Wii U Review

Nintendo has a long history of trying new things, and not always successfully. With the original Wii, they struck gold with casual gamers more so than hardcore players. Still trying to recuperate from the less than stellar performance of the Gamecube, the Wii was a very deliberate attempt to release a cheap system that would appeal to demographics outside of traditional experienced gamers.

As such, even though there were several truly excellent games released for the Wii, it didn’t exactly enamor itself among the diehard gamer set. It was a bold move releasing a non-HD system in the era of the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, but now Nintendo seems intent on updating the Wii to more modern tech. Hence, the Wii U.

The Wii U is an odd gadget. It’s definitely not a next-gen system. Instead, its power is roughly equivalent to the Xbox 360, but with a gimmick. While the console actually uses the same movement-based “nunchuck” controllers of the original Wii, it comes with a controller that is best described as the love child between a standard game controller and a tablet.

The system incorporates a 6.2 inch LCD touch screen into the controller. The Wii U gamepad also includes two analog sticks, the usual D-pad, and the standard configuration of Nintendo buttons, in addition to four shoulder buttons, a front facing camera, stereo speakers, and a microphone. It’s a bizarre contraption that seems to suggest that Nintendo realized their true competition wasn’t Sony or Microsoft, but Apple.

After settling in with the unit, our general opinion of the new controller is that once the gimmick wears off, it’s actually amazingly annoying. It’s a well-known fact that, in this day and age, people seem to naturally be using their tablets while watching TV, or engaging in some other passive form of entertainment. It’s also not that much of a leap for Nintendo to look at the success of their portable DS line and think the dual-screen configuration might make sense for a console.

Unfortunately, paying attention to two screens at once while gaming– especially when one screen is a big TV and the other is the controller– is awkward and distracting. Since the bulk of the games released are actually just ports of currently available titles (Ninja Gaiden 3, Mass Effect 3, Batman Arkham City, and others), there’s going to be a need for most purchasers to feel like they are getting a somehow improved version. Generally speaking, that’s not the case. Most games hardly use the tablet screen at all, or just use it for maps or item selection.

There’s no improvement in graphics or audio quality, either. The graphic abilities of the Wii U are absolutely in line with the current generation, and definitely not better. One oddity is the complete lack of mention of 3D support. Given how successful the 3DS is, and how great 3D games and movies are on the PS3, the Wii U could have gained ground over Sony at least by offering 1080p stereoscopic 3D gaming. The PlayStation 3 currently locks 3D gaming at 720p resolution.

Nintendo has still not quite gotten the hang of user-friendly interfaces and online support. Many users are having problems getting the Wi-Fi-only system to connect to their home networks (a USB adaptor for LAN cables is available), and socializing and friends lists are still heavily weighed down with security precautions. On the flipside, Nintendo is putting a heavy emphasis on their online store, which includes full retail titles.

This brings up another huge issue. For $300, you’ll get a white Wii U with a paltry 8GB of storage. For $350, you get the deluxe black unit with only 32 GB. So anyone planning to download their games will need to invest in a supported external hard drive just to have the kind of space that comes standard in lower-priced Xbox 360 and PS3 sets.

Another issue is how slow everything in the interface is. Just returning to the home screen from within a game takes an absurd amount of time, and loading option menus is just as slow. The gamepad’s range is also quite low and the controller is entirely dependent on the main console. So don’t plan on taking the new Mario game– which is entirely playable on the smaller screen– out and about or even to the bedroom from the living room.

Any nostalgic gamer likely wants to love a new Nintendo system, but the big N has been making it harder and harder over the years. While the company has a lock on great portable action, the Wii U feels like a cry for help from a company that can’t quite come to grips with the current technological landscape. The Wii U is part tethered tablet and part mainstream gaming system, but not entirely successful either way. We hope Nintendo can get some true killer apps out for the Wii U– as opposed to a pitiful array of terrible party games and blatant shovelware with lame utilization of the controller.

Upcoming releases like Pikmin 3 and Rayman Legends, along with the launch title New Super Mario Bros. U, give us hope that there’s some great potential here. At the current price point however, it’s hard to recommend the system over the competition.

Tomorrow: Reviews of the Wii U’s launch games.

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