Nintendo does what Nintendon't ... at last!
The Wii U has been a curious prospect ever since Nintendo revealed it to the world at E3 in 2011. Depending on the perspective of the individual, it's either launching very early for the next generation, or very late for this one. Depending on the perspective of the individual, it's an exciting new concept, or a desperate bid by Nintendo to stay in the game.
With a controller that boasts a gyroscope, its own touchscreen, and all the buttons associated with more traditional gaming consoles, the Wii U is trying to hit everything it can, providing the culmination of every way users have found themselves enjoying games in the past five years or so. Whether that's an inspired idea or a lame grab for as much attention as possible is, again, dependent on the perspective of the individual.
As for this individual, I have one crucial thing to add -- I'm a believer. I am a bigger believer in the Wii U than I ever was with the Wii, and I think that, at least in terms of usability, Nintendo has concocted for itself the perfect storm.
... With some caveats, of course.
A tight little box
The Wii U is bigger than the Wii, but remains a humbly sized little box when compared to both the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. Even next to Sony and Microsoft's slimmer offerings, the Wii U is a compact system that is easy to place on pretty much any shelf, floorspace, or entertainment unit. It can be stood upright in a tower position, or horizontally, as is the standard of consoles these days. Unlike in mine, when all systems were as big as a car and had to be stored on the Moon.
Like any good Christian, the Wii U keeps all its action in the front. Aside from the usual disc slot, eject and power buttons, a small compartment opens up (on the left or underside, depending on how you're standing it) to reveal an SD card slot and two USB ports, all very easily accessible and even helpfully labeled for people who have never heard of USB ports and, as such, probably won't be reading this. Hello anyway, if you are.
While I like the design of the box overall, I've never been too fond of flat buttons that run evenly with the casing. Both the power and eject buttons are like this for the Wii U, and given the tiny size of the eject one in particular, it's a pain to press -- especially given the inability to remotely eject a game from the system menu.
That gripe aside, this is a sleek, sexy little machine that conforms to modern design sensibilities more than Nintendo fans will be used to. Looking like a modern entertainment device as opposed to a fun toy, the design may not appeal to some, but others like myself shall appreciate having something that looks a little more at home sat next to all the other gadgets feeding the television with their whimsical wares.
Bigger can indeed mean better
Of course, the design of the Wii U's box was never the real focus for Nintendo, to the point where early marketing even confused potential consumers who thought it was just a handheld peripheral. While the Wii U system is compact, shiny, and fashionable, the GamePad plays entirely by Nintendo's anomalous rules, giving us the chunky, attention-grabbing, toy-like design that we've come to expect.
This is a big controller, as I'm sure you're all aware, and it has to be. Making room for a large touchscreen, as well as two analog sticks, face buttons, a D-pad, and two sets of shoulder buttons isn't going to make for a pocket-sized interface, but Nintendo has gone above and beyond in making something that feels comfortable and pleasant to use, despite its hefty bulk -- very much like myself. Get it because I am fat.
For a start, the GamePad is deceptively light, not feeling much heavier than a standard Xbox 360 controller in any appreciable manner. Of course, when held in one hand, the thing is awkward and unwieldy, but for most traditional gaming experiences, there's quite a nice distribution of weight afforded by its flat, lengthy design, meaning that only those with frail, cat-like limbs will struggle.
The large surface area makes playing games more comfortable, at least for folks with massive pig hands like mine. The way in which the buttons are spread out makes me feel a lot less cramped, and I've found it far more enjoyable to play old favorites like Warriors Orochi 3 on it. The extra space also means there's a lot more freedom of hand positioning, so if one's palms do start to ache, the hand can be shifted without ever having to stop the game. A welcome little ridge is provided at the back of the controller, providing a useful shelf that players can rest their fingers under in order to securely cradle it while in use.
While it boasts a traditional controller layout, it wouldn't be a Nintendo system if things weren't altered just a little bit. Both the left and right stick are placed above the D-pad and face buttons respectively, and this can indeed take a little getting used to. Even after a week, I'm still occasionally hitting the X button while expecting to hit the Y button, but such instances are growing exponentially rare as I spend more time with the system.
