- Game library Only time will tell how 3rd-party support turns out. Looks good so far with hardcore titles like Assassin's Creed, Arkham City, and Call of Duty in full form.
- Graphics There's nothing here that isn't on par with Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3. Things might look even better once developers have had more time with it, or maybe not.
- Controller(s) The GamePad makes every play style imaginable a possibility. It's deceptively light, comfortable to hold for hours, and hampered only by its poor battery life.
- Design and form factor The console maintains the simple, compact design aesthetic of the first Wii.
- Other features (media, online, etc.) Nintendo finally gets online right. Usernames, not friend codes. Full games in the eShop, background downloading, and the entertaining Miiverse social network.
- Noise The console is small and quiet. Even when placed out in the open on my TV table, I can barely hear it running.
The GamePad is truly the Swiss army knife of controllers, sporting a 6" touchscreen, two clickable analog sticks, the usual array of buttons and triggers, stereo speakers, a microphone, gyroscope, accelerometer, compass, NFC reader, and front-facing camera. That's an awful lot of input methods. Nintendo has basically given developers every control mechanism they could want to create really engaging games.
When you pick it up for the first time, your initial impression is that it's much lighter than it looks. On the back of the controller, the side grips make it comfortable to grasp and the horizontal ridge makes it easy to rest against your pointer fingers. Nintendo did a great job of keeping the controller light and distributing the weight comfortably, perhaps at the expense of a larger battery (more on that later).
The touchscreen uses resistive technology (like the Nintendo DS) instead of capacitive technology (like the iPhone), so it responds to only one touch at a time — no multi-finger gestures here. I've found the touchscreen to be reliable and responsive whether you're using your finger or the included stylus. The display is matte coated to minimize glare, the viewing angle is decent, and its resolution, while not Retina quality, is adequately sharp.
The images shown on the GamePad's display are generated by the Wii U console itself and wirelessly transmitted to the controller screen at full frame rate. You need to be within 15 or 20 feet of the console before the screen starts to flicker and it complains that you're too far away. I can leave the room, sit at my kitchen table, and still play on the GamePad's screen with zero latency issues. Unfortunately it does not work in my bathroom; too many walls and fixtures in-between. Your results may vary.
The two analog sticks are convex instead of concave, so your thumbs just sit on top instead of sinking slightly inward like the Xbox 360 analog sticks. However, there is a slightly raised border around the circumference of the stick's surface, so you know if your thumb is about to slip off the pad.
The stereo speakers actually sound pretty good; not like the crackly, tin can speaker on the original Wii Remote. It actually provides for a neat quasi-surround sound experience. The Wii U system software and many games do a great job at utilizing depth of sound, where part of the music comes from your television speakers and part of it comes through the GamePad speakers. An enemy hiding around a corner might make noise through your television set, while you hear your own footsteps inching closer on the GamePad. Pretty awesome.
I'm not sure what the resolution of front facing camera is. Video chat quality looked better than my 2010 iMac's built-in camera, but worse than my iPhone 5. Nonetheless, it seems to offer typical webcam performance: great in a bright room, awful in low light conditions.
One of my favorite things about the GamePad is its ability to function as a TV remote. You can power on your television, change to the right input, and power on the console, all from the GamePad itself in a matter of seconds — no need to hunt for your other remote(s). When a game gets too loud, you can adjust the volume of your television right from the controller. You can even use this TV remote functionality while the Wii U console itself is turned off.
Alas, all of this is unfortunately encumbered by the GamePad's weak battery life. I've averaged about two and a half hours of continuous play time until the controller dies out (a flashing LED on the front of the GamePad lets you know when the battery is low). That's a lousy feeling, too; the system itself has been such a blast to use that it feels especially frustrating when battery drain rears its ugly head. If there's any upside here, it's that the Wii U ships with an eight-foot power cord for the GamePad, so you've got some flexibility in reaching a power outlet to keep the game going.
I'll just come right out and say it, Nintendo really nailed the online experience this time around. Let me touch on a few things:
No more gazillion-digit friend codes, as used on the Wii and Nintendo DS. You can now pick a unique username for your Nintendo Network account, which will be shared amongst Wii U, Nintendo 3DS, and future Nintendo products. Upon account creation, you'll be prompted to create a Mii for your avatar. As with the 3DS, you can let the Wii U take a picture of you and try to generate a Mii based on your facial features, which yields some amusing results. Adding someone as a friend on Wii U is easy; just type in their username and send a request. Seeing if anyone's online is as simple as hitting the Home button on the GamePad.
The Nintendo eShop might even be easier to use than the Xbox 360 marketplace. You can purchase the new Wii U Super Mario game or Assassin's Creed 3 in the eShop with a credit card (no proprietary points system required) in a matter of seconds — no going to a brick-and-mortar store, no CDs, just digital distribution of games that appear as icons on your main menu. DLC? There's that, too, along with a growing catalog of indie games; and developers can push as many free updates to customers as they want (remember the $40,000 Xbox Live Arcade patch cost?). My purchased games downloaded in the background while I played around with...
