By Mitch Stevens

The Wii U is the successor to the Wii, which was released in 2006. (No, it’s not an add-on, it just has a really stupid name.) The Wii was an innovative console that brought motion control to gaming and thus became a huge success. However, it wasn’t capable of HD graphics and many online features, unlike the competing Xbox 360 and Playstation 3, which created a gap between the consoles. The Wii, being at the lower end of that gap, was considered by some to be little more than a cheap casual console in comparison. The Wii U sets out to change that, albeit being a little late to the party.

The Wii U is Nintendo’s newest game console and was released on November 18th last year. It is the first HD Nintendo console and features a controller with a 6.2 inch touchscreen on it called the Gamepad that can be used with the TV to enhance gameplay in various ways, or can even play entire games on the screen without the TV at all. What I think the Wii U mainly aims for is to be appealing to casual gamers with unique controllers like the original Wii while also having the hardware capability to support hardcore games on the platform as well, since it’s the first HD console Nintendo has made. Does it succeed in either department? Let’s take a deeper look at this console.

Image from www.nintendo.com/wiiu.
Image from http://www.nintendo.com/wiiu.

The Controller

It’s pretty much impossible not to start off talking about this controller. I could start

An additional review of the back side of the Gamepad.
An additional view of the back side of the Gamepad.

with the games, or the console itself, but I have to begin with controllers because, like the Wii Remote was to the Wii, the Gamepad is supposed to be a huge selling point for the Wii U. You might be looking at it thinking it just looks like a tablet rip-off or that it looks way too big and uncomfortable for a controller. And while I still kind of don’t know what to make of this thing, it’s not nearly as bad as it may look.

Looking at the Gamepad’s build first, the first thing I’ve noticed before playing anything is how surprisingly light the controller is. It’s only very slightly heavier than an Xbox 360 controller, and for a controller this big that’s impressive. The controller is pretty ergonomic, too. On the backside there are grips that are similar to the boomerang-type grips found on many game controllers, the trigger and bumper buttons are actually pretty wide so you can rest your whole finger on them and the width of the Gamepad is about the same as holding a Wii Remote with a Nunchuck so the width shouldn’t feel odd if you’ve ever used those. The only time I’ve gotten a hand cramp was from playing Call of Duty: Black Ops II for a while which was only because the analogue sticks require a little more pressure to click, not because of the shape of the controller. I’ve also dropped it onto a hard kitchen floor once and it still works perfectly fine, so it’s really sturdy. The touchscreen is more accurate with finger touches than the DS or 3DS, so you can just tap stuff with your finger if you don’t prefer the stylus, and while the image quality isn’t nearly as clear as, say, an iPad, it still delivers a smooth image. It also has every button a standard Xbox 360 or PS3 controller has, from triggers to two clickable sticks.

A few negative points are that the bumper and trigger buttons (L, R and ZL, ZR, respectively) are a bit sensitive which requires getting a little used to; the controller has very poor battery life; and the triggers are only digital, so you can’t press them halfway down like analogue triggers can. Using the face buttons (A, B, X, and Y) and the D-pad together is also a little uncomfortable compared to using one of the analogue sticks above them. The touchscreen also isn’t multitouch, although I don’t think many games would really need it since the controller has physical buttons, and you can’t really eyeball anything on the second screen as easily as on something like the DS. But overall, I’m thoroughly impressed on how Ninteno managed to make this huge controller comfortable. And if you prefer traditional controls, they have controllers similar to Xbox 360 controllers called Wii U Pro controllers available, too.

The Gamepad’s features, on the other hand, aren’t really as interesting as Wii Remote’s were. They’re not bad; in fact, I’ve had some fun using the touchscreen as a second screen in some games, but it’s just not as innovative, so I think I should address the negatives first here. First, the idea of putting a huge screen on a console controller might not be as stupid after trying it, but it definitely sounds stupid, and, even more so, complicated. The reason the Wii was a success is because it’s simple and straightforward. All you have to do is say “motion control” and someone would instantly get what the Wii does. The Wii U’s idea sounds way more complicated than it should be, so as a casual console it already has a big disadvantage due to that. Secondly, the Gamepad simply just doesn’t seem that innovative. When you look at the Wii, Nintendo never really invented motion control, but they spun that idea to fit into gaming and that idea benefitted games so much that it caught on. I can name five consoles that got some form of motion control after the Wii did so well, and that’s innovation since it was so beneficial it became an industry standard. I can sort of see what Nintendo tried doing by adding a touchscreen to a home console, but it just doesn’t seem like it’d innovate gaming a whole lot because it seems like either there’s not as much games can do with it or most of whatever’s possible was probably already done on the Nintendo DS.

