Nintendo Wii U review

The Wii U, Nintendo's first step into high-definition gaming, is an ambitious console that's brimming with potential, even if some of the most interesting features aren't available at launch.
Photo of Nintendo Wii U

Nintendo is stepping into the next generation of game systems, which is a cross between the current gen and a concept we’ve never seen before. The Nintendo Wii U is the company’s first high-definition game system, and its graphical power rivals the Xbox 360  and the PlayStation 3 . But its best feature isn’t the ability to compare favorably to 7- and 6-year-old game consoles. Its big selling point is a huge, tablet-like controller that combines the motion controls of the Wii, the physical controls of the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, and the touch screen of the Nintendo 3DS . This gamepad signals not only a step in Nintendo’s console evolution, but a curious and bold twist on gaming conventions. The Wii U is bursting with potential, but since some key features aren’t yet enabled, it will take some time before we’ll know if that potential will be fulfilled. 

Editors’ Note: While the Wii U is available for purchase, at the time of this writing, the console is missing features including TVii and support for multiple gamepads. Nintendo plans to launch the TVii feature in December, and individual gamepads will not be available for sale until 2013. We will reevaluate the Wii U when these features are added.

First, the basics: The Wii U is available in two versions. The glossy white Basic set is a $299.99 (list) system that gives you everything you need to start playing the Wii U, but nothing else. It includes the game console with 8GB of memory, the Wii U gamepad, power cables for each, a sensor bar, and an HDMI cable. The glossy black Deluxe set ($349.99 list) throws in a handful of useful accessories and a pack-in game. It includes everything in the Basic set (with 32GB of memory instead of 8GB), plus a charging cradle and a stand for the gamepad, a stand for the console to let you set it up vertically like the current Wii system, and a copy of Nintendo Land. At just $50 more, you get a lot of extras with the Deluxe set, making it the better deal (and, at the time of this writing, the rarer version to find at retail).

Console and Gamepad Design
While the Wii U looks as slender and compact as the original Wii, it’s much heftier (but still more than a pound lighter than the recently slimmed-down Sony PlayStation 3). It weighs 3.4 pounds and measures 10.5 inches long while keeping a relatively slim 1.9-by-6.6-inch profile (HW). The front of the system houses a slot-loading optical drive, Power and Eject buttons, a syncing button for the game controller, and a plastic door that flips open to reveal an SD card slot and a USB port. Beside the built-in storage, which varies depending on the version of the console you buy, you can expand storage with an SD card or USB drive. You need an SD card for Nintendo’s Byzantine system transfer process to bring your WiiWare and Virtual Console games to the Wii U from your old console. The back of the system houses an HDMI port, a power port, a sensor bar port, two USB ports, and an A/V port that uses the same component or composite video cables the Wii uses. The Wii U only comes with an HDMI cable, so if you want to use the analog inputs you’ll have to buy a cable (or use one from your old Wii).

The big draw of the Wii U, like the Wii before it, is the controller. Instead of a motion-sensing Wiimote (which the Wii U can still use), the Wii U uses an ambitious gamepad that’s more like a tablet than a traditional game controller. It features a 6.2-inch, 854-by-480-pixel resistive touch screen that serves as the primary method of information input and menu navigation. The touch screen is sensitive enough for one-point activities, but it can’t handle multi-touch gestures like smartphones and tablets. The low-res display is fine for most activities, but pales in comparison to some other touch-screen devices, like the PlayStation Vita’s  brilliant 5-inch, 920-by-544 OLED screen or the Nexus 7  tablet’s tightly-packed 7-inch 1280-by-800 IPS screen.

The gamepad also acts as its own display, either mirroring the Wii U’s picture from your  HDTV, or offering additional information and menu options. You can also stream games directly to the gamepad and bypass the console entirely. Like its gamepad name implies, the controller also has a full selection of physical controls surrounding the screen, including dual analog sticks, six face buttons (A, B, X, Y, Start, and Select), a direction pad, four shoulder buttons, and Home, Power, and TV Remote buttons. You also get motion controls, just like with the Wiimote, so it can detect how it’s positioned and at what angle. Despite its large size of 5.3 by 10.2 by 0.9 inches (HWD), the gamepad feels surprisingly light at 1.1 pounds, and is comfortable to hold.

A microphone on the bottom side of the gamepad can pick up your voice, two speakers let the controller provide its own music, and a front-facing camera lets you video chat with other Wii U users, and take photos for various reasons (like making a Mii avatar based on your face for use in games; it’s not intended as a stand-alone camera for snapshots). A headphone jack sits on the top edge of the controller, along with a volume slider, a power port, and a removable stylus. The Wii U gamepad charges through a cable that plugs into the wall with the bundled adapter, but Deluxe owners can charge the gamepad with an included cradle, which easily connects through two contacts in the bottom of the controller. If you bought a Basic set, you can pick up the $20 cradle separately.

