(click linked text below to jump to related section of the review)
- The Game Itself
- 3 Stars
- The Video: Sizing Up the Picture
- 4 Stars
- The Audio: Rating the Sound
- 5 Stars
Wii U 8 GB
- Street Date:
- November 18th, 2012
- Reviewed by:
- Daniel Hirshleifer
- Review Date:1
- November 26th, 2012
- Game Release Year:
- Wii U
Nintendo's fortunes have been wildly up and down this gaming generation. Microsoft and Sony were putting all their chips on glossy, expensive, high definition consoles with integrated marketplaces and social networking options. Additions like achievements, streaming video services, DVD and/or Blu-ray playback and download-only arcade titles turned these consoles into home theater hubs instead of simply video game systems. Nintendo went the other way, introducing the Wii, a low price console with a unique controller that relied on motion control. At first, the Wii was a hit, with everyone and their mother (and their mother's mother) wanting one. Stores couldn't keep the system in stock long after the concurrently-released PS3 stopped being scarce.
But the runaway success was not to last. In order to deliver the console at such a low cost, Nintendo had to cut back on several areas that made the Wii severely deficient when compared to the 360 and PS3. No HD, poor online services, and lack of strong third party support meant that Wii sales stalled out just when the other two consoles were showing profits for their parent companies. Nintendo realized that they could not continue to compete with only the Wii, and needed a shot in the arm. Enter the Wii's successor, the Wii U.
The Wii U is designed to be everything the original Wii should have been. Sporting technical specs that are comparable or better than the existing rival consoles, the Wii U offers HD gaming, an integrated online service, and streaming services. Not only that, but it comes packaged with an intriguing new controller, dubbed the GamePad. Is the Wii U going to be the hail Mary pass that revives Nintendo's flagging fortunes, or will it be the last gasp of a struggling video game titan?
The Game Itself: Our Reviewer's Take
The Wii U is small and unassuming. Unlike the Wii, with its rectangular design, the Wii U is all about rounded corners (perhaps to go with the "U" theme). Depending on which package you get, the basic or deluxe, the console will either be white or black. The basic console sells for $300 and offers the system with 8 GB of flash memory, motion sensor (the Wii U supports legacy Wiimotes), HDMI cable, power cable, GamePad with stylus, and GamePad charging cable. The deluxe system, going for $350, includes all of the above, but in black, with a storage bump up to 32 GB, as well as a stand and charging cradle for the GamePad, stand for the system itself, a copy of 'Nintendoland' (think the next-gen version of 'Wii Sports'), and a year membership to Nintendo's online digital discount service that nets you 10% off online purchases through the Nintendo eShop. For this review we used the basic console, which is functionally the same as the deluxe.
As the included HDMI cable hints at, the Wii U does in fact output in HD, from 720p up to 1080p. Wii U games come on proprietary discs that look suspiciously like Blu-ray and hold up to 25 GB, meaning there should be plenty of space for those spiffy high def graphics. Despite this, Nintendo opted not to include DVD and Blu-ray playback because of licensing fees. The system doesn't have too many bells and whistles on the outside. The front has the disc slot, a sync button for connecting controllers, an SD card slot, and two USB 2.0 ports. The rear sports an HDMI 1.4 port, an A/V out for Nintendo's component/composite cable, power port, sensor bar power port, and two more USB 2.0 ports. Whether you get white or black, the system is small enough to be unobtrusive on the shelf and sleek enough to catch the eye in a way that the more utilitarian designs of the 360 and PS3 will not.
Inside, the system features an IBM-designed 45 nm multicore microprocessor. As of the time of this writing, Nintendo has not released official specs on the clock rates, cache, or other pertinent information on the microprocessor. Also included is an AMD Radeon HD GPU, 2 GB of RAM, including a full GB dedicated just to the OS, a number that dwarfs either the 360 or the PS3, and either 8 GB or 32 GB of internal flash memory. On paper, the Wii U should be able to stand up to its competitors without a problem.
