I love my Nintendo Wii. I’m basically unbeatable at Wii Tennis and can hold my own in Wii Bowling (though my six-year-old nephew beats me pretty handily). My family’s Wii Fit has been well-loved, and I’ve saved the world more than a few times in Call of Duty.
Nintendo's simple, low-res, get-up-and-play console has been a huge hit, outselling both the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 and taking over my family like I never expected. Now Nintendo's back with the Wii U, hoping to bolster its offering and preemptively outshine whatever Microsoft and Sony are up to next. The Wii U comes with upgraded graphics and processing power, but true to form it's all about a gimmick: the GamePad. Like the 3DS did with portable games, the Wii U's GamePad adds a second screen to the gaming equation, which Nintendo hopes will lead to more immersive, fun, and interactive games.
It's no stretch to say the Wii revolutionized how we play video games. Can Nintendo do it again? Let's find out.
Big, heavy, and basically a mirror
Time to clear a spot in your home theater stack. The Wii U's console is a hefty piece of machinery, a glossy black (or white) rectangle that may or may not slide neatly next to your TV. It's surprisingly large — it weighs about 3.5 pounds, and is nearly 11 inches from front to back. The size isn't the end of the world since it's something you'll rarely pick up or move, but it's deep enough that it stuck out over the edge of my TV stand.
On the front of the console are the power, sync, and eject buttons, and the disc slot. There's also a sliding cover, which opens to reveal two USB ports and a full-size SD card slot. I appreciate the front-loading of the ports, because even though the cables and cards look bad sticking out of the console, they're much more accessible in the front than the back. For the port-hungry or the picky, there are two more USB ports on the back, along with HDMI (finally) and AV out ports, and jacks for the power adapter and sensor bar that goes on top of your TV. There's a small vent on the top, and larger ones on the right side and back — you can definitely hear the fans whirring when you're playing a game, but it was never loud enough to be a problem.
I'm not sure I've ever written about a power cable in a review before, but the Wii U's merits a mention. Because it's massive. The power brick is almost the same size as the console itself, and it made installing the system a lot harder — hiding something that big behind your TV can be tough.
At launch, there are two ways to buy a Wii U. The Basic Edition costs $299.99 and comes with 8GB of internal storage, a GamePad, the sensor bar, and all the chargers and cables you'll need (including an HDMI cable, a rare and appreciated addition). For $349.99 you can get the Deluxe Edition, which gets you 32GB of storage in the console, charging stands for the various devices, and a copy of Nintendo Land. You should buy the Deluxe Edition, if you can find it: the actual available storage in the Basic Edition is less than 4GB, plus Nintendo Land is a fun game you’ll probably want to own. If you do get the cheaper model, you can plug an external hard drive into a USB port and get up to 2TB more storage if you need it, but the drive will be specifically formatted for the Wii U and won’t work anywhere else. Plus, games can’t be run from an external drive, so again — the Deluxe Edition is the way to go.
GamePad and controllers
The GamePad is the centerpiece of the whole Wii U experience
There are plenty of under-the-hood changes in Nintendo's new console, but the biggest practical difference by far is the controller. There’s the more traditional console-style pad called the Classic Controller, which lets you game on the Wii U like you would on the Xbox 360, but the star of the show is the GamePad. The GamePad looks like a cross between the PlayStation Vita and Nintendo's own 3DS, and it actually feels a bit like a separate console — it's not, but I'm getting ahead of myself.
The GamePad is huge, about 10 inches long and fairly thick and wide as well. Fortunately it only weighs about a pound, and thanks to ridges underneath your fingers in the back is quite comfortable to hold as long as it's in both hands — it's a little awkward in one hand, especially when you hold it in portrait mode. It's made of black plastic, and is glossy on the front and matte on the back. The glossy part is incredibly fingerprint- and smudge-prone, just like the console, and Nintendo might have been better off using the matte material everywhere. The whole thing feels a little cheap and flimsy (a common occurrence with Nintendo consoles) though it's plenty sturdy in use. The build quality is one of many sacrifices Nintendo seems to make in the name of creating a lighter, smaller GamePad. Most tradeoffs I could live with, but not the battery, which insisted on dying after only about three hours of gameplay — Nintendo obviously sacrificed battery size to keep the GamePad light, and it overshot the balance a bit. I had to have the GamePad's charger, which includes yet another huge brick, accessible at all times when I was playing, because as you'll see there's basically no Wii U without the GamePad.
