Even before it began teasing a new console, still codenamed "NX," Nintendo seemed to have forgotten about the Wii U. Sure, the company released the poorly received Star Fox Zero in April, but until The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild comes out next year, the release calendar is devoid of first-party games. Of course, that's not counting the throwback Classic Mini NES console, which arrives in November. Before the NX's promised March 2017 launch, we wanted to revisit the system, just as we did recently with the Xbox One and PlayStation 4. Think of this as both a re-review and a postmortem.
The Wii U wasn't supposed to go head-to-head with consoles from Microsoft and Sony -- not the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, and certainly not the PS4 and Xbox One. That's evident by looking at both the system itself as well as the game selection. Unlike its competitors, which sport sleek, futuristic designs, the Wii U is understated, with cheerful rounded corners and a glossy finish -- as clear a sign as any that the Wii U was intended for families more than avid gamers. All told, it's about the size of a hardcover book, making it very unobtrusive indeed. Up front is the slot-loading DVD drive and under that a sliding door hiding two USB 2.0 ports and an SD card slot for additional storage. On the left, you'll find the power and eject buttons.
Around back are two more USB 2.0 connections, an HDMI socket, power-supply input, a port for the Wii sensor bar (for backward compatibility with the original Wii) and analog video output. The lack of Ethernet means everything from downloading games to playing Fast Racing Neo online is done via the console's archaic 802.11b/g/n WiFi radio -- that is, unless you spring for a compatible USB LAN adapter.
If the 32GB of internal storage isn't enough for you, or you don't have a sizable SD card lying around, the system also supports powered external hard drives. Even then, I've had the system since launch, owned a number of downloaded games and have rarely come close to needing more space than the internal storage provided. Speaking of games, the type of stuff you'll play on the Wii U underscores the limitations of its relatively low-powered internals. The IBM-Power-based multi-core processor and custom Radeon high-def GPU can't crank out visuals on par with what the PS4 and Xbox One are capable of, but playing Mario Kart 8 in 1080p at 60 frames per second is still nothing to sneeze at. Strong art direction doesn't need bleeding-edge silicon to power it either -- just a development team skilled at using what's available. And that's what Nintendo does best.
The GamePad is the heart of the Wii U; the thing that makes it so different from the hardware that came before it. Nintendo fused motion controls from the original Wii with the 3DS hand-held's touch interface into one package, creating something truly unique. Perhaps someone else is using the TV in the living room, but you want to collect a few coins in Mario Kart 8? No problem. You can use GamePad's 6.2-inch resistive touchscreen to play games, no TV required. Just plug in a pair of headphones to the 3.5mm jack on top and you're all set. A majority of titles mirror their video output to the GamePad's screen too, so your options aren't limited to kart racing with an Italian plumber and his pals. The catch here is that to get the best experience, you need to be pretty close to the console itself (read: within 20 feet and with a clear line of sight).
While the touchpad takes center stage, there are also a bunch of physical inputs. Two clickable, convex analog sticks are equidistant on opposite sides of the touchscreen, with a D-pad below the one on the left. And there's an NFC contact point for Amiibo figurines directly under that. Moving to the right, the system's home button is centered below the screen. Next to that is a battery-indicator light, and buttons for TV control and powering the console on and off.
The diamond arrangement of A, B, X and Y face buttons sits awkwardly right below the right analog stick, with the start and select buttons below that. And I almost forgot: There's a camera centered above the touchpad. I've never used it for anything, hence my nearly forgetting to mention it. Continuing our tour, a pair each of digital shoulder and trigger buttons rest on the backside. Those are joined by a volume slider for the onboard speakers, an IR blaster, headphone port and AC power connector.
