Wii U Hardware Review
Nintendo has had a rough couple of console generations. While the N64 is still debated as one of the greatest consoles of all time, the GameCube was criticized for not having enough blockbuster games, lacking power and having fairly poor third party support. While the Wii was incredibly commercially successful, gamers criticized a lack of HD power, forced motion controls that were hit or miss and, surprise, poor third party support.
Nintendo has a lot to catch up on. They know they do. And aside from having to get up to speed over all the things they’ve missed out on over the past six years, Nintendo has to somehow produce a future-proof device that will stand up against inevitable competitors from Sony and Microsoft. And thus, the Wii U is born.
The system has only been out for just over 24 hours and already there’s been a number of kinks in the system. The insanely long firmware update that activiates online features and backwards compatibility was the frustration shared by many gamers yesterday, including myself, as they unboxed their new, glossy baby for the first time. It’s apparently really easy to find your way into a debug menu and discover potentially unnannounced games. It’s no question that the Wii U has had a difficult first day in the wild, but launches for major hardware very, VERY rarely go off without a hitch. Compared to problems like the 360’s Three Red Lights or the fact that PlayStation Network really didn’t work at all when the PS3 launched, I’m willing to forgo a few inconveniences.
Unfortunately, the Wii U actually has very little going for it in the moment, but infinite promise for the future.
The number one question on everyone’s mind is whether or not the little black (or white) box has the ability to hold up against the competitors at the moment: Microsoft’s Xbox 360 and Sony’s PS3. Power-wise, we’re still not exactly sure of concrete specs. Nintendo has been keeping very quiet about the internals of their creation, so it’s difficult to tell the technical strengths and weaknesses aside from simply looking at what’s to be seen. From the games that are out right now, power seems to be hit or miss. Some games, like New Super Mario Bros. U, Nintendo Land, Skylanders Giants and Sonic & All-Stars Racing look great. However, games like Mass Effect 3: Special Edition, Batman: Arkham City Armored Edition and Ninja Gaiden 3: Razor’s Edge all appear to have lower resolution textures and the occasional stutter or framerate drop.
Notice something, however, that all the games that look a bit lackluster are all games that have been released on other consoles months, and even years, before the launch of the Wii U. It’s entirely possible that games built from the ground up for Wii U, or alongside the other console versions, are consistently better looking. Unfortunately, this isn’t something we can really test unless we knew the exact technical specs of the console, or have more experience on it past launch.
The GamePad itself, the “big deal” of the Wii U, is fairly light. Both GamePad and the Wii U console itself share the same high gloss look, which I’m personally not a fan of and I know many other gamers won’t be either. Both are very sturdy and feel structurally sound. Buttons on the GamePad are appropriately clicky, although not to a point where it makes annoying noise or anything. I’m really glad Nintendo decided to upgrade the GamePad to actual analog sticks instead of nubs like the 3DS has.
The only real problem I’ve encountered is with the GamePad’s screen itself. It has an odd yellow tint to it, something that’s actually fairly characteristic of touchscreens, but this screen somehow seems even more tinted. I’m not aware of if it’s a widespread issue or not, but it’s a bit distracting, and probably not something consumers want to see on something they just dropped at least $300 on.
Functionality of the touchscreen comes into question as well. While messing around with menus and a few games, I found the screen losing track of what I was supposed to be controlling, in some cases multiple times. Granted, I’ve encountered absolutely no problems when using the included stylus, and have only had precision problems when using my fingers. Admittedly, it may have something to do with my thick, weathered fingers from years of manual labor and guitar shredding, but I’ve seen at least a few other people complain about the screen. I’m really hoping this might be something that might be able to be fixed through a firmware update, although I doubt it. Calibration only fixes where you’re touching on the screen, not the sensitivity.
The other unfortunate thing about the GamePad is that the battery life clocks in at only about 2-3 hours. This isn’t a huge issue, because it just means you have to plug in the AC adapter and it simply becomes a wired controller, but when compared to the Pro controller, which boasts a battery life of more than 80 hours, you wonder how well power management under the GamePad’s hood is handled.
The system itself seems to be living somewhat in the shadow of its predecessor. Booting up the Wii U brought about a familiar “whirring” sound that’s very similar to the process the Wii makes when it boots up. Even the menu has that clean white feel that the Wii did, although with one major difference: almost everything is controlled through the differentiator, the GamePad.
While you’ll have your Mii wandering around several groups of other Miis on your TV screen, the actual menu is in your hands. That familiar grid of square bubbles should be familiar to anyone who’s played on a Wii before, or for that matter, an iDevice. All the expected options are there; the disc option to play the game you have inserted into the system, the system settings, the slew of video apps, the eShop and of course, the Miiverse, which we’ll come back to in a moment.
The unfortunate thing about some of these apps is that they don’t work yet. Amazon Instant Video, Hulu and the highly anticipated Nintendo TVii all have spots on the main menu, but activating any of them will bring up a “coming soon!” screen asking the person at the helm to be patient while they work out the kinks. This wouldn’t be a major problem if it weren’t for a handful of other bugs and instabilities that have been holding back the experience.
The layout of the eShop is brilliant. It feels like you’re browsing a website and shopping for games, rather than being brought to what feels like just an extension of a menu. There are no ads for anything that isn’t for sale on eShop either, something I know the gaming community has an oddly big problem with regarding other online services, although it’s never personally bothered me.
