A year and a half after it was first announced, the Wii U is finally here.
For Nintendo, the company's new home console represents the ultimate gamble by going all in on a console focused around a tablet controller, the GamePad, and a launch library primarily composed of titles that already or will be available on existing platforms like Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. Competition seems to be coming in stereo for Nintendo, having to battle with the casual mobile crowd (iPad, tablets, smartphones) and the hard-core consoles alike. With such a volatile gaming market, does the Wii U have a legitimate place?
Perhaps. Because for the first time, a Nintendo console is not only about the games. The Wii U promises to change the way we interact with video content and our televisions. So how does it plan on doing so? Through a series of partnerships and apps that will consolidate media information and present it to users in a way that is supposedly easy to understand and navigate. This initiative is Nintendo TVii, a highly ambitious free service that connects live TV, streaming services, and TiVo DVR into one package.
Unfortunately, the Wii U did not ship with Nintendo TVii functionality in place, and it wasn't until a month later on December 20 that the feature hit U.S. consoles. By the end of the month, though, all promised TV and video-streaming services were live.
Editors' note (January 17, 2013): This review has been updated to completely reflect any and all additions made to the Wii U's system software and TVii services. As of this writing, our review is completely up-to-date.
The Wii U is available in two SKUs, a Basic Set ($300) and Deluxe Set ($350). For my review purposes, Nintendo sent me a Deluxe Set, which includes all-black components. Here we have a 32GB (25GB usable) console, a GamePad controller, a console stand, a GamePad stand, a GamePad charging stand and cord, a sensor bar, an HDMI cable, and a copy of Nintendo Land. The Deluxe Set also comes with a "frequent buyer" rewards program that offers discounts the more you buy items from the Nintendo eShop.
The Basic Set features all-white components, including an 8GB (3GB usable) console, a GamePad controller and charger, a sensor bar, and HDMI cable.
It shouldn't be hard to sniff out, but I highly recommend the Deluxe Set over the Basic. The included game, charging stand, and larger storage capacity make it a no-brainer.
Design and specs
The Wii U console isn't much larger than the original Wii, measuring 1.8 inches tall, 6.8 inches wide, and 10.5 inches deep. It's considerably longer than the Wii but is still much smaller than any of the other current consoles. The unit's AC cord has a sizable power brick in-line, but it shouldn't be much of a hassle to tuck away.
Around back is the first time you'll ever see an HDMI port on a Nintendo console, as believe it or not, the Wii U is the company's first HD system. There's also the same AV port for a component or composite (gasp!) connection, as well as the same sensor bar slot. The Wii U can output up to a 1080p picture signal.
There are a total of four USB 2.0 ports on the Wii U -- two up front and two in the back. In front is also an SD card slot, and users can bring their own USB flash drive to expand memory as well.
The GamePad boasts a 6.2-inch 16:9 wide-screen resistive touch display with a resolution of 854x480 pixels. The pad itself weighs around a pound and measures 10.2 inches wide, 0.9 inch tall, and 5.3 inches deep. Packed inside is almost every motion-sensing and mobile technology under the sun. The GamePad has left and right analog sticks, as well as left and right trigger and bumper buttons in addition to a built-in accelerometer and gyroscope. There's a front-facing camera, microphone, stereo speakers, headphone jack, infrared IR port (for controlling TVs and cable boxes), some other mystery connection port, and even an NFC chip. Just like the DS and 3DS before it, a stylus is neatly tucked away around back.
Both the console and GamePad are total fingerprint magnets just like most of these shiny black plastic encasings I see so often. It's one thing if the console looks like that, but after just a few days using the GamePad, it could already use a good wipe down.
There's no doubt the GamePad is an impressive piece of hardware, but Nintendo has yet to explain how some of these features -- NFC technology, for example -- will interact with the system. The Wii U can eventually support up to two GamePads, but no software or games currently utilize more than one, so Nintendo won't be selling them separately any time soon.
The GamePad can be held a number of ways to play and doesn't seem to interact with the sensor bar at all. From what I can tell, the bar's only purpose is to work with older Wii remotes, which are fully backward compatible with the Wii U. In fact, they're required for some games, so you'll need to purchase a few if you don't already have any.