Touch Waggle Touch Waggle Swipe
As far as the touchscreen goes, it looks, feels, and behaves very much like that found on the DS family of systems, meaning there's no multi-touch, and the input isn't always the most responsive, especially when using thumbs or fingers. It's not awful, and it generally works, but playing games like ZombiU, where there's a lot of thumb-tapping touches, the spotty response can get a bit annoying. The touchscreen will work best with games where touch is only occasionally implemented, or requires the stylus as the predominant method of control. It's a good option to have, but developers are going to have to not go overboard, as they often seem to love doing.
As far as picture quality goes, you get a consistent stream from the Wii U with any potential lag remaining imperceptible to the human eye. The only fault here is that the screen just can't compare with an HDTV, and colors appear washed out in comparison. Bright and vibrant visuals appear just that bit more muddy on the GamePad, and given any choice in the matter, I always prefer to be looking at the TV than the pad. It still works perfectly for maps, menu interactions, and a few well-implemented game mechanics, but as an alternative method of viewing an entire game, it doesn't speak to me. I foresee rarely, if ever, choosing to play a Wii U game solely in my hands.
As far as motion controls go, I have to say I'm always going to take a gyroscope over a remote pointer or something like Kinect. It's just that much more precise, and gives the GamePad a lot more versatility than limited motion controllers that restrict input options and are bound to some form of sensor bar or camera. Letting the GamePad's independent movements dictate motion input allows it to work in conjunction with all the more tactile controls on offer, and also opens the door to one thing I wish we'd had more of with this past generation of waggle -- options. Even at launch, there are games like Batman: Arkham City Armored Edition and ZombiU that offer some choice in how we use the touchscreen, allowing us to look around in GamePad-specific viewpoints using either motion or the right stick. Flexibility is something I hope developers give us more of this time around, rather than forcing us to do inefficient things just to show off.
There's a microphone and a camera, both of which work about as well as they do on the 3DS, and a pair of speakers are situated on the bottom corners. The speakers are quite loud and clear, and add a level of fun interaction as radio chatter in Arkham City comes through your controller, or the GamePad adds extra bits of percussion to the background music playing on the TV. I was always a huge fan of Wii games that used the oft-neglected Wiimote speaker, and I'm thrilled that so many Wii U launch titles have embraced it here. The only thing to watch out for are those games that simply stream games to the controller -- they'll play exactly the same sounds on the TV and GamePad, which can just sound echo-y and weird. Fortunately, there's a volume control right on top of the Pad.
Into the Interface
Once the Wii U is booted, and initial setup is dealt with, the menu is somewhat similar to the Wii's, with big, user-friendly windows containing all the games and apps. The major difference is that the GamePad hosts all the icons, while the television is littered with wandering Miis and helpful tips. Touching an icon switches these screens, but strangely the icon menu can't be interacted with via the GamePad when it's on the television. It's easier to just leave it where it is.
Although not to a gross degree, the menu can be a little slow. It takes a short boot time to return to the home menu or to load up apps. Not huge amounts of time, but just enough of a wait to register as noticeable with every use. Fortunately, once you're there, things move swiftly and responsively, especially in areas where Nintendo has been famously sub-par, such as anything that involves an Internet connection.
Pressing the Home menu brings up quick links to key features, such as a friend list, the web browser, and downloads. Adding friends is far quicker and easier now, thanks to the removal of friend codes in place of good ol' fashioned usernames. That, alone, is a marked improvement.
eShop, Miiverse, and Internet shenanigans
The difference between the Wii U's eShop and previous digital storefronts on the Wii and 3DS is remarkable, given that this time it's actually good. Vastly quicker to browse, with an efficient layout and easy access to game info, screenshots, and trailers, the new eShop is an active pleasure to browse. It looks prettier than storefronts on rival machines, works like a charm, and boasts one beautiful feature that Nintendo systems have been aching for -- background downloads!
Credit card information can be input easily and saved, and downloads themselves are fairly swift. I'm yet to buy one of the full retail games, because I'm not made of money, but my purchase and download of Chasing Aurora was fast and hassle-free, taking four minutes or so to download. The only issue is that, like with the PlayStation 3, downloaded games must be installed manually, a process that tacks on an extra minute or so of waiting. Once that's done, another few seconds on the home screen will add a fresh-faced icon.