The highlight of the GamePad is its 6.2-inch, 16:9 display, which is really the central interaction point for the Wii U. It's a decent screen — its 854 x 480 resolution (about 158 ppi) makes really small elements a little blurry, but it’s still totally usable, and Nintendo's graphics aren't exactly high-def anyway. It's a disaster of a touchscreen, though: the resistive display often doesn't register taps or swipes at all, and you have to really mash on the screen to get it to register. Gaming's all about fast-twitch reactions, and you'll miss a lot while trying to tap the screen. The included stylus is a little better, but not much.
There are black analog sticks on either side of the screen, which force you to grip the GamePad near the top. The four-way directional pad (which you'll only use very rarely) sits below the left stick, and the A / B / X / Y buttons are below the right, above the Start and Select buttons. The buttons themselves have great travel and good feel, but they're laid out in the common Japanese style, and to me it just seems... wrong. On Xbox, PlayStation, and most other recent consoles, the most commonly-used button (both in games and for advancing and selecting in menus) is on the bottom of the diamond. On the Wii U, it's the A button, and it sits on the right side — in dozens of hours of playing I never got used to that, and never stopped pressing B when I was trying to press A. The buttons are relatively far away from the analog stick, so I assume the layout was chosen to make the most-used button easier to hit, but Nintendo should have just found a way to get the buttons closer together. If you've ever played video games before, on any console, the Wii U's going to be frustrating to use for a while.
When it's used right, the GamePad is an awesome complement to the TV interface — I loved having it as my pocket PDA of sorts during Ninja Gaiden, or using it to draw routes for Yoshi in Nintendo Land. But every game implements the GamePad differently, and most don't do it very well. Some of the games in Nintendo Land take place almost entirely on the GamePad, so all you see on your TV is "Look at the GamePad!" Others are mirrored, so you're seeing exactly the same thing on the TV and on the GamePad – it's distracting to see things happening on both screens, and I wound up constantly shifting my gaze because I'd see some movement out of the corner of my eye.
When you go to the Wii U's home screen, by default it shows your available Miis (the animated characters that represent whoever's playing the Wii U) on the TV and all the app icons and menu options on the GamePad. That's the opposite of what it should be, if you ask me, and it speaks to a much larger problem: I never figured out which Wii U screen is the default screen. Both screens are always on — sometimes you're supposed to look at the GamePad, and other times the action's happening on the TV. I was always looking back and forth, in many games not sure where I was supposed to look. This isn't a systemic problem with the Wii U, but it's really prevalent in this first set of games — Ninja Gaiden 3 was the only game I played where I could focus on the TV and only use the GamePad when I needed to change weapons or access hidden features.
The GamePad can be awesome, but there are too many clunky ways you have to use it
Games and gameplay
I had six games at my disposal during my time with the Wii U, and they pretty much cover the whole spectrum of what you'll be able to play with the console. They have unique strengths and weaknesses, and together paint a pretty good picture of the system as a whole right now. (Our pals over at Polygon have reviewed a bunch of the new Wii U games, so head over there for even more information.)
New Super Mario Bros. U is my favorite Wii U game, but that's almost entirely because it's a Mario game. It's a well-made, beautiful game, one of the hardest Mario games I've ever played; there are hidden worlds and cool features everywhere, making it feel like much more than a run-and-jump affair. There's nothing special about how it works on the Wii U, though — the GamePad and TV just mirror each other, so you can look at either screen, but there's nothing added by having both pieces. The game is a selling point for the Wii U, but only because Nintendo's consoles are the only way to get Mario games.
Using the Wii U is like being in first grade again — that's good and bad
Nintendo Land reminds me a lot of Wii Sports — it's the game designed to show off all the unique features of the console. It's essentially an amusement park, full of Mario Party-like mini games, knick knacks, and fun ways to kill time. Some of the games are a lot of fun — my favorite is a Rube Goldberg-like Donkey Kong Crash Course, which involves everything from tilting the GamePad to blowing into the microphone hole. The game as a whole makes ambitious use of the GamePad, coming up with all kinds of wacky ways to use it — as a steering wheel, a bow and arrow, and oh so much more. But that creates a massive learning curve, and it felt like I spent half my time learning Nintendo Land’s individual games. Nintendo Land’s creepy robot assistant is very helpful, and the instructions are usually clear enough clear, but you’ll do an enormous amount of screen-switching, and even more listening to instructions.
