caught a couple of oddly rendered fonts on the GamePad screen, plus sites were inconsistently displaying standard and mobile versions of sites with no apparent local option to force one or the other. Also, streaming video may run at a slower frame rate, depending on the source. Essentially, it's a decent option for occasional web look-ups, but if you have a better option within reach, use that instead.
As of day one, Netflix is the only video app that actually works – the icons for YouTube, Hulu Plus, and Amazon Instant Video are placeholders. Netflix on Wii U is a fine, but unremarkable experience; the GamePad is used to flip through content, which can be displayed on either screen, though we'd like to see the ability to browse content while video still plays on the TV.
Following the large system update, the games themselves also in many cases have separate, smaller updates that seem to implement the previously locked online features and potential other tweaks. These updates typically take a few minutes to download and install, though you can continue playing while the download occurs in the background and install later.
The Wii U launches with more than 20 retail games in North America on day one, with many also sold as downloadable games in the eShop. We've had a chance to play several of the more notable options, and here are our impressions on how they perform and how they utilize the system's unique tech.
Nintendo Land is included with the Deluxe Set, and it collects 12 mini-games based on various classic Nintendo properties. It's a slick set of diversions that collectively serve as a Wii U tutorial, introducing concepts like asymmetric play (one GamePad user against up to four Wii Remote wielders) along the way.
With unique mechanics in many of the games, Nintendo Land doesn't have the breezy accessibility of something like Wii Sports, but this light and amusing entry should have been a pack-in for all systems. Sold separately at $60, it's a tougher recommendation aside from wanting a token launch title or to take in the ample fan service.
Nintendo Land may be the pack-in option (at least for one bundle), but the face of the company is well represented in New Super Mario Bros. U, which like earlier "New" entries returns the series to its side-scrolling roots – though this iteration makes good use of the GamePad. It's also the first Mario game in high definition, and finally seeing the colorful stages and characters in HD is really a blast.
Building off of the earlier Wii entry, up to four players can take part in New Super Mario Bros. U using Wii Remotes, plus a GamePad user can help compatriots by placing platforms in the world with a touch of the stylus. NSMBU can also be played entirely on the GamePad in single-player. While much of the template is familiar, it's hard to argue with a large and beautiful new Mario platformer.
Another Nintendo title is Sing Party, which puts a new spin on the karaoke genre by having a microphone-wielding singer read lyrics from the GamePad while friends sing and dance around them. Meanwhile, the Team Ninja's Ninja Gaiden 3: Razor's Edge updates this year's ill-regarded violent action game with marginal polish.
Continuing on the third-party front, ZombiU is one of the more interesting options designed around the GamePad, as the deliberate, first-person survival horror game uses the second screen to access inventory, hack doors, destroy barricades, and much more. From what we've played so far, it's a very intriguing take on the horror genre, and on a system headlined by many existing ports, it's a standout release.
Scribblenauts Unlimited finds a perfect home on the Wii U thanks to the pairing of touch screen mechanics and HD visuals. Originally bound to the dated Nintendo DS (with a bite-sized iOS 6 version coming last year), Scribblenauts lets you solve puzzles by typing in words and interacting with the items you spawn. Unlimited is adorably presented and brainy but accessible, making it an easy early favorite. It also features classic Nintendo characters, which can be spawned within the game.
Both of EA Sports' launch titles have been upgraded and enhanced for the system. Madden NFL 13 uses the GamePad to let you flip through and choose plays, which is a very natural-feeling use of the controller, plus you can play entire games using only the GamePad screen. Overall, the presentation in the Wii U iteration is a bit less fluid and polished, and it's lacking a couple features from other versions, but Madden still delivers a great core football experience.
And FIFA Soccer 13 is easily the best entry of the series to land on a Nintendo console, carrying over much (but not all) of the action from this year's Xbox 360 and PS3 versions while adding a GamePad interface that allows a quick look at the entire field, the ability to make defensive alignment changes, and more. You can also raise it up to aim the ball at the goal, shake to shoot, and tap the screen to tackle. They're optional controls, of course; the button-based approach remains intact, as well.
Perhaps the year's biggest release, Call of Duty: Black Ops II, hits the Wii U less than a week after its debut on other platforms, and from what we played, it's nearly identical to the Xbox 360 version. Occasional texture loading issues seemed new, but the overall result is still a huge first-person shooter experience that's a blast to play online. And it features a separate-screen local two-player option, which is a great perk. Even with a Pro controller, though, the revised button assignments and analog stick placement in Black Ops II make for a tough transition between consoles.
