Design-wise, the Wii Mini is undeniably a big break from the regular model you know. While it's not as pint-size as the name suggests (was anyone really hurting for space with the Wii?), it's certainly one of the smallest semi-modern TV consoles we'll see until the disc-free OUYA arrives. We'll have side-by-side shots as soon as we can put the old and new Wii units together in one place. The system is matte from head to toe; it's not quite as handsome a TV companion as its full-featured predecessors, but it's appealing as one of the few systems that doesn't default to a monochromatic look. We'll also admit to having a soft spot for the bright, glossy red of the bundled Wii Remote Plus and Nunchuk. Just remember to replace the Remote's disposable AA batteries with rechargeables if you play often.
A spin around the body confirms what's present -- or rather, what's missing. There's no SD card slot, and the connections are limited to the obligatory power, video and sensor bar along with one USB port versus the regular Wii's two. Before you ask: no, you can't fudge internet access with an Ethernet-to-USB adapter. Believe us, we've tried. And much like the late 2012-era PlayStation 3, Nintendo has switched to a top-loading disc drive instead of a slot-loader. It's not nearly as elegant as before and might pose problems in a tightly-packed home theater nook, although it's at least not too noisy. Our main gripe is that component video output doesn't appear to work; we've asked Nintendo if there's any compatibility changes, but for now we'd stick to old-fashioned RCA. The company does offer help finding a component cable on its product page.
Firing up the Wii Mini will be the real shock if you're used to the Wii, and especially the Wii U. When Nintendo said it had pulled internet access, it wasn't kidding; the only three channels are the disc, the Mii tool and a manual for the menus. Dive into the settings and options like internet or WiiConnect24 are gone altogether. If you buy this cheapest of Nintendo machines, there's no upgrading after the fact if you have a sudden craving for Netflix.
As for playing... quite simply, it's a Wii. Games look and run as well as they do on the original consoles. The Balance Board works, and as many as four Remotes will pair up. The catch, of course, is that there won't be any GameCube, Wii Shop or Virtual Console titles, and no online interaction. It's local Wii gaming, or nothing. For the target audience mostly just concerned with playing Super Mario Galaxy or the occasional party game like Super Smash Bros. Brawl, that's fine, and some would joke that Nintendo isn't all that internet-savvy to start with. Still, it's hard not to notice the limits.
Would we buy the Wii Mini if it weren't in the name of research? As a main console, definitely not. If some Wiis are relegated to the closet in between friend visits, the Mini's chances of coming out to play are that much smaller. There's a better case to be made when looking at the Mini as a second system or a Wii for young kids; arguably, being forced offline is a feature if you're truly jittery about Junior's playing habits. However, a regular Wii in a New Super Mario Bros. Wii bundle is currently $150 Canadian, if you can track it down as of this writing. That's a very short hop in price for a big leap in features, and easily worth it if you'd prefer a pack-in game. For the Wii Mini to be a truly worthy buy, it needs to cost less again -- $80 or below would make for a clearer gap. For now, think very carefully about who will be playing, and how, before pulling the trigger.