Can Nintendo work their controller gimmick magic twice?
There’s something special about console launches—the wonder of new hardware, new games, and that new, "fresh off the assembly line" plastic smell. But nobody does a new console launch quite like Nintendo. In part, there’s a factor of nostalgia, fondly reminiscing about their five previous generations of hardware, many of which have permanently shaped the industry forever. Another part is in knowing that not only does Nintendo release new hardware, but with it also comes a completely new way to play games. And that right there is why the Wii U is yet another defining moment for the industry.
Look at what the Wii has accomplished—a system built around a controller gimmick and a system that was said to fail almost immediately. Both Sony and Microsoft were forced to release motion controllers to try and capture some of the limelight that Nintendo was basking in. And even though the Wii has now dropped off sales-wise, it still has a lofty lead—roughly 30 million units—over the PS3 and 360.
Now, Nintendo looks to change the game yet again, providing a second screen to bring about new levels of immersion and innovation.
Wii U GamePad: Setting Industry Standards in Innovation and Accessibility
Only time will tell if the Wii U GamePad does indeed inspire another revolution in the way we play, but even this early at launch, it appears to be promising.
This isn’t just another Wiimote. The GamePad may appear to be a gimmick, and to a point it is; however, Nintendo has designed the entire experience—both hardware and software—around the gimmick so thoroughly that the point is drilled home.
Like Wii Sports before it, Nintendo Land—which comes packed into every Wii U Deluxe Set—invites you to discover the seemingly infinite ways the GamePad can be added into games. A more in-depth review of Nintendo Land will fully explain this, but know that it will have you using the GamePad in ways you would probably never expect to, and you will have more fun doing it than you have had in a long time.
Initially, the GamePad can be confusing. Do I look at the TV, or do I look at the GamePad? Or is it both? Soon it becomes second nature, and that’s when you realize the potential of the Wii U GamePad. How often have you been playing a game on a home console, with your iPhone or iPad on your lap or beside you? And isn’t that TV remote somewhere in the vicinity, in case you want to turn up or down the volume, or change back the TV input to a cable box to get back to watching TV? No need for all of that, anymore—the Wii U does all of these things naturally, as if it was meant to be there in the first place. It's essentially a companion to your entertainment experience.
Some of the gaming you will do on the Wii U, is with Wiimote in-hand. So how then does the GamePad benefit you, when it’s sitting there on your lap? A perfect example of how it does is through playing New Super Mario Bros. U. Alongside the Wiimote, I had the GamePad and stylus ready so that I could tap the screen and add blocks to reach otherwise unreachable heights. It was as if I was playing player one and player two all on my own.
That’s only single player, too. This same design creates new possibilities for cooperative play. In Rayman Legends, the GamePad's gyros can turn the entire stage that the other player is viewing on the TV. Or in Nintendo Land, during the Mario Chase event, the player holding the GamePad has a handy map showing the locations of the two players with Wiimotes, both of whom are chasing you. They, on the other hand, have no map, but have the entire view of the TV to hunt you down and tackle you.
And then there is the ability to play full Wii U games on the GamePad while the TV is off. This feature may be the best reason to buy a Wii U as a parent. Let’s face it, our kids control the TV much of the time. With the Wii U GamePad, you can play Call of Duty: Black Ops II online against friends, without the need for the TV. Surprisingly, the experience goes untarnished, too. The GamePad screen may not have the same visual and audio fidelity as a full HD TV with surround, but with a pair of headphones, you can zone out into an HD world of your own… in the palm of your hands.
It may seem as though the GamePad is portable, and while you can go into another room and keep on playing, the distance at which it maintains a connection is mildly disappointing. It works, but once you have this ability at your disposal, the fact that the Wii U signal can’t reach all the way into your bedroom or bathroom is a shame. It very much depends on the location of the Wii U console and the materials used to construct your home, so experiences will vary depending on the household. I highly recommend trying it out on your own: You may be pleasantly surprised at how far the range is, or just as easily disappointed it won’t even reach you a room away.
Wii U Console: Not Yet Ready for Liftoff
The console hardware itself is less impressive. It looks very much like the Wii before, only deeper and heavier. The Wii U Basic Set is essentially gimped the moment it’s opened, with only 8GB available storage and roughly 5GB of it being reserved for OS functionality. This may even end up being a detriment to the longevity of the Wii U, because Nintendo only has 3GB of leeway to play with and improve upon the OS before it’s used up all available storage. Granted, Nintendo is supporting USB hard drives up to 2TB, but it’s still a shame to see limitations on day one. It’s no wonder why there is significantly higher demand of the 32GB-equipped Deluxe Wii U.
