Wii U: The Kotaku Review [UPDATE]

The Wii U is the first new video game console in six years and the sixth console Nintendo has ever made.

It comes freighted with heavy expectations. It more or less starts the next generation of consoles, one that will see a new Xbox and PlayStation late next year, and therefore it needs to seem like some sort of a leap forward. It needs to signal whether it will likely be another phenomenon like the Wii or just a passable role-player like the Nintendo GameCube.

Nintendo isn't going anywhere, but the question is how far the next Wii can go.

Here is a machine that is as powerful as an Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3 and introduces a radical new way to play home console games: with or even simply on a twin-stick, motion-sensitive, camera-enabled controller that contains a 6.2-inch touchscreen.

At the very least, we've got a bold new player on the scene.

Update (11/25/2013): If Nintendo can manage the Wii U as well as it has the 3DS, the Wii U will be essential within 12 months. But a year in, we still don't think it's a must-own just yet.

Update (7/8/2014): Finally! Twenty months in, the console has come into its own and we now think it's a must-have. Read our big review update here.

Consoles are hard to judge on their launch day. Developers usually need a lot of time to get used to the hardware before they can make their best games on it. The machine you can get on day one is therefore a vessel of potential, but seldom the conveyer of an instant masterpiece. Consoles are also no longer static. They evolve through firmware updates, gaining new functionality by the month and year. The Wii U is a product of these factors. It has a strong but not stunning launch line-up and it starts its cycle with the instant blemish of one promised feature—the vaunted Nintendo TVii service—not being available on day one.

What to make of this thing?

Wii U: The Kotaku Review [UPDATE]

The Wii U is no Wii

The Wii was, from the start, a glorified peripheral for one of the most popular and immediately appealing games of all time: Wii Sports. This was a game that earned the average person's instant affection. At launch, the Wii U lacks a game that has similar magnetism (believe me, we tried its games on gamers and non-gamers; we sometimes even taped the results). It also has no game that exhibits the historic excellence of the great justifier of first-day Nintendo 64 purchases, Super Mario 64.

There are certainly bright lights in the Wii U's launch line-up, but nothing that frees the new console from being judged on its own merits as a machine, independent of the games placed inside it.

The Wii U is a better piece of hardware than the Wii, the GameCube or any other Nintendo home console.

The Wii U is a capable machine. For once, we have a Nintendo console that doesn't feel like it is pocked with omissions. Gone is the era of GameCube controllers with three shoulder buttons when the competition has four. Gone is the era of the Wii that couldn't send HD graphics to an HD TV. Gone are most of the excuses and exceptions that placed new Nintendo consoles immediately out of step with other game consoles.

With the Wii U, Nintendo finally complements its innovations with industry standards.

With the Wii U, Nintendo finally complements its innovations with industry standards. Around that unusual screen on its GamePad controller are clickable twin analog sticks, a d-pad, four face buttons and the quartet of shoulder buttons and triggers that the players of everything from a Call of Duty to a Ninja Gaiden might expect. The Wii U supports optional, Xbox-style Pro Controllers, outputs graphics in HD and essentially gives the new Nintendo console the technological foundation that should, on paper, ensure that it can do anything that its rival consoles can do this side of Microsoft's Kinect sensor. It plays games that run on modern graphics engines such as Unreal Engine 3 and the in-house tech powering Activison's and Ubisoft's newest Call of Duty and Assassin's Creed games.

The Wii U meets the standards of modern console gaming, while also supporting Wii Remotes and therefore serving as an HD version of the Wii. It does all of these things and introduces some well-realized new features to modern console gaming.

Finally, a Nintendo console that isn't marred with trade-offs.**

**The console requires two asterisks on its list of current capabilities: 1) its internal storage, in either the 8GB or 32 GB models (neither of which really offer that much space) is simply too small to support the post-release content offered by most major video games from the likes of EA, Activision or Take Two; 2) support for peripherals, specifically voice-chat headsets is, initially, limited. Regarding the storage problem, Nintendo offers support for external drives and certainly has the capacity to release future Wii Us with bigger storage. The peripherals issues may also sort themselves out as peripheral manufacturers work more closely with Nintendo.

