Nintendo’s Wii U is out November 18. We’ve had a review unit for a few days, and here’s what’s surprised us the most.
The next game console from Nintendo is a strange beast indeed. The controller, called GamePad, has a built-in touch screen. And the system can wirelessly stream its visuals to both the GamePad and the television at the same time. So you can play games in which the player has to alternate between the two screens. Or multiplayer games in which some players look at the TV while others look at the controller. Or you can just play games on the controller and forget about the TV entirely — which we were surprised to find might be the most compelling way to play on Wii U.
There’s still a lot we don’t know about how Nintendo’s new game machine will work, but here are some observations we’d like to share.
It’s a brand new console. I begin with this point knowing that a fair amount of you will think me belaboring the painfully obvious, but something about Nintendo’s early marketing for Wii U seems to have confused the hell out of the other half of you. Perhaps it’s because Nintendo has put all of its efforts into showing and explaining the GamePad controller and has barely talked at all about the tech specs of the Wii U box beyond repeatedly noting that it finally outputs HD video, but many people seem to think that the company is introducing a new accessory for the legacy Wii console, not a new machine.
Then again, maybe this is not a failure of messaging. Perhaps there’s something about the unique nature of the GamePad itself that throws people for a loop. I showed the GamePad to an acquaintance and he asked if “the games just go in here.” The idea of a separate controller with a screen on it that takes video wirelessly from another source, but does not function by itself, might just be so alien to consumers that they can’t wrap their heads around it. (Anyway: Yes it’s a new platform, no the controller is not the game system.)
The GamePad’s screen means you might not need a TV at all. Photo: Alex Washburn /Wired
It controls your TV. There’s a button on the GamePad labeled “TV,” and after some quick setup you can use it as a remote control. This is more convenient than I first imagined. What do you do when you sit on the couch, ready to play a game? You grab your game controller. Being able to press a few buttons, switch the input of your TV over, turn the Wii U on and start playing a game all using one device is pretty nice.
But you don’t need a TV. After that initial setup, you actually don’t need a TV to play Wii U. Certain games do require players to use both the TV screen and the GamePad’s screen. But some games can be played using the GamePad only, for example, New Super Mario Bros. U. I hadn’t been playing for five minutes when my fiancee walked into the room and said, “So I can just change the channel, right?” Sure, I said, and she started watching TV while I played using only the pad.
In fact, you don’t even need a TV period. You can power on the Wii U and start playing a game without ever, ever turning the television on. There’s a killer app coming for this feature, but right now it’s only in Japan. The massively multiplayer game Dragon Quest X will let you play on the pad, which will let MMO addicts get their fix for as long as they like — without bothering the rest of the family in a typical small Japanese home. You can even plug a headset right into the GamePad for personal audio.
Only a few games support this right now, but I actually have a feeling it’s going to be a big request from players around the world for future Wii U content.
Come to think of it, given the choice, I’ve been looking at the pad. This weirded me out, quite frankly. Why, when I had a great big television in front of me, would I stare at the tiny screen in my hands? I don’t know. Maybe it’s more immediate because it’s closer? Maybe having the GamePad screen active in my peripheral vision distracted me, pulling my attention away from the TV? I sit on the couch and play Nintendo 3DS games all the time anyway, so it’s hardly weird to play Wii U games while looking only at the pad. I just find it odd that, as near as I can figure, I actually prefer doing that. Am I just weird, or is Nintendo really onto something? Would we rather pull our games closer to us, even if the screen is much smaller?
With the GamePad, you’re mobile enough to make a difference. While playing Mario, I walked out of the living room. I wanted to test an important real-life scenario, so I took the GamePad into the bathroom and closed the door. It worked fine. I walked into the bedroom and sat on the bed. It worked fine. Your mileage may vary, but I was able to walk into adjacent rooms while still playing games, and that’s a big deal. If your living room and bedroom are close together, you won’t have to choose between playing more games and going to bed.
I don’t want to exaggerate things. Nintendo says the range of the GamePad is roughly 25 feet. So you can’t take it everywhere, but you can take it far enough to make a big difference in how and where you consume console games.
The GamePad needs its own AC adapter. Photo: Alex Washburn /Wired
But you need to plug it in a lot. The GamePad has a battery life of about 3-5 hours, which means you’ll want to charge it as much as you can. Unfortunately (and to my extreme bafflement) Nintendo does not let you charge the GamePad by plugging it into the console via USB. So you’ll need to put its AC adapter somewhere unobtrusive. The $350 Deluxe Set (but not the $300 basic package) includes a charging cradle for GamePad, which will make setup easier. But it’s still a pain in the ass to have to devote another separate power outlet to Wii U.
NintendoLand is full of new ideas. Included in the Deluxe Set and otherwise sold separately, NintendoLand is the Wii Sports of Wii U, the collection of mini-games intended to show players the various ways they might use the novel controller to play games that are unlike anything you’ve tried before.
Wii Sports did this five ways: tennis, bowling and nobody remembers the other three (dressage?). NintendoLand has twelve games, each of which is themed around one of the company’s legendary game series. This is simultaneously a sop to fussy Nintendo fans who would otherwise be annoyed that their favorite franchise is unrepresented at the launch of the new machine (because this has Zelda, Pikmin, F-Zero and Animal Crossing all rolled into one) and a proof-of-concept of how Wii U will change the way you play a whole variety of different game types from RPGs to racers and everything in between.
New Super Mario Bros. U is like a mobile game, in a good way. At first I was almost falling asleep playing New Super Mario Bros. U, and if my 12-year-old self knew I would ever grow up and say that he would be inconsolable. But it’s Nintendo’s fault, not mine; the company has pumped out four of these samey-looking Mario adventures in the last six years. The games put up huge numbers precisely because they don’t really take risks, but it’s left me wanting more innovation.
Bored, I left the main menu of New Super Mario Bros. U and poked around the options, and found something that I truly didn’t expect: a “Challenge” mode made up of bite-sized levels that you’re supposed to try over and over, failing repeatedly until you can pull them off. It takes elements of past Mario games, like jumping on a successive line of enemies over and over to rack up free lives, and presents them as self-contained trials. It reminded me of playing the best addictive mobile games, and all I could think was, how in the hell did it take Nintendo this long to create a Mario game like this?
Wii U is still crippled… for now. Nintendo got us a Wii U well in advance of its launch date, but that came with a caveat: It requires a day-one firmware update to use any of the online features. This won’t affect buyers since the update will be available before a single console is sold. But as of now, neither we nor any other outlet can tell you anything about how Wii U and the Internet work together. Or Netflix, or Amazon Prime, or how you buy games digitally. We can’t even go through the transferring of digital content from the old Wii to the new Wii U, yet, since that requires an online connection. And we don’t know how the new Nintendo Network online account system will function.
Hopefully that won’t take too long, and we can update you accordingly later this week. For now, even the half-functioning Wii U is doing some very surprising things.