With the Wii U, Nintendo wants to retake the living rooms of America — it just doesn't seem sure how it means to do it.
Six years almost to the day after Nintendo launched the Wii comes its successor, the Wii U.
The first Nintendo console to join the high definition era, the Wii U’s main selling point is something different — the GamePad, a merging of a tablet interface with a traditional controller. Where the Wii was designed around simplicity and accessibility, the Wii U is a much more complicated proposition. In the Japanese giant’s new attempt to retake the living rooms of the core gaming audience and the massive mainstream foothold it found with the Wii, the biggest problem is how to explain just what the Wii U is, and what it’s trying to do.
This review was largely completed prior to the Wii U's "day one patch," which enabled the online marketplace for the Wii U as well as Miiverse and online play. While this review does not speak to the Wii U's online components, we will be continuing to evaluate the Wii U over the coming days, weeks and months. As Nintendo's new platform evolves, so will our review.
What we like
The hardware is well built
The Wii U’s form factor is long. Really long. The console isn’t big, strictly speaking, but it is quite a bit deeper than the Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3. Laying flat, the system looks kind of silly. But vertically, it cuts a sleek, friendly, and modern silhouette.
The Wii U supports standard HDMI out of the box, which is good, along with the proprietary AV output that Nintendo introduced with the Wii in 2006. There are four USB 2.0 ports, which can be used to charge the new "Pro" controller or expand the system’s internal storage.
The GamePad is also well constructed and comfortable to hold, and it’s much lighter than expected — at 1.1 pounds, it weighs less than the iPad 4, though it is heavier than the Xbox 360 or PS3 controllers.
Gaming on the small screen
The Wii U’s GamePad allows for the possibility of playing full console games without a television, and regardless of whether or not this is a practical concern for you as an individual, it’s still cool that it works. It’s only offered in a few retail titles currently: New Super Mario Bros U, Batman: Arkham City Armored Edition and Scribblenauts Unlimited, but in those games, the ability to play independent of the television has proven practical.
It encourages local multiplayer
The Wii may not have pushed online multiplayer very far, but it did successfully accomplish local, "couch" co-op. The Wii U seems poised for a similar situation. Nintendo Land practically demands several players in a room together in order to make your way through the Wii U’s introductory course, and New Super Mario Bros. U may be at its best with four players. Meanwhile, the Wii U’s support for almost all of the Wii’s peripherals means that many players already have everything they need to get friends and family together and playing in the same room.
It’s competitive with the PS3 and 360 visually
While nothing we’ve seen technologically from the Wii U so far puts it ahead of Microsoft or Sony’s current generation systems, it is capably recreating what we expect of HD consoles, all while driving a secondary screen. While this means parity with Sony and Microsoft for multiplatform titles, what it really means is a future of what we expect to be great looking, HD first-party releases from Nintendo.
ZombiU and Nintendo Land
While New Super Mario Bros. U offers a traditional Nintendo experience, it doesn’t sell the system. At launch, two Wii U games serve as excellent examples of Wii U’s unique potential: Nintendo Land and ZombiU.
ZombiU shows the kind of interesting, intense game that third parties can do with the hardware
Nintendo Land is a grab bag of ideas about how players might interact with their games using Nintendo’s new system. While not every game is equally great, there’s enough exciting and different there to serve as an introduction to what the Wii U can do, given a properly motivated developer.
ZombiU shows the kind of interesting, intense game that third parties can do with the hardware, when properly motivated. ZombiU is excellently designed around the GamePad’s capabilities as a second screen. But it’s also designed around the controller’s unique layout, making it one of the more comfortable to play titles on the system.
What we don't like
The Wii U GamePad is surprisingly light, but there seems to be a reason for that — the battery only holds enough of a charge for approximately three hours of play given our experiences with the system over the last ten days.
This makes extended play using the Wii U a compromise. If you’re only sitting down for an hour or so once in a while, then you can use the GamePad’s dedicated charger or the charging cradle included in the deluxe package between sessions. For anything more, you’ll need to play while charging the GamePad, which reintroduces wires and the need for proximity to a power outlet.
The three hour battery life also hurts Nintendo’s efforts to make the GamePad ubiquitous as a television remote.
The Wii U uses a resistive touchscreen for its GamePad, which only supports "single-touch" input. The lack of multitouch doesn’t seem like a particular problem, but the screen itself feels inexact and requires more force to register inputs than it should. Games like ZombiU demonstrate why this is a bad — moving items could take multiple tries as the touchscreen often failed to consistently register dragging motions. It feels designed for stylus input, which is impractical given that the GamePad is too large to reliably hold one-handed, at least horizontally.