Make that… almost no trade-offs.

Wii U: The Kotaku Review [UPDATE]

Having a big screen in a controller is a great idea

The Wii didn't invent motion control, and the Wii U doesn't invent the concept of putting a second screen in the hands of a person who is using a television. Like the Wii, the Wii U simply takes a tested idea and commits to doing it very well. Its second-screen innovation should thrill any passionate console gamers. The Wii U supports optional, Xbox-style Pro Controllers and outputs graphics in HD. These features essentially give the new Nintendo console the technological foundation that should, on paper, ensure that it can do anything, this side of Microsoft's Kinect sensor, that its rival consoles can do. It makes gaming better.

There is little to fear about the Wii U GamePad's controller screen. It doesn't make the controller too heavy. It isn't distracting. It drains itself of power within two to three hours but is packed with an eight-foot cable that, at worst, requires it to be used as a wired controller.

There is much to enjoy thanks to the controller's screen, which adds a lot of unexpected conveniences to console gaming:

  • It expands and magnifies a player's viewable screen space, moving some games' maps or inventory onto a secondary display that allows those elements to be displayed bigger and more legibly. This provides utility and comfort. Yes, a player might now have to look down to see a mini-map in, say, Assassin's Creed III but that map is now larger and therefore more useful. The same goes for the always-available power wheel on the GamePad screen in Mass Effect. These elements of modern games used to have to be squeezed into a corner of the TV screen or hidden behind a pause menu. On the Wii U, thanks to a second screen, they are now more accessible.
  • It lets you use your console when your TV is off or being used by someone else. Games such as Madden NFL 13, Call of Duty: Black Ops II and New Super Mario Bros. U can be played right off the GamePad's screen. Because the GamePad is wireless and works up to a range of about 26 feet (your experience may vary), these "off-TV" games can even be played in rooms that lack a Wii U or a TV. The games play fine on the GamePad, thanks to the GamePad having all the standard sticks and buttons of the average game controller. Suddenly, console gaming isn't dependent on a TV. Mark this down as a luxury few people asked for but that turns out to be wonderful to have. This feature is startling at first, and many a new Wii U owner will find themselves momentarily confused and then, likely, delighted when they turn off their TV one day and realize that their Wii U isn't just still on but is still displaying its start-up interface on the GamePad controller. You can use this console after you turned your TV off. That is very, very new.
  • It gives you a touch interface for console games. Driven by either a stylus or a fingertip, the GamePad screen can emulate the bottom half of a Nintendo DS-style game or simply be used to swiftly drag and rearrange elements of a player's inventory in ZombiU. The light version of Nintendo's real-time-strategy game Pikmin, which is part of the launch game Nintendo Land, hints at how a stylus on a controller can make strategy gaming work better on a console. The system's launch Madden game lets the player draw new plays on the fly with mere strokes of the stylus on what momentarily is a virtual sketchpad in the player's hands.
  • It enables local multiplayer with private screens, letting two players play a game together in one room without having to split a TV screen in two.
  • It allows a controller to be reconfigured, adding new virtual buttons if a game needs an expanded interface.
  • Combined with the GamePad's gyro sensors, it can let a player use the screen-enabled controller as motion-controlled viewfinder to a virtual world that seems to exist around the controller. This effect is used in ZombiU and Nintendo Land's Zelda game, allowing the GamePad player who sees the game world on their screen to lift and tilt their controller up and see the game world's sky, lower it and see the ground or pan around and see the game world around them. A TV screen may create the illusion that it is a portal to a virtual world behind it. The gyro-enabled GamePad creates the effect that a virtual world surrounds the player. It offers an exciting taste of virtual reality, to the player willing to stand up, spin around their room and indulge.

Some will have hoped for a multi-touch screen or a capacitive one that reacted to fingers as well as the resistive one on the Wii U reacts to a stylus. Support for multi-finger gestures would have been nice, but the size of the screen makes finger-tapping more responsive than it was on the scrunched resistive screens on the original non-XL models of the DS and 3DS.

