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Wii U: A Terrific Nintendo System…That Repeats Many of the Same Problems of 3DS

Even now that it’s been three months since launch and the new shiny has kind of worn off, I’m still pretty darn impressed with Wii U based on what I’ve experienced so far. The GamePad is still my controller of choice whenever I’ve got the option, the drive to stir up discussion on Miiverse is still addictive, Off-TV Play still works more or less as fantastically as advertised – and the games so far have been surprisingly good, particularly for a new system’s launch titles.

That said, to assert that its early months were absolutely stellar would be a bit of a stretch. Features and games touted for launch missed the deadline, the lineup for the moment is pretty barren, with only a few crumbs in the foreseeable future, and of course it’s got a heavily restricted account system that few people who actually care about such things are actually satisfied with. The best way to sum up the Wii U at this moment in its life is that it’s a great system with a lot of potential, but it’s creeping toward that potential at a snail’s pace.

Let’s start with some of the positive aspects of the current Wii U experience:

The GamePad is Value-Packed

The Wii U GamePad is the face of the system – so much so that people to this day still think “Wii U” is just a fancy new touch screen controller for Wii – and it’s clear Nintendo put a lot of effort into making it as useful as possible for as many games as possible. Why the focus on versatility? It’s because the more a single controller can offer for a wide variety of games, the more potential it has to unlock value for gamers.

So far, I’ve used the GamePad for traditional side-scrolling control with the classic + Control Pad and ABXY buttons, for more modern dual-analog control using the sticks and triggers, for motion control using its built-in gyroscope and accelerometer, and for stylus and touch control with its central touch screen – and I can safely say that it takes on all of these jobs fairly well.

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The input layout strikes the ideal balance for all these different playstyles. It’s easy to move your thumbs between the buttons and sticks, and the parallel layout of the + Control Pad and face buttons makes playing old-school games more comfortable than on 3DS. Competitive players may miss analog triggers or the ability to use a “claw” controller grip to manipulate the face buttons and second stick at the same time, but fortunately most games don’t benefit from either in a game-defining, utterly-required kind of way.

If there’s any flaw it has as a core controller that does controller-y things, it’s that Wii U currently only supports a single GamePad at a time, which is kind of a bummer since it’s the system’s primary controller.

Where the GamePad really shines, however, is through its unique hardware features – namely, Off-TV Play and the dynamic of having two separate screens. These features are the heart and soul of Wii U, and what make it special compared to other current-gen devices.

wiiu-off-tv-playOff-TV Play in particular is hugely useful. I live with my wife in a teeny-tiny house, which means we have to share the living room a lot. As a result, I’ve historically done a lot of my gaming in the wee hours of the morning, while she’s still asleep. In the past, this has meant that I have to keep the volume low so I don’t wake her up – but now I can just pull the gameplay off the TV screen and/or mute the TV, plug in some headphones to the GamePad, and enjoy with minimal compromise.

It’s also useful for when I want to get some play time in but my wife wants to watch something on TV – we both get what we want! I can also play from a completely different room with virtually no latency, which can be pretty handy in a pinch.

So, while Off-TV Play may not revolutionize the way people approach playing games like the Wii Remote did… it’s still a pretty hefty capability in terms of its life-enhancing potential.

As for two-screen play: I’ve seen a lot of people compare Wii U to a DS, and I don’t think that’s an adequate comparison. Sure, the GamePad screen can be used in pretty much the same way as the DS touch screen – it can display a map, feature touch-powered “buttons,” and so on – but it can also do things that a DS can’t.

wiiu-two-gamepads-asymmetricFor example, asymmetric multiplayer using the TV and the GamePad usually involves displaying information for a GamePad player that doesn’t appear on the TV…but in a way that’s specially tailored for the Wii U experience, not in the general sense that’s true for online play and linked handheld multiplayer. You can also play more traditional local multiplayer completely split-screen free!

And because the two screens are separate and not part of a single piece, there’s an interplay between them that doesn’t exist for DS. The GamePad’s speakers can play sounds that don’t show up on the TV – this time with much better sound quality than was available with the Wii Remote speaker. You can also use motion control to overlay the GamePad screen over the TV screen to take advantage of an interesting combination of viewpoints.

So, to recap, the Wii U GamePad:

  • is a capable all-purpose controller, with traditional, modern, motion, and touch control options;
  • makes it easier to play console-sized games whenever you’ve got a gaming itch thanks to Off-TV Play
  • offers a second screen to enhance both single-player and multiplayer experiences

That’s a pretty robust value proposition for a controller.

