I may have joined the new generation a bit later than most, but I did my best to come prepared.
I spent many hours researching Nintendo’s latest console before tearing off the shrink on Christmas Day, whereupon I was quick to secure a better Internet connection for the predictably long firmware update which reserved a comfy 3 hours for itself.
Such preparedness was certainly useful in dodging the usual day one set up aggravation and so before I knew it my new console was ready for a test drive!… Only I was far too tired for games by the time it finished, so I ended up going to bed.
The GUI of the patented Wii U system software makes a better first impression though. Users are greeted by the Wii U Menu upon powering on the machine and from here you have the option of launching applications, managing your chosen data storage solution or tweaking the various console settings to better suit your liking.
The user interface here will be immediately recognizable to anyone who has prior experience with the Nintendo 3DS handheld, as the two systems share a lot in common from a design perspective.
Installed programs and retail discs are launched via iPhone-like tiles that adorn the shell of the main menu itself and they’re very useful in terms of flexibility as you can freely move them around and group them in custom folders for better organization.
Nintendo have proudly marketed the Wii U as a video game console before that of an “entertainment system” and the practical result of that unorthodox ideology is that it’s incredibly simple for users to actually play video games.
Quaint, I know.
It’s bizarre to think though, just how many menus you might have to sift through on an Xbox One or PlayStation 4 in order to accomplish this typically straightforward task, but I’m sure it’s true. The Wii U dashboard isn’t overproduced in that sense at least; it’s robust, clean and welcomingly free from advertising and invasive notification popups- something that certainly irritated me during my recent stint playing Bloodborne.
Special mention is reserved for the build quality of the hardware. The 8GB Wii U machine looks superb in glossy white (perfect for hiding unsightly thumbprints) and its compact design means it won’t be hogging all the precious space underneath your television.
Inside this “basic” bundle you also get all the usual hookups – HDMI cables are a standard inclusion at last, hallelujah! – and a sensor bar that allows you to recognize Nintendo Wii remotes; something that certain multiplayer titles as well as backwards compatible Wii games will require in order to function.
The marquee feature that instantly draws the eye though is of course the Nintendo Gamepad. It may sound like an exaggeration, but the Wii U’s entire sales pitch rests solely on this intriguing device and it’s something that I will be keen to investigate further during future blog posts.
First impressions being what they are though, the Gamepad looks to be a quality piece of kit that Nintendo has no doubt put a lot of time and resources into developing.
The resistive touch-enabled display may feel a bit spongy at first (modern mobile phones have certainly spoiled us in that regard), but stylus accuracy is good and the 6.2 inch screen provides plenty of room to see what you’re doing.
The buttons feel responsive, the on-board sound is easily adjustable, and the controller body itself feels comfortably lightweight in your hands despite its initially bulky appearance.
A nice added feature is the ability to sync the Gamepad to your television so you can use it as a fully functional remote control; something that often comes in handy and is surprisingly easy to setup too.
A similarly useful quickstart menu allows you to boot the console into the game or app of your choice and once loaded, you almost always have the wonderful option of streaming content to the Gamepad screen thus freeing up your television for other uses.
The latter feature there is clearly the biggest advantage that the Gamepad’s second screen offers, as the intended benefit of it offering new and unique play experiences appears to be a tough shtick to get right (just look at the Dreamcast VMU for more on that line of thinking), but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
The Wii U has more obvious drawbacks when compared to its competition with processing horsepower perhaps being the bitterest pill to swallow.
Nintendo has once again delivered a console concerned more with innovation than impressive technical specs and whilst that 4GB of RAM provides some lovely texture work in certain titles (hello again Bayonetta 2), it’s that 1.24 GHz “Espresso” processor chip that really disappoints.
Forget the PS4 and Xbone for a second, the lack of processing heft puts the Wii U behind the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 in terms of raw performance and it’s a weakness that’s instantly noticeable in the footage of many third party conversions.
