Our first 48 hours with the Nintendo's Wii U
Nintendo's latest console has finally arrived. So what are the pros and cons of the Wii U, and is it worth a purchase? Philip finds out...
Six years ago, Nintendo unleashed the Wii. Having had some success with its GameCube, but seeing it struggle compared to Sony’s PlayStation 2 and Microsoft’s Xbox, Nintendo knew it had to do something to recapture the market, and it did so by taking the lessons it learnt from the Nintendo DS – introducing touch screen to gaming, which has since gone on leaps and bounds on smartphones – and adapting them to a home video console, namely eschewing fancy graphics and traditional play for motion control.
This decision paid off, with the Wii becoming the most commercially successful console of its generation, and though it had its detractors who criticised its non-HD graphics, over-reliance on motion-control and considerable shovelware, it was also mostly critically-successful in its aims of creating a fun, party console that reached a previously untapped market.
But the Wii has also become an aged machine compared to its competitors. Though the decision not to include HD in the Wii was wise back then – it kept costs down, and the only people with flat-screen TVs were the well off – the majority of people now have a HD-ready television. Even if games such as Super Mario Galaxy 2 proved that beauty could still be found in 480p, the time was right for a HD upgrade.
On top of that, third-party support was dying off for the console, smartphones were eating into Nintendo's handheld market, its internet strategy was looking antiquated, and consumers needed a reason to spend money on gaming in a worldwide recession.
So along comes the Wii U. I was lucky enough to get one on launch day, and after using it for 48 hours, here's my opinion on Nintendo’s brand-new console.
The Wii U comes in two flavours: the basic pack and the premium pack. Unless you're considerably short of cash and the basic one is the only one you can reasonably afford, you need to get the premium pack. With four times as much onboard memory (after the OS the basic pack leaves you with just three of its 8Gb to play with), a copy of NintendoLand thrown in and a cash-back scheme on digital downloads, plus a sensor bar and other nifty additions, it’s your best choice and worth the extra £50.
If you're planning of buying a Wii U this Christmas, there are a few things you need to consider. If you have a Wii already, then you’re pretty well set, as all remotes transfer over to the new console after a quick re-sync. If you don’t, though, you don’t get any Wiimotes in the package, and though most games don’t need them in their main functions, to get the most out of them, especially in the multiplayer, you need the remotes - so if you don’t have them, there's some extra cash you’ll need to spend. You don’t necessarily have to have MotionPlus enabled controllers, or ones with the add-on, as only some games require the additional grunt to the controller tracking - only a couple of NintendoLand's mini games use MotionPlus, for example.
Also, if you don’t have the original Wii and opt for the basic pack, you’ll need to buy a separate sensor bar as one is only included in the premium set, but it doesn’t appear to be any different to the Wii version and, in fact, you can use your old one.
So, in my opinion, if you can afford it, get the deluxe pack as it’s a better investment in terms of hardware, though if you do go for the basic model you can bump up its hard drive with an external one if required.
The console comes in a neat box and feels more compact than the original console. The Wii U unit itself, in deluxe a smart black colour, is slightly longer and thicker than the Wii but it’s colour and rounded edges make it feel smaller and more compact. It comes with a front loading disc tray and power, eject and sync buttons exposed on the front, with a flick-down flap at the front hiding the SD card slot and USB sockets, in a much more sensible place compared to its predecessor. At the back you have all the same connections as on the original Wii plus a HDMI out.
The console is sleek but shiny so expect it to gather fingerprints, though you shouldn’t really be touching it that much. The fan is a little louder than the Wii, but with the sound on it’s not noticeable. The buttons on the console have a satisfying click to them and the game drive operates smoothly and much nicer than the original, and the games are recognised far more quickly.
Alongside the console you get the GamePad, the new piece of technology for this console. Resembling the re-proportioned bottom half of a 3DS, it’s a lightweight, easy-to-hold unit - its only flaw is that it gathers fingerprints like an over-worked detective on CSI. Contrary to other reports, the build doesn’t feel cheap and it’s a pleasure to use.