Because the GamePad's touch screen is resistive -- rather than the capacitive screen found on most modern tablets and smartphones -- it requires a bit more pressure to register. The screen doesn't have as much wiggle room as the DS did; a light swipe might not work. This is almost never an issue when using the included stylus, though.
After a few weeks with the system, it's tough to get around just how cumbersome the GamePad really is. It's not the type of controller that you can just set down. It takes up a lot of room. I can only imagine how a small child will perform with this enormous game controller in his or her hands. I don't know any small children, so I couldn't test this out. I have massive hands and find myself stretching across the screen to tap specific locations with my thumbs.
During my time with the Wii U, I'd been keeping the GamePad on my nightstand to sneak in some New Super Mario Bros. U before bed, but placing the controller down on a tight space like that can prove to be a challenge. Thankfully, the included GamePad stand is a good docking station for it.
Under the Wii U's hood is an IBM multicore processor and an AMD Radeon-based GPU. The Wii U uses flash-based storage technology and supports 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi protocols. Any one of the four USB 2.0 ports can also double as a wired Ethernet adapter, though you'll need to purchase that accessory separately.
The Wii U's disc reader is a proprietary slot-loading drive that won't play DVDs or Blu-rays. The Wii U supports Dolby Digital encoding, but some of the games I tested only output Pro Logic II.
The Wii U is fully backward compatible with original Wii games, Wii remotes, and nunchuk controllers. Even the Wii Fit Balance Board works.
The Wii U's interface most closely resembles the UI on the 3DS, a tiled set of icons that represent games or apps. Overall I found the menu to be responsive, but when switching to and from apps or games, the UI suffers from a notable amount of load time. Popping into System Settings and then back out to the Wii U Menu shouldn't be a 20-second affair. By today's standards, it's almost unacceptable. I've even had instances where this delay goes as long as five minutes.
During my time testing the Wii U, I found a peculiar TV cut-off issue that seems to be most apparent in the console's operating system. The image displayed on the GamePad gets cut off a bit around the edges when swapped to the TV screen. It doesn't seem to affect games, but it does slice a bit of the image off in the Wii U OS. You see it for yourself in the image below:
Playing games on the Wii U is undeniably a unique experience, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's always smooth. One of the first things I noticed while playing is that I don't always know where to look. Sometimes both screens display the same video and sometimes they don't. Some games do a decent job at directing your attention while others assume you'll figure it out. Call it what you will, but there's a preliminary Wii U learning curve that will take gamers of any skill level time to master. There's just something downright awkward about having your eyes jump from TV to GamePad so often. This will have to evolve as time goes on. I'd assume that developers will eventually realize the most comfortable way to play and then implement that play style into their software.
In terms of gaming I think the most potential lies in "off-TV" play. This promising features place-shifts all the action to the GamePad controller. It essentially gives you Wii U graphics and performance in a tablet-size form factor, eliminating the need for a TV altogether.
On paper, off-TV sounds great because it prevents the monopolization of a TV while gaming -- something anyone who doesn't live alone can appreciate. For those households where the main TV is in constant demand, off-TV sounds like a godsend. However, it's completely in the hands of developers to incorporate that functionality. This raises a lot of questions. How tough is it to incorporate off-TV? Does doing so compromise other aspects of the game?
All this considered, only a handful of launch titles support off-TV play. It's tough to know which do because there's no iconography on game boxes that highlights the feature. I can confirm that New Super Mario Bros. U supports off-TV play and I'm told Call of Duty: Black Ops 2, Assassin's Creed III, Darksiders II, and a few others will allow for it, too.
The GamePad graphical experience can't match the 1080p chops that the console is capable of outputting, but visuals still look pretty sharp on the screen, even if the resolution is taking a hit. I found that some reds look a little pixelated on the GamePad screen, but it's by no means a deal breaker. You'll probably want to make use of the headphone jack so you don't disturb anyone around you.
