Nintendo Wii U still has a lot to prove

Published on by Nintendo Wii U

Packed with promise, Wii U still has a lot to prove

The good: The Wii U offers a unique two-screen gaming experience on a tablet controller dubbed the GamePad. It's the first-ever HD Nintendo gaming system that offers gameplay for up to five people on select games. The Wii U is also fully backward compatible with old Wii games and controllers. Off-TV play on select games allows for placeshifting play without the need for a TV.

The bad: The Wii U's TVii functionality (and most streaming-video apps) has been delayed until December. Some OS loading times are too long, and the GamePad has a very short battery life. The built-in storage may not be enough for those who plan on downloading a lot of games. The Wii U graphics are only just about on par with current-generation games on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. Playing some Wii U games can be awkward and requires a learning curve in general. Having to look away from the screen on some games can be uncomfortable or disorienting.

The bottom line: Despite some clever dual-screen gaming mechanics, the Wii U's lack of compelling exclusive software and an overall unpolished user experience make it tough to recommend in its current state.

A year and a half after it was first announced, the Wii U is finally here.

For Nintendo, the company's new home console represents the ultimate gamble by going all in on a console focused around a tablet controller, the GamePad, and a launch library primarily composed of titles that already or will be available on existing platforms like Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. Competition seems to be coming in stereo for Nintendo, having to battle with the casual mobile crowd (iPad, tablets, smartphones) and the hard-core consoles alike. With such a volatile gaming market, does the Wii U have a legitimate place?

Perhaps. Because for the first time, a Nintendo console is not only about the games. The Wii U promises to change the way we interact with video content and our televisions. So how does it plan on doing so? Through a series of partnerships and apps that will consolidate media information and present it to users in a way that is supposedly easy to understand and navigate. This initiative is Nintendo TVii, a highly ambitious free service that connects live TV, streaming services, and TiVo DVR into one package.

Unfortunately, I can't give you any real world hands-on impressions of TVii, because Nintendo has not yet activated it. That feature -- along with Amazon Instant Video, Hulu Plus, and YouTube -- will be made available with a software update coming in December, according to Nintendo.

 

Overview
The Wii U is available in two SKUs, a Basic Set ($300) and Deluxe Set ($350). For my review purposes, Nintendo sent me a Deluxe Set, which includes all-black components. Here we have a 32GB (25GB usable) console, a GamePad controller, a console stand, a GamePad stand, a GamePad charging stand and cord, a sensor bar, an HDMI cable, and a copy of Nintendo Land. The Deluxe Set also comes with a "frequent buyer" rewards program that offers discounts the more you buy items from the Nintendo eShop.

The Basic Set features all-white components, including an 8GB (3GB usable) console, a GamePad controller and charger, a sensor bar, and HDMI cable.

It shouldn't be hard to sniff out, but I highly recommend the Deluxe Set over the Basic. The included game, charging stand, and larger storage capacity make it a no-brainer.

Some Deluxe-only accessories.

 

Design and specs
The Wii U console isn't much larger than the original Wii, measuring in at 1.8 inches tall, 6.8 inches wide, and 10.5 inches deep. It's considerably longer than the Wii but is still much smaller than any of the other current consoles. The unit's AC cord has a sizable power brick in-line, but it shouldn't be much of a hassle to tuck away.

Around back is the first time you'll ever see an HDMI port on a Nintendo console, as believe it or not, the Wii U is the company's first HD system. There's also the same AV port for a component or composite (gasp!) connection, as well as the same sensor bar slot. The Wii U can output up to a 1080p picture signal.

Some familiar faces around back.

 

There are a total of four USB 2.0 ports on the Wii U -- two up front and two in the back. In front is also an SD card slot and users can bring their own USB flash drive to expand memory as well.

The GamePad boasts a 6.2-inch 16:9 wide-screen resistive touch display with a resolution of 854x480 pixels. The pad itself weighs around a pound and measures in at 10.2 inches wide, 0.9 inch tall, and 5.3 inches deep. Packed inside is almost every motion-sensing and mobile technology under the sun. The GamePad has left and right analog sticks, as well as left and right trigger and bumper buttons in addition to a built-in accelerometer and gyroscope. There's a front-facing camera, microphone, stereo speakers, headphone jack, infrared IR port (for controlling TVs and cable boxes), some other mystery connection port, and even an NFC chip. Just like the DS and 3DS before it, a stylus is neatly tucked away around back.

