If the purpose of a review is to tell you whether a product is worth buying, then the answer with the Wii U is: it depends. Weird, in places flawed, occasionally wonderful, it’s just as interesting and innovative in its own way as the DS or the original Wii, and just as difficult to judge. If Nintendo can create games that make the most of its unique features – and inspire other developers to do the same – then the Wii U could turn out to be something really special. If it doesn’t, and if those developers lose interest and focus on next year’s post-HD consoles, then the Wii U might disappoint. It has everything Nintendo’s biggest fans would look for, but it might struggle to connect with the Wii’s huge mainstream audience, and we have doubts about its appeal for the graphics-obsessed hardcore crowd. The only thing we can say for sure is that it has serious potential, and a few games that can ably demonstrate that.
The main unit is deliberately quiet and unobtrusive; deeper than the Wii, but not substantially bigger. It features a slot-loading optical drive based on a proprietary 25GB disc, sports four USB 2.0 ports and an SD card slot, and has either eight or 32GB of storage space, depending on whether you buy the basic or premium bundle. The rear hosts two of the USB 2.0 ports, along with an HDMI 1.4 port and a Wii-style Super AV output. As the sides are curved, you’ll need the stand supplied with the premium pack if you want to sit the unit vertically.
The Wii U Pad is the real focus here. A weird hybrid of tablet and game controller, it sports a 6.2in 854 x 480 resolution touchscreen, dual analogue sticks, four face buttons and left-and-right triggers and bumpers, not to mention plus and minus buttons, a power button, a volume slider and a 3.5in headphone jack. The Wii U Pad has the feel of a games accessory rather than some high-end, iPad-like device, but it’s comfortable, sturdy and good to use.
A Game Changer?
The Wii U Pad covers several jobs. Obviously, it’s a very flexible controller, offering the best of traditional controls, touch controls, and accelerometer and gyroscope-powered motion controls. The touchscreen works perfectly well with a finger, or with the stylus secreted in the back of the unit. The screen itself is used by some games as a sophisticated interface for squad control or inventory management, while others use it as an additional display. Many even give you the option of switching to the built-in screen for gameplay, allowing you to play Wii U games even when the TV is switched to another input or turned off. It’s not the brightest, most vibrant or crispest screen you’ll see, but it’s more than good enough. You’ll note the drop in resolution and contrast when you switch from playing New Super Mario Bros U on your TV to playing it on the Pad, but the difference isn’t as stark as you might think.
Nintendo spent the last generation lagging behind on online services, but the Wii U now puts these to the fore. The interface is split between a strange clusters of Miis, icons and notes on the TV and a more straightforward grid of icons on the Wii U Pad, though these default views are switchable. Miis are very much the centre of the whole experience, working as accounts and profiles and taking a starring role in the new MiiVerse online experience. Here you can post your thoughts on Nintendo-related topics and games, or simply create and share your own artworks with stylus and touchscreen. There’s some potential for integration with games as well, with an optional view of the map in New Super Mario Bros U showing comments, hints and notes on the various levels.
Friends lists seem a lot easier to use and more sensibly structured this time around, and even Nintendo’s eShop seems to have been refurbished for the new era, though actual content is thin on the ground. UK Wii Us ship with apps for LoveFilm and Netflix pre-installed, plus a functional and very usable browser. In terms of media streaming and services, Nintendo finally has a credible rival to the Xbox 360 and PS3.
The biggest challenge with any new console is assessing its powers and its long-term potential when you only have the launch games to base your verdict on. Think back to the Xbox 360 launch and it was a nightmare of underwhelming first-party titles and shoddy third-party updates, with most titles struggling to look like they belonged to a bold new HD era. Nintendo doesn’t like to go down and dirty with specs and performance, but current thinking seems to be that the Wii U has a more advanced GPU than the PS3 and 360 and more RAM (1GB to the 360’s 512MB), but the PowerPC 750-derived CPU is a little underwhelming.