Miiverse, the new Wii U social networking service, is one of the most entertaining things about the system. I was not expecting to use this, and now I'm using it all the time. I check it every time I boot up the console and often several times during games (you can launch Miiverse by pressing the Home button and resume your game when finished). What makes it so appealing? Imagine Twitter, but broken up into communities around each Wii U game or application where people are sharing amusing comments, helpful advice, in-game screenshots, and assorted internet memes. In addition to posting 100-character messages, you can use the stylus to sketch black-and-white drawings roughly the size of a small web banner ad. The creativity here is truly astounding; there are some ridiculously talented artists out there. Miiverse ties directly into games, with titles like Nintendo Land prompting you to post a brag once you've beaten a level or reached an achievement. In keeping with Nintendo's friendly atmosphere, moderators keep an eye out for inappropriate Miiverse comments and drawings. In other words, comments posted to the YouTube Miiverse community are 100x better than real YouTube comments.
Wii U's internet browser is pretty darn good. You could even say it's better than browsers offered by competing consoles simply thanks to the GamePad, which makes it much easier to zoom around and type in URLs. You can pull up the browser during a game by pressing Home, then pick up where you left off afterwards, which is neat. A neat accelerometer feature lets you simply tilt the GamePad to scroll around the page. YouTube.com works wonderfully. Your web surfing on the GamePad is mirrored on the television, but in quirky Nintendo fashion, you can press the X button on the GamePad to raise a curtain on the TV so no one else can see what you're doing — a very literal take on private browsing. Wii U's browser even scores a higher rating on the HTML5 test than Internet Explorer 10 on Windows. Go figure.
Nintendo is really pushing their console as a home entertainment solution this time around. In December, Nintendo TVii will arrive on the Wii U, which will let you pull up a programming guide for your cable or satellite provider on the GamePad, and watch or TiVo your favorite shows. Now it's really clear why the GamePad can also control your television.
Did you know that the Wii was the most popular non-PC device for Netflix streaming, with 25% of all Netflix streaming customers using the Wii?¹ So it only makes sense that the Wii U has a Netflix app too; but now Amazon Instant Video, YouTube, and Hulu Plus have joined the fray as well.
The Netflix and Amazon apps work wonderfully, and you can switch video between the GamePad or your big screen. Searching these streaming libraries is so much faster with a touchscreen keyboard compared to other consoles. I don't subscribe to Hulu Plus, so I haven't been able to try that app yet. I can tell you that the YouTube app is identical to the PS3 version, but it's particularly crashy and slow. It doesn't let you watch video on the GamePad, either. Hopefully Google will push an update soon.
You can most certainly expect quality first-party games for Wii U based on Nintendo's classic franchises, but we'll have to wait and see how third-party support shapes up.
Nintendo has made it clear that they're hoping to attract the hardcore gamer audience back; the general word is that they've made it easier for publishers to target the Wii U as part of their cross-platform development cycles. With hardcore titles like Assassin's Creed 3, Batman: Arkham City, Call of Duty: Black Ops 2, Darksiders 2, and Mass Effect 3 available at launch for Wii U, this seems to be the case.
A more interesting question is what Wii U exclusive games, content, and controls could entice gamers away from the Xbox or PlayStation. Nintendo has started making strides towards this by agreeing to publish and finance the long-awaited Bayonetta 2 as a Wii U exclusive², and Shigeru Miyamoto himself is wooing publishers into developing unique content for the platform³.
With a controller does that almost everything and a console that offers high-definition graphics, a deeper online experience, and a well-rounded home entertainment solution, Nintendo has really tried to deliver on all fronts. If you're looking for a novel new way to experience games, you should definitely go to the store and try it out. Ultimately I think the Wii U's success hinges upon whether or not developers can come up with innovative and successful ways of utilizing its control methods.
The Wii U GamePad doesn't quite lend itself to the same pick-up-and-play intuitiveness of the original Wii Remote; you can't exactly picture your grandparents buying one of these things to play tennis. For Wii U to outpace its competitors and reign in core gamers once again, third-parties will have to step up and offer unique experiences rather than simply releasing an identical game for all three major home consoles. Nintendo has built an excellent, competitive console and online ecosystem on its own; now it's up to developers to do their part.
Does the world need a new home console with the prevalence of smartphone gaming these days? I'll say this: if you still enjoy sitting down after a long day of work and playing an epic RPG, first person shooter, or open world game, your appetite probably isn't satisfied by $2 smartphone games. Phones and tablets might be getting more capable graphics processors, but no one even has enough room on their phone to download a console game like Red Dead Redemption or Battlefield 3, and these kinds of games are best enjoyed on your big screen TV anyways. For that reason, I think the death of console gaming has been greatly exaggerated... at least for now.
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Updated detailed review
Updated detailed review