The resolution of the GamePad screen, while inferior to an HD TV or an iPad, still presents game graphics exceedingly well. Mario looked just as vibrant and was just as playable on the GamePad screen as it was on the TV. Madden transferred fine. Nintendo Land's Pikmin and Zelda games looked technically better on the GamePad screen than any console games in their respective series ever looked on televisions. Graphically, visually, the GamePad holds its own.

The connection between screen controller and console is superb. The GamePad screen's ability to stay in constant sync with the TV screen is as welcome as it was necessary for the Wii U version of multi-screen gaming to work. The GamePad's ability to swap images with the TV screen or to take over being the primary screen from the TV is Nintendo's best new technological trick. It happens in an eye-blink.

Nintendo might not be the only company offering two-screen experiences that involve a TV, but what they're offering they're doing very well.

Wii U: The Kotaku Review [UPDATE]

Some of this stuff is just too early to judge

A firmware update on the eve of the system's release suddenly activated most of the system's online-connected features. I've had too little time with them to give them a fair assessment, but, more importantly, their quality will only be proven by how they work with a live community.

In theory, the system's new Miiverse social network, which is overlaid on top of a free online Nintendo Network service, will allow people to share messages with each other and develop a sense of happy, helpful community around various games. Already, Wii U users can check out social hubs dedicated to major launch game and scribble messages, via the GamePad, to that group's message board. Some games, such as New Super Mario Bros. U will let users leave tips within games, but that's not a feature I've been able to test.

If Nintendo can develop a happier, less venomous and immature online community among gamers, more power to them.

Nintendo is trying to encourage "empathy" among its players and is encouraging them to keep things clean and free of spoilers. If they can develop a happier, less venomous and immature online community among gamers, more power to them. If this works, it will make the Wii U the most pleasant online platform on which to play games. It's just not something that can be assessed right now.

Similarly, the system's backwards compatibility with most Wii games, which required a firmware update, was just enabled a few hours before launch. I've been able to transfer my Wii data to the Wii U, and while the animation for that may go down in history as the world's most adorable progress bar (we'll post video later), I just can't say how well the Wii U, when it goes into Wii mode, holds up. It should work fine, but it's untested.

What I have tested and am downright puzzled by is why it takes 15-20 seconds to move from the Wii U's main menu to any of the system's apps, even the basic system settings one. It's bizarre and inconsistent with the otherwise swift operations of the system's GamePad-to-TV graphics transfer or its various pause-menu functions. Backing out of the system setting app or, say, the log of a user's play time forces another 15-20 second load. There's something going wrong on the system menu level. It mars an otherwise smooth user experience.

Wii U: The Kotaku Review [UPDATE]

The games are good, but there are no instant classics

The highlights of the Wii U's launch are Nintendo's own New Super Mario Bros. U and Nintendo Land. The former is a solid successor in a stories series. The latter is a 12-games-in-one showcase of how the Wii U controller can change the way we play single-player and multiplayer. Both are good games, but the latter comes just three months after the previous Mario sidescroller on the 3DS (irrelevant if you don't have that machine, of course). The latter is stuffed with content but still feels like something that will be put aside for all but its party games once meatier, full-sized Pikmin, Zelda or Metroid games are released. (Read our reviews of Mario and Nintendo Land.)

The Wii U's other stand-out may well be Ubisoft's ZombiU, the horror first-person shooter with an interesting perma-death system (player-characters die and then become zombie enemies in the player's next attempt at a play-through) and elaborate use of the GamePad. We'll have a review of that game tomorrow.

In addition the system has a stack of other third-party games. An armload of them makes the Wii launch line-up look mighty fine. There's Assassin's Creed III, Mass Effect 3, Madden NFL 13, Skylanders Giants, Black Ops II, Disney's Epic Mickey 2, Rabbid's Land, Just Dance 4, Scribblenauts Unlimited, Batman: Arkham City, Ninja Gaiden 3 and more.

Nintendo promised a lot of games. They promised third-party support. They've delivered. Many of these games even make limited but promising use of the GamePad and the potential graphical flaws in the ports are potentially excusable as the standard results of porting games to new consoles.

