A Week with Nintendo’s Wii U

I wasn’t going to get a Wii U, I swear. Growing up with games, however, has created an intangible draw to launch day hype. I’m fine up until the bell actually tolls, but that launch lure just sucks me in time after time. So, here I am, one week and some change after the launch of Nintendo’s latest console, still very much in that Honeymoon period. Of course, Wii U isn’t without its many oddball quirks and flaws, so let’s see how things stand at this early chalk mark in its lifespan.

This is no doubt the true allure of Wii U to most. Just as the remotes positioned Nintendo Wii as something fresh and different, the GamePad opens up its own realm of interesting possibilities. It also acts as a living room evolution of Nintendo’s super successful line of dual-screen portables, which started with Nintendo DS in 2004.

While it’s true that Wii U is an extension of the Wii in many ways, the GamePad and TV combination is much more comparable to what Nintendo has achieved with two screens over the past eight years. Add to this the asynchronous gameplay made possible by a group of players choosing between wielding either the GamePad or the remotes, and you have the recipe for something that has the potential for great innovation if applied wisely.

The screen itself looks great, though games appear a bit more washed out and dull on it when held up to the crystal clarity of a large HD TV. Most importantly, it’s comfortable. Perhaps not everything will feel at home in the clutch of its wide grip—high intensity action games, for example, might be best played with a Pro Controller—but it holds up to Nintendo’s typically tight standard of ergonomics.

When Nintendo first unveiled Wii U, it was kind of unclear exactly what was going on with the GamePad. Would there be more than one? Would we still need remotes? Nintendo rolled it out with a thick veil of mystery, but it’s starting to make sense now that it’s in homes around the world. It sounds simple, but the ability to play plenty of Wii U games without even turning the television on is fantastic. To streamline things further, the GamePad can be programmed to control both the TV and cable remotes, a sign of Nintendo’s efforts toward making this console a true centerpiece of the living room. How effective this is, or how much it matters, may vary, but it’s clear what Nintendo is after, and this time they actually seem serious about it.

What would a new Nintendo console be without a strong launch lineup? Actually… that’s usually not the case. Nintendo 64 launched in 1996 with a paltry selection: Super Mario 64 and Pilotwings 64. To be fair, almost everyone just wanted Super Mario 64, but let’s just say Nintendo hasn’t always been known for having a robust selection right out the gate. Contrast that with the Wii U launch, which packed around 23 titles on day one. The majority of the releases have been third party games already available on competing consoles, but it was nice to see Nintendo coming a bit bolder on opening day.

Of the available games, I decided to keep it exclusive by sticking with Nintendo Land, which comes bundled with the deluxe unit, ZombiU, and New Super Mario Bros. U. Each offers something a bit different when it comes to sampling what Wii U has to bring to the table, so it seemed like the perfect trio of games to start out with.

Nintendo Land includes a selection of mini-games spread throughout a small, colorful theme park hub world. True to its purpose, each game has its own unique way of implementing both the GamePad and the remotes for multiple players, from the spirit-hunting Luigi’s Ghost Mansion to the considerably meaty Pikmin Adventure. There’s plenty of variety throughout, and, for my money at least, it’s a much more satisfying pack-in than Wii Sports ever was. Sure, the latter really changed the game as far as introducing new folks to video games, but Nintendo Land is something I keep coming back to, and despite a few duds it’s also an eye-opening first look at the world of Nintendo in high definition.

I won’t spend too much time getting into ZombiU here—it’s a really interesting game that deserves a full review—but fans of legitimate survival horror should be pleasantly surprised by this one. Shockingly, ZombiU has more in common with a roguelike RPG, in which constantly starting over from scratch and seeing how far you can make it is the name of the game. It can be tough—brutally unforgiving, even—but if you don’t go in expecting a traditional zombie head-popping first-person shooter, you’ll come out finding something special, if flawed, in Wii U’s first horror entry.

Those of you who have been reading the site on a regular basis will recall my displeasure with New Super Mario Bros. 2 on Nintendo 3DS. You might have even wondered why I would pay for another entry in the series, but it’s clear from the start that Nintendo saved its creative gas for New Super Mario Bros. U. From gorgeous visuals to some genuinely clever and fun level design, it makes one wonder why Nintendo even bothered with that last entry… until you realize the theme of NSMB2 was raking in tons and tons of coins. It’s nice to be having fun with a 2D Mario game again, and the platform-assisting GamePad features are great, hectic fun with a few friends on the couch.

Oh, I also tried out the eShop and downloaded Mighty Switch Force: Hyper Drive Edition, which takes developer WayForward’s 3DS game and spruces it up for HD. It’s a terrific 2D platformer/puzzler, but the really dangerous thing was learning that, once again, Nintendo has composed some brutally catchy music for the online shop. Once Virtual Console hits this thing, I’m toast.

Let’s face it, beyond everything else, the craziest, most mind-blowing thing about Wii U is that Nintendo is finally online. Yes, I know Wii had online capabilities. I know 3DS goes online just fine. But this is a legitimately competent effort toward connectivity from the company, and it almost feels strange that it works so well.

Miiverse is likely one of the first aspects of the Wii U community players will notice. At first its purpose is a bit tough to figure out, until you realize each game has its own sub-community, all of which essentially act like a highly specific Twitter with a 100-character limit. Oh, and you can draw on messages… It sounds kind of insignificant, but Miiverse is so integrated and so startlingly on topic—likely thanks to Nintendo’s strict patrolling and flagging policies, people actually talk about games!—that it’s hard not to be charmed by it. Players can ask for help, offer tips to those stranded in areas, or just doodle pictures of their favorite characters, many of which are marvels to behold as far as stylus art goes.

Wii U also has a bunch of video apps, another area in which Nintendo has decided the other guys are doing it right. Whereas Wii just had stuff like Netflix, Wii U has a handful of options, and its multimedia TVii service is set to launch in December. For the purposes of testing things out, I busted out a Netflix account and launched the app, which works pretty much like any other console Netflix app, but with the added bonus of browsing titles with the GamePad. Oh, and the tap of a button swaps the picture between the television and the GamePad… which is kind of awesome.

Oddly enough, I think I’ve spent the most time watching YouTube videos on Wii U; so much in fact that it already has me considering canceling cable. Seriously, why not? Select a video on YouTube and it automatically starts playing on the big screen, but you can keep browsing other videos on the GamePad while it plays. Or you can just open up another tab in the system’s excellent web browser and do something else entirely while others watch the video. That’s right, I just referred to a console’s web browser as “excellent.” I can’t believe it either, but it works really well. You can even use the GamePad’s gyroscope to scroll up and down pages without touching a button. The GamePad might not have multi-touch capabilities, but if you were thinking of getting a tablet just for web browsing, this does the trick nicely.

As slick as Wii U is, it still seems like Nintendo is ironing out a lot of the kinks post-launch. The system debuted with patches and updates galore, and, as previously mentioned, some of the services planned for launch are going to be a bit of a wait. It’s going to be really interesting to see where Nintendo takes this thing, though, because it has a ton of potential, regardless of whether or not you think Nintendo is joining the “last generation” a little too late. It’s clear this time around that they actually have their head in the game, and they’ve blatantly, if quietly, admitted that maybe, just maybe, the other guys were on to something over the last half-dozen years or so.

A little over a week into Wii U’s life and I’m still trying to wrap my head around what we have here. It’s not perfect. It’s a little confused at its own existence. It contradicts almost everything Nintendo was boastful about sticking to and avoiding the last time around. But it works. Let’s hope Nintendo keeps it kinda weird for the foreseeable future.


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