Nintendo Land also makes heavy use of the front-facing camera on the GamePad, showing your face on the TV as you speed through Captain Falcon’s Twister Race. It’s a fun idea, actually — one of a few things Nintendo’s done to make the Wii U a better spectator sport. It doesn’t work all that well in Nintendo Land — your thumb might obscure the camera as you hold the GamePad in portrait mode — but I hope developers come up with fun ways to use the camera in games.
FIFA 13 and Ninja Gaiden 3 fall more in line with what I'd like to see from every developer going forward. In Ninja Gaiden 3, an insane fighting game involving more brutal killing than you can possibly imagine, the GamePad is totally supplementary to what's happening on the TV; it's where you switch weapons or use your Ninja Sense to find enemies in the dark. You rarely have to even look down, since the required buttons are big and in the corners. FIFA 13 does a lot more with the GamePad: you can change your lineup or formation on the fly, and even pass or shoot using the touchscreen. You could almost play the entire game on the GamePad, though it's a clunky experience on such a large field. But you really don't ever have to look down unless you want to — FIFA 13 is a much better experience once you learn how to fiddle with your team on the GamePad instead of pausing and digging into the menus, but you never need to do it and it doesn't interrupt the game at all.
Both games, by the way, are a huge step above anything I ever played on the original Wii. At their best, Wii U games can be as good as the Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3, though they're more often still a step below in quality. The console’s 1080p output is a huge improvement, but details still aren't always as crisp as on competing platforms, and I definitely noticed more stutters and dropped frames than I expected. The Wii U seems to offer a step forward for developers, but it at best equals the existing pack.
Mario hasn't lost his touch, but he doesn't have any new tricks either
I'm ashamed to admit how much fun I had playing Sing Party 4. Not because it's a great game — it's not, thanks to clunky interfaces and too few song choices — but because singing and dancing games are fun. There's an external microphone accessory for the Wii U (inexplicably not a wireless one — it plugs into a USB port and has a monstrous cord attached), and you just sing. There's a multiplayer Party Mode, but it's oddly done: you don't get a score or even really compete, you just kind of sing while having to stare at the TV. Yet again, the GamePad is misused — it would be a great way to show lyrics while you move around and sing, but in nearly every mode you're going to have to sing at your television and not your audience.
Just Dance 4 is basically the same — it's a fun dancing game, but it's not a particularly great Wii U game other than a fun "Puppet Master" mode that lets you dictate moves the other players have to follow. The game also requires that you hold a Wii remote while you play, which made me realize how much I've been spoiled by the gadget-free experience of playing an Xbox game with Kinect.
I quickly realized that a Wii remote was not just a baton to hold while dancing, but actually a critical part of the Wii U equation. It's necessary for multiplayer in almost every game, and for anything requiring any kind of motion sensing. It's also important for playing games designed for the Wii, which are compatible with the Wii U and play as you'd expect. Oddly, no Wii U package includes a Wii remote, but they're easy to find and work fine with the new console. Just make sure you mentally add the price of one or two Wii remotes to your purchase of the Wii U.
Multiplayer is actually one of the odder experiences with the Wii U. For most games, one player uses the GamePad and everyone else uses Wii remotes. That by itself creates a sort of disjointed experience, like you're all watching the same thing but you're on your phone while everyone else watches it on TV. In many games, the player with the GamePad is the only one really playing, and the other players are like supporting actors — it's less like co-op and more like hero and sidekick. The one exception I found was Metroid Blast, in which you team up to, well, kill bad guys. In that game the GamePad and Wii remote experiences aren’t better or worse, just different — you’re in a vehicle on the GamePad and on foot with the remote, but both are fun experiences geared for their hardware. Once again, the potential is there — it’s just not yet fully realized.
The Wii U is close — tantalizingly close — to being a portable console. So close, in fact, that I found myself wondering constantly why the GamePad wasn't the console, and the TV-connected piece a peripheral.
