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Nintendo Wii U review

DT Recommended Product

Highs

  • A fresh, original way to look at gaming
  • GamePad means previous released best-sellers can be ported to the Wii U with a new twist
  • Can play console-quality games on the GamePad without the TV
  • Miiverse is a ready-made community
  • Backwards compatibility with Wii games, controllers

Rating

Our Score 8
User Score 8

Lows

  • Much of the software has been delayed
  • Short battery life on GamePad
  • Relatively high price compared to rivals
  • Won’t play Blu-rays or DVDs, and does not have an onboard video player
  • No networking abilities
  • Tiny internal hard drive forces you to buy more storage soon
  • Several promised online functions are not available at launch
Nintendo’s philosophy with the Wii U is one of evolution rather than competition.

And so it begins. The next generation of console wars has begun, and Nintendo is proudly standing out in front, holding the smoking gun after firing the first shot. The Wii U has arrived, despite the long and bewildering path it took to get here.

When it was first unveiled at E3 2011, the Wii U sparked a fair amount of uncertainty over what it even was, at least at first. Was it a new controller for the Wii, or a new tablet of some sort? Would it be a powerful new system to rival the next Xbox and the PlayStation 4, or an update to the Wii that brings the console in line with the current gen? Nintendo’s press conference did its job, though. It had people talking.

Since that initial unveiling, we have been given plenty of hints as to what to expect from the Wii U. Nintendo is still concealing the technical specs, but it’s fair to assume the Wii U will be more powerful than the Xbox 360 and the PS3, but not by a huge margin. It’s going to take some time to see the system’s true technical potential as developers learn how to get the most out of the new hardware, rather than just hastily port over existing games.

In the meantime, the Wii U gets at least a year’s head start before competitors crowd in, but it won’t outgun them when they arrive. Instead, Nintendo is hoping that being clever will outweigh graphical firepower.

The GamePad is more than just a new controller; it is a new way of playing games and experiencing content. We’ve only seen hints through the handful of launch titles about how developers will choose to use it – some have already found clever ways to integrate the secondary screen, while others are treating it simply as an extension of the controller. It has immense potential, though.

For hardcore gaming fans, justifying the purchase of a new Wii U will be easy. It’s a new system, the only home to an upcoming library of Nintendo exclusives that will finally offer full HD graphics, and a totally unique approach to the way we play. If the money isn’t too much of an issue, why not? Of course at over $300, that’s easier said than spent.

More casual gamers on limited budgets have a tougher choice to make. Do you accept the sacrifices Nintendo has made for the chance of something extraordinary down the road? Here are a few things to help you make up your mind.

Features and design

Physically, there isn’t a great deal of difference between the Wii and the Wii U. The Wii U is a bit sleeker and more rounded around the edges, but both systems are within centimeters in size. The console can also be placed horizontally or vertically, but you will need the stand included with the Deluxe package if you want it to place it on its side.

The system also uses a sensor bar as the Wii did, which means that the Wii Remote controllers, as well as all the various Wii peripherals (like the Wii Balance Board and Classic Controller) work without issue. Nintendo has also released a Wii U Pro Controller separately, which resembles the Xbox 360 controller in both form and function (although the right analog stick and the face buttons are swapped in positioning, which takes a bit of getting used to).

Though techies initially raised concerns about the sound and the heat output generated by the Wii U because the GPU and CPU share the same circuit board, this has proved to be a non-issue. The Wii U remains at a nominal temperature regardless of time in use, and the fan is no louder than that on the Xbox 360 or PS3.

The system also features an SD Card slot in the front along with two USB ports, and two more USB ports in the back that will probably be in use sooner than you think, especially if you have plans to download any games or movies digitally. More on the storage later.

It’s worth mentioning that the Wii U does play Wii games. That seems like such a simple and obvious feature, but backwards compatibility is one thing its competitors can’t claim, so it is worth noting.

The Wii U is a natural evolution of the Wii, and doesn’t stray too far from the convention set by Nintendo. That is left to the GamePad.