After spending time with the Wii U console, it’s clear that it wasn’t ready for launch. Set up was a breeze, but then I was prompted to download and install a required OS update that took roughly two hours to download. Being a family-focused console, this may be confusing to less-informed consumers. Plus, try telling a four-year-old incredibly excited to play the Wii U that she has to wait two hours before she can play. It killed the excitement almost immediately and turned it into frustration.
Then, once the update is installed, the OS on the TV appears too similar to the Wii. On the GamePad, it makes sense and is even easier to use. And strangely, there is a delay of ten seconds (or more) with every menu item you select.
Promised features, like the stellar Nintendo TVii, are missing at launch. It's common for console launches for some features not to make the cut on day one, and while they do eventually arrive, it’s equally as common for these same features to be delayed even years into the lifecycle of the console—I sincerely hope that’s not the case here. I don’t want another Cross Game Chat on my hands.
Put nicely, Miiverse is... interesting. I don’t yet see a major benefit to using it. It’s mostly drawings and notes about games that users left that I frankly don’t give a damn about. I don’t ever foresee it being a video-game Facebook or Twitter, but it does provide some social interaction surrounding Wii U games. It could lead to increased interest in games a user may not otherwise be interested in but are suddenly convinced because a friend is raving about it in Miiverse.
However, what I hate about it is that when I clear a stage in New Super Mario Bros. U, it asks me if I want post about doing so in Miiverse. I can say no, but there isn’t an option I am aware of that prevents it from asking me each and every time. If I don’t want to use it, I also don’t want the system constantly pestering me to make use of a feature I couldn’t care less about.
Thankfully, friend codes are gone. Adding friends and seeing what a buddy may be playing is as simple as it is on the PS3 or Xbox 360. And the included Nintendo eShop is well-designed and easy to use. Nintendo seems to have gotten this right. There's even standard stuff, like a decent web-browser and apps like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Video. However, there is no OS-level accomplishment system—no Wii U version of trophies or achievements. This is a big mistake on Nintendo’s part, as users can become enveloped in their user stats and boasting. It could even be enough for a multi-console owner to purchase a game on a rival console over the Wii U.
Another important aspect of online user interaction that has been overlooked is universal voice chat. It’s implemented on a game-by-game basis. The way it’s implemented, too, is up in the air. Some games may support voice chat through the headphone jack in the GamePad. But the same headphone jack isn’t found on the Pro Controller—the controller that’s designed with games like Black Ops II in mind.
The Wii U does have USB ports for USB headsets and wireless headset USB dongles, but again, the game must be designed to use the console that way. And while there is a mic and speaker on the GamePad, it doesn’t support voice chat. Future firmware updates may remove this fiasco, but as is, it’s a mess. All of it could have been avoided by including some sort of headset in the box or by making voice chat work via the GamePad.
With the Wii U being a family-friendly console, maybe this was Nintendo’s plan. But it still seems like a sloppy afterthought. Although, some people may welcome online gaming sans profanity-spewing children and racism.
Wii U Wrap-Up: How U Will Play Next
Launch hardware reviews are always incredibly difficult, because the console you’re getting now may not be the same console a month from now, or six months from now, or a year from now. Thanks to firmware updates, consoles evolve over time and new features are added. Even features that were promised for launch do eventually make their way onto the system eventually.
Software also gets better, but how much better is yet to be seen. At the moment, the Wii U appears to be on-par with the PS3 and Xbox 360. Some ports may be slightly worse, but that’s to be expected until developers have more time learning the architecture. Soon, we may see games that eclipse what the PS3 or 360 are capable of. But just as soon, Sony and Microsoft will likely release next-generation consoles that could push the Wii U off an equal playing field developmentally.
What I do know is that like the Wii before it, the Wii U is going to force Sony and Microsoft to rethink their controller designs. The GamePad is that good already and opens up so many possibilities for gameplay. Plus, having a controller that’s a window to the rest of your home entertainment is something the other console manufacturers can’t afford to miss. It adds to the longevity of the Wii U too, because the GamePad controller will be out on a coffee table and be prominently visible, whereas the Wiimote was easily stowed away out of sight, out of mind.
At the very least, the Wii U will be what most should expect from a Nintendo console: It plays Nintendo games extremely well, and with franchises like Mario, Zelda, and Metroid, that’s plenty for so many of us who have been playing these games since the NES days. As Nintendo did with the Wiimote, Nintendo has again set an industry standard with the GamePad, and if others fail to replicate or improve upon it, you may be playing on the Wii U long after the next Xbox or next PlayStation reach the market.