Both the console and GamePad are total fingerprint magnets just like most of these shiny black plastic encasings I see so often. It's one thing if the console looks like that, but after just a few days using the GamePad, it could already use a good wipe down.

There's no doubt the GamePad is an impressive piece of hardware, but Nintendo has yet to explain how some of these features -- NFC technology, for example -- will interact with the system. The Wii U can eventually support up to two GamePads, but no software or games currently utilize more than one, so Nintendo won't be selling them separately any time soon.

The GamePad can be held a number of ways to play and doesn't seem to interact with the sensor bar at all. From what I can tell, the bar's only purpose is to work with older Wii remotes, which are fully backward compatible with the Wii U. In fact, they're required for some games, so you'll need to purchase a few if you don't already have any.

 

Because the GamePad's touch screen is resistive -- rather than the capacitive screen found on most modern tablets and smartphones -- it requires a bit more pressure to register. The screen doesn't have as much wiggle room as the DS did, but nevertheless, a light swipe might not work. This is almost never an issue when using the included stylus, though.

After a few weeks with the system, it's tough to get around just how cumbersome the GamePad really is. It's not the type of controller that you can just set down. It takes up a lot of real estate. I can only imagine how a small child will perform with this enormous game controller in his or her hands. I don't know any small children, so I couldn't test this out. I have massive hands and find myself stretching across the screen to tap specific locations with my thumbs.

During my time with the Wii U, I'd been keeping the GamePad on my nightstand to sneak in some New Super Mario Bros. U before bed, but placing the controller down on a tight space like that can prove to be a challenge. Thankfully, the included GamePad stand is a good docking station for it.

Under the Wii U's hood is an IBM multicore processor and an AMD Radeon-based GPU. The Wii U uses flash-based storage technology and supports 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi protocols. Any one of the four USB 2.0 ports can also double as a wired Ethernet adapter, though you'll need to purchase that accessory separately.

The Wii U's disc reader is a proprietary slot-loading drive that won't play DVDs or Blu-rays. The Wii U supports Dolby Digital encoding, but some of the games I tested only output Pro Logic II.

The Wii U is fully backward compatible with original Wii games, Wii remotes, and nunchuk controllers. Even the Wii Fit Balance Board works.

(Credit: CNET)

 

The Wii U's interface most closely resembles the UI on the Expansión de memoria para Nintendo 3ds, a tiled set of icons that represent games or apps. Overall I found the menu to be responsive, but when switching to and from apps or games, the UI suffers a decent amount of load time. Popping into System Settings and then back out to the Wii U Menu shouldn't be a 20-second affair. By today's standards, it's almost unacceptable. I've even had instances where this delay goes as long as five minutes.

During my time testing the Wii U, I found a peculiar TV cut-off issue that seems to be most apparent in the console's operating system. The image displayed on the GamePad gets cut off a bit around the edges when swapped to the TV screen. It doesn't seem to affect games, but it does slice a bit of the image off in the Wii U OS. You see it for yourself in the image below:

The X is cut off on the TV screen

 

Performance
Playing games on the Wii U is undeniably a unique experience, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's always smooth. One of the first things I noticed while playing is that I don't always know where to look. Sometimes both screens display the same video and sometimes they don't. Some games do a decent job at directing your attention while others assume you'll figure it out. Call it what you will, but there's a preliminary Wii U learning curve that will take gamers of any skill level time to master. There's just something downright awkward about having your eyes jump from TV to GamePad so often. This will have to evolve as time goes on. I'd assume that developers will eventually realize the most comfortable way to play and then implement that play style into their software.

In terms of gaming I think the most potential lies in "off-TV" play. This promising features place-shifts all the action to the GamePad controller. It essentially gives you Wii U graphics and performance in a tablet-size form factor, eliminating the need for a TV altogether.

Off-TV play is nothing short of fantastic

 

On paper, off-TV sounds great because it prevents the monopolization of a TV while gaming -- something anyone who doesn't live alone can appreciate. For those households where the main TV is in constant demand, off-TV sounds like a godsend. However, it's completely in the hands of developers to incorporate that functionality. This raises a lot of questions. How tough is it to incorporate off-TV? Does doing so compromise other aspects of the game?