The GamePad

The Wii U’s tablet-like GamePad is surprisingly ergonomic. A ridge in the back allows you to balance the weight properly, but that is something of a non-issue as the controller weighs under a pound, and that weight is well distributed throughout the device. That’s an important fact to note, since many of the new games will require you to actively move the GamePad around to use the gyroscope features.

The 6.2-inch LCD touchscreen features a 16:9 aspect ratio, like an HDTV, which does justice to the majority of HD games you will be able to play on the GamePad’s screen. What it displays is specific to each game though, and must be programmed in by the developers. A stylus also allows you to make use of the NFC functions, while speakers in the back do a decent job of putting out sound, and some developers have already used this second audio source to their advantage. The headphone jack also offers respectable audio, but oddly, it is located on the top of the device rather than the bottom, which means that you’ll need a long cord that can wrap behind the GamePad. There is also a rumble feature, which lacks the deep vibration of most, likely to conserve the battery – something that is an issue.

nintendo wii u review gamepad front joystick

The battery life of the GamePad will vary based on how you are using it and what the games you are playing ask of it, but three hours is about the average for heavy usage. That includes power-demanding features like playing the game itself on the GamePad. Five hours is the max. Unfortunately, there are no options to save the battery life by dimming the screen, or even turning it off and on while still using it as a controller (UPDATE: You can turn off the display by holding down the “Home” button and going through the display options, then selecting that option. Thanks to our reader “Pwuz Here” for pointing that out) . You can always keep it plugged in, however, and the respectably lengthy cables included in the package make that comfortable. If you choose to turn it off and fully power it, expect roughly two hours to max out the charge.

One of the more intriguing inclusions of the GamePad is the front-facing video camera. The quality of the image is average at best, but the video-calling feature is significant. There are ways to video conference on the other consoles, but the Wii U‘s GamePad makes it incredibly easy.

The clickable analog sticks move well enough, and the four face buttons are joined by two shoulder buttons, as well as two trigger buttons. A “+/start” and “-/select“ button are found on the right side, opposite a standard D-pad, while the area under the screen is reserved for a Home button that takes you to the Wii U menu (or to check the battery life of controllers while software is running), a mic, a power button, and a TV button. The GamePad can be used as a universal remote for your TV as well, and once you find your model during the setup, you can control the power, volume, input, and channel selection.

nintendo wii u review gamepad camera nintendo wii u review gamepad rear right buttons
nintendo wii u review gamepad ports nintendo wii u review gamepad volume control

The range of the GamePad will vary based on the interference between it and the Wii U. If you have a direct line of sight, 20 feet is possible, but doors and walls will cause frequent lag, and eventually losing the signal. That’s a small concern compared to the upside of mobility, though. Just the possibility of taking a full console game into another room or playing a game while the TV is used for something else is a major boon, and one of the best reasons to consider the Wii U. Watching Netflix and other video-on-demand services on it is also a huge benefit. The PS Vita has been trying to bring a version of a console game to a handheld device for months now, but the GamePad truly delivers.

It’s too bad that all games can’t have this cross-play potential built in, but that is a tall order and it would limit what developers could do – at least at launch. Some games like Madden 13 for the Wii U use the GamePad in several ways. For instance you can select different plays and then send players in new routes prior to the snap, but you can also play the full game on the GamePad if you select that option before the match starts. Expect to see that become more of a standard feature in the months and years that follow.

At the moment, the Wii U will only allow one GamePad per console, but the technology will accept two once the software is updated. Of course, since the GamePad is not available to be purchased separately (for now), this is something of a nonissue. Even when you can buy them, most developers aren’t likely to design a game for a feature that most can’t use.

Performance

Nintendo hasn’t revealed the gory technical details of what’s inside the Wii U, and they likely won’t be known until someone cracks a Wii U open to find out. We do know the Wii U is somewhat powerful, although you won’t notice a huge difference between it and the Xbox 360 or PS3 in terms of graphics. If anything, many of the ported games are a bit worse, but that likely comes down to a rushed development cycle more than hardware capabilities. Games that have been designed by Nintendo are crisp and clean looking, and Mario in HD has never looked better.