Wii U: Going Inside the System

But Wii U isn’t all fun and GamePad. It’s got a lot of other things to bring to the table: Miiverse, online play via Nintendo Network, a new and improved eShop, a more robust Internet Browser, Nintendo TVii, and strong backward compatibility with almost everything to do with Wii. And it’s all wrapped up in a sleek dashboard that takes many of the best features of the Wii and 3DS menus and combines them with a nifty and unique social hub in the form of the Wara Wara Plaza.

miiverse-imageMiiverse in particular is a standout feature: a social network dedicated specifically to Wii U games and software. You’ll be able to share your thoughts and experiences directly from your game, share your achievements with the community, and send handwritten or hand-drawn messages and screenshots to friends and fellow players. It’s surprisingly active – particularly for the more popular games – and surprisingly addictive.

Tons of very talented artists post their pretty impressive works at least every five minutes, people share funny glitches they’ve encountered, and you’re all free to talk about your general feelings about a particular game. You’ll also come across a post from an official developer user every now and then – we’ve already heard that Mr. Aonuma will pop in to the official Zelda community to make announcements about any upcoming games.

Most importantly, however, it’s a good way to connect directly to other gamers right from your game console, which is great for arranging matches, finding out more about the games that other people are playing, and engaging in Nintendo’s favorite kind of conversation: sharing your game experiences live with others.

Online play works a whole lot better than it did on Wii, but Nintendo still hasn’t implemented cross-game online features – so no cross-game chat, and no universal system-wide hub for online play. Instead, individual games will have to bring their own online play features, which means everything about the online experience is custom-made for each game but of course comes at the cost of that universality.

wii-u-eshop-sizesThe Nintendo eShop takes the best of previous Nintendo online store designs and puts it all together. It’s very graphically-intensive, with easily identifiable images for each game and category and plenty of ways to mix up your eShop browsing experience. You can check through featured titles – usually new or recently-discounted games – or search by game genre or title. There’s not a whole lot of unique content there yet, but the vast majority of Wii U retail games are also available digitally, with periodic eShop exclusive sales like this week’s Ubisoft sale.

The web browser isn’t the best in the world, but it’s easily the most powerful Internet Browser to appear on a game console – and if I need to quickly look something up, it’s usually quicker than warming up my laptop. It can handle most things that aren’t powered by Flash, and the ability to pass websites, videos, and images between the GamePad and TV screen means you can either browse privately or with others. It may not quite turn your TV into a Smart TV, but it offers a lot of the big core benefits.

Nintendo TVii offers a hub for all your Netflix, Hulu, and other streaming services – plus a built-in TV guide. You can pick out your favorite programs so you know when they show up for basically all of your TV and movie-watching options and access them instantly at the touch of a button. Plus, since it’s already hooked up to your TV, you get the best picture potential available for anything you could possibly want to watch. Pretty much the only thing it doesn’t do is serve as a DVR – but updates down the line will let it communicate with whatever cable box you’ve got hooked up.

wii-u-menuThe main menu is also pretty no-nonsense – simple and intuitive, with very little bloat in the form of Parental Controls and Health & Safety Warnings that you can honestly move off to the side and out of your way whenever you like. Nintendo isn’t trying to force a bunch of fancy and possibly irrelevant extra services in your face like the Microsoft and Sony dashboards do. It’s all about getting at the games and the core features you care about. Plus, the interface is pretty friendly to all controllers – the GamePad’s touch screen and buttons as well as the Wii Remote’s pointer.

Great Exclusive Games… and the Best Versions of Other Great Games

Come on, you know how this works. It’s a Nintendo system – and that means great first-party games, well-known franchises, and the kind of fun that makes you feel like a little kid again. If you haven’t seen our reviews, we think they do a good job of summing up the major exclusives:

The main difference is that this time Nintendo’s taken steps to make Wii U play nice with today’s multi-platform titles, while those same games can also take advantage of Wii U’s improved hardware power and the added capabilities of the GamePad. Here are two choice examples of great multi-platform games that really shine on Wii U:

We’ll be delivering you more reviews of games like Mass Effect 3: Special Edition, Trine 2: Director’s Cut, and the recently-released The Cave in short order, as well as catching up with all the big brand-new games as they release! Suffice to say, however, that Wii U’s started out with a great launch library.

But while all may sound good and well in Wii U land, there are still some challenges ahead. Chief among them is that, despite Nintendo claiming they learned hard lessons from Nintendo 3DS, they’re already set to repeat many of the same issues with Wii U.

Wii U Virtual Console Was Not Available at Launch

Yes, I’m aware that Nintendo never actually said that Wii U Virtual Console would be available at launch. And I’m also aware that there is technically a Virtual Console available on Wii U via the backward compatibility Wii Menu. But come on now: we all know that the big thing people want from Virtual Console on Wii U is Off-TV Play. That Nintendo didn’t have that capability ready for the system from the get-go is a near repeat of the 3DS Virtual Console situation – a several-month wait from launch, and an initial VC library that seems as though it’ll be woefully inadequate.

At least they actually had the eShop ready, right?

wii-u-virtual-console-off-tvWith Wii, Nintendo said that the Virtual Console was part of their strategy to reduce the transition phase risk. This means that people will be less hesitant to upgrade to a new system – and more satisfied with their purchase – since they can establish a library for that system from the get-go.