How far away you'll be able to play with the GamePad using off-TV varies. As long as it was in line of sight of the console, I had the GamePad work up to 25 feet away. Once you're playing through as little as one wall, things can get dicey. My bedroom, which is adjacent to the room the Wii U resides, can't maintain a signal farther than 10 feet away (through the wall).
Aside from its size, the GamePad is mostly fun to use, but I do think there's a lot of missed potential here. For starters, why can't we use it to play Virtual Console games? Why can't we take the GamePad out of the house and play it on the go? (Read Scott Stein's Why the next Nintendo portable needs to be a tablet.)
During my play time with the GamePad, battery life seemed to drop out at the 3.5- to 4-hour mark. It takes about 2.5 hours to fully charge, and is also playable while doing so via a direct connection to the power cord. Depending on the type of gamer you are, 3.5 hours may not be enough to get in a long session of play. It can be pretty disappointing to see the GamePad's red light come on midplay, so make sure you keep it charged at all times.
So far I've run into one bug with the system. If you attempt to eject a game disc while the console is off (a handy LED glows whenever a game is inserted), the system will eject the disc, turn on, but then freeze up. The only way out of this is to actually pull the power cord out.
Other media and features
A day-one update will give Wii U users access to the backward compatibility-enabling Wii U menu, Miiverse, eShop, video chat, and more. A lot of these features are tethered to a Nintendo Network ID, so it's best to set that up the first time you're asked to do so.
Backward compatibility doesn't occur from within the Wii U menu. Instead, you must launch the Wii emulation software (it's an icon on the Wii U menu screen) that takes you into a virtual Wii environment. Here, things look exactly like they did on the Wii, but you can only use Wii remotes and accessories; none of the new controllers will work.
This is also where you can perform a Wii-to-Wii U system transfer that will migrate all of your old Wii saves and anything you might have downloaded from the Wii Shop. Thankfully, Wii Points transfer as well, but you can only use them to make purchases on old Wii Virtual Console or WiiWare software. This transfer is very time consuming. From start to finish, it took me almost an hour and a half to do so. Also, the steps to move data from one console to the other are surprisingly confusing. It's a forehead-slapping process that involves swapping out an SD card from one console to the other and then back again. Also, both your Wii U and Wii will need to be connected to the same network, both to a TV, and you'll also need a Wii remote controller for each. If you only have one Wii remote, you'll be syncing and resyncing a few times, which is no fun at all.
Wii U can only provide basic TV remote control. Programming the GamePad to control a TV is easy enough. You simply type in your manufacturer and confirm that the volume up/down function works. When in TV mode, a 0-9, input, and power button is displayed onscreen. Setting up your cable box will let you browse channels with the D-pad and use the hard buttons to confirm a selection. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem that you can program any more than two total devices.
As of this update, all of the promised media apps have been delivered to the Wii U eShop channel. These include Hulu Plus, Amazon Instant Video, Netflix and YouTube. Nintendo says that consumers can also expect to see even more content portal options becoming available soon.
Unfortunately, one section where the Wii U majorly fails -- compared with other consoles -- is media playback. Truth is, there is none. Even with all of its USB ports and SD slot, users cannot play their own media on the console. Throw this into the missed opportunity category.
Speaking of missed opportunities, I personally think the Wii U could be a great DLNA player. Bear with me here, but imagine scrolling through your own networked media collection, say off a networked attached storage (NAS), and using the GamePad to select what you want to watch. Or even watching it on the GamePad!
What about opening up the Wii U OS and letting a homebrew community thrive? If Nintendo wants the Wii U to be the only thing people reach for in their living rooms, the console must wear several different hats.
Nintendo has finally universalized its online presence, which is now called Nintendo Network. This will allow for players to register and acquire a Nintendo ID that will be used throughout the entire Nintendo ecosystem from here on out.
Each Mii character or user created with the Wii U system is entitled to a Nintendo ID; this ID can also be linked to third-party systems like the ones EA and Ubisoft use.
The Nintendo eShop is the Wii U's online virtual store, where users can download full Wii U games and digital-only titles. Those who purchase the Deluxe Wii U Set are entitled to a rewards program that can be used toward game discounts.