The Wii U offers a surplus of controller options, but the system is designed around the newest addition to the Nintendo family: The GamePad. Looking something like an enlarged lower half of a DS, the GamePad packs an impressive amount of tech. The first thing that will draw your eye is the 6.2 inch, 854x480 16:9 resistive touch screen that can be controlled by using your fingers or a stylus. Situated to the left is an analog stick and D-pad, as well as a little set of painted-on rectangles that indicate the placement of an NFC chip. To the right is another analog stick, along with ABXY buttons and the + and – buttons that represent start and select, respectively.
Along the top of the face sits a camera for video chat or taking photos to turn into a Mii. At the bottom you have a mic, a centrally located home button, TV control button, power button, battery indicator, and stereo speakers. At the top of the GamePad sit two digital left and right triggers, and behind a set of analog left and rights. The stylus also fits into a slot on top, to the left of the right digital trigger, and next to it lays the volume slider. To the right of the left digital trigger is the port for the charging cable, a headphone jack, and an IR transmitter. Underneath you'll find touch points for the charging cradle and a port that the manual states is for accessory plug-ins, although none yet exist. On the back is a ridge designed for easy handling, and it does the job perfectly, as the GamePad feels better in the hands over long periods than an iPad, for example.
As you can see, there's a lot going on with the GamePad. It's a powerful piece of machinery and Nintendo has explicitly designed it to be the center of your home theater. You can even program it to provide basic commands to your TV (hence the IR transmitter), and for that function it doesn't even need the Wii U to be on. It's also enticing to think what can be done with the embedded NFC chip, although at the moment no software supports that functionality. In that regard, though, it's nice to see Nintendo thinking ahead. The GamePad also has a gyroscope and rumble pack inside.
The power button controls both the GamePad and the Wii U, and there is no built-in option to turn off the GamePad without also turning on the system. There is, however, a workaround to this problem that will be detailed later in the review. The included tech also exacts a toll on the battery, which will give you three to five hours (usually closer to three) before needing a recharge that takes approximately two and a half hours. If you sit near a wall outlet, you'll be fine, as you can plug the charger in and keep on playing, but if you're planning on using the charging cradle, you'll have to let it sit. Additionally, the GamePad must be charged using the supplied cable; no chance of plugging in a USB cable and have the system charge it back up while you play. This could get frustrating, especially when you discover, should you take off the battery cover, that the GamePad was clearly designed to house a much larger battery than it currently does. Should a third party manufacturer offer an extended GamePad battery soon, they could clean up.
The selling point of the Wii U system is that it streams information to the GamePad while you interact with it. The GamePad can both mirror what's on TV and provide other information. For example, while playing 'Assassin's Creed III,' during cutscenes the GamePad mirrored what I saw on the TV screen. During gameplay it offered up a map for reference while playing. Hulu Plus makes great use of this, allowing you to control playback on the GamePad while the video plays on the TV, and even manage your queue and perform other tasks within the Hulu ecosystem, all without interrupting the video.
In many instances you can pull the video feed onto the GamePad, leaving the TV free for other uses. The idea is inspired, as now your dad can watch football while you play games. The GamePad has a range of about 25 feet from the system without obstructions. If you turn a corner with the GamePad in hand, you risk losing your connection, even if you're well within the streaming range. This sounds like a pain, but the streaming ends up being extraordinarily useful, and the fact that it does all of this without a hint of latency, buffering, or hiccupping is cause for celebration. Not every game will support this feature, as some of them utilize the GamePad for asynchronous play, meaning that you're playing with elements that aren't present on the TV at all (think of it the TV as the top screen of a DS in this instance, with the GamePad as the bottom screen). But for the ones that do, it's a great feature that truly can only be experienced on the Wii U.
The risk here is that despite all of the cool uses for the GamePad, as a standard controller it could be problematic. After all, controllers are designed for ease of use, and a controller that looks like a tablet with analog sticks doesn't seem very easy to use. Thankfully, the GamePad works just fine as a standard controller, with every button accessible without excessive hand movement. The inputs do seem a little on the cheap side compared to the Dual Shock or the 360 controller, but once you get into the swing of things, that won't be too much of a problem.