I've never been able to hold the GamePad comfortably. I have big hands, and the device, though sturdy, isn't easy to hang onto for extended periods of time. The ridge that juts out from the backside isn't even the issue. I actually like resting the tops of my middle fingers against it while my pointer fingers lie on top of the ZL and ZR triggers. It's the fact that half of my fingers don't have any option other than lying flat against the back. Moreover, the symmetrical analog stick placement makes it difficult for me to reach the A, B, X, Y diamond during gameplay. Same with grabbing the stylus from its holster in the middle of playing.
Of course, the traditional joypad, the Wii U Pro Controller, doesn't have any of these issues. My only gripes are the digital shoulder and trigger buttons: It's hard to go back from the analog precision Microsoft has offered on its Xbox controllers since 2001. Hell, the GameCube controller had them too.
The other thing is that some games -- especially those developed in-house by Nintendo -- simply aren't playable without the GamePad. Launch title Scribblenauts Unlimited relies on the touchpad for inputting text, for instance. Meanwhile, this year's Star Fox Zero uses its motion controls and second screen extensively for targeting. Kirby and the Rainbow Curse has you drawing paths for the pink puffball to follow directly on the GamePad's screen as well, without the need to even look up at your TV. Not using the controller isn't exactly an option if you aren't a fan of it and still want to play the Wii U's exclusive games.
Anecdotally, I've discovered that the split of people who love or loathe the GamePad is pretty even. Personally, the ergonomic issues make it hard for me to go more than a few hours before my hands cramp up and I need to put the GamePad down. Which works out well because the battery on the controller lasts only around four hours at half brightness with the volume turned off.
Battery life isn't as annoying an issue thanks to the GamePad's pack-in charging cradle, though. Setting the controller in it after a session is effortless, due to the fact that it charges via contact points rather than a cable. I wish Microsoft and Sony would do something like this: The convenience of it can't be overstated.
Part of what makes the Wii U feel like it's aged so much is that its software hasn't been updated nearly as much as its contemporaries'. The system feels like we've had it longer because, aside from the addition of folders and a quick access menu (both of which are incredibly welcome), it's basically running the same software as it did in 2012. The Xbox One, meanwhile, has undergone a total software makeover, and in less time.
We're currently at system software version 5.5.1, and compared to 2012's operating system, it's dramatically faster. Is it as zippy as navigating the PS4's home screen? No, but that console is a year newer and a great deal more powerful. A lot of things that required digging through a few submenus and exiting your game to access, like the friends list and Miiverse social network, pop up when pressing the Home button now. And that's about it.
The reason practically everyone buys Nintendo consoles is to play the latest versions of the company's signature franchises. Very few third-party games take advantage of Nintendo's various hardware features the way its in-house teams do. It's a good thing, then, that for the most part, the tentpole Nintendo games on the Wii U are great -- especially for parties. Splatoon, Super Smash Bros. for Wii U, Mario Kart 8 and Super Mario 3D World offer the types of local multiplayer action you simply can't get anywhere else. That's to say nothing of revisiting remastered classics like The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker HD or its sequel, Twilight Princess HD, with more detail and new features, respectively.
The Wii U has given birth to a pretty active indie scene, too. Affordable Space Adventures, Runbow, Fast Racing Neo and Shovel Knight, among others, are all worth your time.
At this point in the console's life, though, there's really only one new game on the horizon: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. And even then, that doesn't come out until sometime early next year. If you're buying a Wii U today, there isn't a lot to look forward to by way of new games, but at least there are plenty of quality experiences to catch up on.
While the Wii and 3DS that came before it popularized motion control and stylus input, the Wii U's use of these technologies didn't excite gamers the way Nintendo's earlier consoles did. Still, the Wii U's impact on the broader gaming landscape is undeniable. Mirroring gameplay to another device gave rise to Remote Play on PlayStation and game streaming on Xbox One. What's more, Sony cribbed the idea of using your TV as a monitor for bystanders for its soon-to-be-released PlayStation VR. Nintendo has been ahead of the curve for a while, but what legacy its next hardware innovation leaves remains to be seen.
Photos by Will Lipman