Nintendo. The very name inspires heartwarming thoughts. A child with his face pressed against the glass of a wood-paneled television, hooked up to everyone’s favorite 8-bit love machine, the NES; four friends laughing their faces off as they pummel each other in Super Smash Bros. or Mario Party; that one friend who always blames a ‘faulty’ joystick on his Grape Purple N64 controller; or, for stockholders in a certain Japanese entertainment company, lots and lots of money. Nintendo’s last generation may have been met with disappointment at best by the ‘traditional’ gaming audience, but it made the company a boatload of money. The Wii has sold upwards of 90million units, and the Nintendo DS has sold over 150 million. Both platforms share an overall attitude of ‘graphics don’t matter, innovation and gameplay do’ that has turned a formerly dying company into perhaps the most profitable of the big three. Nintendo’s winning strategy was implemented by President and Chief Operating Officer Reggie Fils-Aime who was named such in 2006. His method is known as the Blue Ocean strategy, and while I won’t go into detail here, it is very well-formulated and worth looking up. Nintendo’s success was huge, but not immortal. The company has not been profitable the last two years (a first for the company, which has been around since 1889.) As stockholders grew anxious, gamers wondered what would be next for the Big N. Given the success of the Wii and Nintendo DS, it would only seem natural that the next generation would play off of their successes, right?
Well, right. On paper, the Wii U is a more graphically-capable Wii with a big DS as its controller. In the living room though, Wii U proves to be much more. The Wii U console is utilizing a multi-core Power-based CPU and AMD Radeon HD series GPU. The company doesn’t like to talk specs, and this is about as much as anyone knows. Nintendo is happy to boast though about the Wii U’s 2GB of RAM, which is four times what can be found inside the now seven-year old XBOX 360 and six year-old PlayStation 3. For those who aren’t so technically literate, this is more of a souped-up Wii than anything. It isn’t likely to compete on the same level as Microsoft and Sony’s new (and inevitable) projects, but it is certainly the most capable machine on the market as of now. The new controller which Nintendo calls the “Gamepad” is the biggest addition. The Gamepad features dual analog sticks and all the buttons you could want, in addition to a gyroscope, geo-magnetic sensor, accelerometer, front-facing camera, NFC sensor, and 6.7” resistive touch screen. The Gamepad’s guts are fairly empty; it doesn’t have its own processor. This is not a device you will be taking with you on the family road trip, as it relies completely on a wireless signal from the console. It works wonderfully though, displaying a picture with no latency whatsoever. It can mirror the display of the television, and often times displays the signal faster than the TV itself. There are plenty of new uses for the Gamepad that make the Wii U truly innovative, but we’ll get to those in a bit.
Nintendo is making an effort now to move fully into the digital age. Though the company has toyed around with the concept of online-play since the Super Nintendo, it has fallen noticeably short of efforts from Microsoft and Sony. The Wii’s online system utilized ‘Friend Codes’ instead of a true account-based system, and this meant that gamers couldn’t add friends, easily find matches for games like Mario Kart, transfer their purchases from one console to the next, communicate with each other, or any of the other features XBL and PSN users are enjoying. This has almost all been remedied, thanks in large part to the inclusion of an account system through a new service known as ‘Nintendo Network.’ (Personally I think a more concise ‘NintendoNet’ would have rolled off the tongue better, but I digress.) Gamers create an ID, which works just like a Gamertag, and can then find friends, play games online, download digital content, and more. There are still some areas Nintendo has not caught up in, such as voice chat and the friends list. The console comes with a built-in application called Wii U chat, which lets you have video calls with the people on your Friends List, but it cannot be accessed during gameplay, and is completely isolated from the rest of the console. No system-wide voice chat is present at all actually, and has been left to the developers to implement on a game-by-game basis. It works like a charm in Call of Duty: Black Ops II, so the technology’s there, but it can’t be accessed outside of these individual games. This is a headache that PlayStation fans will be familiar with but XBOX players will find shocking.