What may be a problem is that you won't want to use the GamePad as a standard controller, because you're not getting the most out of its vast array of inputs. Either that or you're not seeing the point of holding a big controller when a standard one would work just fine. In that case, you'll be interested in the Pro Controller. Looking like a 360 controller that's had it's ABXY buttons and right analog stick swapped, the Pro Controller works just like you'd expect any traditional controller to. It's about as light as a SixAxis but it does include rumble. It has much longer battery life than the GamePad, anywhere from six to ten hours, and can be charged via any USB 2.0 or higher port. The Wii U also supports Wiimotes, hence the included sensor bar. This is to facilitate Wii backwards compatibility, as well as Wii U games that allow the Wiimote as a control option.
The GamePad is impressive, feeling like a real innovation, which makes the archaic OS all the more baffling. Turning on the system for the first time, you'll go through the basic setup procedures (including a firmware update that will take an hour or more to complete and adds online functionality and support for external storage, among other things), only to find yourself at a menu screen that looks suspiciously similar to the UI on the original Wii. Five squares across and three squares deep, the Wii U OS doesn't look simple; it looks downright simplistic. You can flip between pages by tapping an arrow icon on the side of the screen or simply hitting the left or right triggers. At the bottom sit a row of icons for several useful Wii U functions: The eShop, Miiverse, Internet browser, notifications, and TVii. More on those later.
The first thing you will notice is how shockingly slow the system is to load anything. Feel like watching a movie on Netflix? Sure, just tap on the icon and hope there isn't an update available, as the download and install times for updates rival the PS3 for slowness. Once you can load the app itself, you'll be presented by a logo that will sit on your screen. And you wait. And wait. And wait. In reality, the logo probably only lasts for fifteen to twenty seconds, but when you're navigating through a console, fifteen to twenty seconds feels more like fifteen to twenty minutes. Whatever the system is doing in this period, it must be incredibly focused on it, because during these load periods—and only during these load periods—you can power off your GamePad without powering off your Wii U, a workaround almost certainly not intended by Nintendo. Given that the system has a full GB of RAM dedicated just to the OS, these waits shouldn't exist. The focus was clearly on making sure the GamePad worked seamlessly, and it does, but that doesn't excuse this issue.
The Mii you created or imported during setup sits in a box in the upper left corner. Click on it to log in or switch users. You can set a default user that will log in when the system starts up, and link it to a Nintendo Network ID and Club Nintendo account. The Mii will be your avatar for interacting with the greater Nintendo Network, through a new area called the Miiverse. The Miiverse is a combination Twitter/forum space where you can blast messages out to the world and get replies. Forums are created for you based around the software available for the system, such as Netflix, Hulu Plus, 'New Super Mario Bros U', 'Nintendoland', and so on. You can add text messages or even post drawings using the GamePad screen. Beware, as Nintendo aggressively moderates messages, striking down anything it deems inappropriate.
This moderation extends to your profile. Nintendo is terrified of the thought of people accidentally identifying themselves in the Miiverse, so if you put any information that Nintendo considers sensitive, it will make you remove it. If you want to find people you know, you'll have to contact them outside of the Wii U to get their user ID. On the plus side, the Wii U now lets people use personal IDs and not a string of randomly generated numbers. It's worth nothing that Nintendo has made the baffling decision to tie IDs to the console itself. Don't try and login on your friend's Wii U if you plan on using the same ID at home. It's not known at this time what provisions Nintendo has in place for people who have to replace broken consoles.
Also annoying is that there are two ways to add friends to your friend list. You can search for their username, which registers them as a provisional friend. They then have to register you in order for you to interact. The problem is that when using this method the other party is never notified when the first user registers them. You can directly make a friend request, but why offer the first option? Why not make friend requests, which do provide a notification, the only way to add friends?
