Innovation is something that is something that is part of the lifeblood of Nintendo. The 123-year-old company has been creating unique products dating back to their time as a playing card company. Over the course of the last century Nintendo has branched out their business in a variety of directions, some more successful than others, but in the early 1980s they finally found one that stuck – video games. The release of the Nintendo Entertainment System quickly established a little known company out of Japan as the biggest name in the industry, and one of the few that has endured as a major player for almost 30 years.
Fast forward to today, where Nintendo is riding the wave of their most successful home gaming console, the Wii, by following it up with something they hope is an even more hit, the Wii U. It's the first video game console to offer a fully integrated second screen gaming experience, as well as Nintendo's first real push to establish an online gaming community for their fans, and they're even making a grab to take over you TV. As the first out of the gate for the next generation of gaming consoles Nintendo is hoping to get a jump on consumers, and take over their living rooms before their competitors even announce what they have next.
The Wii U is an intriguing piece of hardware and it's symbolic of a lot of firsts for Nintendo. It's the first time that a Nintendo console is in HD. It's the first time that a Nintendo system home to an online gaming community. It's the first time that Nintendo will be making full console releases available as digital downloads. Sadly, these are all things that Microsoft and Sony have been doing for years, and, for the most part, doing well. Nintendo's wait and see attitude may have paid off for them as a company, but it may have also lost countless gamers to the competition in the meantime. That's not to say that Nintendo hasn't crafted an amazing machine in the Wii U, in fact, it's the console that will singlehandedly change the way people play games for years to come.
Being released as two different models, the Basic and the Deluxe, the Wii U offers gamers choices as to how they want to play. The Basic model retails for $299 and includes a white Wii U console with 8 GB of storage space, the GamePad, appropriate AC adapters, an HDMI cable, and a sensor bar similar to the one that the Wii used. The Deluxe model includes a black Wii U with 32 GB of storage space, everything that's included in the Basic edition, and GamePad cadle, as well as stands for the controller and the system. Retailing for $349, the Deluxe edition also includes Nintendo Land as a pack in game.
The Wii U's system is sleek, and familiar. In terms of the interface it bridges the gap between the Wii and the 3DS, and mixes it with the Mii Plaza (now updated, and called WaraWara Plaza) on the second screen. Navigation is easy as a swipe and click on the GamePad's screen to get everything going. Depending on your proximity to your TV, you don't even need it on to get a game started and loaded up. In fact, for the games that support off screen play, you might not have to turn your TV on at all. Getting stuff loaded in advance might be a good idea, as that seems to be one of the places that the system struggles – booting up disc based software and loading system applications. Just expect that it is going to take longer (really only a few seconds) than you're likely used to.
Nintendo has made it clear that they fully supporting pushing the Wii U into the digital age, and that's evident by the extent of downloadable content that has been promised to be on the horizon. However, they don't really provide a place for it all. The Basic model of the Wii U comes with only 8 GB of internal storage and the Deluxe model has only 32 GBs available – 4.2 GBs of which is taken up by the operating system. Leaving only 3 GBs of available space on the Basic model might be enough for owners looking to store a ton of Virtual Console games, but don't expect it to replace those discs at retail. Fortunately, Nintendo has allowed for hard drives up to 2 TB to be connected to the system via USB and serve as a second storage location. So, problem solved, as long as you have an extra USB hard drive lying around.
High definition graphics are clearly here to stay, and Nintendo has openly embraced them on the Wii U. The preferred output for this system is an HDMI cable (which is included in the box), a serious upgrade from the Wii's component and composite cables, providing crisp graphics that can not only finally compete with the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. However, with underlying technology that is seven years newer, this console might even be able to surpass them in due time.
The Wii U also serves as an upgrade and replacement for the Wii, as, after the extensive day one update is applied, all of your Wii data can be transferred over to your new system. The process is quick (depending on the amount of content), smooth (depending on how comfortable you are with SD cards), and adorable (the Pikmin are back). Functionally, it brings everything over from the Wii, with the slight exception of GameCube backwards compatibility.
The Wii made a name for itself courtesy of the Wii controller, and the Wii U is looking to do the same thing with its GamePad. Weighing in at 1.1 pounds, measuring 10.2 inches across, and including a 6.2 inch LCD touch screen, the Wii U's primary controller is easily the largest gaming remote ever released, surpassing such behemoths as the original Saturn and Xbox controllers, and going so far as to best even the NES Advantage. While most consoles' controllers are considered accessories, the Wii U's is a piece of hardware unto itself, and goes so far as to occasionally negating the necessity of a TV to play console games. That's powerful.
The wireless device allows players to interact with games using both the traditional button inputs that are spread throughout the controller, or via a touch screen on the front of the hardware. How each is used is determined on a game-by-game basis, but it does open some doors for both gamers and developers, especially when more than one person is playing at a time. Additionally, the GamePad does take some cues from its predecessor by including a full range of motion sensing capabilities powered by an on board accelerometer and gyroscope. It then goes even further to borrow from the 3DS by including a front facing camera and microphone, which can be used in game or through the systems chat application. Nintendo is also banking on keeping the GamePad relevant for a long time to come by including a sensor bar, the features of which have really yet to have been seen, and Near Field Communication functionality for transferring data and payments.
