I always get a little anxious – and excited – when Nintendo debuts a new console. To be honest, I’ve bopped to the beat of Nintendo’s drum with unguarded bias for years and their family of classic, experimental, and often bizarre vision of just what a gaming console could – or maybe should – be, for better or worst. Staples like D-pads, shoulder triggers, analog sticks, rumble, and motion-control have all became standards thanks to the company’s innovation (or curmudgeonly insistence). And now is no doubt hoping that touchscreen controllers will join that list of notable successes with the Wii U and its tablet-like GamePad controller.
And with it Nintendo finally has their “next-generation” console, as it’s noticeably more powerful and online capable than the previous Wii ever was. It finally embraces the age of high-definition graphics, something the original Wii painfully lacked, while promising a new approach to playing games in what can feel like a seemingly exhausted gaming market.
There are two different bundles to choose from: the 8GB (3GB usable) Basic set that’s $299.99 and comes in glossy white with only the bare essentials (my preferred choice which I’ll explain later). And the equally glossy black 32GB (25 GB usable) Deluxe model that’s $349.99 and will surely be the choice of most gamers. Our test unit was the Deluxe one that comes with the obvious stuff such as the console, Wii U GamePad controller, sensor bar (not needed for the GamePad), and an HDMI cable (an industry first I might add). Exclusive to the Deluxe set are a GamePad stand, GamePad charging cradle (basically another stand that also doubles as a conductive power charger for the controller), and a set of console stands that keep the Wii U on its vertical side. Also, the console’s marquee title Nintendo Land comes as a pack-in title to help you get acquainted.
The internal tech specifications such as the RAM, IBM PowerPC-sourced 1.24GHz CPU (known as Espresso) and AMD/ATi sourced 550 MHz GPU (Latte), are identical between models.
The power of the console overall has clearly been supercharged, but still retains much the same look and feel of its predecessor. It’s a bit heavier at 3.5lbs, and shares similar dimensions at 1.8” high, 6.75” wide with a noticeably longer depth of 10.6”. The styling is also similar, but now sports more subdued rounded edges with the front of the console featuring an exposed device sync button and two USB 2.0 ports and an SD card slot that’s hidden by a flip-down door. Its business as usual in the back with two additional USB ports, AC, carryover composite/component AV output, sensor bar slot and for the first time ever, an HDMI port (version 1.4a) graces the Wii U. It’s not some weird proprietary nonsense either, as this is the real deal and makes this Nintendo’s first true high definition console.
After that glorious reality sets in your attention is bound to shift to the glossy and “smugdetastic” GamePad controller. The general look of this tablet-infused controller is a marriage of analog sticks, face buttons, triggers, and a good ol’ D-Pad (to say the least) that compliments the centerpiece that is the resistive FWVGA (854×480) touchscreen itself. But the excitement doesn’t end there, as the GamePad manages to pack in an accelerometer, gyroscope, front camera, speakers, microphone, an NFC chip (near-field communicator for wireless pairing or instant credit card transactions and – hopefully – future gaming options), an infrared IR blaster (for TV and DVR override control), an unknown port on the bottom (most likely for some future accessories) and an oh-so important headphone jack. That’s just about everything you could want from a controller and then some (oh, there’s a stylus too), but these luxuries come as the cost of poor battery life, which goes out after 4-5 hours of gameplay maximum.
There’s sure to be endless debates about how usable the GamePad actually is, but if you’ve played with any other standard controller, then you should be ok with this one. While it is admittedly a bit wider than most gamepads, it quickly becomes second nature to hold thanks to the button placement and the lightweight design that tips in around 1.1 lbs. Only when you’re not using it do you realize how large the GamePad is, as it can easily claim a table to itself and might cause panic attacks when rambunctious children get a hold of it. Fortunately, nobody will ever mistake this for a Wii Remote and throw in into a television, as now you have a 6.2″ LCD touchscreen to take care of.
You’ll want to take some time getting used to the touchscreen, because much of action on the Wii U takes place on it during the system menu and on a few choice games. It can be a bit unsettling at first, as there’s usually a lot of additional activity and/or information happening between both your TV and the touchscreen. After you first start the Wii U and get past the initial setup menus you’ll be treated to a TV screen that shows off the Mii Plaza, while the touchscreen displays your games, apps, and system options and can be switched between the displays on the fly. The potential of this varies depending on what you’re using, such as New Super Mario Bros U that lets you use an ‘Off-TV play’ feature that is a godsend if you can’t have the living room to yourself. Or the Netflix app where you can choose which display you want to watch your movies on. Some titles such as ZombiU can get a little complex, as it utilizes both displays to give an enhanced element of immersion.