This fear on Nintendo's part extends to the whole Miiverse. Discussion forums have plenty of comments, but most are even more meaningless than your average Tweet. A replacement for Facebook this is not. You don't even manage your friend list in the Miiverse, nor can you use it for video chat. The most useful purpose at this point is that in certain games you can leave hints for other players.
By far the coolest part of the Miiverse is WaraWara Plaza. This is what you will see on your TV when you first start the system up. The UI grid appears on your GamePad, although you can swap WaraWara Plaza to the GamePad, which puts the UI grid on your TV. WaraWara shows various Wii U software options as bubbles. Miis rush into the plaza, flocking to the software they've used and posted about. You can see their posts pop up underneath the software bubble. If you see a post you like, for example I saw an immaculately rendered drawing of the Tenth Doctor under the Netflix bubble, you can highlight the Mii and follow their posts. Unlike the rest of the Miiverse, WaraWara Plaza feels like a social experience, and is neat to look at to boot.
The Wii U has video chat built in, but it's not well implemented. You have to go to the chat app, find your friend, and ring them. Unless your friend is also in the same app the system won't tell them you're calling. You can't leave a message, either, although the system will tell them that you tried to call after the fact. If you do catch them, you can draw on their face using your stylus, but can't save any images or video. Much better is the Internet browser, which is HTML 5 capable and works beautifully with the GamePad. It's a fully featured web browser that you can access at a moment's notice, and even pull screenshots from. It also has tabbed browsing!
The eShop is a far more useful and streamlined experience than the eShop on the DSi or 3DS. You have a row of contextual buttons on the left margin, and searching is quick and easy. Nintendo is offering full retail titles as digital downloads on day one, as well as a healthy selection of indie titles. If you want to take advantage of this, you'll want to invest in an external hard drive or flash drive for external storage. Nintendo recommends a hard drive for long-term storage, but a flash drive will work in a pinch. All desktop external drives up to 2 TB that require power from an outlet will work with the Wii U. Self-powered drives may work, but Nintendo isn't guaranteeing it. This reviewer tried to plug in a 1 TB self-powered drive and the Wii U staunchly ignored it, even though the power light was on. Switching to a 500 GB desktop drive, the Wii U immediately recognized it, formatted it, and now the drive can be accessed in the system settings. This storage flexibility is a great boon for the Wii U, and is the major reason they only offer 8 or 32 GB of onboard flash memory.
TVii, Nintendo's announced service that will allow users to search and pull media from a variety of sources, including Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Video, YouTube, and the user's own cable network, has yet to be unveiled. However, standalone apps for Netflix, Hulu Plus, and Amazon Video do work (YouTube should be coming soon). Netflix makes poor use of the GamePad; only giving you minimal information on the GamePad while the video plays on the TV. You can't browse for other films, queue them up, or do anything else while a video is playing. Hulu Plus, on the other hand, makes excellent use of the GamePad, allowing you to control the video, browse for other programs, and utilize the app as you need while video plays. In all the video apps so far released, you can kick the video stream down to the GamePad with a single tap. The switchover is instantaneous and glitch-free.
The Wii U is backwards compatible with the Wii (not the Gamecube), but using it is a complete hassle. Nintendo has baked in a virtual Wii interface into the Wii U. When you click on it, you essentially load into the Wii OS, and have full Wii functionality through it. However the load times are again interminable, and even longer going from Wii to Wii U and back again then doing anything else. The virtual Wii is only allotted the 512 MB of memory that the original Wii console had, meaning you'll still have to use an SD card if you had more data. For virtual console or WiiWare games, you can download them through the eShop straight onto your Wii U, but be aware that the system outputs all of that content at 16:9, regardless of the original aspect ratio, meaning many virtual console games will be stretched.
