Nintendo launched the original Wii six years in November 2006, introducing a new era of motion-control gaming to players. This year Nintendo enters the HD landscape for the first time, only now the company is pioneering dual-screen interactive-controls with one of the best launch-day libraries the industry has ever seen.
Aesthetically speaking, the Nintendo Wii U is a much needed step-forward for Nintendo. The high-gloss black ‘Deluxe Set’ or the equally shiny white ‘Basic Set’ is streamlined with rounded corners, hidden inputs and easily accessible slot-loading disc tray. It’s a testament to how much the marketplace has changed since Nintendo first launched the original Nintendo Entertainment System back in 1985, showing just how much consumers have grown to expect from their home consoles now. Features like online video-streaming, access to a digital-library of games and a robust online-multiplayer network are just the basic necessities of a home console now. Nintendo attempted to incorporate all of these features with the Wii U, and although some of these services still have room to grow, the new innovations that Nintendo has produced for gamers rival even the most popular systems on the market.
There is no doubt that the premier feature of the Wii U is the Wii U Gamepad. It’s another landmark creation that Nintendo has brought to the gaming landscape. It is a revolutionary controller that will force rival console-developers to rethink their current-controllers in order to compete. Holding the controller in your hands it’s obvious how much time went into developing the device. Although larger than a traditional controller, the weight of the device makes it feel solid, but all the while still comfortable to hold. Form fitting grips on the back of the controller keep it sturdy in your hand, which is important since most of the controller has a glossy-finish that would have created a slippery and uncomfortable handle to hold after an intense gaming session.
The screen is a bright, vivid and large display (6.2-inch, 16:9 aspect ratio LCD touch screen) that can offer gamers so much more than just a helpful inventory manager or remote control while watching media. The display screen and the television screen are in constant synch while playing a game. Latency on either screen is completely nonexistent while playing. It would take some severe testing, well outside the average realm of user-experience to even get a handle on the difference. Fully equipped with the standard array of buttons (two analog sticks, D-PAD and 4 Button inputs in the classic X-Y, A-B format) it also has four shoulder buttons and a TV button to switch from television to handheld gaming. For motion gaming the GamePad is equipped with a gyroscope, accelerometer and geomagnetic sensors which can add even more controller inputs for developers to use. Nintendo has brought its experience with the Wii’s MotionPlus control and built that technology directly into the GamePad. Additional benefits of the Gamepad are the front-facing camera, which can be used by developers to put a player’s face in the game, or keep the players face in a separate window-box to make playing with others more personal and interactive. The camera is clearly meant as a small addition to games, as the quality isn’t HD at this point. It is a vast improvement over other handheld devices like the Nintendo 3DS.
Touch-screen functions are not a gigantic leap forward from classic Nintendo touch interfaces. More recent functionalities like multitouch inputs are not present on the device. Using the touch-screen within games is extremely responsive and worked exactly how I had hoped. Mini-games within Nintendo Land really bring out the features of the GamePad, though all in their simplest forms. The device contains a stylus, which is tucked away within the gamepad for easy storage and accessibility. There is a microphone on the GamePad as well, which can be used as both a gameplay mechanic (think blowing into it for something like Ocarina of Time) or for communication. The current games available to me while writing this review did not let me really explore the functionality of the microphone for online communication. I can report on the sound of the speakers, which you would rely on if you were playing a title using only the Gamepad’s screen. That sound is both clear and dynamic, it’s an adequate transition from television to GamePad without a drastic loss in audio-quality, and once again makes playing a title on the GamePad an enjoyable experience. That is something I want to cover separately.
One of the major marketing points of the Wii U and the Wii U GamePad is how players can seamless play from television to small-screen with a simple click on the GamePad. Playing on the television comes with some clear advantages, larger screen, more dynamic sound and an HD display. The GamePad itself isn’t HD (the screen supports a 854 x 480 resolution) though that is just a technical classification really. Games played on the Wii U GamePad screen are incredibly clear, with bright vibrant colors and equally enjoyable sound. In fact, playing on just the GamePad offers some amazing benefits. It’s a more personal experience at times, allowing me to simply sit in my favorite chair by the window of my apartment, more comfortable and more freeing than it can be playing on my television. It’s also a giant benefit to others around me. Playing and reviewing games for a living often times means I am sequestered alone to another room so my girlfriend can watch TV in peace, or forcing her to use a tablet or laptop so she can Hulu whatever show is available while I play. Now games can be played without having those restrictions and I can see how this would be a selling-point for families or other co-dwellers. This isn’t the sole selling-point however, it’s just an advantage. You are now getting the same console-quality games that you can play on other platforms with these new added features. The GamePad also takes the following features and turns them from ‘possibly interesting’, to ‘seamless console’ features.