With Wii U, however, this offer doesn’t exist – at least, not to the same extent. Sure, you can transfer over your old data from Wii, and you can buy Wii VC games, but it’s all stuck in the sandboxed Wii Mode. That wouldn’t really be a problem – the games are still games, regardless of how you get to play them – but given that it’s much more convenient to just play Wii VC games on an actual Wii, where you don’t have to switch to a separate menu, it’s hard to call the ability to play them on Wii U a distinctive advantage at this phase.

It’s one thing to require a compatibility mode to run Wii games, which were already created specifically for the Wii OS; it’s another thing entirely to not have an updated emulation service up and running for already-emulated games.

And even when the Wii U Virtual Console fully launches, Nintendo will charge current VC owners an additional fee beyond the full price cost they’ve already ponied up to upgrade to the actual Wii U versions of those games. So for previous Wii owners, upgrading to Wii U actually puts them at a disadvantage – they’ll pay a higher net cost to get total access to both their games and current hardware features.

Not the most elegant execution, methinks.

The Post-Launch Game Drought

Nintendo said we wouldn’t see any huge game droughts on Wii U, citing the slow performance of 3DS due to most of the good stuff being reserved for fall, while the spring and summer months were fairly barren apart from remakes. Wii U will have a better spring and summer, but inevitably it’s still turned out that the first few months following launch have been pretty dry. So much for a packed launch window, right?

Game & Wario, The Wonderful 101, Pikmin 3, Wii Fit U, and others that were touted for the launch lineup – they’ve all been pushed back to Q2. And it seems like all the truly big games aren’t coming out until fall and the holiday season.

WiiU_ZeldaWindWaker_Scrn09I suppose that’s to be expected given that history always seems to swing that way, but when Nintendo promised that the software situation wouldn’t be a repeat of 3DS, it’s a bit frustrating to see that, no, beyond the launch day games (you can’t beat Nintendogs + cats, Steel Diver, and Pilotwings Resort for a pathetic launch lineup) it’s pretty much been exactly the same.

Mario Kart and 3D Mario to appear this E3 and presumably launch this holiday season? Check. A Zelda remake hitting the system first, with only vague hints at an original title? Check. Glimpses at titles that aren’t even confirmed for release any time soon? Check.

I feel like I’ve done all of this before… and I don’t like it.

At the same time, it’s kind of reassuring. Though 3DS still isn’t totally where it needs to be, at least in the West, it definitely saw a major recovery once it got more games and saw a price drop… but that leads me to one last point…

Wii U is Too Expensive

I’ve said it before, and I’m sticking to my guns: Wii U is too expensive given what it’s currently got to offer. Particularly in the Mario department. Allow me to explain what I mean.

wii-sports-systemsellerIf you remember when the Wii’s price was announced, a lot of people said it was priced too high based on what it was offering. It was lower-end than its competitors, and as one might expect, it was also lower-priced – but while industry people saw it as “last-generation,” the actual marketplace saw it as a “must-have revolution.” Wii was sold out for almost two years, even at its $250 launch price. Not exactly “too expensive” if the things were flying off store shelves, was it?

$250 was seen as an acceptable price for people to bear to get at the Wii Sports phenomenon, or to gain access to the other games Wii had to offer – that’s why they went out and spent it.

In Wii U’s case, however, the $350 price tag – that’s the minimum price to get a Wii U + at least one game – seems to be too high. Sales have more or less flatlined, which means that people just don’t see the system as worth the expense. And why should they? While I’ve been a major apologist for the immense value of the Wii U GamePad, for a games console the most important thing is actually delivering games that are seen as worth paying the high cost of entry to play.

Wii U’s games are great, but are they $350 great? Apparently not. New Super Mario Bros. U fails to do anything to seriously push the franchise forward – it’s a great game in its own right, but buying it is basically buying an upgraded version of New Super Mario Bros. Wii (also a great game). Hardly justifies the $350 price tag.

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How about Nintendo Land? Again, great game – not a very good replacement for Wii Sports. It just doesn’t have the selling power behind it. It isn’t connecting with people – and I think it’s largely thanks to its non-cool “cutesy” art style and the relative lack of accessibility.

It’s just hard to classify these games as truly “worthy” system sellers. In Mario‘s case, it’s too same-old – even and especially compared to the Wii version – and in Nintendo Land‘s case, it just isn’t built to be a runaway success. When you put a higher price on that, it’s no wonder Wii U is having trouble selling. The added cost is being mismatched with games that aren’t seen as worth it.

I hate to say it, but I think that, just like 3DS, it’ll take a price cut combined with that expanded library that’s sure to come starting in fall before Wii U really takes off. Wii U’s great and probably my favorite home platform so far in terms of the hardware itself, but it just isn’t poised for Nintendo-like success in its current state.

Header image source: Commanderuban on Tumblr