While Microsoft and Sony seem content with releasing new consoles that are essentially more powerful versions of their previous devices, Nintendo have painted themselves into a corner where it’s “innovate or die”. The Nintendo DS showed us that touchscreens are the future, the Wii introduced motion to the masses and the 3DS… well... never mind.
From a business perspective, a tablet controller seems like a natural evolution for Nintendo. Tablets are all the rage right now and even I find myself often choosing the iPad over my PS3 for short gaming fixes. Nintendo has made a huge gamble with the Wii U and after the sharp decline of the Wii and the 3DS’ slow start, the stakes have never been higher.
I’d like to put the Wii U’s unique controller aside for a second and focus on the console itself. From a technical standpoint, the Wii U is the console that Nintendo should have released in 2006 instead of the Wii. Some sources indicate that the Wii U is in many ways less capable than the PS3 while others refute this claim. However, the sheer fact that this debate even exists is pretty embarrassing. Why is a console that is set for a 2012 release being compared to a console that launched 6 years ago? Nintendo should be aiming to run Sony and Microsoft out of the building, not sit down at the same table as them. Yes it will be great to finally see Mario and Zelda in HD but by the time a HD Zelda is ready I’ll probably be playing 4K games on my PS4 while my robot servant is fixing me mojitos.
The Wii U will launch this Novemeber in 2 different flavours. A white 8GB model will retail for $299/£249 while a black 32GB model (that comes bundled with NintendoLand) will be sold for $349/£299. In this era where 1TB harddrives practically come free with McDonalds Happy Meals it’s pretty disappointing that the Wii U’s storage space is so low, especially given the company’s new digital games initiative. On the plus side, the Wii U will support off-the-shelf external harddrives, so simply plug the terabyte drive you get from McDonalds into the back of the machine and storage space should no longer be an issue.
The Wii U also uses its own propriety disc format rather than Blu-Rays which many disappoint some people but as someone who owns a grand total of 2 Blu-Ray movies I can’t say that I care too much.
One thing that did surprise me about the Wii U is the design of the actual console. The system looks freakishly long which is a far cry from the original Wii’s small and chic appearance. The console is also very plain and lacks any distinctive features that would make it standout amongst the other devices in your entertainment system.
Back to the controller, the Wii U Gamepad is also much wider than I expected it to be. The ‘pad felt very plastic-y (which is understandable as a cost saving measure) but it was relatively comfortable and after a brief adjustment period it’s easy to forget that you’re holding a controller the size of dinner plate. The most noticeable Gamepad feature about is obviously the 6.2” touchscreen that rests in the centre of it. The screen may not be multi-touch but in practice that shouldn’t really be an issue. Not once have I wished that I could pinch-to-zoom on my 3DS and I doubt I’d miss the ability to do so on the Wii U.
Surrounding the touchscreen are two clickable analog sticks, the standard face buttons you’d expect from Nintendo (Y, B, A, X, Start, Select, D-Pad) and buttons representing Power, Home and Nintendo TVii. The Gamepad’s face also features a front facing camera, two stereo speakers and an NFC sensor which we’ve yet to see in practice. On the top of the Gamepad are L & R shoulder buttons, ZL/ZR triggers, a volume slider, infrared sensor, a stylus slot and headphone/AC adaptor ports. An accessory port is located on the bottom of the device so keep an out for useless, third-party peripherals in the near future. Finally the Gamepad has a built in Accelerometer and Gyroscope because, well... why wouldn’t it?
I also had to opportunity to check out the Wii U’s controversial Pro Controller which lacks the Gamepad’s screen, sensors, camera, speakers and ports. Although the Pro Controller unashamedly aspires to be an Xbox 360 controller, it actually feels a lot like the Playstation 3’s Dualshock. As someone who still finds the 360 controller to be a tad too clunky, I was surprised at how natural the Pro Controller felt in my Dualshock groomed hands. Both the analog sticks and the D-Pad on the controller felt incredibly confortable and should satisfy any gamer who's looking for a more traditional gaming experience. My only gripe with the Pro Controller is that it doesn’t have rumble support which seems like an odd omission.
The Wii U will also support existing Wii Peripherals including the Wii Remote, Nunchuck, Classic Controller, Zapper and others. This is to be expected as the system is "backwards compatible with most Wii software" whatever that means. Nintendo has confirmed that Wii games will not be upscaled when played via the Wii U so legacy software will still look as crappy as ever. I’ve yet to sample the Wii U’s UI or Online interface but what I did get to do was play a number of games! I’ll talk about those in a separate feature but the short of it is... nothing blew me away.
As both a gamer and a technology enthusiast I’m finding it extremely difficult to get excited about the Wii U. Nintendo has shown up to the HD party 6 years late just as Microsoft and Sony are about ready to call it a day. It also doesn’t help that none of the games we’ve seen so far look as good or as interesting as upcoming PS3 titles such as The Last Us or Beyond: Two Souls. A few years ago I said the Wii U was dead on arrival, now I estimate that it will remain semi-relevant for 2-3 years before suffering the same fate as its predecessor.
I’m begging for Nintendo to prove me wrong.