The line-up just doesn't have a game that has the sparkle of a Wii Sports or Mario 64, a bar Nintendo's competitors aren't expected to clear for their console launches, but one which Nintendo may well be expected to surpass. That they don't is understandable but mildly disappointing. That they've wound up with a launch line-up that is full of games available on other HD consoles—some of them like Batman and Mass Effect for many months—weakens the impressiveness of the offering. For someone who only had a Wii, there are many gems here. For anyone who has a 360 or a PS3, there are a lot of re-runs.

Wii U: The Kotaku Review [UPDATE]

Compared to an Xbox or a PlayStation… It's better on day one

It's been six years since anyone has had a chance to review a new console and, frankly, it isn't just the gaming scene that has changed but the reviewing scene as well. Kotaku didn't run regular reviews six years ago. Nor did I. In retrospect, however, it's clear that there was a big difference between the quality of the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 at their launch and now.

Gone are most of the excuses and exceptions that placed new Nintendo consoles immediately out of step with other game consoles.

The highlight of the 360 launch, for me, was not the disappointing Perfect Dark Zero or The Condemned, but the downloadable Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved. (I'll grant that for some, Call of Duty 2 was a delight.) Oblivion helped the console along a few months after release, but it took a year for me to begin to feel like the machine was delivering on its potential. The PS3, which launched with Genji and Resistance: Fall of Man, took even longer to feel like a console worth regular use. Both machines are now more functional and loaded with excellent games.

It's easy to argue that the Wii U's launch line-up is more impressive and that the second-screen tech alone is a more interesting hardware addition to console gaming than anything the 360 or PS3 had. But to say it is the best-debuting HD console would be to ignore the seven and six year gaps between the Wii U and those consoles. The Wii U benefits from the generation-long maturation of game development that allows the EAs, Ubisofts and Activisions of the world to make the vast, complex blockbuster games they now create.

A new generation of Xboxes and PlayStations is set to be released next year. Publishers and developers are already making games for them. This leaves the Wii U either launching at a really good time that enables it to seem well-stocked with good games right away-or it leaves the Wii U arriving so late that it might be back in the situation the Wii has been for the last couple of years: so under-powered and unloved by the development and publishing community that most blockbuster games aren't even developed for it. It's hard to say, but it's impossible not to note this dark lining around the silver cloud of a healthy launch line-up for the console.

Wii U: The Kotaku Review [UPDATE]

There Are Many Unknowns…

Buying a new console is an investment in the future of a machine moreso than it tends to be an investment in the present. At launch we can take stock of what a console has, but there will inevitably be some blank spots, some questions that need to be answered in the months and years to come. To best judge the Wii U, answers to the following will be important:

  • How successfully will the Nintendo Network and the MiiVerse support online gaming and social interaction?
  • How capable is the Wii U graphically and will, in the months after the understandably rough-edged launch ports are released, we see that multiplatform games on Wii U look better or worse than they do on Xbox 360 and PS3?
  • Will the Wii U's online shop and Nintendo's newfound zeal for consumers to download full-size games make the Wii U's eShop feel like a modern digital-centric platform, a la Steam or iTunes? Or will it lag?
  • Will the Wii U have the faith and support of major publishers? EA's support at launch is decent, Ubisoft has promised a lot, but Take Two has announced little for Wii U and the omissions of both BioShock Infinite and Grand Theft Auto V—two of the most anticipated games of next year—from the Wii U release calendar are glaring. And what happens when publishers start releasing games for the next PlayStation and Xbox as soon as a year from now-will they bring those same games to Wii U? Can they, given the expectedly large horsepower differential?
  • Will the Wii U's support for one—eventually two—GamePads focus development on the console or limit it?
  • Will the Wii U's palette of options—which includes the GamePad's sticks, buttons, camera, and gyro sensor, as well as Wii Remotes, Nunchuks, Pro Controllers and who knows what else—prove too confusing and convoluted? Especially when compared to the simplicity offered by the carefully parceled out signature experiences of Wii Sports, Mario Kart Wii (it came with its wheel), and Wii Fit (it came with its board)?
  • Is the Wii U equipped to survive what comes next? Will it need to support free-to-play games or thrive ON selling one-dollar downloadable games?