Despite those things, however, there are still a few innovative things Nintendo could do with the console that weren’t possible before. Where it’s probably not as innovative on the surface, it definitely brings something to the table in terms of local multiplayer. One feature is that the Wii U eliminates some of the need for split-screen, because one player can use the Gamepad’s screen to play. Some games even support five player multiplayer, where four players use the TV like normal and the fifth player uses the Gamepad. Of course there’s online multiplayer, but that’s just the start. An even more interesting feature is “asymmetrical gameplay”, or where the TV and Gamepad players have two completely different roles within the same game. An excellent example of this is the multiplayer mode in the game ZombiU, where the player using the TV is a survivor and plays the game like a FPS, whereas the Gamepad player is the “Zombie King” who gets to spawn different types of zombies on the map, which plays like a strategy game. I love how this game uses the Gamepad to capture the same survival-horror feeling in the campaign and put it in multiplayer without just tacking on a co-op mode (Although co-op still would’ve been awesome), and this multiplayer game makes for a really intense match. Another game that uses asymmetrical gameplay is Nintendo Land, which has tons of minigames built around this multiplayer feature.

There’s another feature that I really, really like about the controller, and that is the ability to play games solely on the Gamepad without the TV. In most games where the touchscreen isn’t required to play the game, you can put the entire game on the Gamepad and play it from that, and you can take the controller pretty much anywhere where the Gamepad can still connect to the console. It does depend on what material the walls are and stuff like that so the Gamepad might lose connection in some rooms, and that also means you can’t take the Gamepad anywhere outside the house. Still, this feature’s pretty awesome anyway because it gives home console games some of the flexibility handheld consoles and smartphones have. Say, for example, someone else wants to use the TV. Instead of having to end the game, you could put it on the touchscreen and continue it from there. The Gamepad, unlike the DS’s touchscreen, is also separated from the main screen which could open up more possibilities like using the controller’s motion control in unique ways.

Part of the reason I said the Gamepad isn’t innovative is simply because there’s not many games that make innovative use of the controller yet. Of course, there are some games like Nintendo Land, ZombiU, or LEGO City: Undercover that shows off some of the features pretty well, but a majority of games use it for basic things like putting HUD elements on the touchscreen. That’s not bad, but what Nintendo really needs to make the Gamepad innovative is to get a ton more games that use the Gamepad in ways that weren’t possible before, and because the controller is more complicated having more games to show off the Gamepad’s features and maybe surprise people with what it could really do is vital. So overall, the controller is decent. Although it’s not really as innovative as Wii Remotes were, it still has potential to be, and the controller is impressively built together and ergonomic.

The Console

Another image from www.nintendo.com/wiiu
Another image from http://www.nintendo.com/wiiu

That box sitting under your TV is probably the first thing you imagine when you think of a console, because, well, the box is the console. That should be common sense, but apparently that’s not the case with the Wii U since the Gamepad seems to command a lot of attention. The console itself even looks a little bland and generic. However, there are still many important aspects about what’s in the console, such as online features and graphics capability.

Starting with basic online features, the Wii U has almost all the online features other current consoles have in some form, such as online multiplayer games, the Nintendo eShop where you can download games and DLC (downloadable content), game and system updates, voice chat support, and with no more annoying Friend Codes, adding friends is much easier on this console. So it definitely is a step up from the Wii’s limited online functionality.  There are also basic multimedia apps like Netflix on the console, too. There’s no cross-game chat, though, so you can’t talk to someone playing a different game than you. Another downside is that, since this isn’t as popular a console for multiplayer, there’s not as big of a community online yet. On Black Ops II, for example, the average number of players online is somewhere around 1,500-3,500 players, which is a few million less than on other platforms. Overall, this console has solid online features, but it’s definitely no Xbox LIVE substitute.

However, some features unique to the Wii U could make up for that. One such feature is the Miiverse. It’s a social app where you can post short comments or handwritten posts about a game you’re playing, almost like Twitter. Some uses could be for asking for game tips, starting up an online match with other Wii U users, or even making drawings. The best Miiverse feature is that it can be integrated into games in various ways. For example, when you complete or fail a level in Nintendo Land, you can view comments from the continue screen and post your own from within the game without having to open up the app, or when you die in New Super Mario Bros. U you can see comments from those who had a similar mistimed jump. Overall the Miiverse is a very great online feature and there are a lot of different possibilities for it to be integrated into games.

