Has the Wii U come of age?
We've looked at the PlayStation 4, considered Microsoft's Xbox One, and even the prospect of eschewing games consoles altogether and heading down the PC route. But in the background there's a machine that's slowly building a reputation for quality exclusives, that many may have already decided against.Having endured good launch sales, then a heavy slump, the Wii U has seen a slight upturn of fortunes recently, largely thanks to the expanding catalogue of first party titles available. Being the first of the eighth generation of consoles to market, and with power inside its shell more comparable to the previous generation, third party titles in the early days should have been simple ports from those already appearing on the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360.
However, the slow sales proved a decisive factor, with many publishers declining to release their games on a console that didn’t offer a large enough base of users to make the games profitable. Hence the early period of the Wii U’s lifecycle saw a fairly sparse release schedule.
This shaky period has led to an in-house review of Nintendo’s console strategy, the unveiling of the Amiibo figures, the phasing out of the Basic console package and a future planned around a “health initiative”. The price cut may not have materialised, but at least some well considered bundles are available, and updates are slowly bringing the console in line with the network connected model that is now considered a standard, and tying it closer to the company’s handhelds as well.
As ever, you don’t buy a Nintendo console for third party titles, you buy one primarily for the unique games Nintendo themselves serve up, and that catalogue has finally grown to the point that the question really needs to be posed to all gamers: is now the time to buy a Wii U?
Key Selling Points
Many games systems - be they consoles, micro-consoles or PCs - are converging in terms of features, with something successful and unique likely to migrate to a competitor in some guise later on. In this increasingly level playing field, Nintendo have strived in the last two decades to find a way to differentiate themselves - sometimes with less welcome results - and the Wii U is no exception to this approach.
This is the focal point of the Wii U, and its most unique selling point. Nintendo have a long history of innovating around controller design, and with tablets becoming prevalent they built in a large screen to the centre of the Wii U pad, also mirroring the dual screen approach that’s been so fruitful with their handhelds, like the DS and 3DS.
The touch screen is resistive rather than capacitive, meaning it’s less precise for fingers, but the included stylus proves adequate, and for most broad gestures in gaming little precision is really needed. In terms of functions it’s been woefully under-utilised from a games design point of view thus far. Titles like Donkey Kong: Tropical Freeze even go as far as to leave it entirely blank.
It is, however, a handy second screen, upon which you can continue to play a game if the television set the console is attached to is being used by someone else. The colour reproduction isn’t the best, and battery life is short by modern tablet standards, but needs must as the devil drives; and certain games actually feel at home on the mid-way between handheld and TV sized screen.
One benefit of the, thus far, less than stellar utilisation of the tablet-cum-controller’s design is that when it isn’t integral to gameplay features, you have the option of using Nintendo’s separate Pro Pad. This is a far more conventional controller that conforms to the overall look and feel (but not the asymmetrical thumb stick layout) of the Xbox 360 pad.
One feature of the GamePad that wasn’t being incorporated in games design was Near Field Communication. A small area on the pad could have an item - with a chip inside - placed upon it, and the two could communicate. The theory being that items in the real world could have an effect on the game you were playing. Nintendo have finally pushed this novel idea forwards with the release of their Amiibos. These small figures can be used in titles such as Super Smash Bros. to bring the character they represent into the game world.
It may sound gimmicky, but they’re already proving to be a big hit, mixing the craze for collection with something that actually has an effect on what you’re playing.
In essence, Nintendo’s version of Twitter, but unlike Twitter you don’t have to worry about rampant trolls looking to shock. It’s a virtual space where users can post messages about the games they play, and the more artistic can show off their stylus drawn artwork. Being that people from different countries within Europe mix, it isn’t always the most coherent, and a vast amount of the interaction is solitary messages you might regard as meaningless prattle (“I like Mario. lol”). However, the ability to interact in a non-confrontational environment and see what others are saying about games, view their screenshots, and even get tips shouldn’t be sniffed at.