In terms of construction, the GamePad feels sturdy, and comfortable to hold, even with one hand, for extended periods of time. There is a lip on the back that helps when gripping the device, as well as for resting your fingers when holding it with two hands. The buttons and sticks all feel solid and responsive, and should do the job no matter how twitchy the game you're playing is.
While the screen may not be on par with your HD TV, it holds up while playing. Games like New Super Mario Bros. U and Scribblenauts Unlimited that allow for off screen play don't ever leave you feeling like you're missing out on anything. In fact, there's a good possibility that you'll find yourself looking down at the GamePad more often than at your TV, especially if you're accustomed to playing games on a 3DS or Vita.
The range of the controller may be a slight point of frustration for anyone that thought they were going to be able to take their Wii U gaming with them wherever they are, as it's only advertised to reach 24 feet – without interference. Anyone that is trying to play through walls and around doors, or with a lot of wireless devices going at the same time may find that distance get cut quickly. However, for standard play, you should experience no lag or frame rate issues from the most important seat in the house – your couch.
The Wii U's GamePad does have one major drawback – battery life. Only boasting three to five hours of gameplay on a full charge, most people are probably going to have to plug this thing in after virtually every play session, and in some cases, during. Coincidently, plugging it in is the other major drawback, since the GamePad needs to be plugged directly into an outlet in the wall, as opposed to charging using a USB connection. This means you need to clear two separate plugs for the Wii U console and the GamePad. The Deluxe edition comes with a nice docking cradle, which is also sold separately for anyone that picks up the Basic model, which makes it easier to charge, but still doesn’t negate the necessity.
Charging issues aside, the GamePad is a solid piece of gaming hardware, and when demonstrated correctly, should impress even the most vocal of critics.
The Bells and Whistles
Even though some of the Wii U's entertainment features that were promised for launch (Nintendo TVii, Amazon Instant Video and Hulu Plus) have been pushed back into December, Nintendo was able to include some interesting applications for the system at launch. Unfortunately, most of these features come courtesy of a firmware update that can take upwards of 90 (or more) minutes to download and install. Owners just need to make sure they set aside some time after setting up their system to update it to take advantage of the full range of features.
The Nintendo Network ID
Years after one of Nintendo's biggest misstep of the last generation, they have finally killed off Friend Codes. The Nintendo Network ID takes the place of the long series of numbers that really didn't mean anything aside from being a unique identifier. Now you can create a handle, associate it to your Mii and have it be the home for all of your online activity on your Wii U. It took a while, but they certainly seem to have cleaned up that mess pretty well.
Nintendo's answer to Xbox Live and PlayStation Home is, well, better. The MiiVerse is a community that takes its cues more from social media than from gaming, and because of this it seems to be more about what people are saying and doing than anything else. You can connect with friends, share your thoughts on games with the community and see what others are up to. It's a much more straightforward implementation of a community, and features an intuitive interface that is controlled entirely on the GamePad.
In addition to the MiiVerse, Nintendo has also shifted their digital marketplace to being fully accessible and controlled on the GamePad. It makes navigating and purchasing new, digital content easy, and reinforces Nintendo's shift towards digital content. Also, the long load times are gone making this iteration of the eShop the fastest and smoothest way to buy digital games on any Nintendo platform.
One of the nice hidden secrets of the Wii U is its ability to control your TV. While the full integration of Nintendo TVii isn’t happening for a few weeks, the Wii U already includes a universal remote which can be, at the very least, set up to turn on and off your TV as needed, and raise and lower the volume. It's a great little feature, the only downside of which is that it took 30 years for someone to think of this.
The Wii U yet again proves that at least one hardware company is not content with providing gamers with the same experiences they are used to. Nintendo is headed into the next generation of gaming consoles with a fairly strong entry – a console that builds on the groundwork laid by the Wii, but pushes gaming forward at the same time. Only time will really tell whether or not the Wii U has legs, and really, those legs all depend on the software that is released for it. If the only quality games that end up being released for the console end up being from Nintendo themselves, this console may share the same fate as its predecessor in later years. However, if third parties accept the Wii U as a viable platform, then the flood gates could open for some really interesting an exciting possibly on the platform.
The GamePad helps open the doors to creative new experiences, but it raises the barrier of entry for inexperienced gamers. The Wii's controller was simple and intuitive, but the GamePad's screen could be seen as complicated and intimidating depending on your level of comfort with touch screens. While the DS, Vita, and iPad have helped make them more and more commonplace in gaming, some people may see the screen as harder to figure out than waggle was. It shouldn't be a problem for most gamers, but when they try and show off their new gaming system to their parents and friends, they might not be so unabashedly keen about it as they were with the Wii.
Is it worth the cost of a $350 system? That's really up to you (and your wallet), but all signs point to a reality where Nintendo has learned from a lot of their mistakes with the Wii. There are more hardcore games on the horizon, there's clearly support for digital, and there's an online community; all things that Nintendo has wrestled with in the past. This time around it seems like all those things are present and accounted for, and in a manner that demonstrates that a lot of time and thought has been put into them.
Right now, the Wii U seems like a gamers' console – specifically crafted for people that are opened minded enough to try something completely new and outside the box. It's a little harder to explain to newcomers what makes the Wii U interesting than it was with the Wii. Once people get their hands on the system, optimally while playing with someone else, it becomes very easy to see what makes the Wii U such a compelling console, because it is. In the hands of the right developers, the Wii U will change how people think about their favorite games, franchises, and even genres in the years to come.