Wii U Review – Does It Make The Grade?
This review was conducted on the Deluxe 32GB Model Wii U system.
After the announcement a year and a half ago, and what can be described as a mixed bag of accolades and apprehensive fanfare, the Wii U has finally been unleashed upon the masses. Designed with the intention to recapture the core gaming crowd, while still maintaining the Wii’s magical power over the casual and younger demographics, this new system from Nintendo has put forward some high expectations for the platform. Gamer Living decided to pick one up and take a closer look to see if the big N’s seventh North American home console release does just that.
At first glance, gamers will notice that the Wii U is larger in size than its predecessor; over two inches have been added to the depth of the device while the face is just a touch wider (Wii U: 1.8″ x 6.75″ x 10.6″ vs. Wii: 1.73″ x 6.8″ x 8.48″). Two sets of “feet” come included in the box that can be installed on two tabs extending from one side of the device, allowing it to sit sideways in your home entertainment system and creating a smaller footprint. On the front face of the device you’ll find a layout similar to the Wii, with the optical drive front and center, and just below it, a door that houses two USB ports and an SD card slot. Just to the left of the media door is a sync button for connecting your peripheral devices such as Wii-motes or a Gamepad Pro. On the back you’ll find the connectors for the power, HDMI, sensor bar, and standard video connector, of which the last two are fully compatible with the former console’s equipment – although this point is essentially moot as the Wii U comes with its own sensor bar and video cable.
The most prominent piece of equipment in the package is, of course, the Wii U Gamepad. The entire experience of the Wii U is centered on this controller which features a 6.2 inch touchscreen with an 854×480 resolution, lower than that of the PlayStation Vita’s resolution of 960×544. The Gamepad contains a microphone and a 1.3 megapixel camera to support online chat. The controller also sports dual-analog sticks as well as accelerometers for motion control.
The Gamepad can be used to enhance the gaming experience in different ways. A player can use the touchscreen as an ancillary device for accessing menus or additional controls, or with asymmetric gameplay where the Gamepad user will have a different view or interface from those using the Wii U-branded Wii-motes. Perhaps the biggest advantage of the new Gamepad is that it can be used as a primary game screen to continue playing while other household members are watching their shows on the television. A stylus is also available in the unit to use with the touchscreen, as well as an infrared transmitter to allow the gamepad to function as your TV’s remote control.
Weighing in at just over a pound (or just under half a kilogram), the 10.2 inch gamepad isn’t terribly heavy or cumbersome for the average adult to hold comfortably while sitting on the couch; however, it’s very obvious that the system was designed with an adult player in mind more so than a child under the age of 10. Our six-year-old test subject was able to hold the device and reach the analog sticks and outside buttons just fine, but getting to the right side of the D-pad or the left side of the directional buttons proved a challenge. Additionally, getting to the shoulder and trigger buttons took a bit of an effort with tiny hands. This culminated in a rapidly disinterested child, much preferring our Xbox 360 controller to play Skylanders Giants instead of NintendoLand, which initially grabbed their attention with its bright colors and cute little Mii characters running around. While the argument could be made that a child can use the Wii-mote just fine, and the asymmetric gameplay style of NintendoLand and other games could promote Parent-Child interaction (or Family Time) the kid is going to want to play with the new shiny just as much as any adult would.
The addition of high-def through HDMI is most certainly a boon to those who didn’t find the Wii’s Standard Definition graphics to be appealing; however, the Wii U lacks a digital optical output, so for those that use high quality headphones such as the Turtle Beach XP400 or 500 series will be left out in the cold, unless you want to spend the money on a decent quality receiver, or deal with HDMI audio lag that so often happens when you pipe the audio into a high-definition television, and then back out through the optical output in the TV. 5.1 surround is a nice addition to the device even if it is only available through the HDMI output, but for core gamers that prefer headsets to speakers, this will serve as a roadblock to their preferred audio needs.
Setting up the Wii U was quick and easy, taking about 45 minutes to complete including downloading the mandatory software update once the unit was connected to the internet. While downloading and installing the update, a progress bar displays on the Gamepad, so you can watch TV or play games on your other consoles while you wait without having to check back and forth. Once finished, you’ll be prompted to create a Mii character and then be taken to the main menu, which looks very similar to the menu of the Wii or 3DS. The application tiles can be rearranged on multiple pages by holding your finger down on the Gamepad, and then dragging it to the desired location.
