Post-release impressions: Wii U hardware and operating system
Editor's note: This isn't a traditional "review" as the Wii U is constantly evolving with software updates and new features. As such, we're not assigning it a score. All good? Okay, keep reading!
For all of the complaints that gamers have against the Wii, it sold far more than it's competition -- machines that were clearly far more powerful in terms of pixel pushing. Nintendo took a different approach and chose not to play in the same sandpit as the other kids, targetting a whole new audience, and it WORKED, like it or not.
With that audience getting older, and what may well have been a fad fading into obscurity, there was a big question mark around what Nintendo was going to release next. Were they going to try to compete for the appreciation of core gamers, or would they stick with the same formula?
Which way they've chosen to go is arguable, but the Wii U is clearly Nintendo's next generation console, regardless of what generation you feel it belongs to.
The machine itself looks very similar to the Wii -- and given it uses the same peripherals, I guess it makes some sense that the machine carries the name that brought the Nintendo name back into the living room. That said, it does confuse the consumer to some degree, and I know more than one person out there that thinks this is a peripheral for the Wii as opposed to its successor.
But that's beside the point -- the hardware itself is far more powerful than the Wii, and potentially more powerful than current competition. From what I've seen so far, Nintendo has finally joined "the future" and built a high definition console -- in fact, it comes with an HDMI cable in the box, which was a nice surprise. It all looks nice and crisp too (although for some reason, it works best on my TV if I output at 720p... for reasons I'm not of, since my TV is quite capable).
There's not much to say about the hardware -- the HDD in both bundles is insufficient (8GB for Basic pack and 32GB for Premium). There are four USB ports if that floats your boat (and yes, apparently you CAN plug in an external HDD, but I'm yet to test how that works). The discs are proprietary and have a nice smooth finish to the edges (as opposed to the square edges of a standard DVD). I'd say they are based on Blu-ray technology, but the Wii U doesn't play DVDs or Blu-rays unfortunately. And that's about it -- let's face it, the console isn't exactly the system selling feature...
While the Wii U is compatible with existing Wii peripherals (standard and MotionPlus Wii Remotes, Nunchuks and the Wii Balance Board, as examples), the Wii U clearly targets the core audience, for better or worse. The Wii U GamePad is rather large (like a big book), and has a similar button configuration to competitive controllers, with dual analogue sticks and four shoulder buttons. Oh... and there's a six-inch touchscreen in there too, in case you didn't notice.
Nintendo chose to implement a resistive touchscreen as opposed to a capacitive screen (like those used in iPhones and Android phones), but it's a good quality screen, and personally I had no issues. You do need to be a little more deliberate with your touches and swipes (no multitouch, either), but it works well more often than not. I'm sure this was a cost-saving measure on Nintendo's part.
Also built-in is a button that will allow Wii U owners to control their TV using the GamePad. Steve and Leo both assure me it was easy to set up and is LIFE CHANGING, but it didn't work for me. I ended up with a little disclaimer saying that the function doesn't work with every TV. Sad face.
Still, one thing that DOES work is the ability to use the touchscreen exclusively for gaming (i.e., turn the TV off but continue playing on the GamePad). I was able to play from the kitchen while working on some other things, with a few rounds of New Super Mario Bros. U and Nano Assault Neo in between. It didn't work everywhere, so I couldn't test from bed or the grand throne room, but even just letting my kids watch Giggle and Hoot while I played Mario was pretty damned awesome. Not a selling point for everyone, but for me? Priceless. Keep in mind that not all games will allow for this, though.
With an NFC reader (think of the Skylanders Portal), microphone, speakers, accelerometers and gyrometers, plus a front-facing camera, the Wii U GamePad is kitted out nicely. You can't please everyone (if this was a fully portable machine, it would cost FAR more than it does, don't forget what this is intended for), but it certainly pleases me. Did I mention that the built-in speakers are used extensively in games, playing game music when playing on the device, or with music complimenting what's playing on TV, or even specific sounds that come only from the GamePad, such as the guy bossing you around in ZombiU? Yeah, all of that is pretty awesome. Nice quality, too, for such small speakers (yeah, a little tinny, but not as bad as the Wii was).
Nintendo was lagging far behind the competition in this regard -- the Wii had an interesting "Channel"-based Home screen, but it was severely lacking in online functionality. This has been rectified (to some degree) with the Wii U.
The Home screen is split into two halves, which can be swapped between the two screens. Wara Wara Plaza (warawara means 'bustling' in Japanese) displays a bunch of icons with Miis gathered from around the world -- popular messages posted by these users pop up from time to time. The other screen is laid out in a similar fashion to the Wii, with large buttons representing Wii U apps. It works, and main system apps have their own dock at the bottom of the screen.
