The Nintendo Wii controller was and is an elegant work of genius. Forget the motion controls, though. The Wiimote (is that still a phrase people use?) gets its magic from its design. Revealed nearly a year before the actual Wii console back in 2005, Nintendo president Satoru Iwata said that the remote was created specifically to look like a television remote as much as the iconic NES controller from the 1980s. The remote is a simple mix of familiar contraptions to invite people seamlessly into playing with a piece of technology.
The Wii U leverages the familiarity of television in a wholly opposite way through Nintendo TVii. Video games have changed in the seven years since the Wiimote’s debut, but television has changed far more. Digital video recording is now standard in cable packages as is on demand programming, and around 50 million Americans pay for streaming video services Amazon Instant, Hulu Plus, and Netflix. Most people have to use multiple remote controls to even watch television in the living room now. The Wiimote has lost its cultural currency. Nintendo TVii is a service that tries to unify the multifarious television landscape of 2012. It’s meant to be a simple, all-encompassing, familiar way to navigate content. The idea is sound but only partially realized in the service’s debut.
Nintendo TVii is not actually an app you need to download to the Wii U. It’s pre-loaded and functions like a web browser. If you’re playing a game or running an app like Hulu Plus on the Wii U when you click the Nintendo TVii icon, it will continue running. On firing TVii up for the first time, you’re walked through a simple profile set up, selecting your local service provider and television package based on your zip code. So far the service seems to work well in finding providers, even recognizing broadcast television, something Nintendo was hesitant to confirm ahead of Nintendo TVii’s release.
In addition to selecting favorite shows and movies—TVii gives a small sample of current releases for both, leaving you to search for others—you can select local favorite channels which are added as buttons to the touch screen remote control on the Wii U GamePad. The remote layout is interesting, but limited. It’s an array of wheels that pop up in the right hand corner of the touch screen, with numbers and channel icons (ABC, NBC, ESPN, etc.) on the outmost wheel with volume, pause/play functions for movies, and input selection on the interior wheels. There are also tools for linking to social networks, including Twitter and Facebook as well as Nintendo’s own Miiverse, and you can comment on those networks while you’re watching shows.
Finding a show and options for watching them is also simple. Want to watch Parks and Recreation? The icon will be in the “Live” section of the menu on a Thursday when it broadcasts on NBC, but clicking the show icon will also show buttons for watching it on Hulu Plus or Amazon Instant. (Netflix support isn’t included yet, though the Netflix app is available already on Wii U.) Want to watch the Pittsburgh Steelers game on Sunday? The sports section of TVii will have all NBA, NFL, MLB, and NCAA Football matches loaded up and will show you your options for watching those games based on what services you have. The layout works as promised, as easy to navigate as streaming video apps on iOS devices and other consoles.
Failure to Launch
Unfortunately actually watching television and movies is where the problems begin. The browser service itself may work smoothly out the gate, but the Wii U’s sluggish operating system and an overly simplistic virtual remote can cause early problems. The touch screen wheel inputs are laid out smoothly but they’re missing many of the features on modern TV remotes, like a decimal button. Living in New York City and watching broadcast television, all channels have a decimal. CBS is 2.1, Fox 5.1, etc. While the Nintendo TVii service knows this and lays out programming for local channels on the GamePad screen, selecting the channels on the virtual remote doesn’t work. The TV will simply try to go to channel 2 then channel 1 before giving up and quitting back to the HDMI input where the Wii U is.
Selecting a television show to watch via Hulu Plus or Amazon Instant works just fine, but suffers from the crippled operating speed of the Wii U. Choosing to watch that episode of Parks and Recreation on Hulu Plus will force the Wii U to quit to its home menu and then launch the Hulu app no matter what. Even if the Hulu app was already running in the background, it will quit, go to the home menu, and restart the app. With no other app running, choosing to watch a video on Hulu or Amazon via Nintendo TVii takes between 65 and 80 seconds to get to the menu where that episode is in the native app. Not for it to start, just to get to the menu.
These are first world complaints. I’m 30-years-old and remember when getting a low resolution, 15-second clip to load in Internet Explorer could take up to 20 minutes. That iTV has created a service that just shows you all the different things you can watch on a television, from broadcast to cable to web, is pretty amazing. Nintendo TVii doesn’t quite work yet, though. When Nintendo gets its system to the point that selecting a program on any of the various services covered is as fast as changing the channel, it’ll really be on to something. Nintendo acknowledges that Nintendo TVii is incomplete as well. As of now there is no DVR support whatsoever. TiVo will be supported sometime in 2013, but no other DVR service is confirmed yet. Nintendo TVii is a service meant to grow. As it is, Nintendo TVii version 1 is an impressive start, and a good try at making the complexity of modern television simpler, but this is not the elegant simplicity of the Wiimote. Not by a longshot.