Despite the potential, it’s going to be awhile before developers begin to squeeze the most out of the system. At a guess, the Wii U may be around 50 percent more powerful, at most, than current generation, but that’s based on optimism as much as testing.

The Wii U supports full 1080p and 1080i HD and digital sound. One thing that does impress is its ability to stream a full HD games to the GamePad without a hint of lag or delay. In a technological sense, that’s no easy task.

The system can also stream video directly to the GamePad, through services like Netflix and Hulu. Not everything will be available at launch (Netflix is, while Hulu is not), but you can make an educated guess on how things like the menus will work. You will be able to stream the video from the Wii U to the GamePad, which is a selling point all on its own. Sadly the Wii U doesn’t accept DVDs or Blu-Ray discs, and there is no internal video player to play .AVIs, MP4s, and the like – which actually makes the lack of networking abilities moot.

nintendo wii u review gamepad mario

While there is no denying the system has limitations, the games run smoothly. Nintendo’s philosophy with the Wii U is one of evolution rather than competition. While Microsoft and Sony continue to attempt to one up each other at every turn, Nintendo has been locked in its own world, developing in a vacuum, unconcerned with what its competitors have been up to. That is a double-edged sword.

Nintendo’s focus has been on creating a gaming console that is made to give gamers a new experience, and in that the publisher has succeed admirably. You have to give Nintendo credit for thinking outside the box and dreaming up something that no one has considered before, at least not on this level. The downside is that there have been some remarkable advancements that have elevated other consoles beyond just gaming systems into full entertainment devices. The Wii U lacks many of those features, which wouldn’t be a major issue in itself if it were operating in a different price range more comparable to the Wii.

At $299 for the Basic and $349 for the Deluxe, the Wii U is an expensive device that gives you less than its competitors, but features one very good hook: the GamePad. The price isn’t a deal breaker, and Microsoft and Sony’s next -en consoles are likely to make the Wii U seem cheap by comparison, but it limits the audience of the Wii U, which likely won’t come near the phenomenal sales of the Wii. While the Wii expanded Nintendo’s possible audience to include those that weren’t necessarily gamers, the Wii U is made primarily for gamers, with a much smaller cross section to appeal to. Plus, some of the best features of the Wii U are made for a single player thanks to the GamePad.

Software and online capabilities

At launch, there will be a few things missing from the Wii U’s arsenal, including the much-hyped TVii service that will turn the Wii U into a television hub. It’s a big enough selling point that a significant portion of the Wii U’s final press conference, when the release date and pricing were announced, was devoted to the service. We’ll examine it when it’s available and update the article as needed.

The Japanese release date is not until December 8, which makes you wonder if the North American launch was rushed just to hit the lucrative post-Thanksgiving sales rush. In fact, don’t even wonder … of course it was. But that move does make business sense, and we can somewhat forgive the not-ready-for-primetime stateside launch if it will be resolved by the time of the Japanese launch.

The majority of the Wii U’s online services, however, will be available at launch via the so-called “Miiverse.” These online capabilities resemble those of the Xbox 360 or PS3, but with a Nintendo flair. When you start the console, you’ll enter the “Wara Wara Plaza,” a virtual dashboard that allows you to see what other Miis have been up to, and navigate through the online features like friends lists and the Nintendo eShop.

The Wii U also packs some unique features, including the ability to scan through forums for games in the Wii U library, post questions, and connect with other people by “following” them and seeing their comments, or outright befriending them.