You can transfer over all your data from your Wii to the Wii U, but doing so involves jumping through hoops. You have to get a clean SD card, load it into the Wii U, then switch it to the Wii, let it offload the data, then put it back in the Wii U, where the data is downloaded. This means you have to have both systems on and hooked up to the TV. The data transfer takes a long time, and when it's done, your data can no longer be accessed on your Wii console. Consider carefully if you want to do this, because it's not reversible. Personally, this reviewer moved the Wii into the bedroom for playing virtual console and Gamecube games without all the rigmarole.
On the whole, the Wii U OS needs a lot of work. The delays are bad enough, but beyond that there are too many little quirks that are poorly documented. For example, when you first log in to the Miiverse and try to add friends, you're told you have to setup your friend list. The system doesn't tell you how to do this, and you won't find the solution by going back to the main menu. You have to hit the home button on the GamePad, which takes you to a whole new menu overlay separate from the main menu, and access your friend list from there. There's no reason to expect a button labeled "home" to take you anywhere but the home page. Apparently in this case, home means some kind of pre-home mini menu. Routinely, system processes that you need to access are spread throughout the UI like some kind of easter egg hunt, providing you with fresh frustration whenever you want to try something new. When we added the external hard drive, a little USB logo popped up in the bottom left of our main menu. A reasonable person would expect that this image, on a system where the experience is anchored by a touchscreen, would be something you could tap to go to your hard drive management. Nope. It's just there to let you know that the hard drive is connected. You have to go into the system settings to manage your drives. And yet, all sorts of things you would expect to be in the system settings are found elsewhere in the UI.
Thankfully, all of these issues can be fixed by firmware updates. The Xbox dashboard didn't look nearly as svelte or feel so functional when the 360 first launched. Let's hope Nintendo gets on the ball STAT.
The Video: Sizing Up the Picture
Other than the GamePad, the biggest selling point of the Wii U is that it's the first Nintendo system to offer full HD graphics. In that department, they don't disappoint. Games on the Wii U look gorgeous. There's nothing like popping in 'New Super Mario Bros U' and seeing Mario, Luigi, Bowser, and Princess Peach beautifully rendered in high definition. Multi-console ports no longer have to be stunted. 'Assassin's Creed III' on the Wii U looks gorgeous, and offers streaming to the GamePad to top it off. At least one developer has already vocally complained about the Wii U being underpowered, but it seems all the developers releasing launch titles had no problems.
With a HDMI 1.4 connection, the Wii U supports 3D. However, as it doesn't do Blu-ray playback, it limits the amount of 3D content available. 'Assassin's Creed III' does offer several 3D options, and while the merits of 3D gaming is certainly debatable, there's no doubt that if you have a 3D-capable television and compatible glasses, the Wii U will give you the experience you crave. And if the streaming video services should ever upgrade to offer 3D, in theory the Wii should be able to handle that as well. YouTube does offer some 3D streams currently, but as the YouTube app has not yet premiered on the Wii U, we cannot say whether you can access YouTube's 3D videos on the system.
Using streaming apps for HD results in a pleasing, sharp HD image. Netflix was prone to lowering the quality of the video on the fly should the Wi-Fi connection slow down. Hulu Plus allows the user to control the video quality, giving you greater flexibility based on your particular connection.
Unfortunately, the GamePad is saddled with a decidedly low res 854x480 display. As far as things go the display doesn't look bad, but in a world where people can watch movies in HD on their phones, standard def doesn't cut it for a device that's meant to be the new lynchpin of your home theater. Streaming movies on your TV looks great. Bumping it down to the GamePad makes you wonder if there's a better way to get the same feed. If you have an iPad with Retina Display, there is no reason to use any of the streaming services on the GamePad, because the iPad looks light years better than the GamePad ever could, and unlike the GamePad you can take the iPad anywhere within range of your Wi-Fi network. Of course, not everyone has a portable tablet, which is why it's all the more frustrating that Nintendo skimped out on the resolution for the GamePad. Given that the mobile sector is generating real competition for traditional video game vendors, you'd think that Nintendo would want to do everything it could to prevent people from desiring a standalone tablet in addition to, or even worse instead of the Wii U. Perhaps an HD display was cost prohibitive. Perhaps streaming a seamless HD signal to the GamePad was too taxing on the Wii U's resources. The reasoning behind it won't matter to the consumer making a decision on which gadget to buy for the holidays.
