Name: Nintendo Wii U
Type: HD games console with touchscreen controller
Specifications: Click here for full specs
Price as reviewed: 8GB Basic Pack – £240, 32GB Premium Pack- £300
The next-generation of home gaming consoles has arrived, with Nintendo’s new Wii U leading the charge. Again opting for an innovative control method over brute graphical and processing power, will Nintendo be able to replicate the wild success of the original Wii with this new machine? Read on for our full verdict!
NOTE: We tested the 32GB Premium Pack edition of the Wii U console, which comes in black and includes the console itself, a black Wii U GamePad, a console stand, a GamePad charging cradle, a GamePad stand, a HDMI cable, motion control sensor bar and power supplies for both the console and GamePad. The 8GB Basic Pack, which comes in white, has all of the above, minus the stands and GamePad charging cradle. While both console editions work identically, the extra built-in storage space provided in the 32GB Premium Pack, which will eventually become invaluable for storing game data on, makes it the preferred choice. Those details aside, this review will be relevant to both editions of the console.A New Way To Play
Nintendo’s original Wii console came to market with a slightly different approach to design when compared to its Xbox 360 and PS3 rivals. Rather than aiming for high-spec graphical grunt, it focussed on delivering a compelling new way of interacting with games in the shape of motion controls at a low entry price. Proving so popular as to become the best-selling games console of the current generation, Nintendo have followed a similar path with its successor, the Wii U.
While offering sharp HD visuals which the Wii lacked, the Wii U is only marginally more powerful than current HD consoles the Sony PlayStation 3 and Microsoft Xbox 360. It’s a significant jump in processing and graphical performance over the first Wii but, with the Wii U launching on the cusp of the unveiling of a brand new wave of next-gen consoles from Microsoft and Sony, it doesn’t look set to compete on terms of power alone. Instead, Nintendo are again banking on the popularity of a new control method to win over gaming fans. They’re introducing the GamePad, a tablet sized controller that houses a touchscreen display alongside regular stick and button controls to deliver a second-screen experience to complement the action on your main TV display. It’s a bold concept, and one that looks to hold a lot promise for inventive gaming fun. It’s a unique experience that quickly won us over, as we will reveal in detail during this review.
Split into two main components, the GamePad and the Wii U console itself, we’ll first look at the design of the console unit. The Wii U console is very tidily designed. Roughly 2 inches tall, just over 10 inches deep and nearly 7 inches wide, it’s substantially bigger than the first Wii console, but dramatically smaller than an Xbox 360 or PS3 (including all the “Slim” variants of the Microsoft and Sony consoles). It’ll slip nicely underneath a TV alongside other AV products, with an understated, unobtrusive look.
Around the front is a slot-loading optical disc drive, a power button, a button used to sync wireless controllers to the console, 2 USB ports and an SD memory card slot. On the rear you’ll find ports for the power pack and sensor bar, a further two USB ports and both analogue and HDMI video out ports. The inclusion of a HDMI port allows for 1080p, 1080i, 720p, 480p and 480i resolution options, ticking the all-important “Full HD” box, while built in Wi-Fi allows for wireless access to the internet. Our Premium Pack review unit comes with the console finished in gloss black (the Basic Pack comes with a white console). It looks great, but that gloss finish is prone to attracting grubby fingerprints and, if you’re not careful, looks to be quite easy to scuff and scratch too.
If the Wii U console unit is a neat if familiar design, the GamePad controller by comparison is mad. A fusion of a tablet and a regular console controller, it’s a giant 10.2 inches wide, with a 6.2 inch, 854×480 resolution touchscreen plonked in the middle. Two analogue sticks sit either side of the screen, paired with a D-Pad and diamond array of four digital buttons, while a Home button, power button, menu buttons and a button to access controls for your TV also feature. There’s also a camera on the top of the controller facing towards you, as well as a battery indicating light, while a gyro sensor tracks motion controls in the GamePad. Flip the controller over and you’ll find twin shoulder triggers on both the left and right hand sides, as well as a volume slider for controlling the output of the GamePad’s built in speakers. There’s also a slot for sliding in a stylus pen, which comes included with the GamePad. Despite its size and the fact it has a built-in rechargeable battery pack, the GamePad is comfortable to hold. It’s lightweight considering the built-in screen, with comfortable moulding to make it fit your grip nicely. The LCD display used is surprisingly good too; sure, it’s no match for a Retina-packing iPad, but it’s nice and bright with surprisingly good viewing angles. Though a capacitive display, it is not however multi-touch enabled, the most obvious sign of the cost-cutting measures Nintendo have employed to keep the combined cost of the Wii U package affordable. Most of the time, this won’t be an issue, but in some scenarios (when using the console’s web-browser for instance) the lack of now-second-nature pinch gestures of smartphones and tablets feels dated. The controller also features NFC capabilities for the wireless transfer of data, though at the time of review we had no software or peripherals to test the feature with.