The pad comes with a whole host of technology under its bonnet. As well as two click-analogue sticks, a D-pad, four normal buttons, start, select, home and four shoulder buttons, it comes with a button to let you operate your television, an accelerometer and gyroscope, NFC for future expansion (the technology used to wirelessly pay for stuff with your credit card, or to play the Skylanders game on the original Wii), a camera, microphone and, of course, a large six-inch touchscreen. The touchscreen is only one-click unlike, say, your iPad or smartphone, but it’s enough for the job and the screen is bright, crisp and actually has better colours than my LCD TV. Overall, the controller is a great piece of kit – comfortable to hold and neatly designed – and has the power behind it to let game designers loose with their creativity.
The controller can work independently with the television or show different things, and receives full 1080p video. How far it will stream depends on what you have near to the Wii U that could interfere with the signal.
Rounding off the package is a neat cradle to charge up the pad on – similar to the 3DS one – and a normal stand for the GamePad. You also get some little plastic legs to stand up the console but it feels more natural lying down.
You’ll get about three-and-a-half hours of juice out of the GamePad, which isn’t half bad – though it proved tricky for a six-hour stint of play I did with my friends – and can run by being plugged in to the mains thanks to a generously long cable.
So far I’ve been quite positive about the Wii U, but the console does have a dark side: its set-up.
Without sounding like an old man, I remember when I was a kid getting my SNES. You opened up the box, slotted in the cartridge and – bang – you were away. Now, with whatever technology you get, it’s not so simple. From smartphones to computers, the set-up and updates are getting more and more ridiculous and, unfortunately, the Wii U has so far been the most absurd piece of technology I’ve dealt with so far.
Whereas the set-up of the Wii, DS and 3DS were quick, simple and intuitive, it just didn’t feel the same for the Wii U. Putting the kit together was simple and can be done without the manual, and the initial set-up is straight forward, but then it gets a little frustrating.
You start by switching on the GamePad, then the Wii U console, and tethering them together following the simple instructions on the small screen. This set-up included connecting it to your television to use it as a TV remote – basically the ‘TV’ button on the controller allows you to change inputs, channels, volume and turn it on and off and is actually surprisingly powerful as a remote control - setting up your Mii (with a handy transfer option from a 3DS which I used, even if I had to alter the settings of my Mii as it had copying disabled), and other bits like the aspect ratio and such. This was all totally straightforward.
However, my first pitfall was in setting up an internet connection. No matter how I put the settings in – knowing they are correct – it wouldn’t connect to my Virgin Media box, saying the settings weren’t right. Thankfully, a quick Google search explained the settings, and then it connected fine. Considering I went online with the Wii and, most recently, the 3DS with no hassle, this is surprising and hopefully will be ironed out for future users.
We then get to the main issue with the set-up, and that’s the ‘day one’ update. No official statement appears to have been made, but it seems that Nintendo started manufacturing the console before the firmware was finished and, instead of packaging each console with the update on a DVD, it has to be done online. Rumours of size vary, but on my Virgin Media L package, it took precisely – and I mean exactly – 60 minutes to download and install.
This was a nervous time for me – and not just because of how much it’ll be crippling my download limit – as there had been reports of the console being ‘bricked’ (permanently broken and requiring being sent back to Nintendo) if the console is switched off mid-update or the power is lost. Cue me not wanting to switch on the oven, lights or the Christmas tree (yes, I know I’m early) for fear of causing a circuit-driving power-spike.
Thankfully, the update passed without drama – even if the GamePad switching to power saving mode after five minutes and dimming the screen made my heart flutter – and it all updated. The controller also has a volume slider, fortunately, so I didn’t have to listen to the repetitive wait music for an hour.
Unfortunately, this isn’t the end of the story as regards the update, as it then has to be applied to every app and game you use, which requires another bit of waiting whilst each element is updated. After a few more ticks of menus in the set-up process, I was able to log-in as my user and began to explore the Wii U dashboard, but having to wait while each update was applied to each area, with a time remaining value that was as unreliable as anything Microsoft Windows throws up; either that, or seconds are 20 times longer in Japan.
The minor hassles continued as I gained my footing, as the system then prompted me to create a Nintendo Network ID (which it didn’t mention in the set-up) to give me my online account, which was hidden away in a menu that took me a while to find. I would be later prompted to set-up the Miiverse (more on that shortly) from within a game, but had to leave the game – and find another hidden menu – to do that.