The GamePad and console connect to each other via an ad-hoc Wi-Fi connection, which works absolutely seamlessly — there's no lag, and I had no connection issues whatsoever. Nintendo says the two parts will work up to 25 feet apart, but I found that it could sometimes be much farther; they stayed in touch anywhere in the Verge offices or in my apartment, even through walls. That means for games like New Super Mario Bros. U, where all the gameplay also takes place on the GamePad, you don't even need your TV anymore — just turn the console on, and play on your GamePad. That's a great way to avoid monopolizing your family's TV, and it frees you from even needing a TV. Anywhere there's a power outlet, you can play some Wii U games using the GamePad.
The GamePad's power made me want even more
It works so well in these cases that I can't help but wish Nintendo went all the way with the idea. Why not make a portable console that is totally self-sufficient, but becomes something like the Wii U when it's plugged in or connected to your TV? It could be a single-screen device like the Vita, or a dual-screen device like the Wii U. Devices like the iPad, Nexus 7, and PlayStation Vita are proving that good graphics can come in small packages, and it’d be a smart direction for Nintendo to go as well. Even if the console itself were smaller (and didn’t have that cumbersome brick), it would be something you could toss into a suitcase or even a backpack. Unfortunately, though, that's just not what the Wii U is. I loved playing New Super Mario Bros. U in bed while the console whirred outside in my living room, but I wish it weren’t such a limited use case.
Apps and software
Nintendo's not going to get a third chance to get media right
As soon as you turn the Wii U on, it's familiar Nintendo fare. The basic interface hasn't changed much since the last-generation Wii — white's the dominant color, Miis and blocks dominate the interface, and everything's big and easy to navigate and find. It's all very low-fi, but it gets the job done fine.
Step one, as always, is to create a Mii. On the Wii U the Mii acts as both your avatar in games, and as the representation of your user account — the console allows up to 12 users on a single device, and you log in to your own Mii when you first turn on the Wii U. You can even set a password, to keep your saboteur friends out of your games. When you're creating your Mii, you can choose from all the available features to create your virtualized self, or you can snap a photo of yourself using the front-facing camera and let the system figure out your perfect Mii. I was a little offended by the nose the Wii U chose, but I must say my character looked an awful lot like me.
At the eleventh hour, literally minutes before the Wii U went on sale, Nintendo issued a huge patch for the system. The update took a console that was entirely offline, letting you basically do nothing but insert discs and play games, and brought it onto the internet.
First there are the content sources, which were sorely lacking on the Wii — game consoles are increasingly entertainment sources as well, and Nintendo missed that boat in a big way. The Wii U does much better, giving you access to Amazon, YouTube, Hulu, and Netflix — Netflix is available now, and if it's indicative of the whole experience then Nintendo did quite well here.
You navigate via a familiar interface (Netflix looks exactly like all of its other apps), and pick something you want to watch. By default, it streams directly to the TV (the console supports 1080p, finally), but with one touch you can play it on the GamePad instead. I give Nintendo a ton of credit for how it handled the integration here — it's perfect. The GamePad is a great way to navigate through content, and the ability to watch on the controller itself means you can watch Netflix while someone else uses the TV. In that sense, the GamePad really does replicate some important tablet features.
The Wii U's internet capabilities go farther, too, thanks to the new Nintendo Network. It works as you'd expect, which is a huge improvement over Nintendo's jumbled previous offerings. It starts with the User ID, which is the hub of all your data — saved games, web bookmarks, and settings are all tied to your user ID. (You can have up to 12 users at a time on the Wii U.) Your user ID is also how people find you to play games, which is a massive improvement over the long numeric "friend codes" you used to have to remember and share in order to play online.
The eShop is only navigable on the GamePad, and it's a predictably simple interface — you can browse or search for games, read about them, and buy them. It reminds me of the iOS App Store a bit, with its tabs for screenshots and ratings. There are 23 games available at launch in the eShop, including everything from Assassin's Creed 3 and ZombiU to Sing Party and Game Party Champions. It's clear that this store is going to be a hub for Wii U games, and that makes extra storage even more important — the store actually warns Basic owners to plug in an external hard drive before starting to download some of the larger games.