The GamePad’s main downside is its poor battery life. You’ll only get at best around 4 hours of solid play before it needs recharging, which seems a very short period of time, especially when compared to the ten-or-so hours you’ll eek out of an iPad, even with its larger display, location services and constantly updating notifications. It’s frustrating to have to cut short a gaming session because the battery gives up the ghost so quickly, not to mention the need to remember to charge it after practically every play with the console.
Only one GamePad can be connected to the Wii U console at a time, so multiplayer experiences rely on using the old Wiimote controllers from the original Wii. If you’ve already got the original Wii its great that you won’t need to purchase new controllers to play multiplayer games, simply syncing up the old hardware with the new console instead. Those buying into Nintendo’s gaming offerings for the first time will have to purchase a Wiimote separately though if they intend on playing games with pals, as no console pack includes a Wiimote (though we’re sure retailer bundles will throw them in at a little extra cost).Playing with two screens: Does it work, and is it fun?
The dual-screen offering is an incredibly promising proposition, even if initially it’s a little jarring. Straight from the off with the initial console set-up, Nintendo encourage you to use both your television and the display on the GamePad in tandem, following onscreen instructions to input settings and confirm options on the controller touchscreen. The console beams video wirelessly to the GamePad, so there’s no need to physically link the two together with cabling.
At first, you’re not sure whether to stare at your main television set or the GamePad, and often its a case of balancing monitoring both at once. It’s surprising how quickly you adapt to this novel new concept though, and that’s largely down to Nintendo’s ability communicate the multiple ways the controller can be used, through either clear onscreen prompts, or gameplay design. We’ve played with two first-party Nintendo games on the Wii U, Nintendo Land and New Super Mario Bros. U., and each uses the controller in inventive ways.
With New Super Mario Bros. U, the game initially seems to use a fairly standard application of the touchscreen; Mario is controlled as per usual with the regular physical controls, with menus optionally navigated through the second screen. However, the entire game as viewed on your main TV is mirrored on the GamePad screen, without a hint of lag or stutter. It opens up the option of playing the entire game on the GamePad itself, a wonderful, argument-saving option if you’re living in a one-TV house or want the flexibility of being able to move and play. We were able to play two rooms and 15 metres away from the Wii U console without any problems, and even line-of-sight didn’t seem to affect proceedings too much. We’ve even heard reports of people playing a whole storey away from the main console, but the quality of the signal will deteriorate over distances much longer than 15 metres, and through very thick walls. As a side note, it’s also the best Mario has ever looked thanks to the sumptuous HD artwork afforded by the Wii U’s extra graphics processing power.
Nintendo Land is perhaps the best showcase for the controller’s potential, featuring a load of minigames that each focusses on a different application of the controller. A Zelda-inspired mini-game uses the second screen as an aiming reticule for a bow and arrow attack; a high-speed Donkey-Kong minecart maze uses the two screens and gyro controls to let you view an overview of the treacherous course on the main TV screen while offering an up-close view of hazards on the GamePad display; Ninja Castle lets you swipe ninja stars from the touchscreen at baddies on the main screen, holding the controller in a portrait orientation.Across both Nintendo Land and New Super Mario Bros. U the controller comes into its own most keenly when playing in multiplayer scenarios with pals using Wiimotes. Nintendo Land’s Metroid Blast has the GamePad user pilot a hovercraft above ground-based allies, putting them in a position to offer covering fire and a wider view of the battlefield on their personal screen, encouraging tactical play and communication; the Luigi’s Mansion mini-game sees a ghost track down ghost hunters, the spectre hidden from view on the main TV screen but clearly visible to the ghost player on the GamePad screen, making for a wonderful game of hide and seek. With New Super Mario Bros. U, a GamePad user can help or hinder four other Wiimote using players by tapping platforms and obstacles into being on the GamePad screen, blocking the path of players onscreen or opening up new routes for them to explore.
In these examples, Nintendo’s keen eye for multiplayer design shines, and the GamePad truly enhances the experience. With a gang of friends around and the right game on offer, the potential for sneaky or support play through the GamePad will make for hilarious play sessions, and offers the same rush felt when first flailing arms around with Wii Sports. At these moments its superb.
Single player experiences are offered similar opportunities for innovative designs, but may prove more difficult to implement. Being able to play a whole game on the GamePad is a lovely option, but is not enough to sell the GamePad to lone gamers. Offering secondary information on the extra screen, such as maps and inventory management, are the obvious applications for more demanding gaming experiences such as RPGs, but is that enough? We’re not sure. Note that the best multiplayer uses of the GamePad are when gamers have their own discrete view of the action, rather than juggling the use of two displays, which will likely make up the bulk of the GamePad’s use in single player scenarios. The Wii U’s success will rely on developers being able to deliver innovative experiences that cleverly use the unique hardware’s strengths. Nintendo have showed it’s possible, but whether third-party developers will be able commit the money and development time to deliver equally compelling concepts on as-yet-unproven hardware remains to be seen.