We’ll cover individual titles later, but as a concept this is perhaps more of a pull towards a Nintendo console than any other. All systems have their exclusives but Nintendo practically build their platform for selling on theirs; over and above extra functionality and new features, the uniqueness of the company’s first party titles is still the defining factor. On the Wii U in particular, it's where local multiplayer is alive and well, with games designed around the idea of getting people together in one room.
Third party support may have dwindled since the days of the Super Nintendo, but the output from Nintendo’s key franchises continues to be innovative and accessible for all ages. Detractors may say the formula used is repetitive, but it’s telling that many have imitated and fallen by the wayside, whilst Mario, Link and co. are still going strong.
This is an area that is still not a Nintendo priority. The multitude of devices that overlap in their media functionality, coupled with a slightly more purist approach to consoles means that the Wii U is for playing games and little besides.
There’s a disc drive, but no Blu-ray, DVD or CD playback. The SD card slot is for game data only, as a media player app for photo viewing and the like doesn’t exist. You can plug an external hard drive into the USB slot, but again the lack of a media player means it’s only for storing games.
There are a few apps that are ubiquitous on almost all devices now though, and the Wii U is no exception: YouTube, Netflix and Amazon Instant Video are present, with Crunchyroll (anime and Asian drama streaming - subscription required) at least offering something a little more niche.
The issue with even these minor concessions to multimedia though is that you’ll need an additional USB dongle to be able to get the most stable internet connection, as the console doesn’t come with an ethernet port, just wi-fi, which is obviously less stable. It covers the basics, but to view the Wii U in terms of what it offers as a media device would be to expect something that was never in its remit.
This is where the Wii U excels. From the polished platforming of Super Mario 3D World to the racing thrills of Mario Kart 8, Nintendo is busily releasing worthy additions to all its best franchises. And it’s not just first party titles either; third party support may have dried up in the AAA category, but some more distinctive and novel titles are still finding their way onto the console, such as The Wonderful 101 and Bayonetta 2.
Then there’s also Nintendo’s back catalogue to consider. To tide people over until the new Zelda, The Wind Waker received an acclaimed updated HD version that utilised the GamePad. Not all games from yesteryear will get disc-based re-releases though, which is where one of the least heralded features of the Wii U really shines: its Virtual Console.
Both Microsoft and Sony have made sure their online stores have a wide variety of titles, but much of the range is mirrored on either machine. Nintendo’s eShop meanwhile may lack most of those modern releases, but fans will probably never quibble as it’s chock full of the best games from the SNES era, with Gameboy Advance titles and Wii greats like the Metroid Prime trilogy bolstering things out.
Looking forward into 2015, the likes of the new Zelda and Starfox should please long time fans, whilst the innovation of Splatoon may just find a very Nintendo-like answer regarding how to bring the team-based shooter into a family friendly environment.
Should I Buy a Wii U Now?
Whether you should buy a Wii U is answerable by asking yourself one more question: do I like Nintendo games? If yes - be it from any era of the company’s output - then the Wii U probably deserves to be under your TV. It’s hard to wholly recommend it as someone's only console, as a huge swathe of titles will never be available on it, but it’s almost the epitome of an additional device; one that offers something you simply cannot get elsewhere.
The GamePad has thus far been under-utilised, and the idea of a tablet-cum-controller looks ever harder to justify as leaps in the technology of tablets - in conjunction with their tumbling prices - means most children of tech-savvy parents will already be well versed with devices of greater quality.
But in other areas the Wii U has made strides, and the view of a firm dragging its heels towards an age of ubiquitous online connectivity is gently ebbing away, even if the online multiplayer, friend and chat systems aren’t comparable to those of competitors yet. The UI is getting more responsive, automatic system updates are present, and the ability to now quick start a game rather than wait for the console to fully boot into the home menu is greatly appreciated.
The Wii U is firmly focussed on being a straightforward games console, and perhaps that's why the full RRP has thus far seemed out of line with what's available elsewhere. It still lacks the refinements of Microsoft and Sony’s ease of connecting with friends, but with each new first party software release of quality that looks like a smaller and smaller price to pay.
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