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Wii U Review: The Gamepad is Stellar but Don’t Expect a Next-Gen Experience

I hold the mantle of Entertainment Buddha, so I had to go out and pickup a Wii U yesterday, which is supposedly the first entry in the next generation of consoles.  Nintendo has definitely crafted a nice little piece of machinery, but by no means is it a game changer in the gaming industry.  The potential is there, but Nintendo has yet to optimize it, due to the fact of so many features not being available at launch (namely Nintendo TVii and other video services).  Not to mention the fact that a majority of the titles available for it are third party ports of games that are nearly 1 year old.  I spent a large chunk of my evening fiddling with the Wii U yesterday, and spent enough time with the system to give it a fair review.  If you’ve been on the fence about buying one I urge you to continue on with the rest of my write up.

The Wii U

EB 7 out of 10 Buddhas

The Awesome

  • Tiny footprint
  • Crisp visuals
  • The Gamepad really is functional and different

The Not so Awesome

  • Multiple features don’t work at this time (TVii, Amazon, YT, Hulu, etc)
  • Network features messy
  • Long load times of simple menu items
  • Too many software updates right out of the box
  • Visuals aren’t next generation
  • Battery life will prevent extended Gamepad gaming sessions

Hardware

While the hardware is neat, and the Gamepad controller is pretty rad, I still can’t say that Nintendo has a winner on their hands with the Wii U.  I’m impressed with the Wii U console itself, but in the gaming industry hardware can only do so much, so even though the Wii U may have some killer hardware, that doesn’t mean it’s a great system. Although, the console is quite small and sexy with a footprint that is slightly longer than the old Wii.  It’s amazing to consider its small form factor when you think that it can produce visuals similar to the much larger Xbox 360 and PS3.

It’s front and rear panels are eerily similar to the Wii.  In fact, outside of a slightly larger power port, and the inclusion of HDMI, you may mistake the backside of a Wii U for a Wii.  They’re that similar to each other, and outside of the longer length of the Wii U, there isn’t much difference in the look and feel of Nintendo’s latest console offerings.

Wii U’s footprint is slightly longer than the Wii

The Wii U features 4 USB ports that can be used to charge the Pro controller, or even better, serve as ports for external storage.  I think Nintendo may set a new trend with this feature, because even though the two different console flavors feature no more than 32GB of storage, they both can accommodate up to 2TB of external storage.  That is freaking awesome considering that the Xbox 360, and PS3 still don’t offer the same type of solution for adding cheaper third party storage.  If external HDDs aren’t your thing there’s also an SD port for more portable storage.

Upon firing up the Wii U for the first time I immediately noticed the new HD visuals, which is a refreshing feeling after playing on the Wii with its bush league SD visuals.  Don’t expect to see groundbreaking game visuals though.  I played New Super Mario Bros. U and NintendoLand, and neither game featured graphics that I haven’t seen before.  It’s definitely awesome to play a Mario game in HD, but by no means did the Wii U make the game look like something I’ve never seen before.  When you come off of games like Halo 4 and Black Ops 2, it’s hard to say that a HD SMB game looks better on a next generation console, which, so far, the Wii U is not.  Well at least in the visuals department.

That brings me to the Wii U Gamepad, which is the real piece of innovation packed into the Wii U box.  I’ll be honest.  When I first saw and touched the Gamepad at E3 I was less than impressed.  It felt like a cheap piece of plastic, and it didn’t feel natural as a game controller.  I can tell you after using it extensively yesterday my opinion on it has changed.  I’m really digging this tablet that passes as a controller.  It actually does feel more comfortable than I remember, and I love how it enables you to interact with your Wii U via its touchscreen interface.  If one were to ask me if the Wii U is next-gen I’d say sorta, and that’s because the Gamepad definitely is.

Wii U’s Gamepad controller is the only next-gen item in the Wii U box

Its 6.2″ screen provides near HD visuals with its paltry 854×480 resolution, which is surprising to someone like me who lives and dies by Apple’s Retina technology.  I was blown away with how crisp this little screen is, and how solid Wii U titles look on it.  Because of this graphical fidelity I did find myself changing my TV input to whatever NFL game was on while I played NSMBU on the Gamepad.  It worked perfectly, and will provide households with only one TV some respite when the whole family can’t decide on what show, or video game to play on a Friday night.  Just don’t plan on leaving the room with a game running on the Wii U Gamepad, because I was only able to get about 20-30 feet away before I lost the stream to the tablet sized controller.

Quite honestly, the Gamepad is a breeze to use when you setup your Nintendo Network ID account, and other initial settings that are presented to you during the console’s setup mode. I definitely liked using the Gamepad versus a traditional controller to punch in all of my account names, passwords, and other system settings. It just made the process a little more streamlined than I’m used to.  Considering that most of the developed world interacts with touchscreen devices on a daily basis I think most users will feel right at home interacting with their Wii U via the Gamepad and its stylus.  Besides, there’s no real way to interface with the Wii U without it, so I’m glad that Nintendo has made the Gamepad’s interface so easy to use and functional.

I think my favorite feature when looking at the Wii U hardware is the Gamepad’s ability to serve as a multi-functional remote.  It easily configured itself to serve as my TV remote for a LG 3D HDTV, as well as a remote for my DirectTV set-top boxes.  I’m a big fan of efficiency, and eliminating two remote controls from my entertainment system is a bonus.  Besides, it’s much cooler to change TV channels with a touchscreen than some crappy old remote anyway.  I think I would be happy with just the Wii U Gamepad sans the console!