Wii U: The Kotaku Review [UPDATE]

The Wii U is the right console for this moment in history

Regardless of its future, the Wii U does feel like a machine of the moment. A year and a half ago, I first saw the Wii U and didn't understand it. It struck me as a solution in search of a problem. We've been playing console games just fine without a second screen. The GamePad doesn't make gaming less intimidating. Who needed this thing? More importantly, who could even play it?

The Wii U is for any of us who, even when we are together, are off in our own worlds.

I was puzzled, but when I started asking questions, a top Nintendo designer asked me if I'd ever glanced at my cellphone while watching TV. Of course I had. Then I played some Wii U multiplayer games and had the odd experience of sharing a TV with a few other co-op gamers while a rival gamer in the same room played his part of the same game via his private screen on the GamePad controller. That's when I got it.

The Wii was a machine designed to focus a family or a group of friends on one thing they could enjoy doing together.

The Wii U is for a new way we live. It's for the era of four people going to dinner, theoretically being together, but all also being off in their own worlds via the cell phones they keep checking. It's for the husband who watches TV and has his iPad nearby while the wife is on her laptop in the same room. It's for the teenagers who text in the movie theater. It's for any of us who, even when we are together, are off in our own worlds. That is how you play the most interesting Wii U multiplayer games. You get together with someone in the same room. You theoretically play the same game, but the Wii U's two screens let you dive into your worlds separately and—this is important and makes this more than a LAN party—lets you interact through your two portals with different sets of controls, doing different things.

Look at New Super Mario Bros. U: four people are looking at the TV, running across a sidescrolling landscape using Wii Remotes held sideways. They are jumping on platforms and crushing enemies. They are four people at a dinner party talking about the same thing. The fifth player is on the GamePad. They control no characters. They press no buttons. They just watch the same game world scroll by and tap the screen to create blocks that catch any TV players who are falling and that make staircases for any of those TV players who need a leg up. The GamePad player is at the same dinner party, but they're not really listening. They're on their cell phone. This is our world right now. The Wii U is a perfect video game console realization of that. Its timeliness is exciting.

***

With games, we review the game and imagine we are asked if a game is worth playing—not buying. We answer with a Yes, a No or a Not Yet. We don't presume to tell you whether to buy or to rent or to borrow a friend's. We don't know what the value of a dollar is to you.

With a new console, we must imagine that you would wonder if a machine is worth getting. We still cannot know the impact on you of a $350 expenditure on a deluxe Wii U bundle (packaged with Nintendo Land) or of a $360 expenditure on a basic Wii U plus one game. We can't know whether this would be your only console or if you get them all.

We can only say that for those who only have a Wii, the Wii U is everything the Wii was and more. We can't, however, say that it demands the immediate attention the Wii did. We can't say its games right now are the games you have to play this season. If you get a Wii U, you'll likely be at least as content as the people who bought an Xbox 360 on day one were. You'll have than the launch-day PS3 people had.

But if you are on the fence, if you are wondering if it's time to get a Wii U, we can guess with you that Nintendo is going nowhere, that excellent games from Nintendo are surely on the horizon, and that firmware updates may give the system all of the features it was supposed to have at launch maybe as soon as early December. Having played a batch of games on the Wii U and having had the system in my home for nearly a week, I can confirm that it is a good machine that makes one's console gaming life surprisingly more convenient and luxurious. I just can't tell you that you have to have one now.

Is it time for a gamer to get a Wii U? Is it a must-have?

Wii U: The Kotaku Review [UPDATE]

Give it a month or three. Wait until the "launch window" closes at the end of March and the likes of Pikmin 3, Lego City Undercover and a slew of interesting download-only games are available. (If you'd like another take on the Wii U, check out the review on our sister site Gizmodo.)

With any new console you might be wisest to give it a year, especially if you want to be able to compare it to what Sony and Microsoft have coming next. And if they don't put screens in their controllers, know right now that Nintendo will have at least that excellent advantage over them.

UPDATE - 7/8/2014

Time has been good to the Wii U... we've updated our assessment of the system.

Wii U: The Kotaku Review [UPDATE]