Given that we don't have the specifics of the Wii U's CPU, it's hard to say how the system will hold up over time as graphical demands increase. What we can see is that at launch the graphical output of the system isn't significantly better than the PS3 or the 360. Of course, that's to be expected, as no system puts its best foot forward on day one. In fact, by coming out in the middle of the generation cycle, the Wii U benefits from ports that look like mature titles on the other consoles. But make no mistake, for a system that could be considered next generation, the graphics look decidedly this gen. You're not going to plug in the Wii U and be blown away in the same way you were when you switched from an Xbox to the 360. Part of it is that the 360 and PS3 took gaming from standard definition to high definition, which gave off a big wow factor. The Wii U came too late to catch the benefit of that initial HD rush. The question is, how will the Wii U fare when the inevitable next-gen Microsoft and Sony consoles make their debuts?
The Audio: Rating the Sound
According to the released specifications, the Wii U offers support for six-channel linear PCM. As the system doesn't play DVD or Blu-ray, there's no need for it to support other lossless codecs, although many games are coded using Dolby Digital. Whether or not it could support other codecs in the future is unknown at this time. Not that there's anything wrong with PCM, which is lossless, uncompressed sound. 'Assassin's Creed III' sounds just like you'd expect on the other consoles, with plenty of sonic details and panning surround action. Streaming services also sounded just as good as they did on the other consoles.
The GamePad also has a pair of speakers, which offer loud, clear sound. In fact, it’s so loud and clear that you will want to turn the sound off most of the time, because more often than not the GamePad is going to output the same sound you're getting from your TV. Asynchronous gaming may or may not require using the speakers, depending on the game in question. Turning off the sound is also a good way to preserve precious battery life on the GamePad. When watching video or playing games directly through the GamePad, you can either use the built-in speakers or plug in headphones if you don't want to disturb everyone else in the house.
The Wii U is a bit of an enigma. Clearly Nintendo has a bold vision of where they want to take gaming. The GamePad is full of powerful tech and can be implemented in dozens of creative ways. If used right the GamePad could become a powerhouse, turning gaming on its head. Ideas like allowing external storage up to 2 TB feels incredibly forward-thinking. Unfortunately, for all the potential inherent in the system, it's currently besieged by poor design decisions that prevent it from being a total success. The UI is a holdover from the Wii, and the OS is plagued by inexplicably long load times. Nintendo finally offers an integrated social service, but the functionality is shallow and implementation isn't system-wide. The whole experience of using the Wii U feels disjointed.
Then there's the question of whether the Wii U can stand up to the next gen consoles that Microsoft and Sony haven't even unveiled yet. Right now the Wii U feels like Nintendo playing catch up to consoles that are over half a decade old. In time, the Wii U could become a genuinely great system, provided that Nintendo overhauls the OS, games and apps make smart use of the GamePad, and third party support remains strong. But people don't buy products for what they could be; they buy them for what they are. Right now, whether the Wii U is worth $300 or more will depend greatly on how much you like Nintendo, and how much you believe in the GamePad concept.
- SD memory card slot
- Multi A/V Port
- CPU: IBM Power Architecture-based multi-core processor.
- GPU: AMD Radeon High Definition with an eDRAM cache built onto the die.
- 2 GB RAM with 1 GB reserved for the OS.
- GamePad with 6.2 inch touchscreen, NFC chip, stereo speakers, front-facing camera, microphone, stylus
- 8 GB onboard flash memory (32 GB in deluxe console)
- Slot-loading optical disc drive compatible with 12 cm "proprietary high-density optical discs" (25 GB per layer) and 12 cm Wii optical discs
- 4 USB 2.0 ports
- HDMI 1.4 Port
- 1080p, 1080i, 720p, 576i (PAL Only), 480p, 480i
- GamePad: 854x480
- Six-channel LPCM
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