Software

First off, this thing took close to an hour to update right out of the box, which is frustrating when you just want to play with a new toy right away. After that, every game I purchased (NSMBU and NintendoLand), as well as most of the apps such as Netflix, also had to be updated, which took upwards of 15-30 minutes a pop. I don’t know about you, but when I buy a new game, and pop it into my console, I want to play it pronto.

At least if a game requires a day one update on the PS3, or Xbox 360, it’ll go through in a few seconds, and not the extended period of time that the Wii U showcased. The whole updating process really put a damper on my Wii U experience, but that may not be the biggest issue with this console.

Most of the features included with the Wii U do not work yet, or are buggy due to network stress. MiiVerse was spotty at best, and the TVii app doesn’t even function yet. Neither does YouTube, Hulu, and Amazon Instant Video.  Nintendo wants the Wii U to be your new multimedia device, but it’s far from that at the time of this writing.  Everything that required a network connection just felt slow and unreliable. Sure it may be a launch day issue, but I would have appreciated a more rapid update process, as well as some of the system’s features that were promised to us.

Sadly most of the Wii U multimedia feature like Nintendo TVii don’t work right now

I was also disappointed with how slow some of the Wii U menu items functioned.  Anything you launch be it the Setup menu, or the Mii Maker app took close to 10 seconds to open.  Even worse is the fact that it took 10 seconds to close and return to the main menu from said apps.  I’m a man with a zero tolerance policy when it comes to technology speed, and the Wii U’s menu system definitely doesn’t pass my internal ADD clock.

Games

I played New Super Mario Bros. U, as well as NintendoLand, and both games looked awesome on my HDTV and the Gamepad’s screen. NSMBU looks fantastic, and it will instantly remind you of the SMB offering from the SNES. It’s awesome to finally see a 1st party Nintendo game in HD, and the gameplay has that classic Mario feel that many of us experienced way back in the 80’s.

It is odd having the game playing on both your controller and TV, but I got used to it. I would’ve liked to been able to turn off the Gamepad’s screen while playing NSMBU on my HDTV, but I got over it pretty quick. It is cool to be able to turn your TV’s input to another medium and still play a Wii U game just on the controller, but I feel that Nintendo should allow gamers to turn off the Gamepad’s screen when they don’t want to use it.

Mario looks great in HD as well as on the Gamepad screen

NintendoLand is surprisingly good as well. It’s basically a collection of mini-games, but they’re all branded with classic Nintendo franchises. This game is meant to show off the functionality of the Gamepad, and it does a good job doing so. Although, NintendoLand will best be experienced with multiple people in the same room, so for solo players such as myself I felt like I was missing out on most of the game’s play modes. I can see NintendoLand being a huge hit amongst families, and maybe even the occasional dorm room, as it’s games are all geared towards competition.  It definitely this console’s Wii Sports title, and it will serve as the demo to your friends as to what the Wii U and Gamepad can do.

The one thing that I definitely missed in both of these games is the allure of being rewarded for my conquests.  You know something similar to the 360’s achievements, or the PS3’s trophies.  Let’s face it, MS created a whole new way to game with cheves, and for the most part gamers want to be recognized for their accomplishments.  That’s especially the case for someone like myself who used to have an unhealthy addiction with Gamerscore.  Hopefully Nintendo can patch this feature in, but I wouldn’t hold my breath considering in-game rewards didn’t ship with their flagship New Super Mario Bros. U title.  And no.  I can’t just game to game anymore.  Thanks Microsoft!

Final Thoughts

After one day of using the Wii U I’m no less excited about it than I was when I first saw it in action at E3. I think it has great potential, but Nintendo has to clean up the whole updating process, and get some of the apps working that they promised. The Gamepad is hands down the coolest thing about the Wii U. I loved that I could use it to not only control my Wii U, but also to control my TV, and DirecTV set top box. The setup is painless (outside of waiting), and the technology is innovative, but I don’t think it has been perfected yet. Older gamers like myself will quickly get bored of the mini-game gimmick, so I hope Nintendo rolls out some more games that take advantage of their unique hardware in new and exciting ways.

In the end I would caution you in regards to purchasing the Wii U. It’s pretty neat, but nothing that will make you feel like the next generation of consoles has arrived. I think Nintendo has some great ideas, but they’re just not able to execute them yet. I’m eager to see what TVii is all about, so hopefully that feature will arrive as promised. I also want more 1st party titles to play, because right now all of the 3rd party games are re-releases of games I’ve already played on the Xbox 360 or PS3. There’s potential, but Nintendo will have to work closely with its developers to craft unique gameplay experiences that can’t be had on other platforms.

If you asked me if you’re missing out by not owning one I’d say no.  In time it may become something special, but for now, if you own a Xbox 360 or a PS3, then you already own a more proficient gaming device.  On the other hand if you don’t own a single console (WTF is wrong with you) then I’d tell you to give the Wii U a try this holiday season.  You’ve been thinking I didn’t tell you anything you weren’t already thinking about the Wii U…

Watch the unboxing video!

 

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Tags : GamepadImpressionsNext GenWii U
Matt Heywood

The author Matt Heywood

Matt Heywood is the founder and EIC of EntertainmentBuddha.com where he strives to make you a better geek, one post at a time! When he’s not scouring the Internet for interesting nuggets of awesomeness he can be found in his secret lair enjoying the latest and greatest video games, taking pictures of toys, or talking Star Wars on EB’s Star Wars Time podcast show.