Miiverse is the Nintendo Network's new social hub, which pretty much acts like a forum on a console. Every released game gets its own community that users can share drawings and short posts within. These posts can be liked (Miiverse calls them "Yeah!"s) and commented on, while users can be followed, friended, and messaged. Although simplistic and fairly limited (you only get 100 characters per post), I am finding Miiverse more entertaining than I expected, if only for the fact that I can saunter up to the Rabbids Land community and start posting about Willem Dafoe for my own stupid amusement. It remains to be seen how stringently Nintendo will police this stuff, but rest assured I'll be testing the lines!
As with everything on the software side of things, Nintendo has gone above and beyond to make things easier and faster than before. Again, browsing is actually fun, rather than an impediment to my entertainment, and I do love getting to interact with other Wii U users via the system itself. If it takes off with customers, I can see Miiverse being something genuinely compelling, worth checking out every time the system is booted. It'll take a while to see if it does indeed catch on, but I hope it does.
The Internet browser has been improved tremendously, and I'd say that, of all the consoles, this is the best system for Web browsing on a TV. The GamePad and its stylus interface certainly helps in this regard, as it makes scrolling, browsing, and looking for pornographic images a lot less awkward than it is when using a normal controller. The speed of the browser is practically supersonic compared to past efforts, and I can say that if you indeed use your game consoles for general Internet chicanery, the Wii U's got you perfectly covered.
Oh, and did you know you can open the Home menu and access the Web browser while playing a game? The game will pause and you can go to Miiverse or the browser, and play will resume once you close the Home menu. Neat!
Over time, the Wii U will also boast a range of apps, including popular offerings such as Netflix, Hulu, and YouTube. At the moment, these items aren't active, nor is the TVii feature. They are coming in the weeks following launch.
If there's one major potential dealbreaker to worry about, it's the battery. As big a fan as I am of the GamePad, there's no skirting around the problem of an incredibly short battery life on the controller. The projected three to five hours of play is pretty true, with spans that rarely trend toward the higher of those two numbers. In all honesty, I've found it easier and simpler to just keep the GamePad plugged into a source of power at all times -- something I can do simply by the good fortune of a setup abundant in nearby outlets.
Other gamers may not be quite so fortuitous, and for them I'd suggest they think strongly about whether or not the Wii U will work. If you're not rocking backup batteries or a wired controller, the GamePad just isn't going to work for intense and lengthy gaming sessions. I can't blame anybody for being put off by this quite crucial issue, but at the same time, I feel it'll be only a minor hassle for those who can keep it plugged in.
Lots of fun for Wii and U
As I said at the top of this article, I am a believer in the Wii U. Of course, a lot of this belief hinges on the Wii U getting the software support it needs, and while there's a solid launch library of titles to choose from, the coming months after release shall prove themselves the true test of this system. The Wii U needs a healthy mix of both traditional software and that which exploits the GamePad's functionality in a way that doesn't try to fix what isn't broken. The GamePad can do almost anything in terms of popular interface -- that doesn't mean a game needs to force it to do almost everything.
The Wii U has a few faults, with a less colorful, simplistic touchscreen, and a dire battery life, but ultimately I have been impressed by its flexibility, as well as the welcome chance to see Nintendo's colorful library of games designed with HDTVs in mind. Titles like New Super Mario Bros. U and Nintendo Land are absolutely gorgeous on a modern television, and that feature alone is as exciting as anything the GamePad's bells and whistles can do.
The GamePad's motion controllers are inherently superior to the Wii's, and the ability to play any type of game with one controller, regardless of genre, is something I find quite exciting. Not to mention, more traditional input works -- although the relative stiffness of the analog sticks takes a little getting used to, I've found myself easily able to play a first-person game, a platformer, and a third-person action title with no dip in personal performance. It does take a little while to get adjusted, but now that I have done, I honestly find using the GamePad as much fun as any traditional controller -- maybe even a little moreso.
I wish the Wii U all the success in the world, because I am behind it. Conceptually, it's exciting, and in practice it works. That's rare for new ideas in the game industry these days, and I feel it's a success that needs to be rewarded with publisher support. I foresee potential for an amazing library of not just exclusives, but multi-platform titles to boot, and I'm rather excited for it.
Whether that future comes true remains to be seen, but I maintain a level of hope nonetheless. Hope feels good. Really quite good.
reviewed by Jim Sterling