The Nintendo Wii U is the Japanese gaming giant's successor to its insanely popular Wii console, and aims to combine the world of motion control with a unique tablet-like controller called the GamePad. You’ll still be able to use all your old Wii Remotes, Balance Boards and Nunchuk accessories with this new system, as well as play your old Wii software. However, one of the biggest selling points of the Wii U’s own games is that they’re all in HD - a first for a Nintendo console. Is that enough though? Let's take a look.
Nintendo’s history in the field of video gaming is legendary - this is a company which has shaped and defined the industry across four decades. Taking this into account, it was obvious that the Japanese veteran wasn’t going to push out a traditional console to supersede the Wii, and the Nintendo Wii U is possibly one of the most surreal, individual machines we’ve ever seen under our telly.
It offers 1080p HD visuals and boasts around the same graphical power as the PS3 and 360. The box itself is nondescript, a slightly curvier Wii that's also noticeably longer, to better house all the cutting edge tech - do make sure you go for the 32GB model if possible, as Nintendo's firmware hogs most of the space, and leaves you little to play with yourself.
However, it’s arguably that innovative controller which bags the most attention; it feels like a tablet thanks to the large 6.2-inch touch-screen in the middle, but it has traditional gaming controls and doubles as a large joypad. It’s comfortable to use, despite what you might think when looking at photos of the unit. Games can use the controller in different ways, such as streaming a mirrored image to the screen (so you can play while someone else watches TV) or using it as an entirely different display, showing maps, inventory or other information.
The GamePad is key to opening up what the Wii U is all about: Nintendo is talking a lot about ‘asymmetrical gameplay’, with the concept being that players view different perspectives depending on whether they’re using the GamePad or playing on the TV via the old-fashioned Wii Remotes. You could have a game where one person is being chased by the other, with each seeing a different viewpoint. It also allows true split-screen play for FPS titles, such as Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 - which, incidentally, is available for the console.
Moving away from the GamePad, you’ve also got massively enhanced online connectivity in the form of Miiverse. Nintendo has always been a bit slow in catching up with the online side of gaming, but Miiverse is a refreshing change from the rather impersonal services offered on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. It allows users to band together in groups to talk about their favourite games, share hints and arrange online contests. It’s all handled in Nintendo’s typically saccharine fashion and is relentlessly policed to ensure no profanity is posted, but the charm is so infectious that Xbox Live and PSN look a bit drab in comparison. And being able to log on mid-game to ask for advice is a stroke of genius.
Nintendo reinvented video gaming with the motion-controlled Wii, making gamers out of people who had previously never even picked up a joypad. However, despite the unique nature of the GamePad, the Nintendo Wii U is a much harder concept to sell to non-gamers - and that could prove to be a problem in the future.
Because of limitations on the hardware, you can’t have four players using four GamePads. Nintendo is promising that the console will support two GamePads soon, but at the moment you’re always going to have one person holding that massive controller while the other four are stuck with last-gen, screenless Wii Remotes.
As for the GamePad itself, it may be unique in the field of gaming but when placed alongside any recent Android or Apple tablet it looks like a Fisher Price toy. It’s chunky (possibly to avoid accidental drop damage) and the touch screen uses resistive tech, which means that you need to apply pressure to register an input - think sharp finger nail, not soft finger tip. Mobile phones and tablets have long since ditched resistive screens in favour of capacitive ones, which are more responsive and precise. It’s a real shame that Nintendo didn’t use the newer, superior option in the GamePad, but we have to say it’s at least one of the best resistive screens we’ve used.
The final drawback is the software itself: while the Nintendo Wii U has an amazing selection of launch titles - including New Super Mario Bros. U (review coming shortly) and Nintendo Land - it also showcases a selection of quick-and-easy ports of existing franchises. Batman Arkham City: Armored Edition is essentially the same game that PS3 and 360 players have been enjoying for months, yet it suffers from a lower frame rate and inconsistent performance on Wii U. The same applies to Call of Duty: Black Ops II and Mass Effect 3. It’s clear that developers are only just getting to grips with the new hardware and that these early conversions aren’t a fair reflection of the system’s power, but even so, you may find yourself comparing your first Wii U games with other versions on rival formats - and coming away disappointed as a result.
The bottom line
The Nintendo Wii U doesn’t have the same immediate impact that the Wii did all those years ago, so if you’re getting one for Christmas expect to do a lot of hand-holding if your granny wants to have a go. It’s not as intuitive as its predecessor, which may not be a bad thing, especially when you consider how primitive some Wii games were. The Wii U is packed with possibilities, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that it will take a few months - years, even - before we get the game that will define the system. The Wii, on the other hand, had Wii Sports right from day one.
Another issue to consider is the relative lack of power when compared to the consoles that Sony and Microsoft will no doubt be announcing in 2013. The Wii U may mark the start of a new console generation but it’s ultimately supplying the kind of visuals that the 360 has been pumping out for almost seven years. If you’re a graphics lover, then the Nintendo Wii U may not be the system for you.
However, as the PS3 and Xbox 360 have shown, consoles now evolve over time, and the Wii U may do too. Nintendo's clever TV service and EPG, TVii, is expected to come to Europe sometime next year, for instance. This is just the start. And when it comes to pure gameplay, no company has a track record that can match Nintendo’s - and for many buyers, that will be reason enough to pick up one of these machines.