All this considered, only a handful of launch titles support off-TV play. It's tough to know which do because there's no iconography on game boxes that highlights the feature. I can confirm that New Super Mario Bros. U supports off-TV play and I'm told Call of Duty: Black Ops 2, Assassin's Creed III, Darksiders II, and a few others will allow for it, too.

The GamePad graphical experience can't match the 1080p chops that the console is capable of outputting, but visuals still look pretty sharp on the screen, even if the resolution is taking a hit. I found that some reds look a little pixelated on the GamePad screen, but it's by no means a deal breaker. You'll probably want to make use of the headphone jack so you don't disturb anyone around you.

 

How far away you'll be able to play with the GamePad using off-TV varies. As long as it was in line of sight of the console, I had the GamePad work up to 25 feet away. Once you're playing through as little as one wall, things can get dicey. My bedroom, which is adjacent to the room the Wii U resides, can't maintain a signal farther than 10 feet away (through the wall).

Aside from its size, the GamePad is mostly fun to use, but I do think there's a lot of missed potential here. For starters, why can't we use it to play Virtual Console games? Why can't we take the GamePad out of the house and play it on-the-go? (Read Scott Stein's Why the next Nintendo portable needs to be a tablet.)

During my play time with the GamePad, battery life seemed to drop out at the 3.5- to 4-hour mark. It takes about 2.5 hours to fully charge, and is also playable while doing so via a direct connection to the power cord. Depending on the type of gamer you are, 3.5 hours may not be enough to get in a long session of play. It can be pretty disappointing to see the GamePad's red light come-on mid-play, so make you keep it charged at all times.

So far I've run into one bug with the system. If you attempt to eject a game disc while the console is off (a handy LED glows whenever a game is inserted), the system will eject the disc, turn on, but then freeze up. The only way out of this is to actually pull the power cord out.

Other media and features
A day-one update will give Wii U users access to the backward compatibility-enabling Wii U menu, Miiverse, eShop, video chat, and more. A lot of these features are tethered to a Nintendo Network ID, so it's best to set that up the first time you're asked to do so.

Backward compatibility doesn't occur from within the Wii U menu. Instead, you must launch the Wii emulation software (it's an icon the Wii U menu screen) that takes you into a virtual Wii environment. Here, things look exactly like they did on the Wii, but you can only use Wii remotes and accessories, none of the new controllers will work.

This is also where you can perform a Wii to Wii U system transfer that will migrate all of your old Wii saves and anything you might have downloaded from the Wii Shop. Thankfully, Wii Points transfer as well, but you can only use them to make purchases on old Wii Virtual Console or WiiWare software. This transfer is very time consuming. From start to finish, it took me almost an hour and a half to do so. Also, the steps to move data from one console to the other are surprisingly confusing. It's a forehead-slapping process that involves swapping out an SD card from one console to the other and then back again. Also, both your Wii U and Wii will need to be connected to the same network, both to a TV, and you'll also need a Wii remote controller for each. If you only have one Wii remote, you'll be syncing and resyncing a few times, which is no fun at all.

Until Nintendo TVii goes live, Wii U can only provide basic TV remote control. Programming the GamePad to control a TV is easy enough. You simply type your manufacturer and confirm that the volume up/down function works. When in TV mode, a 0-9, input, and power button is displayed on screen. Setting up your cable box will let you browse channels with the D-pad and use the hard buttons to confirm a selection. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem you can program any more than two total devices.

My Deluxe Wii U also shipped with Hulu Plus, Amazon Instant Video, and YouTube apps all preinstalled, but a system update is preventing them from functioning right now. On November 16, Nintendo notified the world that these four services would be going live in "the coming weeks." Since launch, only the Netflix app has gone live. My quick time with it was mostly positive, though it does seem to load a bit slowly.

 

Unfortunately, one section where the Wii U majorly fails -- compared with other consoles -- is media playback. Truth is, there is none. Even with all of its USB ports and SD slot, users cannot play their own media on the console. Throw this into the missed opportunity category.

Speaking of missed opportunities, I personally think the Wii U could be a great DLNA player. Bear with me here, but imagine scrolling through your own networked media collection, say off a networked attached storage (NAS), and using the GamePad to select what you want to watch. Or even watching it on the GamePad!

