Nintendo's 2006 Wii console was a runaway success, catapulting the venerable Japanese company back to the top of the gaming pile with its super-accessible gameplay and appealing price tag. Fast-forward six years, however, and the world of console gaming is very different, with the casual crowd finding fun with smart phone and tablet apps, even as long-time gamers remain glued to their more complex Xbox 360 and PS3 machines.
Can the Wii U rock the world of gaming once more, or has Nintendo's quirky approach to hardware hatched a lame duck? And does this shiny box of tricks deserve a spot beneath your telly? Read on to find out.
The Wii U is available now in two versions: the £248 basic pack, which includes 8GB of storage, and the £299 premium pack, which has 32GB.
Should I buy the Wii U?
If you're an occasional gamer who had fun with the original Wii, or thinking of buying the Wii U for someone who's not that into games, you should think carefully before handing over your cash, because this new system is considerably more complex than Nintendo's last effort.
Instead of waving a wand and tapping a small selection of buttons, the Wii U asks you to wrap your mitts around a fully tooled-up controller, as well as mastering tapping a touchscreen and keeping an eye on two screens at once. Long-time gamers will settle in with no problem, but the learning curve for first-timers may prove frustrating, so have a long hard think before buying.
If you belong to the muscly thumbed hardcore crowd, you're unlikely to find the Wii U as satisfying as the Xbox or PlayStation console you probably already own. I noticed a few instances where the Wii U appeared to lag slightly in the graphical stakes, and while the HD visuals are often gorgeous, I haven't seen anything that looks better than what the Xbox or PS3 pumps out. The bulky controller is heavy, and isn't as suited to quick-fire twitch-reflex gaming as its rival peripherals.
The Wii U is a console for those who already know they need to own one. Nintendo isn't likely to start offering Mario, Zelda, Metroid, Pikmin, Donkey Kong, Smash Bros, Mario Kart or any of its other hot properties on rival systems anytime soon. So if you dearly love those games (and who could blame you?), the Wii U will probably satisfy you, even if it could take a while for some key titles to trickle onto the console.
The Wii U's most important new feature is its chunky tablet GamePad. But how does it feel to use this quirky controller, and what impact does it have on gameplay?
The GamePad fits around your fingers comfortably, leaving your thumbs with plenty of room to grip the analogue sticks or manoeuvre their way to the controller's face buttons.
The 6.2-inch touchscreen isn't too tricky to reach using your thumbs, but to reach beyond the edges of the panel you'll need to let go of the GamePad with one hand. The controller feels quite weighty, and while it's not about to pull you to the ground, you will notice the heft during long play sessions.
It's noticeably heavier than the Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3 controller, and much chunkier than the feather-light Wii Remote. The GamePad feels a bit plasticky to hold as well, and while it's comfortable to grip, you won't get the sensation that you're holding a piece of premium gadgetry.
On the plus side, all the buttons feel good, and the trigger buttons around the back of the controller move smoothly when you squeeze them, without feeling as spongy as those on the PlayStation 3's controller.
Build quality feels high across the board, and I'm reasonably confident that -- unlike an iPad -- this tablet-esque controller could take a few knocks without giving up the ghost. There's a stylus slotted into a hole at the top, but you'll hardly ever use it, as the touchscreen is large enough to make finger prods reasonably precise.
The analogue sticks are comfy to use, but they can feel just a touch slippery, making for unintentionally erratic in-game movement. The sticks feel quite tall under your thumbs, which mean that sometimes simple tasks like running in a straight line can feel slightly wobbly. That's a minor gripe, but one I suspect dedicated gamers will pick up on.
Long-time game folk will also be frustrated by Nintendo's button placement, which sees the four 'face' buttons (A, B, X and Y) placed beneath the right analogue stick, instead of the on-top placement you'll see on Microsoft or Sony's consoles. I was able to adjust to the change quite quickly, but muscle-memory movements still saw my thumbs leaving the right stick to prod hopelessly at thin air.
Based on my testing, you can expect several hours of battery life from the GamePad when gaming constantly, but you'll need to charge it frequently to keep it topped up -- don't expect it to last for days on end.
