Wii U

It has been six years since the Nintendo Wii was released to the public. Since the debut of what was arguably Nintendo’s most ambitious video game system yet, the game industry has changed in some pretty significant ways. Mobile phones and tablets have proven themselves to be capable gaming platforms with both large and small gaming studios enthusiastically supporting mobile game development. As this new game market sector emerged, so had many doubts about the future of traditional console gaming.

Can console gaming recapture the attention of capricious casual gamers? Is the draw of next-generation systems compelling enough to keep hardcore gamers interested? Nintendo’s goal with their newly released Wii U system is to address both questions whilst pushing the industry forward once more with interesting new game mechanics not seen on any other console yet. In short, I can confidently say that Wii U is a much more compelling system than Wii ever was. The real value of the Wii U, however, is not as obvious as its predecessor’s. You have to look at the Wii U’s total package to understand its potential.

Wii U’s Main Attraction

The minute you pick up the Wii U box off the shelf, the first thing that you’ll notice is the giant tablet-looking controller in front of the system itself. This new controller, what Nintendo has dubbed the GamePad, is the Wii U’s most obvious differentiator from all systems before it. It’s somewhat of a Nintendo tradition to consistently push out fresh and interesting controllers with each new game system, and the Wii U’s GamePad fits the bill very well.

The GamePad is best described as a traditional game controller, with all the buttons and analog sticks you would expect, and a 6.2-inch resistive touch screen placed right in the middle of the controller. It also includes a video camera, microphone, infrared sensor, NFC chip and an expansion port for connecting future controller add-ons. Inside of the controller you’ll find a gyroscope, accelerometer, and a rechargeable battery that’s good for up to five hours of gameplay.

Before I picked up the controller for the first time, I expected it to feel uncomfortable and far too heavy to be used for extended game sessions. I was pleasantly surprised to find it was none of these things. At just over a pound, the GamePad feels incredibly light despite its rather wide dimensions. My fingers found very comfortable places to rest themselves. The GamePad is the most ergonomic console controller I’ve ever handled. My only gripe with the GamePad is that it’s a major fingerprint magnet, and that goes for the console itself too. It’s not as much of a problem with the white Wii U Basic system, but the black Deluxe system I picked up at launch quickly becomes dirty. You’ll want a cloth handy to clean it after those long gaming sessions.

What the GamePad brings to the table is not easily described and is best experienced first-hand. For example, one of the main features of the GamePad is its ability to stream content from the console to its 6.2-inch screen. You can play a full session of “Call of Duty: Black Ops 2” straight on the GamePad, and since the controller is wireless, you don’t necessarily have to stay in the same room as the console to continue playing. The GamePad has a rated wireless range of 25 feet or so, but this varies depending on the construction of your house or apartment.

System Interface and Apps

The Wii U’s interface is clean, simple and intuitive. It takes the channel system from the Wii and the tile layout of the Nintendo 3DS, and combines them with Nintendo’s new social game network called Miiverse. After installing Nintendo’s day one update, the first thing you’ll see on the TV when booting up the system is floating tiles representing games/apps with Miis underneath.
These Miis represent other people as avatars on the new Nintendo Network (described in the next section) that are participating in that game’s or app’s community. As long as you’re on the Wii U menu screen, you’ll see randomly selected dialog bubbles pop-up from Miis that show messages and drawings. It truly makes the Wii U feel like a living, breathing system and adds a lot of charm to the whole presentation.

Along with its sleek interface and Miiverse, the Wii U has a handful of other great and useful apps. Some of the core system apps include a fully functional multi-tab HTML5 web browser that runs incredibly well, a video conferencing app called Wii U Chat, the eShop—where users can download digital content such as games and demos—and a Nintendo Network friend list.  During launch week, the Wii U received free Netflix, Hulu Plus, YouTube and Amazon Instant Video apps for download.

Thus far, the only missing puzzle from Nintendo’s app line-up is their promised Nintendo TVii service. This service will tie into all the aforementioned multimedia applications, and allow users of the Wii U to search for and enjoy content without having to enter the dedicated applications. Nintendo said to expect this app to rollout in early December, and many early adopters are eagerly awaiting its arrival. Overall, the user interface presented here is fantastic, and the only thing I would like Nintendo to address is the somewhat lengthy load times between applications.

Nintendo Network

If there’s one thing that many Wii owners and Wii detractors agreed on is how terribly implemented Nintendo’s online service was. With Nintendo Network on Wii U, these issues are all but history. With support for up to 12 unique users on each Wii U console, everyone in the family can have their own system account, game saves and online identifications. This online ID—known as Nintendo ID (NID)—implements the sort of identification system Nintendo fans have been clamoring for.

No more ridiculous 16-digit friend codes are needed to connect with friends online. Now, all you have to do is either add each others’ NIDs, which are standard usernames, or find a player through the Miiverse community and use the friend request feature. Everything is much more streamlined, and online gameplay in games like “Call of Duty: Black Ops 2” run buttery smooth. Nintendo still has a little bit of work to do in order to make adding friends easier to accomplish through the Friend List app, but otherwise the Nintendo Network is off to a great start.

Launch Software

The Wii U launched with a solid 23 retail titles and another four or so eShop exclusive games. Of the launch titles, some standouts include: “New Super Mario Bros. U,” “Call of Duty: Black Ops 2”, “ZombiU,” “Assassin’s Creed III,” “Trine 2: Director’s Cut,” “Nano Assault Neo,” “Nintendo Land,” and “Ninja Gaiden: Razor’s Edge.” I was only able to sample a handful of games, but what I did play left me impressed.

“Black Ops 2” may be on other systems, but the Wii U version is my favorite thanks to the GamePad features. Graphics look clear and crisp, and seem to appear a bit better than other versions. Online multiplayer runs smooth, but as of now it lacks the player base needed to support many of the niche game modes offered.

“Nintendo Land” is like the “Wii Sports” of the Wii U, but even better. It may be a minigame compilation, but “Nintendo Land’s” fantastic art style and HD graphics combined with deep games will draw in the hardcore gamers and casual gamers alike. Its use of the GamePad for asynchronous gameplay allows one player on the GamePad to experience something completely different from other players competing or cooperating in the same minigame.

Final Thoughts

I can confidently call Wii U’s launch a success. Nintendo was able to deliver great value in the Wii U right out of the box. All of the bases are covered: entertainment apps, quality games, and the new Nintendo network. Combine that with the great potential of Miiverse and the future Nintendo TVii service, it’s hard to dismiss the appeal of the Wii U. As far as a long-term investment in gaming technology is concerned, it’s hard to know just how viable the Wii U will be. The true power of the Wii U still seems untapped, and without the knowledge of just how far its innards can be pushed, it’s tough to predict how it will stack up against Sony and Microsoft’s next systems.

What I can say is that the next-generation is finally here with the Wii U, and it has tremendous potential to be the hardcore and casual gamer’s system of choice. If you’re looking for a new and unique HD gaming experience, I highly recommend picking up the Wii U, which run either $300 or $350, depending on whether you choose the standard or deluxe edition.