As many of us know, Nintendo has never been good with providing a singular or thoughtful online ecosystem, whether it was Nintendo’s own idea of how gamers should interact with Friend Codes or just a genuine lack of expertise. It appears that they’re trying to get their act together with the Wii U, as social integration is one the better feats of the console with the Nintendo Network and your Mii. You’ll create an account ID (the notorious Friend Codes have been swept under the carpet but are present in the background) and you’re set to buy apps or full Wii U games at the eShop, browse the internet, and enjoy streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon on Demand, and Hulu Plus.
The most standout online feature is the Miiverse, which feels like a lot like Facebook, but a lot more friendlier. Here you can post (or draw) messages and add your two cents or advice on game-specific topic boards. From what I’ve seen so far, there seems to be a very strong sense of community as there’s a topic for everybody and it’s a great way to make new friends. Plus, if you have some artistic skills (ahem), you can put that stylus to good use for the whole world to see. It isn’t really that complex in terms of execution, but you can still do some amazing things in black and white.
As of this writing, you can forget about bringing your Mii (and linked account) over your friend’s house, because you’re online ID is locked to one console and cannot be transferred over. Despite the promise that this issue may be rectified in the future, it’s a annoying oversight and shows that Nintendo still has some things to learn about seamless online networking.
Other networking and functionality feats that we take for granted, such as personal media playback and home DLNA sharing, will make you appreciate them more on your other devices, as the Wii U simply has no such abilities to speak of. This is certainly disappointing when you know these things could’ve been done with ease on a console that sports 4 USB 2.0 ports and an SDHC slot (SD cards can only be used for the original Wii) and probably do a better job simplifying the process than the PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360. Another missed opportunity is the delayed launch of Nintendo TVii, which can be used to search for programs and get any information on the show you watch. At least you can use the gamepad as a remote for your TV and DVR. We tested the remote feature and it worked fine, albeit with a layout, but we weren’t able to test how well it retrieved information from Wikipedia or IMDb or how it would interact with Facebook and Twitter. We expect it will do as advertised, but DVR compatibility will be a lot more limiting, as TiVo is the only device slated to make use of the TVii, which is obviously a blow to owners of other DVR devices.
Another feature that we thankfully left alone was the ability to transfer your data from your original Wii to a Wii U. Both systems need a TV (most likely both consoles hooked to the same set), Wii Remotes (one for each console), an SD card, and a lot of time. The process is known to take at least an hour for many and you’ll swapping that SD card back and forth a couple times as everything such as game data and Wii points will be permanently tied to your new Wii U. It’s a time-consuming progress that the big boys have already got right years before.
So now we’ve come to the ultimate question, which model should you go with right now? For the grand majority, I’d recommend the 32GB Deluxe model because it’s a great premiere package that will happily get you on your way. However, if you have ‘other’ savvy alternatives in mind for your Wii U, such as the inevitable release of homebrew and are stubbornly holding out for a price drop, I’d suggest you wait out the storm and pick up an 8GB Basic model when the time is right. True, accessories like the GamePad charging cradle and vertical stands aren’t included, and you also won’t have access to Nintendo’s ‘Digital Deluxe’ rewards program. But other than that, storage size shouldn’t be an issue for either unit if you wisely invest in an external HDD or USB drive (up to 2TB).
When it comes to revolutionizing how we enjoy games, Nintendo believes the Wii U is their most determined effort since, well, the original Wii itself. This recommitment definitely mirrors their desire to stay relevant in a market dominated by “me-too” gaming epics and ever-encroaching smartphone/tablet market. Nintendo finally embraces high-definition graphics here, though certain features, such as online and common sense functionality that the competition already conquered, are poorly utilized here – at least right now. And while the Wii U GamePad lends itself to an amazing concept centerpiece, only time will tell how developers will truly make good use of its uniqueness. Nintendo has all the right ingredients for success here, and once again prove that gaming truly is about innovation, rather than imitation.
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