Problems such as these seem like such simple things, but Nintendo has done enough new brilliant things in other areas of the online area that it almost becomes unimportant. Developers are calling the eShop “as easy to upload games to as Steam,” and it certainly is as easy to navigate. Certain games are highlighted each week, discounts are applied, games are categorized conveniently, and just made easy to find. Demos, videos, screenshots, user-reviews and ratings, Nintendo employees’ recommendations, and more are right at the user’s fingertips, and browsing with the touch screen on the Gamepad is as easy as a mouse click. Games can also be downloaded in the background, overall putting the eShop leaps and bounds ahead of XBLA and the PSstore. Miiverse is the other big addition. Nintendo’s vision for a social network centered around games and gamers has been fully realized here. Essentially functioning as a Facebook/Twitter bastard-child, it at first glance brings nothing new to the table. But considering everyone who accesses it HAS a Wii U and is posting about games, it makes for something truly special. Go to Facebook and make a post about Assassin’s Creed III. Three of your nerdy friends will like it, two people will unfriend you, and the rest will just keep scrolling. Not so with Miiverse. Here, you’ll be surprised just how many ‘Yeah!’s you’ll receive in a matter of minutes, and thousands of people are ready to jump in and empathize completely with your complaints regarding the ‘Animus.’ Strangers you find interesting can be added to your friends list, and ‘followed.’ It is easy to find gamers with your same tastes thanks to the very specific ‘communities’ you’ll find. Truly, Miiverse is one of the best things about Nintendo’s newest platform, and I expect it only to grow as the install base does the same.
No, no, I haven’t forgotten the Gamepad! As a controller, it functions. It takes an hour to get used to, but it feels as good as the 360 controller. As a tablet, it is subpar. But as an experience, you will find something truly special. Its concept is not a new one. Nintendo has been fooling around with the idea of two-screen experiences for years. Remember PacMan VS? The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords Adventures? The Gameboy Advance-GameCube Link Cable? No? How about the DS? Two screened experiences can be more than just gimmicks, and it is proven here in 2012. Nintendo Land, a game included with certain versions of the Wii U, and also available separately, especially proves it. Allowing four players (using Wii Remotes or the new Pro Controller) to share the TV screen and cooperate, while a fifth player uses the Gamepad to get a different view of the action, makes for asymmetrical experiences that have to be played to be understood. Another use of the Gamepad, which is much easier to understand without hands-on time, is the ability to play without use of the television. Does your significant other want to watch sportsball? Fine. Change the channel and continue playing right on your controller. Also, suppose you’re in the middle of a terribly tricky Zelda dungeon. Pause the game, and either browse the web for the answer or ask the Miiverse community. An application which has not yet been released also makes similar use. Nintendo TVii, as it’s called, is a program which binds together all of your video services into one place. So, you can research your favorite actors on the Gamepad, while Breaking Bad appears on the TV. After only a couple uses, it becomes clear these are conveniences and innovations; not gimmicks. Perhaps not as revolutionary as motion control, but certainly more core gamer-friendly.
This is the bulk of Wii U, but there are issues. Loading times, whether during games or within the Operating System itself, are too long. Especially for a console running a multi-core processor with so much RAM. The console has been known to lock up and freeze too, though an update addressing the issue has been released. The battery life of the Gamepad is not spectacular either, and one should expect to keep its charger cable nearby at all times. Moving save data over from your Wii is a nightmare, and playing your old Wii games is not convenient either. It is fairly well-known that Wii games are developed in 720p HD, and shipped that way. There is absolutely no reason that Wii U couldn’t upscale them and play them in Hi-Def. I expect this is so you’ll have a reason to buy inevitable re-releases of old Wii titles on Wii U, but it’s not a good excuse. To play Wii titles at all, your Wii U basically shuts down and reboots as a Wii. Your Gamepad turns off, your display goes to 480p, and all your content is locked away within the mode. These issues do detract from the experience, but there are so many brilliant, sometimes simple things about the Wii U that you’ll forget any annoyances. When I say there are so many brilliant things, I do mean it (Did I even mention how fabulous the web browser is? Or that the Gamepad also functions as the best universal remote on the market?), but it is more worth your time to go out now and invest in the console than to read about it here. This is a ringing endorsement from this reviewer. Wii U is a sound purchase from day one, and will only get stronger as the years go on.
(Now just give us an HD Zelda and Metroid, Nintendo. DO IT.)
by Patrick Young.