It is now very simple to set up a User, assign a Mii, and link a Nintendo ID -- this is what will follow you to the interwebs and allow the making of friends. Making friends is very easy (although not at first - more on that later), just search for a username in Miiverse, then send them a friend request. Easy! Further, if you do come across a user that you like, you can easily click on their Nintendo ID and send them a friend request, or just follow them as on Twitter - so much better than Nintendo's completely crazy friend codes. Hopefully they are now just an oil stain on our collective memory.
The Miiverse itself is simply wonderful. At first glance, it seems like Twitter (and for the purposes of explanation, it kind of is); however, it allows players to post comments in threads specific to a certain game, allowing for like-minded folks to share their thoughts, but more importantly, allowing for users to crowdsource hints and tips when stuck - the ability to share screenshots helps here as well. An absolutely BRILLIANT idea that I predict will be mirrored in some way on future competitive networks. Games can even utilise this feed within a game itself - New Super Mario Bros. U being the prime example, with users able to share their experiences along the way.
Of course, the system also has a fairly capable browser. While not as good as you might find on an iPad or Android tablet, it's easily the best Internet browser on a gaming device. Easy to use, sharp, and pretty damned fast - I was HIGHLY impressed on first use. That said, it is a little light on functionality, but it's probably all you need for the TV at least.
Another key app is Wii U Chat -- allowing users to utilise the camera on the GamePad to conduct video chats with other Wii U users. While it was great quality, and there's the capability to draw naughty stuff on your friend's face using the GamePad, I doubt I'll use it much. Still - it's nice to have. this is one app that you can't use while a game is paused, though, so keep that in mind (Miiverse, the Friends app, and the Internet can all be used with the game paused, which is really useful).
There's also a Wii emulator, which essentially provides the Wii Home screen to navigate and load Wii games. It works, but not with your GamePad, for obvious reasons. My Wii died an unfortunate death, so I was unable to test the migration, which I hear is functional, but painful.
The eShop is glorious this time round -- big friendly buttons (it's designed for the GamePad after all), easy to navigate, and it helps that there's already a bunch of high quality Independent titles available for purchase as well (as well as every retail title). Things here can only get better, but until they do, buy Nano Assault Neo, because it's great.
There's plenty else to explore, but this is it for what matters out of the box.
What needs work
I've been pretty positive so far, so bear with me -- the Wii U is bad in equal measure.
There's only one place to start -- the day one update. Regardless of the size, it is crazy that users need to update the system to experience most of what I've outlined above (if not, all of it). Given that there were many that couldn't even connect their Wii U to their router with out a highly complex workaround (our own Leo can attest to this), I expect there will be a bunch of unhappy parents come Christmas day. Prepare yourself, Nintendo. I bet a bunch of parents will upgrade based on the promised Wii emulator alone, and until this update comes pre-installed, there will be problems. What's easy for enthusiasts like ourselves is not so easy for the rest of the world.
Then there is the strange way in which Nintendo has set up the Nintendo ID. Until a very specific bunch of steps are undertaken (use both the Miiverse and the Friends apps for the first time, and go through their respective settings), your Nintendo ID is not activated to make friends. Further, while friend requests can be sent directly from the Miiverse app, the Friends app requires both users to input the other friends username, independently of each other. I'm confused just writing that. It doesn't make sense.
And why is there no General conversation going on in Miiverse -- there's only the ability to post about specific games. That's weird. Oh, and the moderation is annoying -- sure, things are clean and helpful, but I couldn't even use the word damn. Surely we've moved on from caring about that particular word. I can confirm there is no moderation on messages between friends directly, as the first reply I received was a badly drawn weiner... you know who you are, Mr Weiner-Artist. You can draw better than that.
Speaking of being able to draw better: why do Miis still look the way they do? It suited the relatively low definition Wii, but in HD, they just look too plain. I hope things improve here, because I was hoping for more.
Switching between apps is also EXTREMELY painful. The first time an app is used can take minutes to load (but subsequent loading times are significantly decreased), but even 20 seconds is far too long. This will be fixed in future updates, I'm sure, and I can recall that the PS3 and Xbox 360 were imperfect on release, but still, it sucks.
Combine that with the fact I am inexplicably unable to use 1080p as my output resolution without issues, and the fact that my TV wouldn't work with the remote function (trust me, I won't get over this until I get a new TV), and it just seems half-baked. And why is the TVii button on my Home screen if we aren't getting it in Australia (for the time being, at the very least)? Sure, this was the ONLY time Nintendo could release the system, I get that, but some of these complaints are pretty major.
Just expecting all users to update their machine is a pretty ambitious expectation, if you ask me. Half of the iPhone owners I know have never updated their phone -- some of them didn't even know that it was possible.
Once I got through the fog of peculiarly ridiculous setup requirements, I fell in love with Wii U, and I remain that way a week later. The games I have are all wonderful to play, are very promising, and things can only get better with future updates. Nintendo has stumbled into the future, but f they can pick themselves up and brush off the moronic cobwebs, they may well manage to stay in the race. Achievements might help, too...