However, the formula of aiming at engaging the public with the input methods rather than the visual representation of those acts has proven a rich vein - the DS was underpowered in comparison to the PSP, the 3DS predicted to be trounced by the Vita and let’s not forget the early naysayers laughed at the Wii’s motion control. The latest ace up their sleeve is tablet gaming, and their new box of tricks, the Wii U, has one of the most multi-faceted controllers you’ll likely see, this generation or the next. So let's take a look and see how Nintendo’s latest hardware offering stacks up.
It doesn’t dwarf the Wii, so that slot in the TV unit may still suffice, but it’s filled out a little; not portly but with a certain shapeliness. If the Wii was the waif with sharp cheekbones, the Wii U is its Rubenesque sister. In black, it sits alongside any other consoles and doesn’t look out of place, even if it does have the air of a chunky but attractive router. Build quality appears to be good, it’s solid and sits on the accompanying stand that comes with the Premium pack nice and tightly with an assured balance. Switch it on and it isn’t the same silence that greeted you as with the Wii, the fans let you know it’s on; a few early adopters have reported louder units, but the noise level of the one we tested was what you'd expect of a games console, similar to the background whir of a slim PS3 and well below the level at which it would annoy you when the TV is at mid volume.
On the back of the console you’ll find a place to plug it in (obviously), a further two USB ports, a Wii AV out (for use with the component cable) and a Wii sensor bar input. The big disappointment is the absurd lack, once again, of anywhere to plug an ethernet cable. Whilst USB to ethernet adaptors for the Wii reportedly work (in the absence of official Wii U versions, yet to be launched), the assumption that wi-fi is always the preference is not going to win over those who find instability in their set-ups can hamper their online gaming experience. Still, for a company that shipped a handheld without a charger, it’s not to be considered a major gaffe.
If you were thinking that now Nintendo have embraced HDMI, you can sell on that old Wii component cable, you may want to hold on for a minute. It seems some have been reporting the image from their HDMI is noticeably more washed out than that from component, something that’s been attributed to the limited range Nintendo have opted for over that output. Our thoroughly unqualified fiddling revealed, on our display, a definite waning edge to visuals over HDMI. It isn’t night and day, and we dare say gamers used to compensating for differences between multi-platform titles (360 often having stronger contrast) will find it’s within the limits of TV tinkering to get to a place where it isn’t noticeable. It is, however, an interesting caveat to the HDMI-trumps-all vanguard of modern gaming, and a bit of an oddity. Maybe Nintendo have found a use for the garishly monstrous colours on Dynamic setting after all.
Costs are always a factor and the somewhat upmarket looking finger-print-magnet (if yours is black) glossy fascia is in contrast to the sense you get once it is picked up. Much has been made of the lack of a capacitive screen and the subsequent missing utilisation of multi-touch, but we think many will be surprised by the quality of the screen. With weight of prime concern, a huge battery pack was out of the question, but depending on the task at hand (brightness of screen, rumble), it should last you around the four hour mark (we easily surpassed five messing around in the Miiverse but found GamePad intensive games could drain this rapidly). It’s hard to make a case for this being even vaguely sufficient, but at least you can charge it straight from the plug socket, so sofa gamers need not trail USB cables across the living room floor.
The range is going to be wildly variable, depending on possible interference from other wireless devices and the structure of your home. In our humble bungalow, surrounded by several - seemingly nuclear powered - routers that have no problem registering a better signal than our own connection in all rooms, we could roam a mere twenty feet via line of sight, with no other wireless device of our own running. With a wall in the way, the signal cut out immediately, so no Wii Uing in the bathroom for us sadly.
In many ways Nintendo, by seeming to ordain tablet gaming as the next frontier to have a trail blazed across it, find themselves in something of a cleft stick. They want to appeal beyond the casual market, and as such they are drawing in customers for whom tablets are common place; thus they know the look, feel and responsiveness of a good one. On first approach, the lightweight GamePad can be mistaken for flimsy - now we weren't going to product test it by playing catch with a convenient nephew, but we did give it a bit of a flex test and gave it a good knuckle-rapping like an old man testing the walls and it appears well built, but designed to avoid strain from long gaming sessions.