The controller's second screen is where the Wii U wants to offer innovative gaming kicks, so it's disappointing that the panel itself isn't very impressive. The 854x480-pixel resolution isn't particularly high, and leaves on-screen action looking grainy -- Mario's mustachioed face looks like a jumble of pixels when playing New Super Mario Brothers U.
The screen is also dim, with colours looking drained when compared to the picture you'll get on an HD telly (I was testing the Wii U using a 26-inch Samsung TV). The touchscreen isn't particularly sensitive either, because (like the 3DS handheld) it's a resistive touchscreen, rather than the capacitive kind you get on tablets, smart phones and the iPod touch.
That means you need to actually press the screen to register a prod, rather than just touching your digit to the top of the glass. It also means there's no multi-touch, so only one poke at a time will register.
It's a shame the second screen isn't more tactile. A huge plus, however, is that there's no noticeable lag between the display on the tablet and on the TV -- actions taking place on one panel are replicated at almost the same instant on the other, so put aside any fears of lag spoiling your fun.
The dual-screen concept opens the door to all manner of gameplay tricks, such as using the GamePad's internal sensors to scan your surroundings in ZombiU, which is a great use of the technology. That game also offers the opportunity to tap on the GamePad's screen to dismantle barricades, or rifle through your inventory while looking away from the telly screen, during which time you're vulnerable to zombie attack.
The aforementioned undead delivered a real scare, and gave a good taste of what the Wii U's second-screen experience could deliver when put to good use. Other launch titles didn't impress me as much however, with blockbuster ports Assassin's Creed 3 and Mass Effect 3 primarily using the controller panel to display the game's map. Even Mario Bros U, Nintendo's own project, only really uses the touchscreen to display exactly what's happening on the TV.
One advantage there is that you can change the TV's input (possible from the controller using a TV button that sits underneath the GamePad's screen) to normal telly and continue playing on the GamePad. This worked fine with Mario -- though as mentioned before, you'll take a hit on the graphics front staring at the lower-resolution touchscreen -- but didn't work with any other games I tried. Note that you can't use the GamePad as a standalone console out and about -- you need to be in wireless range of the mother console.
In other words, there's fun to be had with the Wii U's quirky controller, but it'll depend very much on what developers decide to stick in their games, and second-screen features are not consistent across games. More on that later.
Finally, and with the caveat that this is a subjective judgement that may not resonate with you at all, I don't think the Wii U conjures up the same fun the Wii did six years ago. Nintendo's previous console was so radically different from anything that had come before that it felt inherently fun just to pick it up and start playing with the then-groundbreaking motion-control tech.
The Wii U, on the other hand, is still an unusual device, but no single aspect of it feels as new, or as fun -- rather it's a mishmash of standard technologies, that when combined don't make for the same gleeful thrill that Nintendo's earlier system conjured.
It's fair to say the Wii U launch line-up is hardly inspiring, with only a few games standing out from the worrying pile of forgettable titles. New Super Mario Bros U is the most exciting one -- even though it sees Nintendo flying on full autopilot -- as it's still a chance to play Mario in HD.
ZombiU is another one worth investigating, and is almost certainly the best game to offer GamePad-centric tricks right off the bat. It's a very violent apocalypse survival game, so don't hand it to a young child unless you're happy to foot their therapy bills later in life. Assassin's Creed 3, Mass Effect 3 and Batman: Arkham City are all Wii U conversions of existing games, but stand as great titles in their own right.
I played Assassin's Creed 3 and thought it could look better, with some in-game textures looking worryingly low-res. I still had fun playing it though. Mass Effect 3, meanwhile, looks good and seemed to play very smoothly, and also features a comic book-style introductory episode, which lets you hurriedly select some of the back-story elements you'd get if you had played through the series on Xbox or PS3. Murder-em-up Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 is also coming to the Wii U.
I had the most fun with multiplayer minigame-a-thon Nintendo Land, which sees one player using the GamePad and other players using Wii Remotes to play in a series of simple challenges. The fact that one player has access to a second screen that's invisible to other gamers is used to great effect here, and should make for raucous living-room thrills. If you're buying a Wii U for the family for Christmas day, this is a great bet, but be aware that you'll need a sensor bar and spare Wii Remotes, which will be pricey extras if you don't own them already.