Nintendo did a pretty good job of tying everything into a single portal — you use the same account to buy games, video chat, and save data. That's seriously faint praise, since the Xbox and PlayStation ecosystems have offered superior online systems for years, but I'm sure Nintendo owners will take what they can get.
The addition of a web browser is nice in theory, but I'd bet good money you won't use the Wii U's browser more than a couple of times. It's actually surprisingly fast, but it often renders pages wrong, it has two omnipresent toolbars that take up a lot of the already-precious screen real estate on the GamePad, and it's incredibly basic. For a quick search, it's fine (and for that reason alone I'm glad it exists), but between the sub-par experience and the terrible on-screen keyboard, you won't want to use this much.
Nintendo claims this is the beginning of a network, and says it will offer access to the Nintendo Network services on smartphones and PCs. That would go a long way toward bolstering the Wii U's ecosystem, but given the company's somewhat lackluster approach so far I'm not holding my breath.
Nintendo’s also promising a first-party platform for uniting all this content, called TVii. TVii is a combination of TV guide, remote control, (the GamePad already has some universal remote functionality baked in, but it’s limited), and on-demand service. That’s not coming until December, though. Same goes for the Nintendo Network, the company’s bid to create an access point for downloadable content and online gameplay. Nintendo’s making a lot of steps in the right direction, but it’s playing catch-up to Microsoft and Sony, whose years-old consoles already have all these features.
The whole UI is also astonishingly slow and laggy, which makes little sense on such a low-res system. Every single time you go to the main screen, it takes 10 or 15 seconds to load — apps take just as long, even when all they do is throw up the "this doesn’t work yet" error message. Mario takes a solid 30 seconds to load, during which time it shows a static photo with no indication that anything is happening. Patience is a virtue, but so is processing power. I don’t have the first, and the Wii U doesn’t have the second.
Slow and low-res is an ugly combination
(Note: about a month after we originally published this review, Nintendo turned on its TVii features. These are our thoughts after using them.)
Nintendo obviously recognizes that game consoles have become the centerpiece of many people's living rooms, and knows the magnitude of the opportunity it missed with the Wii. That's why the company crammed every TV- and content-friendly feature it could think of into the Wii U, from a universal remote to the apps for Amazon, Hulu, and the like.
But Nintendo's most ambitious feature appeared on my Wii U about a month after it launched. TVii (pronounced like, well, TV) is one part TV guide, one part on demand service, and one part SmartGlass-like second screen companion. It came via a huge download on the Wii U — I think downloading updates is the thing I do most with the Wii U — and promised to essentially obviate my remote controls altogether. The Wii U should, theoretically, be able to control my TV, find me things to watch, and even direct me toward something better when there's nothing on except for Duck Dynasty.
True to form for the Wii U, the feature list is enticing, but the execution falls short. TVii is clunky and frustrating from the minute you start using it. After the all-too-familiar interminable loading process, you're prompted to do some basic setup: input your zip code and cable provider, select your favorite movies, TV shows, channels, and sports teams, and you're set to go. Except that the setup process doesn't involve making sure your TV is paired with the GamePad. That's a separate process, and TVii gives you no indication of what to do or how to get there (it's in the system settings), so things are probably going to seem broken for a while.
Once everything's finally connected, the hyper-visual TVii interface works a lot like Peel, or the interface I've tested on a couple of tablets. The home screen has five options — Favorites, TV, Movies, Sports, and Search — and you pick one to drill into what you want to watch. In TV, for instance, you can see a visual grid of what shows are on right now, with shows you've selected as your favorites shown first; select a show and then an episode, and the Wii U can automatically tune your TV to the correct channel. It can even integrate with your TiVo DVR and index the content there, but unfortunately I don't have a TiVo to test with.
It's a nice way to see what's on that you might want to watch without having to flip through a whole guide – though the grid-based guide is here too, if you're feeling noncommittal or just want to channel-surf. It's a nice idea, and works okay, except that when you pick something you want to watch you have to first confirm that the TV is on the right input, and if it's not you have to tap-tap-tap to the right one and then hit "Yes" before anything happens. Or, you know, you could just use your remote.