The gamepad will communicate with the Wii U at distances up to 30 feet. However, walls, corners, and physial obstructions can interfere with the wireless signal, which is based on a proprietary system Nintendo created to minimize latency. I used the gamepad all around my relatively small studio apartment, but I couldn’t walk more than halfway down the length of the large PCMag Labs before the gamepad lost its connection to the Wii U.

On a single charge, the gamepad lasted between 3 to 5 hours in my tests. But if you run out of juice, you can use it as a wired controller with the power cable plugged in. Also, the gamepad battery is removable, so expect extended batteries from third-party companies in the coming months. Still, a 3-5 hour battery life for a home console controller is disappointing, and if you plan on marathon gaming sessions expect to keep the gamepad tethered.

(Next Page: Setup and Software)

Setup and Software
Setting up the Wii U is guided and simple, thanks to clear, easy-to-understand prompts that appear on the gamepad. However, with our test console, the first system update took over an hour to download and install, so you probably won’t be able to pop in Mario and start playing as soon as you turn on the system.

The Wii U’s menu system involves two screens: the WaraWara Plaza and the actual menu. The former is a social network aggregate of Wii U user activity, showing crowds of Miis clustered around icons representing the most popular activities on the Wii U. The menu itself appears on the Wii U gamepad by default, but it can be switched between the gamepad and HDTV with a tap of a button. The menu looks similar to the existing Nintendo 3DS and Wii menus, with icons representing the available apps and features.

Like most tablets, the Wii U’s menu has a row of commonly used icons on the bottom: Miiverse, Nintendo eShop, Internet Browser, Tvii, and Notifications. Miiverse is Nintendo’s communications network and message board for games. The Nintendo eShop lets you download games through Nintendo’s online store, including full Wii U retail games and Wii Virtual Console games. The Internet Browser is just a Web browser, though the touch screen makes entering URLs and other information much easier than on the Wii. And the screen here is larger and more comfortable to use than on the 3DS XL . Notifications gives you messages and updates. TVii is Nintendo’s promising streaming and broadcast TV feature, but it hasn’t been released yet. Nintendo plans to implement TVii on the Wii U next month, which will bring together multiple online services, live TV, and DVR television into one aggregate menu with social networking features.

Getting Started With Gaming
The Wii U is backward compatible with Wii games; both discs and downloaded Virtual Console and WiiWare titles. However, these titles aren’t integrated into the Wii U’s menu. Instead, you need to go into a secondary Wii Menu, which effectively emulates the Wii’s interface (and disables the gamepad); these games require a Wiimote (not included with either set), making the Wii U think it’s a Wii for the purpose of playing games. This is disappointing, because users with large Virtual Console libraries will have to spend their time staring at a Wii-like menu with no Wii U gamepad support instead of having their games collected together with their Wii U apps in a single menu.

Wii users can transfer their downloaded games and save files to the Wii U, but it’s a convoluted process that requires either two Wiimotes or some Wiimote pairing juggling. You need to use your Wii remote with the Wii U to enter the Wii Menu and configure an SD card to carry your data. You then need to use the Wii remote with the Wii to transfer your data to the configured SD card. Then you have to put the SD card back in the Wii U, use the Wii Menu to finish the system transfer, and leave your original Wii wiped clean of any software. Oh, and you need an active Internet connection for both systems. This is more complicated than the 3DS system transfer, and only serves to show how Nintendo is years behind Microsoft and Sony in online software management.

Nintendo has introduced the Nintendo Network ID, a user name that replaces the lengthy numeric Friend Code on the Wii and DSi. This change has been a long time coming, but it’s still underwhelming because of the lack of backward compatibility with the ID; you still have to deal with the bizarre system transfer process. Hopefully future Nintendo Network ID implementation will offer actual account tracking of purchases. Both the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 use unified accounts that let users download their purchased software to any system they’re signed into, and the PlayStation 3 goes one better by adding the PlayStation Vita into the mix for downloading games from a single account. Nintendo’s system is unnecessarily complicated and inconvenient. It’s particularly puzzling, because the games available on Nintendo’s Virtual Console are much older titles than those available on Xbox Live and the PlayStation Network, and, if a user has the appropriate lack of scruples, are much easier to acquire without juggling systems.

Among the games available at launch are Nintendo’s New Super Mario Bros. U and Nintendo Land, which respectively show off the Wii U’s game mirroring and complementary display features. Ubisoft has released the zombie survival game ZombiU and minigame compilation Rabbids Land, both of which are also Wii U exclusives. The Wii U also have a number of ports at launch, including Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed 3, Warner Bros. Interactive’s Batman: Arkham City: Armored Edition, and Activision’s Call of Duty: Black Ops 2. The Wii U’s launch lineup includes 30 titles total, with several more planned into the next year, including games like LEGO City Undercover, Pikmin 3, and Game & Wario planned to be released within the system’s six-month “launch window.” We’ve come up with a list of 5 Wii U titles you should consider until the Wii U library grows.