Certainly, the initial first-party ports we’ve seen do little to convince us that the Wii U brings substantially more power to the table than the current consoles. Assassin’s Creed 3 is probably the best we’ve seen – even on the 360 it didn’t run perfectly smoothly – but other titles struggle to maintain a rock-solid frame rate at all times. It’s early days, and developers will learn how to optimise their games for the Wii U’s CPU and GPU architecture.
Nintendo’s own games don’t reveal much of the system’s potential. New Super Mario Bros U has the clearest, most detailed and most luminous visuals of any Mario to date, but at the end of the day there’s only so much spectacle you can cram into a cartoon-styled 2D platformer. Nintendo Land, meanwhile, spends most of its time looking like Wii Sports Resort in HD. It’s all very charming, but we’ll probably have to wait for a Metroid or Zelda before we see what the Wii U can do when pushed.
The real question isn’t the performance, but how the Wii U Pad transforms gameplay. With the third-party ports we’ve played, the general answer is: not much. Being able to drag squad members around or manage upgrades with the touchscreen in Mass Effect 3 is kind-of cool, and touchscreen inventory systems and maps are always handy, but some games – we’re looking at you Batman: Arkham City – exploit the Wii U Pad for gimmicks which don’t radically improve the gameplay in any sense. In these games, the best thing about the Wii U Pad is the ability to play certain games, like Mass Effect 3 or Assassin’s Creed 3, on the built-in screen without using the TV.
When put to good use, however, the Wii U Pad can be brilliant. New Super Mario Bros U uses it for its enjoyable multiplayer modes, where you can prod new platforms into place for other players to jump to or land on. Nintendo Land uses it to power a range of fun mini-games, some just using the tilt or touch functions in a light-gun shooter or arcade puzzle game, others using it for brilliant competitive and cooperative games where the Wii U Pad player plays a different or even adversarial role to the players using normal Wii remotes. Here the Wii U really comes alive, and Nintendo’s promise of a new era of family gaming starts to look more realistic.
We’ll also happily give a shout out to Zombi U. Nintendo’s unique FPS/survival horror hybrid might not be the most graphically polished or perfectly executed game, but by using the Wii U Pad as a scanner and secondary interface, and letting events play out on the TV screen in real time while you’re messing around with the pad, it builds a new level of creeping tension and immersion. It’s hard enough for even the most hardcore gamer, and a sign that Wii U might have something to offer them as well.
The Wii U comes in two main forms, a stripped-down basic bundle with 8GB of on-board storage, and a Premium Bundle with Nintendo Land, 32GB of on-board storage, a charging cradle for the Wii U Pad and stands for the console and the pad. At £250 even the base version is expensive, but we’d argue that between Nintendo Land, the extra storage and the charging cradle, the £50 extra for the Premium Pack is worth it. A special Zombi U pack is also available for a limited time, replacing Nintendo Land with Zombi U and the new Wii U Pro controller.
The Wii U is a peculiar beast, straddling the space between two console generations, and reliant on the new experiences delivered by its innovative controller. Nintendo Land, New Super Mario Bros U and Zombi U already prove that it’s capable of delivering some brilliant and ingenious new games, though the third-party ports leave us slightly worried about support in the long-term future. We’ve yet to see the hardware really sing, but we’ve yet to see anything that makes you believe this is a stronger platform than the Xbox 360 or PS3.
But then graphics have never been Nintendo’s main draw. It’s all about gameplay. The Wii U has potential to host some amazing games, but buying one now is a bit of a gamble. Do it, and you’ll have some fantastic family fun this Christmas, but we need to see more before we can state definitively that this is the next big thing.
Manufacturer and Product
Nintendo Wii U
Triple-core IBM PowerPC
AMD Radeon HD
8GB (Basic), 32GB (Premium)
SD Memory Card, USB hard disk
6.2in 854 x 480, HDMI out on console
4x USB 2.0, Super AV multi-out