What about opening up the Wii U OS and letting a homebrew community thrive? If Nintendo wants the Wii U to be the only thing people reach for in their living rooms, the console must wear several different hats.

 Online

Nintendo has finally universalized its online presence, which is now called Nintendo Network. This will allow for players to register and acquire a Nintendo ID that will be used throughout the entire Nintendo ecosystem from here on out.Each Mii character or user created with the Wii U system is entitled to a Nintendo ID; this ID can also be linked to third-party systems like the ones EA and Ubisoft use.

The Nintendo eShop is the Wii U's online virtual store, allowing for the downloading of full Wii U games and digital-only titles. Those who purchase the Deluxe Wii U Set are entitled to a rewards program that can be used toward game discounts.Anything purchased in the eShop can be accessed by all users on a Wii U system, regardless of the purchaser, and each Wii U system may have up to 12 separate users.The Miiverse is a social network for gamers that allows Wii U owners to interact with others all over the world. You can trade pictures, messages and more. The Wii U also features a limited functioning web browser.As for the eShop, it's only controllable via the GamePad. Here you can buy digital only of full Wii U disc-sized games. These titles are not small by any means, so even 32GB Wii U owners will need to get resourceful in making room. Don't forget, you can expand memory only through a USB drive for downloaded content.Nintendo has said to expect more software applications to be available from the eShop, so we'll have to wait and see what other companies have signed on to develop for the platform.

 The games

Nintendo Wii U standard games retail for $60 and come in blue boxes. They're printed on proprietary Wii U discs that hold up to 25GB of data. They look and feel just like Blu-ray discs, but I'm told they are not.

Seeing Nintendo games in HD for the first time is awesome. There are sure to be cynics out there who write it off as something we should have gotten with the Wii, but for me the novelty has yet to wear off.Give Nintendo credit. Where other consoles have all but abandoned the party game genre, the Wii U proudly wears it on its sleeve. While kids are guaranteed to fight over who gets to use the GamePad, the Wii U is easily the king of local multiplayer gaming. Up to five people can play certain Wii U games at once (GamePad plus four Wii remotes), which can make for some epic battles for gamers of any age.Graphically speaking, Wii U games are just about on par with current-generation Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 visuals, but videophiles may spot a few shortcomings with textures and frame rates. A number of launch titles run noticeably smoother on their PS3 and Xbox 360 counterparts.So far, Nintendo has yet to do an overly impressive job of locking up exclusive titles only available on the Wii U. Aside from forthcoming first-party titles like Pikmin 3 and Game and Wario, Nintendo has only teased exclusives like Bayonetta 2, Lego City Undercover, and The Wonderful 101. Of course it's safe to assume the usual crop of first-party franchises will show up down the line, too: more Mario, Zelda, and Metroid, etc.The Wii U will likely receive many multiplatform games, but keep in mind that Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 are approaching the end of their product cycles themselves, so the Wii U will inevitably be playing catch-up just like its older brother.Nintendo sent along a handful of games to test out with the system, as did a number of third-party developers. The Wii U will see around 30 total games available at launch (a list is included at the bottom of this review), but here are a few words on a select few that I spent a healthy amount of time with:

 Nintendo Land: Bundled along with the Deluxe Set, Nintendo hopes this will be the Wii U's answer to Wii Sports. Nintendo Land may not do for the Wii U what Wii Sports did for the Wii -- and gaming in general -- but it's no doubt one of the must-own launch titles. There are enough mini-games packed inside this disc to provide an enjoyable tutorial for new Wii U owners.Nintendo Land is also the must-own party game that will provide hours of entertainment for families and busy living rooms. The games are cleverly designed and easy enough to pick up and play.

New Super Mario Bros. U: Don't write NSMBU off as just another carbon-copied 2D platformer. Mario in HD looks amazing, and the game is a perfect example of how liberating off-TV can be. NSMBU is also a sort of Mario anthology, as there are other gameplay modes packed inside that extend the overall replay value.Plus, up to five players can jump in at once, with the GamePad user providing pivotal jumping blocks to access hidden areas and avoid hazards. It might be one of the most expensive Mario games to date, but it's well worth the price of admission.

