Twenty-five years ago there was no bigger name in the home console market than Nintendo. The company from Japan whose little plumber in red overalls stole the hearts of American kids, and the wallets of American parents, was everywhere. Every kid on the block I knew either had or wanted an NES. Nintendo kept its dominance well into the late nineties with a very successful Super Nintendo. This success has made Nintendo a major player, but also very arrogant. When the world was moving to CD-ROMs and higher resolution graphics, Nintendo refused and held on to cartridges. Even when Nintendo relented, it was always on their terms, giving the GameCube non-standard size discs that would allow it to work as a DVD player as well (which no Nintendo system has yet to do).
Nintendo seemed to be gaining ground back with the launch of the Wii in 2007, albeit if it were only short-lived. After the cliche of motion-controlled gaming subsided, Nintendo was left with an underpowered, outperformed, piece of crap console that’s only saving grace was the same little Italian plumber in red overalls that helped launch Nintendo into the forefront almost three decades ago. Meanwhile, gamers moved on to Microsoft’s Xbox 360 or Sony’s Playstation 3 which offered high-definition graphics, online play, and the function as a complete home media entertainment system. The Wii was relegated to “that gimmicky machine” that was “for the kids”.
Nintendo is back in 2012 with the Wii U, which is built around what could turn out to be another gaming gimmick, touchscreen controls. While smarphones and tablets, specifically Apple’s iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch, have eaten away at Nintendo’s handheld console market share since 2008, Microsoft with its Kinect technology has been also eating away at the Wii’s dominance in the motion-controlled gaming arena.
The GamePad controller is probably the most significant change – and curiosity for that matter – with the Wii U. Nintendo has done an overall good job with the GamePad’s design, essentially taking a standard gaming controller – dual analog sticks, four buttons and bumpers – and putting a large touch screen in the middle of it. Ergonomically speaking, the GamePad feels good in your hands despite its larger size. The GamePad also includes a stylus (something Nintendo seems to have forgotten is obsolete since 2007) since the screen is not multitouch capable.
One of the best features of the Wii U is the ability to play any Wii U game on your television or the GamePad exclusively. The screen on the GamePad looks very good and shows off the Wii U’s new high-definition abilities well. However, this ability to move the games to the GamePad’s screen is limited to about 15 to 20 feet from the main Wii U console, so any thought of playing your Wii U in the bedroom with the console in the living room is pretty much a shot in the dark if you live in something larger than a studio apartment.
The GamePad does come with an internal, rechargeable battery, charged by a proprietary charging cable from Nintendo. This is definitely a very small point of contention, as Nintendo could have gone with an industry standard port such as Micro-USB, allowing consumers a much easier (and cheaper) way of charging the GamePad. Another issue is the battery life of the GamePad. While not terrible, the battery life isn’t anything like an iPad with its long 10-hour battery life. A typical charge instead will last about 4 to 6 hours at best. With just a large device, a larger battery with a longer life seemed like expected. Thankfully, third-party companies like Nyko are already working on some aftermarket accessories that are set to début at CES 2013.
Nintendo made a good call in keeping backwards compatibility with existing Wii titles. The Wii U is compatible with all Wiimotes and Wii accessories, and the Wii U even includes a sensor bar in the box. I was never a big fan of the “shake-shake-waggle-waggle” game mechanics of the Wii, so the probability of me using Wii games on the Wii U is next-to-never (with maybe the exception of Mario and Zelda titles). But for households with heavy Wii users, the backwards compatibility is nice way to save some shelf space and TV inputs.
One big missing feature still absent from Nintendo’s consoles is the ability to play DVD’s or Blu-Ray’s. The Wii U uses a propriety disc format instead of a standard Blu-Ray or high-capacity DVD, again alienating the standards used by their competitors. Nintendo has stated this is because they want the Wii U to be about gaming, and that most households already have a DVD and/or Blu-Ray player. In my opinion, this is very much an Apple-like maneuver (i.e. Lightning connector over micro-USB), however, unlike Apple, Nintendo doesn’t have the same market presence any longer that Apple now holds in the smartphone and tablet space. This move by Nintendo could easily be equated to Microsoft putting a propriety port on its Windows Phone devices, in that if Microsoft would have done that, it would make it even more difficult than it already is. When you’re number one, you have the ability to set standards. When you’re number three, like Nintendo in the home console market, the best way is the way that offers the least amount of barrier to entry for consumers. While Nintendo may not feel the lack of a DVD player is a big deal, consumers who are shopping for a home console will see competitors like the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 at a lower price that offer these features, and that will easily sway consumers.