For Wii owners who want to transfer their saved games and download data, a Wii transfer app is available to do so. Transferring the data requires both an internet connection active on both devices and an SD card to swap between the two systems. You’ll need to first configure the SD card on your Wii U before plugging it into the Wii, and then you’ll need to swap it back into the Wii U to complete the process. If you have only one Wii-mote, be prepared to sync it back and forth between the two devices, as it will be needed on both systems. The process doesn’t take very long (my data transfer only took about 10 minutes in total), and is quite entertaining in the process. Once the transfer is initiated on the Wii, a video displays little Pikmin boxing up and carrying your data to a rocket ship. After the rocket blasts off, you’ll be prompted to eject the SD card and put it back into the Wii U, where the rocket ship descends on your screen once again with the Pikmin unloading and unpacking your data. At least you won’t be bored staring at a progress indicator.
The Wii U is backwards compatible with your Wii games, which is a major plus; however, gamers still clinging for dear life on their GameCube games are left out in the cold to wait until Nintendo updates the eStore to repurchase those classics to play on the new system. Furthermore, Virtual Console games are currently only available through the Wii menu, and this brings with it a number of additional problems and costs. If you traded in your Wii console to put some money towards your Wii U, you most likely had to hand over your Wii-mote as well. If you didn’t have multiple Wii-motes (not all of us are Mario Party animals after all), then you’ll be rebuying a new controller as the Gamepad is not supported in the Wii menus. Some of the Wii games that we tested with the backward compatibility appeared to have some jitter indicative of frame rate drop, particularly with The Last Story. Whether this is an issue with the emulation software or the game having compatibility issues is unknown. Hopefully, this is just a Day One bug that will be fixed in a later update, but it is worth noting. Another oddity of using the Wii menu is the fact that when you exit out of the emulator to return to the Wii U interface, it reboots the system instead of just returning you to the main screen. Odd.
Nintendo has been slowly becoming more hip to the home entertainment scene, and this is evident with the Wii U, as it offers streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu Plus. The upcoming TVii promises to help bolster the Wii U’s position in the entertainment center as well. Unfortunately, a poor design decision on the console makers’ behalf was the exclusion of support for DVD or Blu-ray media. This oversight prevents the Wii U from really being able to take the center stage over the existing competition of the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, and leaves it vulnerable to the future-gen competitors that are likely to continue supporting optical media. While I agree (grudgingly) that digital media is the way of the future, physical media will likely continue to reign supreme for at least one more console generation.
Speaking of digital media, another smart move that Nintendo has made is the inclusion of Day One direct downloads of new games. All of the Wii U launch library is available to be downloaded through the eStore, as long as you have the space to be able to do so. This leads to the second smart move, which is the ability to use an external drive for storage. While you can’t run a game off of an SD card, you can run and store them on external hard drives that can store far more than the system’s 32GB at a minimal cost.
Nintendo’s entry into the foray of high-definition gaming leaves me with mixed feelings. The system looks gorgeous, plays great for the most part, and the Gamepad introduces a whole realm of possibilities for core gaming as well as the casual crowd. However, the initial cost of $350 plus the added $40 for the Wii-mote and $20 for the nunchuck accessory (if you didn’t already have a number of them) puts the system at a major disadvantage when competing with the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, both of which have a fuller core gaming library and multimedia capabilities. An early release puts the console in a prime position to grab early market share and add to their library before the next-gen competitors come out, but the price points offered by Sony and Microsoft makes the Wii U a tough sell.
The large size of the Gamepad is excellent for adults, but can be too unwieldy for younger gamers to hold on to (especially if you “kid-proof” it with something like the Nerf Armor kit) and can be a turn-off for them. Likewise, a lack of full features that the more competitive core gamers look for (no support for high-quality wireless headsets, Bluetooth, etc.) makes the Wii U feel like it’s not quite a complete system. It seems as though somewhere in Nintendo’s quest to appease all audiences, they missed the mark with some of the amenities that gamers have become accustomed to with current-gen systems. The interface for the Wii U’s backward compatibility lacks some polish as well, especially when playing some of those legacy games, and leaves those who were looking for a path to upgrade potentially disappointed in the console’s performance.
Hopefully as we see the system mature, it will become a great platform for a wide variety of games beyond the endless deluge of Mario and Zelda titles, but for now, it seems to be a game of wait and see.
The Nintendo Wii U receives a 3.5/5.0.
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