 Batman Arkham City: Armored Edition: This reboot of 2011's game of the year is a mixed bag. For anyone who has yet to enjoy this fantastic game (where have you been?), this is a great opportunity to check it out. However, Armored Edition does not completely live up to its Xbox 360 and PS3 cousins in terms of smoothness and graphics. There's also a bit of noticeable jitteriness during cut-scene playback.I really liked using the GamePad as a batarang, and the touch screen makes for an excellent inventory hub, too. If the Wii U is your first console in six years, pick it up.

ZombiU: Ubisoft's ZombiU is packed with moments of horror and great action, and does a convincing job at showing how having a map on the GamePad is much more convenient than having it in the pause screen.However, at times the game's controls feel a bit convoluted and jammed me up when in the frantic panic of a zombie attack. There's also no pause at all, so if you're digging through your inventory, you'd better make sure you're out of harm's way before doing so.It's nice to see an M-rated launch game with some potential here, so consider zombie horror fans well served on day one.

 Nintendo TVii
Easily the most under-discussed feature of the Wii U has got to be Nintendo TVii. Unfortunately, while Nintendo had told us this free service would be ready to go for day one, it has since been delayed until sometime in December. This section of the review will be fleshed out when TVii arrives.Nintendo TVii promises an impressive and ambitious functionality, including live TV integration, user-personalized favorites, and access to IMDb, Wikipedia, Facebook, Twitter, and more. For a full rundown of what TVii looks to offer, check out our initial impression here and be sure to watch my interview with TVii's lead director, Zach Fountain, here.One thing that's sure to alienate some users is the fact that seamless DVR functionality is exclusive only to TiVo customers. Don't count on Wii U controlling your carrier-based DVR any time soon. Nintendo has said such functionality is in the works, but Google has been telling the same story for years as its engineers and product managers continue to refine and tweak Google TV.Nintendo has partnered with a company called i.TV to provide most of TVii's ambitious timeline and sports content, which will allow for program commenting and tagging, sports plays and scores, and even things like instant TV meme creation.While Nintendo TVii will allow for the combination of live TV, guide viewing, TiVo DVR, content discovery, and more, the GamePad can also control your TV. In fact, it does a great job with controlling my Verizon Fios box. However, it's probably not going to replace your Harmony remote because there doesn't yet to seem to be any sort of "activity" function where the GamePad can blast a series of commands to get a series of devices working.Instead, you'll have to manually input items just like you would on a bunch of separate remotes. There also seems to be a limit of only two devices stored on the GamePad, so those of us with home theater systems will still need to control things like volume and input with another remote. Of course Nintendo could update this functionality down the road, but you'll probably not want to hold your breath on that.

Conclusion
I'm not sure the Wii U emanates the same wow factor that the original Wii did. For me, using the GamePad didn't feel all that revolutionary simply because it feels like a souped-up 3DS. Instead, my wow moment was playing Mario in HD for the first time ever.The Wii is a tough act to follow. That thing showed up in nursing homes, for crying out loud. The Wii U is different and accessible enough to break boundaries, but I'm not sure it will have the impact of its predecessor.When someone checked out the Wii for the first time, the mind-blowing innovation was right there in black and white. With the Wii U, you've got to dig a little deeper.Right now, the most promising Wii U feature for me is off-TV play. If many games start supporting it -- games that are available on multiple consoles -- I can see myself choosing to play them on the Wii U so that I won't need to always monopolize my living room TV. There's a ton of value there.Then there's Nintendo TVii, the Wii U feature that's a little late to the party. Of course I'll have to wait to pass judgement on it until it arrives sometime in December. Nintendo of America President Reggie Fils-Aime told me he wants the GamePad to be the "jumping-off point" of every living room, so whether TVii can provide that unified experience is still up in the air.Focusing solely on gaming, it's going to be tough to recommend the Wii U to anyone who already owns a PS3 or X360. A sizable chunk of the system's launch games are already or soon to be available on the aforementioned systems. Just like with the original Wii, first-party and exclusive titles are really where the Wii U needs to knock it out of the park in order to incentivize a console purchase.In almost every other department, save for what Nintendo TVii is supposed to provide, the other consoles on the market have the Wii U beat: network and offline media playback, diversity of streaming services, exclusive games, and speedy operating systems.Despite its unique dual-screen presentation, innovative GamePad controller, and ambitious Nintendo TVii service, the Wii U still has a lot to prove.

Published on Nintendo 3DS

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