Whereas certain titles such as Need for Speed: Most Wanted (2012) and Deus Ex: Human Revolution Director’s Cut have been well optimized (or at least partially improved in Bayonetta’s rare case) for Nintendo’s machine, the lack of processing heft has resulted in many lazy/disappointing ports from the previous generation.
Assassin’s Creed IV, Mass Effect 3, Batman: Arkham City, Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Blacklist and Darksiders II are all good examples of the Wii U’s early catalog of games that at least look comparable to their PS3 or Xbox 360 equivalents in terms of image quality, but they all struggle when it comes to matters of frame frequency and general performance.
It’s easy to imagine how frustrating a weak CPU can be for developers trying to provide a smooth gameplay experience and the evidence of this drawback is felt across the board here.
For the Wii U hardware to underperform to such a noticeable degree on popular AAA titles is worrying enough and it’s indicative of both the console’s low adoption rate among graphics-conscious consumers and the subsequent reluctance of major publishers to touch the thing.
The second screen functionality inherent in the main controller was clearly intended to offset the dip in specs by providing an avenue for unique gameplay opportunities, but how many of the aforementioned releases actually make use of this feature for anything more than a token map screen or status bar?
Also worthy of dishonourable mention is the Wii U operating system as the different menus and default apps can be painfully sluggish at times.
The Miiverse – a social portal often dubbed “Nin-twitter” by fans – is a particular offender here as the program takes ages to load. It’s a shame because the ability to post images, FAQs and comments in specific game-orientated communities, as well as your own personalised play journal, does indeed have merit. It’s just a shame that the slow boot time of the Miiverse browser (which can record screenshots from any suspended game) hurts the spontaneity involved in actually wanting to do so.
A standard Internet browser is also included as part of the OS and using the Gamepad’s combination of stylus and gyroscope to swiftly navigate pages makes for a pretty decent user experience. Sadly this is marred by the browser’s rather suspect compatibility with popular websites.
I tried accessing my Google Drive using it, whereupon the whole affair quickly became a fruitless task due to buttons, content boxes and other assets becoming misaligned and sometimes invisible across the basic account page.
With points like these gradually adding up, it seems as though there’s an equally negative aspect to everything that the Wii U gets right.
You’ll find a generous number of USB ports built into the machine so it’s hard to imagine running out of room for that extra charging cable or standalone keyboard, but then none of these ports are 3.0 either so you’ll be subject to long loading times when transferring large files such as on demand games or software updates.
Nintendo has always been slow to adapt to the changing landscape, but the lack of expected standards in the Wii U makes for a pretty depressing read even by their standards.
There’s no integrated achievement system, no CD/DVD/Blu-ray or mp3 playback or media streaming and most alarmingly of all: you only get a tiny amount of built-in memory that necessitates another separate purchase for a compatible memory stick or decently-sized hard drive.
Away from the console itself you’ll find there to be a typically large divide in the asking price of its games.
Despite the comparatively small software library and almost non-existent retail presence at this point, Nintendo’s first party software continues to hold their high price points, which is upsetting when you consider the already steep adoption cost of the hardware and recommended accessories.
Then of course you have the digital prices on the Nintendo eShop, which are hilariously high when compared with rival content providers such as Steam and GOG.
If I was to sum up my early experience with the Wii U then, it would probably be most accurate/funny to say so with the line of: equal parts awesome and train wreck.
There’s a lot to be desired in the power of the hardware itself and plenty of gripes to be had with the breadth of the GUI and overall focus of the Gamepad peripheral, but you can’t disagree with its pleasantly ergonomic build or with the prospects that certain high quality titles promise to offer.
Some will say that the writing is on the wall for the Nintendo Wii U at this point, to which I say:
Although I’m still interested to see where it all goes and what other secrets or hidden gems I’ve yet to uncover. Even if it is steadily downhill from here, it’s a journey I will have made before and, let’s face it: will likely make again.
Race you to the bottom!