Miiverse, a massive sort of social network that allows gamers to jump into communities based on games and write or draw messages to players all over the world, has been somewhat sporadic over the past day. This is to be expected, honestly, since the online features just went live for the very first time. Even when it works, Miiverse doesn’t seem to be anything to get overly excited about. It’s neat seeing other people playing the games I am, but I could simply log onto any of thousands of different forums across the internet and do the same thing.
I’d love to see Miiverse expanded more, and use this network to do something cool with. I’m very excited that Nintendo boss Satoru Iwata has admitted that he loves the design of Xbox Live, because I think adapting similar features into Miiverse could make for a serious contender inside the online gaming atmosphere. I love that Miiverse always makes me feel like others are there since Xbox Live and PlayStation Network always seemed so isolated to your friends list. However, it’d be neat to see this community be brought together for something. We know Nintendo already knows how to do this with things like the Voting Channel and the Check Mii Out Channel on the Wii, it’s time they took it and made it into something truly connected.
One thing I will pat Nintendo on the back for is their abolishment of friend codes. Never again will you have to remember 12 random numbers in order to tell someone how to find you online. Everyone is given the option to pick their own Nintendo ID, essentially a Gamertag of sorts, that cannot be changed. The only thing that’s really tied to this ID is purchases, as there’s still no sort of system to rival achievements or trophies. So one could theoretically create as many accounts as they want when they want a new name as long as nothing is purchased on the eShop. It’s mildly disappointing we don’t have an achievements system by now. Many gamers have come to expect it from a gaming system in this day and age. That being said, it’s obviously not a deal breaker.
However, the thing that got me most excited about the Wii U, oddly enough, has almost nothing to do with games.
This morning I woke up, ate breakfast, etc. and knew I had a few things to do today. While preparing to leave the house, I turned on my TV and switched to an HDMI input with the Wii U GamePad, a simple pairing process that helpfully programs your controller by sorting through manufacturers. With just a few touches I booted up Netflix and resumed a pro wrestling documentary I was watching the night before and took quick glances at it while I gathered my things and got dressed ready to start my day. In another few seconds I had changed the TV back to my cable network in order to check the local news, and I used the GamePad in order to check emails and a few other news sites I frequent. With a few quick button presses I turned everything off and set the GamePad on the charging cradle on the desk next to my gaming chair. I was nearly out the door when I realized I had forgotten my phone back in my bedroom.
This is a bigger deal than you realize. This whole process of checking news, weather and having something playing in the background while I’m starting my day is something I do nearly every single morning, and it usually requires the use of about three different remotes, my phone and occasionally my laptop or tablet, and I NEVER forget my phone before heading out the door because it’s usually in my hand during every part of the morning. The fact that the Wii U had taken my entire routine, condensed all of my devices into one universal control and managed to do it so much quicker that I was distracted and forgot my phone is a big deal.
You see, over the past two or three years we’ve seen a sort of arms race between not just the big three console makers, but nearly every electronics giant in the world. Sony, Microsoft, LG, Samsung and many more have all had the ultimate desire of creating that one device that everyone has in their living room. A device that would find its way into the everyday life of every single person who had electricity and a means to afford it. We’ve seen it with Smart TVs, which feature apps and internet connectivity, and we’ve definitely seen the video game industry building up to it. While many companies have done well with their own respective innovations, there’s never just one solution. Sure, you’ve got a home theater set up with an 80″ LED TV and a set-top box for your content provider of choice, but chances are you either need to deal with a ton of different remotes or pony up the cash for a fancy universal remote, which isn’t even guaranteed to work with every device combination either.
We know for certain the video game industry is going to follow into this. Microsoft has already focused more on all-around entertainment than just strictly games for the past two years or so, and Sony has their hands in so many different cookie jars that it’s incredibly likely they’ll merge them all into one major device when the time comes. Nintendo has already done this; created something that makes simple life easier.
For once, Nintendo isn’t playing catch up; they’re getting a head start.
I know not everyone will see it this way, and the fact of the matter is that Nintendo has had a really shaky launch for a video game system, but they’ve laid down the groundwork for a great future of the system. After so many years and console generations of people saying that Nintendo just can’t keep up with the industry, they might have finally put those complaints to rest.
As far as this review goes, it’s foolish to put a score on the console so early in the game, especially because all of the launch woes are things that will not be widespread, nor will they last the lifetime of the system. The Wii U will evolve over time, and adapt to the changing scene. It’s more about the design and intention as of right now than the functionality, because most of the problems you’ve been reading about definitely won’t be there a year from now, probably not even a month from now.
Nintendo has finally listened to the criticism, and they’re having normal problems in the now rather than being accused of being stuck in another age entirely, and that’s a much bigger compliment to a Nintendo product that I think the gaming community realizes. The fact that a new Nintendo system is out and all we’re worrying about are things that can easily be fixed through a firmware update, or the promise of games actually being released on the system when every major publisher has already signed on with support, means the future is incredibly bright for the Wii U.
However, while there’s an astronomical amount of potential here, there are very few reasons why the average consumer would need to get a Wii U right this second. Sure, the system is cool, and the inevitable holiday shortage will probably pressure those of you that haven’t picked one up yet to act on impulse, but unless you’re a tech geek that needs every new piece of equipment as it comes out, or you’re a Nintendo fanboy who absolutely needs every Mario game released as soon as they come out, you can probably afford to wait. No need to jump into something new while the bugs are being ironed out. While I don’t regret being an early adopter, there’s admittedly nothing major that made the decision a no-brainer, and I imagine many gamers feel that same way. Keep your eyes to the skies though, gamers, because the next generation is approaching.
While there's an astronomical amount of potential here, there are very few reasons why the average consumer would need to get a Wii U right this second