It also has some troubling issues that I'm not sure how to interpret. The system update enabling all online features – eShop, Miiverse, Netflix, system transfer, and even Wii backwards compatibility – arrived late Saturday night, just three hours short of this posting. I had reason to believe this update would be here in the middle of last week.
Not only does that mean this review had little time to evaluate broad swaths of the Wii U's functionality, it has me worried about Nintendo's ability to handle the new online network. I won't judge the online too harshly for something that happens before launch, but I can fairly say the launch is already suboptimal. This review will be updated as we have time to examine features.
In any case, the stuff that does work is pretty nice.
The Wii U system itself is not much to talk about, at least in terms of looks. It's a shiny, rounded brick, longer and heavier than the Wii: 10.6 inches in depth and 3.5lb in weight, versus the Wii's 8.5 inches and 2.65lb. It has a slot-loading disc drive, and a flap that opens up to reveal USB and SD card ports inside. Unlike on the Wii, the flap recesses into the system when folded down, instead of sticking out, which is quite nice.
Those rounded corners mean you can't stand the system up on its side like you can the Wii, without the use of a stand accessory. Like most other Wii U accessories, this is bundled with the Deluxe Set but not with the Basic Set.
One odd addition to the system: along with the power light, which glows red when off and blue when on, the Wii U has a bright white LED to indicate the presence of a disc in the drive. Why?
Latency is such a non-issue on this device it's kind of frightening. Even when playing New Super Mario Bros. U, something that requires extreme responsiveness on the part of both the player and the controller, the display keeps up exactly with the TV. This is not OnLive; I absolutely could not tell I was playing something streamed from one device to another. It's a remarkable achievement. Of course, it requires you to be fairly close to the Wii U.
The GamePad has two analog sticks similar to those on the Wii Nunchuk or Classic Controller: rubbery, convex, with a ridge on the outer edge of the surface. Both can be clicked in to act as additional buttons.
Along with those, the GamePad has a large D-pad, bigger than the one on the Wiimote (again, like the Classic Controller), four face buttons in SNES configuration, + and - buttons generally used for "select" and "start," and four shoulder buttons. L and R are bumper-style buttons, while ZL and ZR are trigger-shaped. All four buttons have a defined "click" and a short travel distance, so don't expect analog triggers.
There are yet more inputs in the GamePad. Tilt control is possible through accelerometer, gyroscope and geomagnetic sensors, essentially MotionPlus tech. In games that use this, either for direct control like Donkey Kong's Crash Course or for camera control like aiming batarangs in Batman: Arkham City, it's quick, accurate, and responsive. Like the MotionPlus tech, it can be recalibrated when necessary, through menu options in-game.
A front-facing camera is used to put your face into games, often in a separate window on the TV like in Nintendo Land, so other players can see the GamePad user concentrating or expressing Family Game Time Delight or otherwise emoting. Games like Tank! Tank! Tank!, meanwhile, will actually put your face onto an in-game character, which is surprisingly entertaining for such a simple feature. This camera is better than those in the 3DS or Vita, but not HD, and still fairly blurry. It's definitely a "game camera" and not a "photography camera," let me put it that way.
Most notably, the Wii U GamePad features a 6.2 inch LCD touch screen. It's not HD: at 854 x 480, it's the same resolution as the original Wii's video output, but games look sharp and brightly colored, with no evidence of blur or ghosting. Even though it isn't HD, Wii U games running on the GamePad screen look almost as good as they do on the TV, and playing exclusively on the GamePad feels perfectly natural. There's even a headphone jack if you'd like to enjoy a game's audio without disturbing others.
The touch interface is exactly what you know from a DS or 3DS: a resistive touchscreen, meaning no multitouch. For most system functions, like tapping icons in the Wii U Menu or opening in-game inventories, the imprecise mash of your finger will do just fine; however, for fine in-game control, you'll want to get out the stylus, which is stored in the top of the pad.
Even though it isn't HD, Wii U games running on the GamePad screen look almost as good as they do on the TV.
The battery life for the GamePad clocks in at almost exactly 3 and a half hours. I tested it in a marathon Batman: Arkham City session, switching between the GamePad view and TV view (which puts a map on the GamePad); it took 3 hours and 2 minutes for the red battery warning light to come on. Another 21 minutes later, it started blinking. Eight minutes after that, the GamePad died out and the game stopped with a warning that the system had lost communication with the GamePad. Richard Mitchell got 3 hours and 33 minutes out of a GamePad during an intense ZombiU session.
A "TV" button brings up the TV remote controls at any time, even during a game. It's no surprise Nintendo thought this function was worth adding a button to the pad: it dramatically improves the experience of using the Wii U.
The GamePad also supports near-field communication, but no software makes use of it yet. The GamePad is the Swiss army knife of game controllers.
The Wii U Menu looks shockingly similar to the Wii Menu, but with a background of floating grey GamePads and button shapes behind the grid of plasticky rectangles. As it turns out, the interface designed for use with pointing is also well-suited for touch controls. By default, it loads on the GamePad, allowing to to select the disc or app of your choice with the touchscreen. By moving the analog stick, you can bring up a cursor to select items that way.
If you want your app selection to be more public – and this must happen at least once, I guess – you can swap it to the TV, at which point selection is done with the Wii Remote's pointer.
Whichever screen is not occupied by the menu shows a zoomable "WaraWara Plaza" where your Mii mills about with a voice bubble declaring what you've been playing recently. At the moment, my Mii is alone in the plaza, pending the delayed system update.
The GamePad is the Swiss army knife of game controllers.