There are some definite gems to be found among the dross of Game Party Champions and, er, Funky Barn, but this probably isn't a line-up to keep you occupied for the next 12 months.
The tepid launch line-up could well be bolstered by amazing titles in the years to come, and certainly there are some tempting exclusives on the horizon -- notably Bayonetta 2 and Pikmin 3 -- but equally there's reason to worry that the Wii U will suffer from a lack of decent games.
The Wii lacked good third-party titles, and that stench of uncertainty lingers over the Wii U like a threatening raincloud. Developers may take to Nintendo's oddball system like ducks to water, but I wouldn't be in the least surprised if, a year from now, the prospect of porting a game to the quirky Wii U is too much effort or expense for major publishers to bother with.
Choosing a console
In the Wii U Basic Pack, which costs £248, you get a console with 8GB of storage, one GamePad controller, a power adaptor and an HDMI cable. That's not much for your cash, especially when you consider the 8GB console actually only has 3GB of usable space once necessary built-in software has been installed.
That's hardly any space, and will make finding room for downloaded games next to impossible. Nintendo recommends using a USB external hard drive to increase the capacity, which is possible thanks to a USB socket on the Wii U console itself. If Nintendo thinks purchasing and formatting an external hard drive makes for a fun Christmas morning, however, it's sorely mistaken.
Also be aware that the Basic Pack doesn't include any Wii Remotes or a sensor bar, both of which are necessary for multiplayer in several games, including Mario Bros U and Nintendo Land. If you already own a Wii, now's the time to dig those remotes out of the attic.
For around £300 you can get the Premium Pack, which has a console with 32GB of storage, about 25GB of which is actually free for you to use -- a more reasonable amount if you're downloading games. You also get a GamePad charging cradle, a normal plastic stand and black plastic legs for the console itself, as well as the power adaptor, HDMI cable and a sensor bar. Nintendo throws in a copy of Nintendo Land with this bundle.
Calling the Premium Pack generous would be a severe overstatement, but compared with the extremely limited hardware in the Basic Pack, the Premium box is better value, even if it is more expensive.
Setting up the console isn't too tricky, as the Wii U doesn't take up much space. It also doesn't make much noise when it's running, though its power brick is fairly massive. You need to plug the console into your TV (HDMI sockets are present on most HD tellies, but check before you buy, as alternative component cables are not included in the box) and sync the GamePad to the console by pressing a small button on both the controller and the console.
That's about it for the hardware, but I'll confess I was left groaning by the tortuous software setup process. It walks you through setting up the date and time, language and configuring your GamePad to use as a TV control (which worked fine for me, but did involve choosing my TV manufacturer from a drop-down menu and cycling through my telly's inputs to test it was working). Then you have to create or import a Mii avatar and set up an Internet connection.
The Internet connection can be particularly troublesome. If you select the wrong wireless network you'll need to wait until the end of the setup, then go into the settings menu and correct things, because even if the Wi-Fi isn't working, it saves that connection to the system.
For unfathomable reasons the Wii U can only hold a handful of connections in its shiny head at once, so when you try to connect to a new network you may find you need to delete some saved connection options. Moreover, every time you try to connect to a network the Wii U saves it as a new connection, even if you're connecting to the same network you've already tried to access before.
It's bizarre, and if you buy the console I earnestly hope you're able to connect without issue and never have to root around in the settings menu trying to fix things. There's no Ethernet port (though plug-in adaptors are available), so you're stuck with wireless out of the box.
Elsewhere the system software is basic, and sometimes proves frustrating. The homescreen is very much like that of the Wii, with simple squares denoting available apps you can open. Simplicity isn't a bad thing though, and the simple homescreens mean it's easy to see all the games at your disposal.
The biggest software issue is that moving through the Wii U's menus incurs some crippling loading times, even when you're doing nothing more complicated that opening the Settings menu, or returning to the homescreen, which takes a whopping 18 seconds every time. Nintendo could (and certainly should) fix this with a software update, but for now those agonising wait times mean something as simple as quickly popping in to another app becomes a lengthy ordeal.