Another Wii U app is Nintendo TVii, where you can watch TV shows and movies from different providers all in one place, such as from Amazon Instant Video and Netflix, for example. You can comment about a show directly from the Gamepad on Miiverse, Twitter, or Facebook, and the Gamepad shows various moments and events that happen in the show that you can comment on. If you’re watching a sports game, you can also view scores, stats, and plays as they happen. I haven’t been able to try out this app, but on paper this sounds like a great feature.

The Wii U is also backwards-compatible with pretty much all Wii games and peripherals. The Wii games run at only 480p, so the images will look blockier on an HDTV, and there’s no Gamepad support such as being able to play Wii games right off the touchscreen. It works exactly how it should on a Wii otherwise, and I’ve never found any huge problems or glitches with it. There’s no Gamecube backwards-compatibility, but I can see why since that would just be too much backwards-compatibility to stuff into the system. There are also Wii U Virtual Console games, or classic NES, SNES, N64, etc. games you can download and play on the Wii U, coming soon. Judging by the games they’ve released early it’s very similar to the Wii’s VC, however you can play games on the Gamepad and also remap buttons (For example, making the B button jump instead of A) as well. And for games not on the Wii U’s VC, you can always play Virtual Console games formatted for the Wii as well, thanks to the Wii U’s backwards compatibility.

Finally, while this isn’t technically a feature, the Wii U is available for purchase in two flavors; Basic and Deluxe (Along with the possibility of limited edition bundles, such as the ZombiU bundle out now), which usually cost $299 and $349 respectively. The Basic set obviously comes with all the basic stuff required to play the console; a white console and Gamepad, 8 GB of internal storage, and an HDMI cable and AC adapters. The Deluxe set comes with a black console and Gamepad, 32 GB of internal storage, a free copy of Nintendo Land, stands for the Gamepad and console, and a digital promotion where you get 10% of credit back from an eShop purchase for a limited time. Which one you should buy mainly depends on whether you want the packaged game(s) or not, because there’s a price difference of $50 between the two console packages and the game retails at $60, so if you get the Deluxe version you’ll save $10. The internal storage might also contribute to that decision, but there’s not as much either way and the Wii U can always use external USB hard drives for extra storage. In conclusion to the features, the Wii U doesn’t have as strong online capabilities, but has great unique features.

Finally, it’s time to look at the Wii U’s graphical capabilities. The graphics on the Wii U definitely look as good as other current consoles, give or take, such as Black Ops II (minus a little lag from huge explosions or lots of gunfire at once). Sonic and All-Stars Racing Transformed for Wii U also looks on par with other versions, so it could be assumed the Wii U can run many multi-platform games well without many graphical compromises. The most surprising thing about the Wii U’s graphics capability, however, is that I’ve read an article that the developers behind Crysis 3 basically had the game up and running on the console, and that series is notorious for processor-intensive graphics. The only reason that version never got a release, however, is because EA, the company that owns the Crysis franchise, and Nintendo couldn’t see eye-to-eye in terms of business, and that unfortunately means there’s no Wii U version available to compare to the 360, PS3, or PC versions.

To compare the Wii U to the Xbox 360 based on what’s under the hood, the Wii U basically has a slightly more powerful GPU, or the component that processes game graphics (549.999755MHz vs. Xbox 360’s 550MHz. The Wii U’s is built more efficiently. [Source]) but a weaker CPU, or the component that processes basically everything else (1.243125GHz vs. Xbox 360’s 3.0GHz [Same source]). So the Wii U could be considered a little more powerful than current consoles, albeit the weaker CPU could take a hit on performance, which overall means the graphics capability here isn’t really outstanding.

How will it compare to the other next-gen consoles, then? Well, it depends: if Sony or Microsoft decide to release $599 powerhouses then, sure, they’d blow the Wii U out of the water if they can somehow sell. More realistically, though, even though the other consoles are very likely going to be more powerful anyway I don’t think the comparison would be night and day, as was the case with the Wii vs. 360/PS3. The reason being is because like any console there’s always room for improvement regardless of clock speeds, because future games could always be made more optimized to the hardware to perform better, a popular example being the comparison between Xbox 360 launch games vs. the newest Xbox 360 games. Of course with these specifications it’d still be crazy to think the Wii U could outperform other next-gen consoles, but even so that still means next-gen multiplatform games could still at least be available on this console. One example is Watch Dogs which is a huge launch game for the PS4, but also comes to the Xbox 360, PS3, Wii U and PC at a later date. So overall, the Wii U’s graphics capabilities are just mediocre, but can improve.