Until you’ve spent some time playing with it, just holding the finished product is likely to underwhelm; the choice of a less than slick volume slider making it feel old school, and the decision to put the headphone jack (and AC input for recharging) on top means cables draping over the screen or wrapped around an arm is always a possibility - almost like a cheap Asian import tablet with some buttons thrown on for good measure. The pad element is an easier sell, the slight redesign Nintendo went for looks to have paid dividends as in terms of ergonomics it’s a success.
The long ridge running lengthways along the back means your middle finger actually takes some of the strain when raising it to a vertical position; an inventive anchor point that you won’t find on traditional slab-like tablets. Hand size will always be a potentially defining factor, but unlike Sony’s Vita they managed to keep a good sized screen whilst maintaining a comfortable distance from the face buttons. It won’t be quite as easy to make a jab with a thumb whilst keeping a two handed grip, but the margins of the screen (where developers are likely to place in-game menu options or quickly selectable actions) should be reachable for adult mitts.
We’ve always favoured raised face buttons, so the reassuringly depressible analogue A-B-X-Y combo feels like second nature. The shoulder/trigger buttons are less commendable, whilst L and R on the top are easily reachable and give a good indication of when they’ve been hit, the Z-L and Z-R (behind the pad where your index fingers will rest) are more secondary buttons than the now standard deep trigger design other console manufacturers favour. We’ll have to wait and see how this more binary feeling approach works, but it’s hard to envisage anyone favouring buying a multi-platform racer on the Wii U when they have a 360 pad to contend with.
As a controller - a hybrid device - it will be defined by how developers put it to use but the components are there, so the only worrying factor for many will be the presence of the resistive rather than capacitive screen - arguably the lynchpin of the whole Wii U project. Well the good news is that it isn’t the Achilles heel many message boards purported it would be. If you’re used to doing a touch of net surfing and e-mail checking via a capacitive screen tablet each day then it may take a moment or two to adjust, but if you fall into the venn diagram overlap that includes avid gamers then you’ll no doubt have experience of the DS and 3DS, which prove that simple but intuitive controls rather than a feather light touch is what generally sits at the heart of this more tangible approach to gaming.
The screen is bright and crisp and the lower (assuming you’re playing on your main display in HD) 854 x 480 resolution is less noticeable than you would assume. With the additional plastic around the edge of the screen it may seem a little small (it’s no iPad, at a mere 6.2 inches) but it’s a great fit between form and functionality. For all the aspects you could question, the most crucial - latency - is spot on. It must be remembered that this isn’t strictly a tablet device, but a means to open up dual screen gaming - and all the successes Nintendo have learnt thanks to their portable consoles - into the living room, and the quick motion of moving between screens and transferring information is timed perfectly with no discernible lag. Even the gyro (a much under-appreciated feature on other consoles that have tried to implement it) tracks well, far better than that found in either of Sony’s PS3 pad designs.
Where you may find some perceived lag is with the speakers though. They are clear but the experience found in games that pipe the same sound from your display’s speakers as through the GamePad is slightly odd due to the subtle difference in tone and the infinitesimal time difference. Anyone who’s ever spent an afternoon with a sound meter, poring over milliseconds in an amp’s menu may feel the need to tinker a little. The GamePad touch input works best with jabs and broad sweeps, much like Nintendo’s recent handhelds. On more than one occasion we found tracking with a fleshy digit failed to bestow the required degree of control when scrolling through menus, but the stylus is always on hand for the more fiddly scrollable settings and menus. Something Nintendo have taken into account when designing the OS.
It’s not bad, but it does feel clunky, like you’d expect an early foray by a company keen to follow Apple’s stripped back and intuitive design principles to be. Some things are intuitive, the Home button brings up all the necessary choices for navigating and getting into the Miiverse (Nintendo’s online social messaging centre) is a doddle. The channel system is as straightforward as ever, but the small delays between screens are a fraction of a second too long to be entirely pleasing to the caffeine fuelled hardcore market willing to be wowed by a Nintendo product purporting to be next gen technology.