I appreciate now that games consoles are like mini-computers, but the set-up process for the Wii U was not enjoyable, and I can see a lot of families who may be seeing someone unwrapping one of these on Christmas Day having some arguments as their young children wait to play the latest Mario.
(If you're considering buying the console for your child this Christmas I’d, er, ask Santa to perhaps open the gift, update and install it, then put it under the tree!)
Naturally, menus will continue appearing through the game as different things are set-up, from exactly what you want other users to see or not to see, plus Nintendo’s obsession with health and safety and short play times, but Wii users will be familiar with those. Plus, a lot of the transfers from menu to menu are slow and tedious, but hopefully they’ll speed this up in future updates.
Having jumped through the hoops of the infuriating set-up it’s now time to explore the console, and I am glad to report that it’s smoother sailing for here.
On your television screen you get the Miiverse, a visual representation of the games available on the Wii U, surrounded by the Miis of people playing them with regular written and drawn speech bubbles coming up. This certainly makes the console feel much more connected with the world, and it’s a thumbs up there.
Switching to the GamePad this is where all the menu options are, though you can swap the screens around to interact with the Miiverse using the touch screen, allowing you to click links to buy digital versions of the games, copy Miis to your unit, view players’ profiles and other options.
On the menu screen you get the following areas:
User Menu: Here you can set-up users for your console so each person, tethered to a Mii, gets their own user area and save game storage, which is a big improvement on previous styles. You can also change your settings here such as a password.
Game: Here you launch the disc in the Wii U console.
Mii Maker: Here you can design your Miis. Very similar in style to the Wii version, but using more of the updates from the 3DS version – in fact it looks to be a clone of this down to the hairstyles used and the ability to take a photo of you using the GamePad (still as unreliable as the 3DS one in creating a cartoony likeness). The Miis on the Wii U are obviously smoother and more detailed than on the Wii, but it would have been nice to have got a more realistic Xbox-style look and more customisation options. You can transfer Miis from your 3DS and, thankfully, your old Wii once you’ve transferred over your data (see the next section).
System Settings: The usual suspects are to be found here, from the internet settings, data management, date and time, TV settings, remote settings and so on. If you’re in here, you must be bored.
Netflix + LoveFilm: Yes, you can even watch these from the controller. I haven’t got a subscription to either of these so can’t report back on how they work or their quality.
YouTube: The popular video sharing site has its own app. It’s easy to use thanks to the on-screen keyboard, and does a neat preview of key videos on your television while searching is done on your touch screen. You can sign in to your account and see previous searches, and it's a well-rounded app.
Wii Menu: Though GameCube compatibility is long-gone due to the removal of the game ports, you can still play old Wii games and digital content, transferred from your old console (see the next section). Weirdly, this isn’t done through the main hub but through what is, basically, a Wii emulator on a completely separate menu. I don’t really have a major problem with it, but it does seem weirdly unintuitive, meaning all the Virtual Console games you’ve played don’t appear on the main Wii U hub but on a separate Wii hub.
They still all play though, which is good, but seems an unusual decision. I’m hoping they’ll update the firmware to populate the Wii U menu screen with your digital content rather than locked away on a second screen – then we could even play the old SNES games and more on the GamePad!
Daily Log: As you got on the previous Wii and Nintendo’s handheld offerings, here you can track what you’ve played and for how long, whether that’s games or apps.
Parental Controls: Again, like the system settings, the usual suspects apply, and you can create a PIN here to restrict the things that your children can do on the console and the games they can play, so if you don’t want your 12-year-old playing the 18-rated ZombieU, then here is the place to go.
Health and Safety Information: Do I really need to explain this?
Wii Chat: The final option on the main menu allows you to do video calls with your friends on the console using the video camera on the GamePad. I’ve not yet tried it as my one friend so far has not yet been online at the same time, but the menu to select people and call is clear and easy to use, and from the appearance of videos in games, looks good.
At the bottom of the main menu, and on the ‘Home’ screen when you click the button are various other areas. There is the Friends List which, incredibly, shows your friends as part of the Miiverse and you can join communities on games to ask for help or post comments, see your profile, blocked users, other users, messages and notifications, in an area much expanded and much more rewarding than on the Wii. You can add friends by typing in their Nintendo ID and them yours, and voila - you're friends in a much easier process than before.