A mild frustration is that the system menus are, for the most part, displayed on the small GamePad screen, while the TV displays Miis hanging out in a virtual plaza. An on-screen button on the GamePad lets you flip these views but -- bafflingly -- doing so puts the Wii U homescreen on your telly and changes the controls so that the analogue stick causes you to pan scenically around the Mii plaza on the small screen. It's odd that you can't control the actual menu on the TV, and feels like Nintendo hasn't made best use of that massive slab of display real estate.
Online and video on-demand
Nintendo is revamping its online efforts, bringing everything together under the Nintendo Network banner, within which you'll register a Nintendo ID to play games online and download new titles.
First things first -- online gameplay seems to work well, and in a game of FIFA 13 I didn't notice any frustrating lag spoiling my fun -- something that often ruined online gaming on the Wii.
There are a number of factors that could change this in future, however. As more gamers get involved the service could become strained, or things could equally swing the other way, with a lack of Internet-eager gamers making it tricky to find online opponents. For now however, things are working well.
A Miiverse app acts as a Nintendo-brand social network for messaging and seeing who's playing what. The GamePad definitely has an edge over its rivals in this area, because you can use the touchscreen to type messages quickly, instead of agonisingly scrolling from one letter to another, as you have to do on the Xbox or PS3. Handy.
There's an eShop where you can purchase games, but don't expect any bargains -- I saw Mario and FIFA 13 both listed at penny under £50, which is about as expensive as games can get. Games you purchase in the eShop can be accessed by anyone using a particular Wii U system, and that each console allows up to 12 different users. That's very good news if you live with other gamers.
Game demos should be available, but when I pressed the 'demos' button in the Wii U eShop, it took me to a page where I could purchase FIFA 13, with no clear way of downloading a free demo, which is more than a little odd.
Curiously there seems to be some kind of watershed in place for the eShop, as when I tried to view information for the 18-rated ZombiU, a pop-up message told me that it was only available to view at certain times.
The console I was testing had no parental controls setup, so unless there was some kind of profile age verification I hadn't completed, it could be that Nintendo doesn't want you looking at 18+ rated games at any time. I'll update this review if I learn more about why this was happening.
In the US, the Wii U will have access to on-demand video via Nintendo TVii, including clips from Hulu, Amazon Instant Video, Netflix and YouTube. Nintendo TVii is confirmed to launch in Europe next year, but right now it doesn't work. The icon is still present on the homescreen for some reason, but when you open it you're told the service isn't available.
I'd expect Netflix and Lovefilm to eventually be on board, as both of these are already available to Brits, and I'd hope to see services such as BBC iPlayer and 4oD on board soon if the Wii U wants to rival other consoles as a set-top box.
It's worth noting that the Xbox 360 already does a particularly good job in this regard, with Sky Player and a healthy movie library on top of all the services listed above, even if you need to be a paying Xbox Live member to access most of them (and a Sky subscriber to get Sky Player).
Being a trendy Web-connected gadget, the Wii U has apps. Unfortunately as of the time of writing, its store contains only two apps -- Netflix and Uplay, which is Ubisoft's online achievement and multiplayer platform. Uninspiring.
There's a Web browser, which works rather well, so long as you steer away from complicated Web apps. For basic browsing it does the job, and you can use the analogue sticks to move and zoom around the page, if the touchscreen is just too ordinary.
Just a little too complicated for casual buyers and lacking the power and game selection to please the hardcore crowd, it's hard to imagine who'd be best off buying the Wii U.
It's very possible to have fun with the unconventional controller, especially in a family setting where you have enough controllers for everyone to play, but not every game makes best use of the technology. The launch line-up brings some solid titles, but doesn't make me think third-party developers will be rushing to the drawing board to cook up new and exciting ways to use the multi-faceted GamePad.
If you're a dedicated Nintendo fan who's craving the next Mario or Zelda instalment, you'll likely be satisfied with this workmanlike console, but for the less devoted it's hard to recommend this machine over the much cheaper Xbox 360, or even something simple like the similarly priced iPad mini.