Little niggles, such as the lack of a clear indication that the day-one update can be downloaded in the background, or the two slightly different methods in which you can add friends (one via the Miiverse) start to hint at a company that knows games more than the route to playing them, a point that’s been made many times when critics have highlighted Nintendo’s foot-dragging approach to embracing the capabilities of hardware in a broadband age.
With the disappointment that cross-game chat is missing, and in-game chat will be down to developers to implement as they choose, the Miiverse is the big draw; a touted meta-layer of gaming socialisation. In reality it’s closer to twitter without the offensiveness. That may sound like a kid-friendly sanitised environment, sort of a Fisher-Price-social-networking for over-protective parents, but in reality it’s nice to go somewhere that emoticons dwell without the foreboding of the impending onslaught of malignant attention-seeking trollery and casual racism. Finding people chatting about particular games is a breeze, thanks to the less than segmentalised way in which information is delivered in a stream, the search function works well, and the highlighting of notifications means it’s hard to miss something. It’s not yet reached the level advertised - akin to Demon’s Souls message system - so there’s definite room for growth.
The eShop is a pretty stripped back affair, but its simplicity should be lauded in the face of the multiple window approach other manufacturers favour. Information is front and centre, and there are retail games for downloading straight away. They’re pricy, but at least they’re there, though those who bought the Basic edition console will find not even New Super Mario Bros U will fit on the hard drive after the ample room taken up with the system gubbins and day one update. With support for external hard drives, it’s time to crack out any spare caddies.
There’s a fairly fast browser in there too, and a TVii channel that’s yet to get functionality for the UK, but in amongst all this positivity is another niggle, an indication that Nintendo may not quite have fully grasped what an age of interconnectivity is really about. Your Nintendo Network IDs aren’t nom de plumes and user data whirling around in the ether, stored in a cloud, but are instead tied to your console. So, whilst you can enjoy the features of the network, your persona is very much still tethered to your living room, and if your console fails, a quick fix probably isn’t going to be as simple as other manufacturers have made it.
The hope that video chat would be something you could dip into and out of - say if you were stuck in a game and needed advice - is not the reality. You need to quit the software before you can launch the service. Already some are envisaging keeping their 360s running alongside their Wii Us just to get full voice chat features, and the idea that Nintendo may be holding back one mammoth update that implements all the functionality core gamers want is probably wishful thinking. Although we're happy to write off some of the early disconnection issues as a byproduct of the console’s infancy and high traffic levels.
- Unique multi-faceted controller
- Simple to setup
- Well built
- Offers in-game chat on a Nintendo console
- Easy to navigate menu structure
- Miiverse social connection
- Accessible and well stocked eShop
- Low battery life for GamePad
- GamePad range potentially very limited
- Basic edition’s memory is meagre
- No cross-game chat
Nintendo Wii U Gaming Console Review
The build quality of the console is good, but the GamePad highlights how one man’s “lightweight” is another man’s “flimsy” but we doubt either would find it truly uncomfortable for traditional gaming, which is half the battle won. The restrictions some may find with regards range and battery longevity are hard to dismiss, but each drawback must be viewed in the context of the whole - a unique gaming experience. It isn’t tablet gaming, it isn’t motion controlled, it’s aiming to be both and though there are annoyances, there are no truly damning flaws at this stage that can’t be overcome, either by how you play-and-charge, incremental changes to the OS or the use of peripherals. It’s now the norm to expect the first iteration to be rough, how soon people forget the mammoth Xbox pads (although we actually liked the Duke), the red ring of death and a Sony pad that lacked force feedback needing a freebie attachment to make the triggers properly usable.
Hardware prepares the ground for game development, and this console - and in particular its OS and network features - hints at a new direction for the Big N, being trodden along the same path as their previous successes with dual screen gaming on the portable frontier. Nintendo Land showcases the myriad uses of the Gamepad, but if Zombi U is any indication, they could just snag the third party support they’ve always longed for.
Styling and design
Value for money
Ease of use
Our Review Ethos
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