The Miiverse also give you access to Wii U Chat, a video-calling service that allows friends to talk via the GamePad’s front-facing camera, mic, and speakers. Simply scan through your friends list and choose the person to call, and the recipient will see the Home button on their GamePad flash (as it also does when you receive a new written message). Unless that person is already in the app, it takes a few moments for them to answer, but once the call is connected the quality is exceptional. You can chat on the GamePad and the TV simultaneously  or just the GamePad. On a technical level, it’s nothing more than Skype, but the ease of use brings the possibilities to another level.

nintendo wii u review gamepad menu

The connectivity of the Miiverse is going to take time to fully unfurl, but the tools are in place to offer a robust online experience that is at least comparable to Xbox Live and the PlayStation Network, if not better. It’s too early to tell, but it is promising.

As for the built-in software, despite some lengthy load times between applications, everything is simple and easy to use. You can navigate through the GamePad’s touchscreen while the Miiverse is displayed on the TV, or vice versa with the touch of a button.  The entire system is built around the concepts of fun and community, and both of those have been hardwired into the Miiverse.

Accessories

Included in both the Deluxe and Basic Sets are an AC power cord, a charging cord for the GamePad (and a cradle with the Deluxe bundle), an HDMI cable, a sensor bar, and the GamePad itself. The Deluxe edition, which ships in black versus the basic model’s white, also comes with the game Nintendo Land, the previously mentioned stand, and – mostly importantly – 32GB of internal memory for storage compared to the 8GB in the Basic package, of which 25GBs and 3GB are respectively useable.

nintendo wii u review accessories

This is a problem, at least at the moment. The Wii U also will accept external USB hard drives up to 2TB, with no more than two connected at  a time. Four terabytes is more than enough to last you for the conceivable future, but that means you are going to need to make some additional purchases, and soon. With DLC coming in at anywhere from 500MB to 2GB, those hard drives are going to fill up quickly. Nintendo has yet to discuss expanding memory, but you can be sure that it will rectify that soon.

At the moment though, purchasing full Wii U games from the Nintendo eShop – which can range from 3GB up to 9GB –  isn’t a practical option on the Deluxe, and isn’t even possible on the Basic.

Conclusion

The Wii U is a difficult piece of hardware to review for two reasons. First, it is unavoidably competing with hardware that exists in a different space, and second, the entire system is betting on a future that isn’t entirely clear yet.

If you compare the Wii U directly with the PS3, Xbox 360, or even against the rumors of what Sony and Microsoft’s next-gen consoles will be, it certainly comes up lacking on several fronts. But that isn’t really a fair comparison. Those consoles have become entertainment devices, while the Wii U is geared specifically to entertain gamers in a new way, and no one else. That doesn’t mean there aren’t things Nintendo should have learned from its competitors. Not including perks like achievements and trophies is fine, but limiting the hard-drive space is just a short-sighted decision. Issues like the lack of a video player or the inclusion of DVD playback are a shame, but justifiable from a cost-versus-features standpoint. Backwards compatibility with the Wii makes it a wash.

Despite all the criticisms levied in this review, the Wii U’s saving grace lies in its unique potential. Launch titles are a decent indicator of what we can expect for the short term, but months and years of development with the Wii U will almost certainly yield games that we’ve never even considered before. The GamePad offers an entirely new way to play, and the importance of that simply cannot be understated, nor should it be undervalued just because the system can’t play a store-bought movie. Streaming video to the GamePad and the voice chat are also notable achievements.

Add in the online ecosystem that will continue to grow in the Miiverse, and the future of the Wii U could a bright one.

The Wii U is an intriguing piece of hardware with a limited audience and hardware that is respectable, but not impressive. Yet it bursts at the seams with potential.

Highs

  • A fresh, original way to look at gaming
  • GamePad means previous released best-sellers can be ported to the Wii U with a new twist
  • Can play console-quality games on the GamePad without the TV
  • Miiverse is a ready-made community
  • Backwards compatibility with Wii games, controllers

Lows

  • Much of the software has been delayed
  • Short battery life on GamePad
  • Relatively high price compared to rivals
  • Won’t play Blu-rays or DVDs, and does not have an onboard video player
  • No networking abilities
  • Tiny internal hard drive forces you to buy more storage soon
  • Several promised online functions are not available at launch