(Next Page: Graphics and Online Services)

Graphics and Asymmetrical Gaming
While it’s the first in the next generation of game consoles, the Wii U is on a par with the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 in terms of graphical power. That said, it’s the most graphically advanced Nintendo system, and the first to output in 1080p. The Wii U definitely has power behind it that the Wii lacks, and supports games like Assassin’s Creed 3, Call of Duty: Black Ops 2, and Ninja Gaiden 3: Razor’s Edge. Even Nintendo’s standbys have new life, with New Super Mario Bros. U as the first 1080p incarnation of Mario.

The same can’t be said for the gamepad. While it’s ostensibly the same game seen through the touch screen, New Super Mario Bros. U doesn’t look nearly as good on the touch screen as it does on an HDTV. Nintendo’s choice to use a resistive LCD touch screen with no multitouch support is awkward enough, but the screen itself looks pale and soft compared with the PlayStation Vita’s bright OLED panel. 

Game mirroring is just one of the uses of the gamepad, and it’s more likely you’ll use the screen as a secondary display for most games, and for this purpose, it works very well. Nintendo Land, a game that’s included with the Deluxe set, uses the gamepad to offer controls that complement what’s displayed on your HDTV. The touch screen can show mini maps when chasing characters, serve as physical controls for throwing weapons, and provide other unique experiences that still keep your eyes on the HDTV most of the time. The most promising aspect of this is also the one only hinted at with Nintendo Land’s minigames: asymmetrical gaming.

The Wii U can use up to four Wii controllers in addition to the gamepad, letting players experience a lopsided cooperative and competitive experience. The user of the gamepad gets additional control and information, while the users of the Wiimotes enjoy split- or same-screen gameplay. In Nintendo Land, this lets the gamepad users fly a space ship to assist or attack the Wiimote-using players on the ground in the Metroid minigame, or to navigate as a ghost hidden in the darkness (on the HDTV) chasing characters through a mansion in the Luigi’s Mansion minigame. New Super Mario Bros. U also offers asymmetrical gameplay, with the gamepad player able to draw platforms on the screen and assist the Wiimote-using players as they navigate the level. This system has a lot of potential for unique multiplayer experiences not yet seen on home consoles. The current examples are pretty simple, though, and we’ll have to see if future games really offer deep, compelling gameplay mechanics with the gamepad/Wiimote option.

Online Services and What’s Missing
Miiverse is Nintendo’s social network and message board, offering a Twitter-like experience to Wii U users. Miiverse is divided into different sections and communities based on different games, and each offers a nearly live feed of thoughts and responses to the games (it’s time-shifted for moderators). Users can include both text messages and drawings in a small canvas similar to the Pictochat feature on the Nintendo DS. Players can post to the Miiverse while playing, and even tag their messages with their current level so people going through the same area can discuss how to get through obstacles. It’s not a particularly robust system, but it’s functional and entertaining.

The Wii U supports video chat, but only through Nintendo’s own online service. Players who have added each other to their friends’ lists on their Wii U can video chat with each other using the front-facing camera on the gamepad. I was unable to fully test this feature, but both network communications and the Wii U’s camera were functional.

Currently, several online video services are available on the Wii U, including Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon Instant Video, and YouTube. Nintendo plans to integrate these services into TVii, its upcoming entertainment service that aggregates shows on online services, DVRs, and live television. However, the service was not enabled at the time of this writing. We will look at TVii as soon as it’s available. This feature could make the Wii U the most compelling media hub among game systems if it’s implemented well; while it lacks the Blu-ray playback of the PlayStation 3, its live TV and DVR integration and aggregation of content across multiple services go beyond what the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 currently offer.

The Wii U gamepad can work as a TV and set-top box remote, but it’s sadly underwhelming. The TV remote functions only cover Power, Input, Volume, Channel, and there’s a number pad, with no navigation pad for moving through menus. It’s been years since I’ve seen an HDTV that doesn’t use a navigation pad, so you’ll be reaching for your TV remote every time you want to change a setting. The set-top box support is slightly better, with a Guide button and a nav pad mapped to the gamepad’s direction pad, letting you scan your channel guide like a Wii U menu. Hopefully the TVii update will improve on this barebones remote feature. As it stands, the Wii U gamepad isn’t useful as more than a secondary “Power/Input/Volume only” remote.

To Wii or To Wait?
The Nintendo Wii U is an impressive system with a lot of potential, but with so many features still not implemented and only a handful of launch titles currently available, we’ve yet to see if it can live up to that potential. Nintendo has made some long-awaited steps with high definition video and a robust online service. However, the Wii U still clings to some frustrating elements of Nintendo’s past systems, and just like the 3DS and Wii before it, the Wii U’s success will depend on whether other developers besides Nintendo can take advantage of the hardware.

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The Wii U, Nintendo's first step into high-definition gaming, is an ambitious console that's brimming with potential, even if some of the most interesting features aren't available at launch.
Published under license from Ziff Davis, Inc., New York, All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc