Review: Welcome to the Wii U – Nintendo’s experimental new console is here

We owe so much to Nintendo. For decades now (and more than a hundred years all-up), this company has been at the fore of the idea of “playing”. Nintendo is also a company that has taken risks – prided itself upon that fact, in an industry that seems so risk-averse at times. The Wii was a product of that risk-taking, borne of the same experimental design ethic that produced the Nintendo DS and, indeed, things like the N64’s three-pronged controller. It also produced the noble Virtual Boy failure, the ill-conceived 64DD add-on and a few odd game design departures – Wii Music recently among them.

Enter: Wii U– and surely Nintendo is looking very closely at how the market is reacting to their newest gaming platform. Which side of the quality fence will it fall on? PATRICK KOLAN reviews Nintendo’s latest.

Getting to know the Wii U:

The Wii U’s marketing is indistinct; the name is at once meaningless and imbued with subtlety. Even the controller is a conflicted thing of beastly size and impressive refinement. What is this system? Who is it for? What does it do? It’s the Wii U. It’s for you.

Unlike the perceptibly more conventional consoles out there, Nintendo Wii U is a flexible multitasker. It wants to impress everyone in myriad ways, letting players work out the best approach they want to take.

  • Will you play with it as you would a Wii? With backwards compatibility, you can use your Wii remotes.
  • Will you couple the console with a Wii U Pro Controller and go about your gaming with a near-identical experience to your Xbox 360’s controller?
  • Or will you embrace the new dinner-plate-sized Wii U GamePad and explore the possibilities of two simultaneous screens, game streaming, touch and motion control?

This is why marketing the Wii U has been a hard slough. Pigeonholing the thing is a nightmare.

The Presentation and Delivery:

Nintendo kindly supplied us with a gloss-black 32GB Wii U – the premium bundle (AU$429 at retail). From the outset, you see the characteristic quality at play here. The nondescript box opens into two inner layers: one houses the console and controller (both carefully wrapped in plastic and foam) and the other containing two sets of AC adapters (those things are big) and plenty of documentation.

The set-up is relatively painless, barring the need for an additional wall socket for charging the GamePad (it doesn’t plug into the console directly to draw a charge, sadly). Turning on the system , you’re tasked with synching up the GamePad with the system – and it’s at this point you’ll encounter the touchscreen. It’s great. Bright, clear, great contrast and extremely accurate. More on the GamePad farther down the page.

However, it’s not until you hit the Wii U’s menu proper and see the first HD Nintendo console in HDMI-provided glory (the cable is short, but hey—at least it’s bundled), that you get a feel for the refinements here. Like the Nintendo 3DS handheld, the interface is simple, yet effective. Games, programs and other functions (like creating your Mii persona) are all placed in squares on the plain, white background. You can use the stylus to scroll through your options on the GamePad or the thumbstick to navigate on your screen.

For Wii and 3DS owners, you can import your Mii pretty easily. Tethering your systems together is simply a case of following the on-screen commands.

The Wii U is backwards compatible – but through an emulated version of the Wii’s interface. You actually have to boot into “Wii Mode” in order to play the games – adding a strange extra step to the process. We fully expect a future update to simplify the process. This feature, as well as the social elements (Mii Plaza and any online elements) isn’t available for testing at this stage. Nintendo hasn’t flicked the switch for Aussie Wii U owners wishing to update their systems, so it’s a case of wait-and-see on that front.

Love: The finish – fingerprint-magnet yes, but man – it’s a slick piece of hardware. The included stands and controller cradles are a boon.

Hate: Why can’t the Wii U console allow the GamePad to draw power? Is the screen just too intensive to route through the system? The separate AC adapter is a hassle.

Coming to Grips with the GamePad:

The real draw of the Wii U isn’t high-definition gaming. It’s certainly not the online play, either. Rather it’s the tactility of the controller. That’s the one ace-in-the-hole that the Wii U has right now. How long that advantage lasts is another question, since it’s only a matter of time until the PS3 or PS4 uses the PS Vita in an identical fashion. Microsoft allegedly also has a gaming tablet on the horizon.

Still, the GamePad is a thing of technical beauty –and it’s here now. The 9-axis motion control has about the best sensitivity I’ve come across – far exceeding the Wii Remote – and even WiiMotionPlus-enabled versions. It’s at least on par with PS3’s Move controllers and I’d wager far more interestingly implemented here.

Flexible: The Wii U allows for a variety of input options.

The buttons are a point of contention for me. Not having true analogue triggers on the rear seems short-sighted – though, obviously a great sales bullet-point for the Pro Controller. The face buttons are a little plasticky feeling too, with a definite rattle to them.

The thumbsticks sit somewhere between the stiffness of the Xbox 360’s thumbsticks and the PS3’s smooth action – but the rotation isn’t quite as nice as either. It’s not bad though – and a damned sight better than the 3DS’ sliding circle pad.

The D-pad reasonably good; a little slushy at times (most notable during New Super Mario Bros. U), but better than competing platforms.

Love: The motion control is the most impressive we’ve seen on a console. It fixes all the issues we’ve had in the past and never seems to lose its place in space.

Hate: The buttons and sticks feel cheaper than they should, given how nice most Nintendo hardware tends to be on that front.

The Wii U GamePad Touchscreen

It’s the screen, however, that is the draw for many people. This 6.2” 854×480 LCD display makes playing your HD games a genuine option if the TV’s in use. The colour parity seems a little on the muted side, but the stereo (in fact, simulated surround) sound is fantastic and the headphone jack appreciated. The front camera is tantalizing – though untested at this point.

While the touchscreen only supports one point of contact at a time, I tend to think this matters a very little. You’re given two thumbsticks, plenty of buttons and world-class motion control. There’s no need to add more touch implementation. Not to be an apologist, but I’d rather take a larger battery over that feature any day of the week.

Bright and clean: The Wii U GamePad’s screen is fantastic – but it chews through the rechargeable battery in under 3 hours.

Indeed, the battery life is a dagger in the back of the Wii U’s GamePad. It’s a real problem when the thing caps out at between two and three hours of play time. Thing is, you can’t plug it into your console to charge, either – you need to have your wall adapter handy. That severely hampers your options if you’re not within reach of the cable.

Love: The sharp, bright display and good contrast make playing an HD game on your controller a viable option.

Hate: That battery life smacks of “future upgrade”. Honestly, it’s a poorly considered decision to trim costs in an area so vital to your system’s core values.

Overall:

The Wii U is an easy system to sell—to the right kind of player.

Despite Nintendo’s insistence that it wants to garner favour from the ‘expert’ (read: hardcore) gaming community, the platform is still hiding more that it’s showing in areas that matter to that audience. For these players (who are probably eyeing off the Pro Controller as the only option for their needs), the Wii U is still a matter of wait-and-see. We wouldn’t blame them.

For Nintendo fans, casual players and people looking for something different, this is a no-brainer. Nintendo have always and will always continue to forge their own path; sometimes uncomfortable, sometimes downright baffling – but uniquely theirs. The Wii U is testament to this philosophy –and it makes no apologies for it. These kinds of fans will get the most out of the Wii U’s first 6 months – so sweep it up and we’ll see you in Nintendo Land.

~ ~ ~

Read our full review of  ‘Nintendo Land’!

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5 Comments Add yours

  1. tlutze says:

    Great review, Patch!

    All-in-all, I think this has reconfirmed my decision to hold off, pending must-have game exclusives. The SmartGlass app for the Xbox 360 is already giving me a lot of the features that might tempt me into the Wii-U.

    After all, I think I only ever played my Wii twice…

    Like

  2. patchkolan says:

    Thanks man!

    Like

  3. Shane Bryan says:

    Great review,I think though that it’s definitely put me even more on the fence than I was previously.

    Getting the newest Nintendo console used to be a no-brainer for me, but experiencing first hand the decline in the quality of games for the Wii (admittedly there are some incredible games – but why does one system need 300 variations on beach sports?) means Nintendo’s “seal of quality” that adorns the back of their games means absolutely nothing to me now.

    As you say Patch, the “dagger in the back” is definitely the battery life and recharging of the controller. I might sound fussy, or flippant to dismiss the Wii U on that one thing alone – but to me that’s a deal breaker and tells me that they’ve sacrificed that extra bit innovation and ease of use in the name of “hitting a pricepoint”.

    Myself, I’d rather pay $499 and have double the battery life, and the ability to plug it into the console itself for charging.

    Like

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