Many of the launch games that we didn't play are enhanced ports of top titles from other platforms. Assassin's Creed III is available, while other big-name re-releases include Batman: Arkham City Armored Edition, Mass Effect 3: Special Edition, and Darksiders II – all glossy AAA experiences with added GamePad functionality. Even a game like Just Dance 4 uses the GamePad for creating playlists and having an extra player pick moves on the fly for dancers, who still wield Wii Remotes while dancing.
Since multiplatform games take up such a large chunk of the launch lineup, its success depends a lot on player perspective. If you're upgrading from a Wii, you'll find a large number of fantastic HD experiences that simply weren't possible on that dated hardware. For owners of Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, or a capable PC, a lot of the lineup may seem like a retread of familiar ground, with only a handful of titles beyond Nintendo's really delivering fresh affairs.
The Wii U certainly is an interesting console, to say the least. Like the Wii Remote before it, the GamePad is a real innovation in the home console space, though here it's in many ways more a complementary feature to traditional games, rather than a dramatic, experience-shifting mode of input.
As an network-enabled device, the Wii U is leaps and bounds ahead of the Wii, but it should be after six years; whether it's as fully-featured as competing consoles is a different story, and initial online hiccups and broken promises regarding video streaming options show a lot of work to be done in that area.
All told, does the Wii U warrant your $350 right now?
The GamePad is indeed a unique addition, bringing a DS-like dual-screen experience to the living room. The controller itself is well designed and comfortable, and includes a wide array of features for developers to mix, match, and create games around.
Asymmetric gaming – where one player with a GamePad faces off against those with Wii Remotes – is a neat twist that we're excited to see develop further over time. Nintendo Land gives a taste of what's possible, but future games should spotlight it.
Seeing Nintendo finally embrace HD gaming is a wonderful thing. New Super Mario Bros. U might be familiar overall, but playing Mario in high definition is a wonderful thing, It's long overdue, and also makes the platform more attractive to multiplatform developers.
Being able to play games without the television on is a fantastic perk, though the trade-off is the lower-resolution GamePad display. And depending on your setup, you may be able to play multiple rooms away from the console.
Considering everything that comes with the bundle, including a $60 game, charging dock, HDMI cable, and a fair amount of Flash storage, the $350 Pro bundle feels appropriately priced – especially when compared to the Basic set.
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.
Sluggish menus make getting around a hassle. A giant online patch is required to access many features, and even then some – like Miiverse and Wii U Chat – are struggling to work properly due to initial demand.
There's nothing really mind-blowing in the launch lineup. No doubt, there are some great games to explore, and it's a large day-one spread – but many of these games are already on other platforms, with enhancements here being generally minor.
The Basic set feels seriously gimped for just $50 less. Only having 8GB of storage (3GB available for games) with no pack-in game just isn't worth the small savings.
Promised features like non-Netflix video streaming services and the Nintendo TiVii functionality were delayed just before launch. It's potentially misleading for those expecting such features out of the box.
For Nintendo fans looking to finally enter the HD era, the Wii U may seem like a beacon of light in an endless downpour – and if you're coming from the Wii, it will be quite impressive, indeed. Not only are the publisher's own properties sleeker than ever before, but third-parties can finally deliver the great games they've been making for other systems in recent years.
But gamers who already have an Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3 may struggle to see much of the appeal for now. Many of the Wii U games are lightly enhanced ports, with just a few noteworthy originals. And the online interface and streaming media options aren't quite as polished or robust as what's seen elsewhere.
for many, an early system purchase hangs on the quality of Nintendo's own offerings and the handful of other unique experiences, but it's difficult to point to a brilliant, system-selling game that justifies a new console purchase. There's great fun to be had on the Wii U right away, but we struggle to call it an essential purchase for those still enjoying games on other platforms.
As with all console purchases, a look ahead is necessary. No doubt, developers will find exciting ways to harness the GamePad and the system's other unique options to deliver one-of-a-kind experiences in the years ahead. But with the hardware performance seemingly only meeting that of several-year-old competitors, it may well feel outdated in many ways if other new hardware rolls out in a year or two.
That's a concern, as well as a risk. But Nintendo's modern mandate is providing something different instead of simply replicating others' plans, and however the industry and the platform itself evolve in the coming years, the Wii U is sure to provide experiences like no other along the way.