The software on the Wii U is deliberately designed to take advantage of the new GamePad. Upon startup, users are presented with their Mii in the middle of a plaza surrounded by icons for various applications. However, despite its user-friendly appearance, the user interface is directly designed around a younger audience. A little more advanced interface, like Nintendo’s competitor’s offerings, would draw a more mature feel to a console that Nintendo is stating they are looking to appeal to a more mature audience.
One area Nintendo has lacked in is a robust online gaming experience. The Wii U saw very limited online gameplay, however, typically trying to figure out how to get online and find people – or your friends for that matter – was a much more frustrating affair than it ought to be. Unfortunately, nothing has really changed with the Wii U. In the realm of online gaming, if Microsoft is king, Nintendo is the court jester. The online gaming experience is still laughable on the Wii U, which could inhibit sales to hardcore gamers who are spending more time playing Call Of Duty online than Mario with their friends in the their living rooms. If Nintendo is looking to woo Xbox and Playstation users to the Wii U, they’re going to need to do a major overhaul of their online gaming experience pronto.
While online gaming may suffer on the Wii U, Nintendo has taken direction from companies like Apple, Google, and Amazon when it comes to online media consumption. Utilizing the new GamePad, the Wii U supports Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Instant Video, allowing you to view any programming from these channels on the GamePad’s screen. Since the GamePad and your HDTV share the same display during these sessions, with a simple tap on the screen you can send your streaming episode of Doctor Who between your GamePad and HDTV. The GamePad also includes a newly designed web browser, which is a marked improvement over the Wii’s Opera browser, and is much easier to use than the Playstation 3′s browser with the GamePad’s stylus and touch screen. However, Microsoft again reigns king with their implementation of Internet Explorer on the Xbox 360. Nintendo would do well by contacting open-source companies like Mozilla who could bring a much more feature-rich browser like, such as, “Firefox U”.
After rummaging through all the goodies, the Wii U, like every other console, is a gaming console first. So that leads to the big question, how is the gaming experience on the Wii U? If I were to sum it up on one word, it would be better. The high-definition graphics are great (playing Mario in HD is something any long-time gamer has been waiting for), and other games look on par with their other-console counterparts. However, many gamers like myself weren’t looking for just another Xbox or PS3 when they purchased the Wii U. And that’s really where the challenge lies with developers. With the radically new concept of the GamePad, gamers aren’t looking or just another console port, but an entirely new experience with the same franchises they’ve grown to love on other consoles. So far, things are looking good (not great), with games like Madden 13 redefining the sports enthusiasts experience on the Wii U, or Assassin‘s Creed III’s use of the GamePad for more info during gameplay. But the real question is did Nintendo show its hand too soon? Are we going to see even better experiences next year. On one side you have the real feeling that once developers get more time with the Wii U’s dev kits, we will see even further enhancements. On the other side you have the ghost of Wii past, where after a blockbuster launch gamers were instead treated with more shovelware than real AAA titles.
With that said, the Nintendo Wii U is the first to the next-generation party. Overall, the Wii U provides a new and inventive way of looking at gaming with its GamePad controller, and Nintendo’s step into the HD world is a welcomed one for many gamers, young and old, everywhere. If the Wii U is on your, or a loved one’s, holiday wish list, it will definitely give much more entertainment than the Wii. However, with its lack of a robust online gaming platform and availability of third-party titles, it may not satisfy your total gaming needs at this time. Nintendo has finally joined the modern gaming era with the Wii U, but it still has a bit to go to reclaim its hold on the console market. Rating: B