All major consoles have Hulu, Netflix and Amazon Instant Video but the Wii U makes them even easier to use, navigate and enjoy. ‘Nintendo Tvii’ makes this possible, and although the full functions of Nintendo Tvii aren’t available yet, it’s one of the largest steps forward for console-media integration that Nintendo has ever produced. Nintendo Tvii will bring all of your online content (Hulu, Netflix, Amazon Instant) into one searchable database so you no longer have to search through one service and then the other trying to find movies, shows or rentals. Even though that alone is an improvement on how game-consoles organize online services, the addition of Satellite and Cable-TV programing make it even better. Add to that simple television controls, DVR functionality and future features to come over the coming months and the Wii U media capabilities make it and impressive entertainment hub for the whole family. More on Nintendo Tvii is expected next month but I would be remiss if I did not mention the upcoming functions that I have had the opportunity to test out at different Nintendo functions leading up to launch. Of course the added benefit of watching all of this content on the GamePad only, once again makes the service unique to Nintendo.
Many people that will be buying a Wii U had a Wii console at some point in the past. The full compatibility of the Wii U shows Nintendo dedication to their fans. While other companies are constantly outdating old peripherals or attachments, Nintendo is making sure that those devices still work for their consumers. The older Wii games will still work on the Wii U but the new system won’t provide any drastic graphic improvements on those games. Older Nintendo controllers will of course work with the Wii U as well so keep all of those spare nun chucks you may have lying around the house. Players will launch a Wii application on the Wii U, this will show a familiar Wii menu on the screen to get you playing your old games.
Earlier I mentioned the importance of multiplayer functionality and digital distribution that consoles need to have in today’s market. Those functions are made possible by ‘Miiverse’ and the Nintendo ‘e-Shop’. The e-Shop is now the centralized store for Wii U content. Large images and a grid-like display allow you to shop for upcoming games, or recently released games and other genres, all in easy to browse categories. You can shop for things like indie-games or full retail games that are available to download in digital form. There isn’t anything that I would consider ‘innovative’ about the store (when compared with other console marketplaces) but it does provide an easy to use shopping experience that allows gamers to discover new content and download new games. No sense in re-inventing the wheel when the current online-stores work so well.
The Miiverse on the other hand is a drastic improvement from the original Wii, which did not offer a comparable multiplayer experience. The Miiverse works with Wii U applications and Wii U games in a multitude of different ways. Nintendo has a unique challenge in the online-multiplayer department. Their target audience is younger, and their ‘family friendly’ appeal requires Nintendo to offer current generation possibilities with its multiplayer, but Nintendo must also present a safe environment for children to interact and play. Obviously all consoles have this challenge, but I feel Nintendo is held to a higher-standard when safeguarding children because of its larger focus on younger titles.
Miiverse allows players to connect to other gamers and friends through their Mii avatars. Players can meet in smaller “communities” which are divided into game titles. You can easily find other players that share your interest in a game and find tips, friends, conversations and arguments about that title. You can “follow” people that you particularly find interesting, then friend request those people. Messages are like texting, but also allow simple quick notes or sketches to be sent as well. It’s a terrific system, that allows you to easily communicate with others in short, quick messages. It’s a more social Twitter in that way, with an easier to use interface that supports a better messaging system than the current Twitter UI would on the console. This isn’t just a “from the dashboard” addition, this also takes place in games. You can send messages, or leave messages, for friends within a game so they find them as they progress. You can disable this feature as well. The system is simple fun and with a good group of Mii-friends, your game progression could have some pretty funny moments. If you do something that the game feels is a memorable moment (like defeating a boss in a unique way, or not being hit for example) then the game will ask you to ‘shout it out’ to your friends. It’s a nice feature and one that you don’t have to do if you don’t want to.
The Wii U brings some very impressive innovations to gamers, once again Nintendo offers its customers a unique gameplay experience. The GamePad will make a tremendous impact on the future of game-controllers and console peripherals (something that competitive console developers have already started experimenting with) and the changes from the original Wii are staggering. The term ‘next-generation’ is a relevant term, for Nintendo this is technically their next-generation console. If you are comparing it to current generation consoles like the PS3 or Xbox 360, then I didn’t feel like I was playing an entirely new generation of console gaming (at least one that the market hasn’t seen before in terms of graphics or online play). This could be because the jump from Xbox to Xbox 360 and PS2 TO PS3 was so staggering. It will be interesting to see how other consoles “feel” when they come out and if they live up to our “next-generation” expectations. As the market stands, I do not want to label the Wii U as not meeting a “next generation” expectation when we don’t even know what other consoles will be like “next-generation”.
What the Wii U does deliver on is possibilities, both in new gameplay mechanics and with streaming-media functionality. Nintendo Tvii, Miiverse and the e-Shop are just starting out their development launch on the Wii U and where Nintendo takes them in the future will be interesting to see. There has been talk on other platforms about “console quality” with a handheld, but nothing compares to the Wii U gamepad. Although the GamePad isn’t as mobile as other handhelds and is not a direct competitor, it’s an amazing benefit to be able to switch back and forth from TV to GamePad whenever you want to. The Wii U is an improvement in every single category from the Wii and Nintendo didn’t just “match” other HD capable consoles, they created something that none of them can offer.