There is the Nintendo eShop where you can download digital copies of most games available in the shop and lots more, which is a great step-up for Nintendo, even if the high street aren’t keen. Expect them to drain your hard drive space, though, and don’t expect Amazon prices either. But the shop is intuitive and easy to use, and there are some good offers, but a limited number of games. Paradoxically, as with the Wii menu, you have to go into the Wii emulator to download virtual console games. Weird.
There is also an internet browser which is the best I’ve used so far on a Nintendo console, even though it doesn't support Flash. On the TV you see your Mii in front of some curtains, which you can open to – ta dah! – reveal what you’ve found on the handheld. Surfing round is easy and refreshingly quick, and you can zoom in and out using the buttons, but you can't pinch-and-pull due to the screen's lack of multi-touch. You can, however, move around pages with limited loading time, and I feel like you could really use this browser mid-game. You can also store bookmarks.
Fourth along, there is Nintendo TVii, but this isn't currently available. Finally, there's notifications, which is like the page on the 3DS that gives you updates from Nintendo and games, but mine is pretty bare.
You can bring the ‘bottom’ options of the menu up at any time during a game to surf the net or the Miiverse whilst playing a game, which is a neat addition.
Overall the OS is a mixed bag. It’s comprehensive and there is much more to it than the Wii version, and users will revel in what is available. But it is nowhere near perfect. The transitions between menus are, at times, infuriatingly slow, and it doesn’t have the immediate pick-up-and-play nature of the Wii menu, which will stump younger or newer players, but it’s something you pick up after a couple of hours of use.
The separating of the Wii content from the Wii U area is a head-scratcher. It’s a competent user area, but needs some improvement, and I hope Nintendo will address these areas soon. The Miiverse and its speech bubbles are fun, but there is some confusion over ‘following’ people like you’re on Twitter as opposed to friends, but with a bit of exploration, you can find your feet.
If like me you have a lot of Wii games and digital content, you’ll want to transfer them from your old console to the Wii U. The process is actually quite straightforward, so don’t be put off by Nintendo’s page-after-page of instructions.
You basically put an SD card in the Wii U which puts some software onto it, and then you transfer it to the Wii where all your save files are moved across with most channels – like the DS to 3DS transition, some don’t move over: the casualties? I can live without the Everybody Votes or Weather channels, but I miss the BBC iPlayer app, and there isn’t one yet available, nor does iPlayer work through the Internet browser. Thankfully I have OnDemand on my PC and digibox so it’s no personal loss, but it would be great to watch BBC shows on the GamePad.
You then return the card to the Wii U and they’re moved over. It’s long and tedious – though you do get a fun Pikmin movie – and not perfect: some games have to be reinstalled from the e-store, including those you had on your SD card due to the limited memory of the Wii which, mostly, won’t work, so you have to delete them off the SD card and reinstall them from the WiiShop. I gave up re-downloading them as it takes ages, but will reinstall them as they go.
To sum up, the transfer from the Wii to the Wii U is pretty painless, if a little slow. If you have additional games on your SD card, prepare to have to delete them and take the time to reinstall them, but all my saved games – even for these SD games – all moved across with no problem. But please, give us the iPlayer app back!
I appreciate I’ve been writing a lot about the Nintendo Wii U system, but I shouldn’t leave without mentioning some of the games I’ve played. New Super Mario Bros U is as familiar as everyone of the recent 2D platformers we’ve had from a company that seems to be intent on milking its plumber mascot dry (sound painful). It’s the Wii 2D game with better graphics, and even in the Mario cartoony style, they’re beautiful to look at.
The gameplay is the same as it’s always been, so don’t expect anything revolutionary, but it’s a competent Mario platformer with enjoyable level design, power-ups and baddies with a few, small new additions that add some refreshment, plus a great over-world map - the best since Super Mario World - even if there seems to be a lack of secret exits.
The game is rounded off by boost mode which is fun to play, and the challenges menu, my favourite area, where you have to do speed-runs and collect things to get medals, which is the most fun I’ve had in a Mario game for a long while, and reminds me of the excellent challenges menu on the old Worms games. Five-player multiplayer, where four players control a character using a Wiimote each while the GamePad player kills enemies, rescues characters and places blocks to help or hinder, is as crazy as the Wii version, and is a like-it or loathe-it inclusion, depending on how much you’ve had to drink and how tolerant you are of being attacked by your friends.