The first Wii missed a trick when it came to online content, with an overly-complex friending system and a poorly stocked digital store. Nintendo are hoping not make any such mistakes with the Wii U; online functionality is baked in here at almost every turn.
It’s a marriage of the new and old when it comes to the Wii U interface. You’ll still create a “Mii” avatar with which to link game saves and use within certain titles (Nintendo Land included), but interaction with other gamer’s Miis is now more robust. The Miiverse (as Nintendo calls its new online community) fills the homescreen with hundreds of tiny Mii’s, some Nintendo-controlled ones offering simple Wii U tips or directing you to promotions, others displaying messages from other real-world players. The Miiverse is extended further with the Communities feature, which acts as a forum for text and scribbled messages, though it’s limited to discussions based on Wii U software or games. Miiverse works best when implemented into games: the aforementioned Mario title for instance offers the option of attaching a message about a recently completed level to the stage, with the added option of including (or hiding) tips or spoilers. These will then appear randomly in other gamers’ adventures if they decide to opt-in, making for a far more compelling connected experience than Nintendo have offered in the past.
Alongside the Miiverse, you’ve also got a more traditional grid-like display of applications and features (which will be familiar to returning Wii users), and both the traditional grid set up and Miiverse views can be switched on the fly from being displayed on the main screen to the touchscreen.There is already a decent selection of applications available through the Wii U, with the Netflix and Lovefilm apps impressing most. As you’d expect, the touchscreen can be used to navigate both service’s catalogue of movies and TV shows, but in a nice touch, the video content can be mirrored to the GamePad, alá New Super Mario Bros. U.
Nintendo’s eShop will be the console’s equivalent to the Xbox Live Arcade, being Nintendo’s digital game distribution service. It’s too early to say how compelling an offering this will prove to be, with too few titles on it at this early stage to decide whether or not it’ll be worth your attention. But it fares favourably when it comes to navigation, again benefiting from the touchscreen browsing option.
There’s also a rudimentary web browser, but the lack of multitouch GamePad controls and the tablet’s lower resolution display (when compared to dedicated tablet devices) make it a pain to navigate and not the most most attractive way to view websites. In its defence, it manages to process most website designs flawlessly, even those with bespoke embedded video plug-ins and adaptive layouts.
Though the interface is clean and easily navigated, moving between applications and menus is incredibly slow. Games take an age to load, and quitting out of an application and returning to the homescreen often takes as long as 30 seconds. It doesn’t sound like very long on paper, but in practice it’s very frustrating. Compared to the near-instant application loading times of smartphones or tablets, not to mention the brisk pace that the Xbox 360 or PS3 can swap between applications in, we’re at a loss as to why this more powerful hardware can’t at least match its console rivals in this respect. Hopefully a firmware update will fix this.
It’s worth noting however that in order to access this full raft of online features, you’ll first need to install a sizeable update to the Wii U. Over a gigabyte in size, even speedy fibre optic connections take close to an hour to complete the download at present, as Nintendo seemingly haven’t anticipated just how many people will be hammering their servers at once. It’s frustrating that these features were not pre-installed at launch, and it’ll take until next Spring (when the second wave of manufactured Wii U consoles arrives) before these features will work straight out of the box.
Once you’ve applied that sizeable update though, you’ll get the ability to play your old Wii games through the Wii U console. If you’ve got a large library of Wii titles, this is superb, as Wii games look better than ever before on the Wii U console. The new Nintendo machine, thanks to its HDMI connection, is able to upscale old Wii titles to Full HD 1080p resolutions. While this won’t change the quality of the games’ artwork itself, it does clear up the slight grain and fuzz associated with the original Wii’s analogue video output, making for sharper, more vibrant visuals. With games like The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword or Mario Galaxy 2 where the in-game artwork is wonderful, it breathes new life into them
Rather than viewing the Wii U as the first entry into the next-generation of gaming, Nintendo’s latest offering makes most sense when set apart from its rumoured, super-powered next-gen rivals. By again not concerning themselves with spec-sheet stat chasing, Nintendo have delivered a truly unique gaming experience, one that when paired with appropriate software from forward-thinking developers will have the potential to deliver fantastically fun experiences that you’ll be unlikely to replicate on other consoles (well, at least until we know what lies in store with the Xbox 720 and PS4). It has some problems, not least when considering the GamePad’s poor battery life and the lengthy loading times endured when running applications, but its not a bad start at all. If third-party developers jump on board with purpose, the Wii U has massive potential. It needs to establish itself quickly in order to fend off the coming threat of new Sony and Microsoft consoles, but Nintendo’s engaging new hardware certainly deserves to succeed.
By Gerald Lynch | December 14th, 2012