There is significant load time involved with loading apps from the Wii U menu. I counted 15 seconds between exiting the system settings menu and the reappearance of the Wii U menu. For that matter, there's also a long "splash" screen at the startup of every game. Perhaps this has something to do with buffering a bunch of information on the GamePad; whatever it is, it's a bit irritating.
Update: Hitting the Home button at any time brings up a menu with the browser, Miiverse, friend lists, and other options. It shows if you have any friend requests, as well. Confusingly, you have to go to the friends list here in this menu in order to set up your list, before you can do any friend requesting in Miiverse. It took me a good few minutes to find the option.
Hooking up the console involves plugging in the power cables, one each for the console and the GamePad, charging the GamePad (which uses its own built-in battery), and connecting the sensor bar and video cable. It's worth noting that the Wii U, for the first time in game console history, ships only with an HDMI cable. If you want component, composite, or something else, you'll have to buy it separately or use the one you were using with your Wii. The external power supply on the power cord, incidentally, is much larger than the Wii's. At 5.75 inches long, 1.75 inches tall and 2.75 inches thick, it's a bit smaller than the power supply of the Xbox 360 Slim.
Upon starting up the console for the first time, you'll be directed through a simple process of creating a user account, associating it with a Mii – which can be made in the Mii Maker, transferred from 3DS easily, or generated (poorly) by input from the GamePad's camera – and setting up an Internet connection. It is also in this initial setup process that the Wii U walks you through TV remote setup, asking you for your TV's manufacturer and then having you test power, volume, and input with different configurations until you find one that works. It took maybe one minute to get TV control working.
The Deluxe Set includes a console stand, as well as two separate GamePad stands: a solid plastic one and a much nicer charging cradle, to which the AC adapter can be connected. This more substantial charging stand allows you to easily set the GamePad down, guided into proper charging position by two small rubber wheels that fit into grooves on the pad, and begin charging it instantly.
It should be standard with every GamePad, and marks one reason the Deluxe Set is the smarter purchase (the other reason: Nintendo Land is fun).
I don't know why the Deluxe Set comes with two different stands.
Messages can consist of short text or Swapnote-style drawn messages, with which Nintendo staff have helpfully already populated communities. I've already had a good time pseudo-Tweeting with game journalist friends. I look forward to investigating Miiverse further.
One disappointing limitation has already presented itself: you can only follow 1,000 people, and you can only have 100 friends on the Wii U. That continues to be an uncool limit for the Xbox 360, and it's uncool for an ostensibly next-generation system.
Update: Having had a few more hours to mess around with Miiverse, I can say with confidence it's hilarious. The integration in games like New Super Mario Bros. U means that my world map is littered with rhyming boasts, hints, and drawings of a downtrodden Yellow Toad (all of which can be silenced if you don't want to see it). It is, so far, a social network devoted entirely to having fun.
It also makes friend acquisition easier, which is a very big deal for a Nintendo system. I don't even have a number! I have a name! In English!
The integration in NSMBU works like this: when you complete a level with no damage, or die many times, or find all the Star Coins, or some other kind of achievement, the game prompts you to post about it. Those posts show up on other people's TVs as balloons with your Mii's face on them, next to the level's location on the world map. The map on the GamePad shows the actual text or drawings. My world map is quickly filling up with delightful nonsequiturs.
The top of the shop has a button for news, along with "Charts" and a space to enter a download code. The whole thing reminds me of a vertically oriented 3DS eShop.
The Wii Menu is an app within the Wii U Menu; to access Wii functions, you load that, which loads up a fully emulated Wii Menu. That's pretty strange! You'll find the Wii's Mii Maker there, along with the system transfer app, and ... the SD card menu, the Wii message board, and even the digital clock that was added to the Wii Menu in an update a few years ago.
As for Wii games on Wii U, they don't appear to be upscaled in any way. We'll investigate backwards compatibility further soon.
The Wii U comes pre-loaded with apps for popular video services Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Instant Video, and YouTube. These will all work with "Nintendo TVii," a service that centralizes them, along with video input from your cable or satellite provider.
There is also a Web browser, which displays web pages very quickly on either the TV or the GamePad (or both), and adorably offers an optional privacy curtain on the TV. For private browsing, of course.
However, TVii is expected in December. And of the video apps, only Netflix works at present. And it's the same interface you see on any other console – but with the very cool ability to move video to the GamePad.
The Wii U doesn't feel exactly like the "next generation." The menu interface feels like the Wii, and the graphics output by games are nothing that can't be done on the current generation of HD consoles. Furthermore, the troubles already apparent in the Wii U's online services point to Nintendo as usual, behind not just on networking in a conceptual way, but literally behind on its implementation of its own network.
However, the GamePad, even if it doesn't feel like the linear progression of game console technology we'd expect, does feel like a futuristic leap. It's rooted in classic experiences, but adds weird new possibilities. Nintendo has always excelled in taking unexpected steps, and this is one of them, even if it lacks the immediate "aha" appeal of the Wii Remote, or whatever it was people saw in holding the middle of the Nintendo 64 controller.
Part of the system's appeal is in new possibilities for dual-screen gameplay. By uncoupling the screens from one another, the Wii U enables interesting new possibilities, like players seeing different amounts of information about a game space in the same room, or a zoomed in view of something seen in full on the TV. It also enables the DS-like use of a map or inventory screen, which can be nice as well.
The other part of its appeal: console-quality games – literally console games – on a handheld, for a private experience that won't take up the TV and won't bother others in your home. I am a fan of handheld consoles, personally. I prefer to play things on the small screen, where I can move around with them a bit. The Wii U is a console designed to be used like a handheld, which is absurdly hyper-targeted to my lifestyle.