One of the coolest-sounding things about TVii is TV Tag, a feature that "allows you to follow along on the GamePad while you watch your sporting event or TV show." I had visions of SmartGlass, checking out relevant information about the cast and episode, and for all I know that is what TV Tag is – but since every single thing I tried told me "TV Tag is currently not available for this show," I couldn't say. Sports do take advantage, showing stats and live updates on the GamePad while you watch the game on TV. That part is pretty great.
As a TV guide, TVii is vaguely useful. For movies, though, it's basically useless. Theoretically, if a movie you've said is one of your favorites is currently on TV, you'll be able to tune straight to it, but unless Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure is your favorite movie ever (in which case odds are good it's currently playing on Comedy Central), all TVii does is present you with a link to buy the movie on Amazon. Netflix integration could be slightly handier, and Nintendo says that's coming, but for now it's just a roundabout Amazon interface.
Down in the bottom right corner of every TVii screen is an icon that brings up a ringed remote interface, which is by far the most consistently useful thing about TVii. It gives you the standard buttons – playback, volume, numbers — but also offers one-touch access to all the channels you named as your favorites in the initial setup. Bring up the wheel, tap once, and you're on ESPN. Tap again, off to FX you go. I've always wanted a remote with buttons for my 25 favorite channels, and the Wii U and TVii pull it off.
There's a social piece of the TVii puzzle, offering you a way to tweet about what you're watching or post about things to Miiverse. I can't figure out why you wouldn't just use your phone or tablet to post things to Facebook and Twitter, though; and who in the world is posting updates to Miiverse?
Nintendo's updates have improved performance in a few places – going to the home screen is a bit faster now, for instance — but everything else remains brutally slow. There's a second or more between you pressing something on the GamePad and any response on the TV, which makes paging through menus or scrolling through inputs nearly impossible. Every menu takes several seconds to load, every action several more to complete — I wasted too much time with TVii looking the GamePad and not watching what I wanted to be watching.
As is the case with so many things with the Wii U, Nintendo's onto something here. I like the idea that the GamePad is my one and only remote, for my TV, my set-top box, and my Wii U. It's too big to get lost, having a big touchscreen is great, and some of the features and organizational tools are really useful. It's a smart move by Nintendo, too, which is gunning to keep the GamePad in your hands at all times whether you want to play Mario or watch Parks & Recreation. But it's so slow, and so cumbersome in places, that I still constantly found myself reaching for the huge and inscrutable remote that came with my TV. Because when I press a button on there, something actually happens.
I had a number of "ah ha!" moments with the Wii U. There are things it can do, things enabled by the GamePad / console twosome, that are both awesome and unique. I loved diagramming FIFA plays on the GamePad's touchscreen, then executing them on my TV. I loved being able to play Super Mario Brothers U anywhere in my apartment without missing a beat. I still love using the Wii remote to drive around.
But these moments of brilliance are for the moment overshadowed by the clumsiness of the system. It's a brand-new paradigm for video games, and there are clear and frustrating growing pains: the GamePad is too often confusing and illogically implemented, and it creates some really odd gaming experiences, especially when you're playing with friends.
Then there's the fact that the Wii U itself, with its chintzy materials and giant charging bricks, seems more like a prototype than a polished product. The touchscreen is a mess, the controller feels like someone mapped the buttons wrong, and even the console is bigger and clunkier than it should be.
In all, the Wii U is still as much a tech demo as anything else. It can do remarkable things, but exactly what those things are and how we can best use them are yet to be determined. The Wii-style gameplay is as much fun as ever, but it's been outdone by Kinect and Nintendo does little here to gain ground. The new console could be great, if developers get on board and come up with clever ways to make use of the entire system. Or, it could be a graphically weak system with a giant controller and a terrible media ecosystem.
Nintendo’s facing an unfortunate chicken-and-egg problem. Developers won’t devote the time to making their Wii U games sing unless a lot of people buy the console, and plenty of shoppers will skip over the console unless the games are great. Nintendo can’t rely on its lead-in, either: Wii sales have plummeted in the last year, falling at a much faster rate than its even-older Xbox and PlayStation competitors. The novely factor of the Wii may have worn off, as customers demand more media features and a better gaming experience — Nintendo has to prove once again that it’s a real competitor.
I don't know which future awaits the Wii U. But until it's obvious, I'm not buying one.