The Games

wiiu4
Image from http://www.gameinformer.com

Speaking of games, that’s really the most important piece to having a really good game console. I personally don’t care as much for the type of graphics or fancy controllers a console has as much as I care about whether it has some really good games on it or not, not to mention games primarily showcase graphics and controls. The major problem the Wii had is that, aside from Nintendo’s pretty good games, there weren’t many others to choose from because not many other companies invested in the system. So how does the Wii U solve that? Eh… it doesn’t, really. At least not yet, but for about three months the Wii U’s library was pretty much barren apart from its launch games. The hardware is more than capable of handling games from this generation and probably next generation. So why wouldn’t there be many games on it for so long? Well, to be fair, it is common for publishers to not have anything to publish to any new console, because, well, it’s a new console. So, there has to be something from Nintendo to fill some of these glaring gaps, right? Nope. There’s still no franchises like The Legend of Zelda, Mario, or Metroid anywhere on the console (There is New Super Mario Bros. U, but that’s about it). They are starting to release some games soon, but they really dropped the ball by not releasing anything for the past 3 months.

That being said, the Wii U is slowly getting a bigger library this spring, with games such as LEGO City Undercover and Need for Speed: Most Wanted U just out and Pikmin 3 coming very soon. There are also quite a few releases in late 2013-early 2014, which include the next Super Smash Bros., 3D Mario platformer, and Mario Kart, along with a new Zelda game with an unconfirmed release date and an HD remake of the Gamecube game Zelda: The Wind Waker releasing Q3 2013. Watch Dogs and Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag are also coming to the Wii U, current consoles and the PS4 around late 2013 as well, along with Batman: Arkham Origins coming to all current consoles including Wii U October 25. Plus the Wii U’s eShop has tons of good downloadable titles such as BIT.TRIP Presents: Runner 2 and Trine 2: Director’s Cut. There’s a few other games being released soon, but those are the biggest ones at the moment. So all this definitely seems like a step in the right direction for the console.

So, are there any games already out that are worth trying? Well, the two major Wii U titles I own are the previously-mentioned Nintendo Land and ZombiU. Nintendo Land is similar to Wii Sports in that it’s meant to show off some of the Gamepad’s features, which the multiplayer aspects of the game does pretty well.  It’s a good game to play with friends, there’s a lot of minigames that are good, and the Gamepad features are also fun to play around with (And sold me on the multiplayer possibilities of the console). It’s a party game and it has no online multiplayer, so there’s not much stuff to do if you locally don’t have many people to play the game with, and so I would recommend trying out Nintendo Land if you have friends to play this with.

ZombiU is also a great game. It’s your typical zombie game, a zombie apocalypse occurs and you, for whatever reason, survived so you have to fight the zombies and escape the city of London, and other than that there’s really not much story. What really makes the game stand out is the difficulty; the scarce amount of ammo, the Gamepad integration which makes the game purposely harder in some cases, and the fact that your character dies after just one bite makes for a really hardcore game. You probably won’t plow through zombies with an assault rifle as if you were Rambo, though, so if you want more action this wouldn’t be the game for you, and the scarce ammo means you’ll have to mostly use a cricket bat which is pretty tedious to use at times. But overall ZombiU has great survival-horror elements and I would definitely recommend picking this up if you’re a fan of games of that genre. So overall, the games that are already out are at least decent, and it seems the Wii U’s going to get a lot of great new games soon. It’s just a shame I’ve only played the Wii U for Black Ops II the past winter since nothing new came to the console.

Conclusion

Finally, does the Wii U have the innovation of the Wii? Is it as ‘hardcore’ as other consoles? Is the Wii U overall worth getting? Well, it’s safe to say that I would recommend waiting a bit for the Wii U to get more games before getting one. Right now the platform isn’t all that exiting, there’s a few interesting games on it but not enough to justify getting a new console for them, there’s not many games that use the controller in interesting ways, and the system doesn’t have much hardcore games nor impressive hardware to compete with other hardcore consoles at the moment.

However, I think that once the Wii U gets a bigger library then it will become a much more appealing console because there would be more games that showcase the Gamepad’s features in interesting ways, more good games could translate to more consoles sold which gives companies more of a reason to put their hardcore franchises on the system, and hey, the more the merrier, right? So while the Wii U isn’t interesting now, it still has tons of potential to be, all it needs are new games that uses the Gamepad like never before and then it will become almost as good as the original Wii.