Overall, it’s another Mario game that doesn’t really revolutionise, but its smooth graphically and another great play, even if the franchise is starting to get a little stale. The end world bosses, though, are more interesting than in recent games. You can also post messages to the Miiverse which appear in the game, which is neat touch, and the bonus levels where you have to chase after Nabbit add some replay to the game, on top of the challenges menu.
ZombieU is my favourite of the games I’ve bought so far. A survival horror game, you get the main action on your television and your maps and inventory on the GamePad. Controlled by the smaller screen, you have to explore areas of London whilst avoiding and killing zombies. The game is a perfect tech demo for the new way of playing, but it's also an excellent game in its own right. It's amazingly detailed, and looks gorgeous in its 1080p presentation. The tension built up through the locations, sound and music is palpable, and the use of the two screens together is ingenious. Combat is a little tricky at times, but this is a game that’s actually scary.
Throw in a great mechanic where, if you get bitten, you re-spawn as a different character in the safe house and can go and rob your previous self to get all your goodies back, is great, and I cannot rate this game highly enough. Great tension, brilliant graphics even this early on in the console’s life cycle, and a perfect pairing between TV and GamePad that makes sense in game but is the most realistic way of working with an inventory I’ve ever seen – where the action continues whilst you’re trying to find your flares - this is a must buy.
Finally, there's the packaged game, NintendoLand. This console’s WiiSports, it boasts 12 mini games to play. You can get something out of it on your own with six solo play games, with Donkey Kong’s Crash Course and Octopus Dance being two of my personal favourites, but it’s the multiplayer that brings it to life. The games are simple – though the first plays of each game necessitates some reading of instructions – but my friends and I played this for three hours solid in one go – and that was only on three of the twelve games.
It was hilarious, with Mario Chase and Luigi’s Mansion being the best of the bunch, and guaranteed must-plays for a Wii U house party. The graphics are, like Super Mario U, cartoony but crisp in HD, but they are a great laugh with your friends, and worth returning to again and again.
Each game comes with multiple levels, and though some of the team games – Zelda, I’m looking at you – are a little tiresome and simple compared to the more ruthless competitive games, there is, to roll out a cliché, something for everyone. Though the Wii U may lack over-arching achievements like the Xbox, there are WiiSports Resort-esque stamps to unlock in this game which will give you something to come back to, plus items to unlock for good playing, and of course the usual ranking tables to provoke competition with your friends.
It's cracking party game that takes the WiiSports mantle and runs with it to make another must-have title, mainly for its multiplayer. If Nintendo can do a new WiiSports Resort or Mario Party like this game, then I’m sold.
Taking everything into consideration over the two days I’ve been playing the console, I’m glad I purchased it. The cost is perhaps a little steep, and Nintendo certainly won’t get the mass-appeal and family market it enjoyed with the Wii, at least at the moment, but you're getting some added power under the bonnet, easily comparable with the XBox and PS3, and we’ll see how it fairs against their next iterations whenever they launch. The GamePad is a great piece of tech that works well, is comfortable to use and, even in the three launch games I’ve played – in particular ZombieU - I can see how the technology could be used for amazing things.
Graphically, the 1080p looks gorgeous, but it’s going to take more ZombieU-style games and less Mario to show it off properly. It’s just a shame that the initial set-up is long, tedious and difficult, and there have been a few dodgy decisions in not fully integrating your Wii digital content into the dashboard, and the slowness of transitions between menus is annoying.
If the public can get behind the concept of the second screen and realise its potential, which it has lots of, then this should be another success for Nintendo. Some of my friends, who've previously been ambivalent to the Wii, were taken aback by the console’s playability so, that’s good news.
I look forward to what the next year will bring for the console, as developers build on its potential - with ZombieU being the game to beat.
The GamePad is a great piece of kit and works well
The graphics looks great
ZombieU and NintendoLand are great fun to play and show off content at the opposite ends of the gaming spectrum
It’s expensive to get the most out of your Wii U
The initial set-up is long, wordy and off-putting
The menu transitions need speeding up and some things need to be made easier to understand.
Follow our Twitter feed for faster news and bad jokes right here. And be our Facebook chum here.