While the second screen is the Wii U’s biggest strength and its main differentiator from the PS3 and Xbox 360, Nintendo seems torn about how best to use it. This is visible in Nintendo’s pair of big hitters for launch, Nintendo Land and New Super Mario Bros. U. One uses the GamePad display as a separate experience from the gameplay on the television, while the other only uses the GamePad as a duplicate display.
"We’re left without compelling reasons to recommend Wii U versions of third party software..."
Playing games on the GamePad independent of the television screen is convenient, but it’s not a new experience, given Nintendo’s strong handheld console legacy. Playing on the television with the GamePad as a supplemental screen also resembles Nintendo’s handheld strategy since the DS. It feels novel and interesting. But save for ZombiU, third parties so far seem to be searching for a meaningful gameplay experience to use it for. Most titles are using it as a submenu that feels superfluous and less convenient than they would be without it. Since the multiplatform titles that we’ve seen so far don’t appear markedly better than their 360 and PS3 counterparts, we’re left without compelling reasons to recommend Wii U versions of third party software.
It’s difficult to figure out exactly what Nintendo is trying to do with the the Wii U. Granted, the enthusiast press has demonstrated an inability to grasp ideas from the company that later turn out to be brilliant in retrospect, such as the Nintendo DS’s dual screens or the Wii’s motion control. But that doesn’t change the fact that few games on the system use the GamePad to do something new with console gaming.
Some users are sure to appreciate the ability to play some games on the couch without using the television. But the Wii U is a poor substitute for a tablet and the games that both the gaming audience and the wider public at large has come to expect since the launch of the iPad in 2010. More damningly, the need for the Wii U GamePad to be wirelessly tethered to the main hardware makes for an experience that negates much of the convenience of tablet gaming.
While Ubisoft has a great game for the Wii U’s launch in ZombiU, third-party developers have yet to demonstrate solid support for the system moving forward. Even Ubisoft’s Far Cry 3, set to release days after the Wii U, isn’t set to appear on the Wii U. EA has a number of ports on the Wii U, but half of them are demonstrably inferior compared to their Xbox and PlayStation counterparts.
Nintendo has promised that it understands the need for third-party support for the Wii U, but it beat a similar drum prior to the launch of the Wii and even the 3DS. The Wii’s third-party efforts were largely ignored and generally substandard, and outside of the Monster Hunter series, the 3DS’s third-party footprint has dwindled significantly. Put simply, Nintendo has more to prove in this regard than any other platform holder, and it isn’t filling us with confidence that we can expect third-party titles will consistently appear on the Wii U. We’re even more skeptical that third-party titles will make good use of the Wii U’s unique capabilities.
But Nintendo’s greatest hurdle is demonstrating that it understands online, and how to use that to offer a good experience to players. As of this writing, the Wii U that customers will buy on November 18th doesn’t have an online component — that has to be downloaded in a day one firmware update for the system. While firmware updates are nothing new, no one outside of Nintendo and some third-party developers have any idea how the Wii U’s online infrastructure will function. We don’t know what the shop experience is. We don’t know how you reach out to friends, whether you can join games via invites a la Xbox Live, how voice communication works. In fact, at the time of publish, Nintendo hasn’t even enabled backwards compatibility for Wii titles.
A month ago, there was still time to build the Wii U’s online message, but time is up. There’s an unprecedented number of features in the Wii U that Nintendo has simply refused to talk about. There are a number of possible explanations as to why the situation is what it is, and none of them are good. Some of them are downright dire.
The Wii U is poised to deliver the same thing Nintendo always has, but we're still waiting to see if it can deliver more
As with every Nintendo system, there is a guarantee of great software for the Wii U, because Nintendo is releasing it. It will see a number of first-party titles that will range from good to fantastic, because that’s where Nintendo’s expertise is. We expect that there will be a certain number of must-play third-party titles for the system — ZombiU may already be that for many players, and the recently announced Bayonetta 2 joins Platinum Games’ The Wonderful 101 as games that we at Polygon are legitimately excited for.
But the best thing we can say about the Wii U, that it will have a strong first-party presence, is also its biggest problem. We are cautious and indeed, somewhat pessimistic, about what the future holds for Nintendo’s new system. With Microsoft and Sony expect to announce new, significantly more powerful systems within the next six months, Nintendo has only a short amount of time to establish the Wii U. We are concerned about its ability to be more than a box for Nintendo first-party releases. Nintendo has always delivered on that, but it's promised more, and that’s what we expect.