Five Short Stories and a Closing Thought About the Nintendo Wii U
The Gimmick, The Competition, The Future
The Nintendo Wii brought the motion sensor to the masses. Back when the console launched, motion sensor video gaming was brand new and everyone wanted to join in. People stood in line for days on end trying to get their hands on the console. (Probably fake) stock shortages skyrocketed demand and excitement. Normal, non-gaming people lost their minds trying to get one and when they finally did, most of them played Wii Sports and other group games for a while and then never looked at their Wii again. Truthfully, the Wii's motion sensor and controllers were never particularly accurate or sensitive. Nintendo released the “Motion Plus” adapter to address it, but once the Microsoft Kinect and Sony Playstation Move crowded into the market with more sensitive and fun implementations of the motion tracking technology, the Wii lost its unique appeal. (This is conjecture, of course, but it's based on a decent amount of time spent using all three technologies. The Wii's was the easiest to use out of the box but the least accurate. The Kinect works surprisingly well but requires too much floor space and pristine lightning conditions. The Playstation Move wins for me—it's absurdly accurate and feels like a better implementation of the Wii controller.)
With the Wii U, the gimmick is the GamePad. Nintendo sees Apple selling millions of iPads and iPod Touches on which people are gaming like crazy, so that must be the future. But Nintendo can't deliver on Apple-quality hardware or software, so the GamePad just feels like a frankenstein of features, and overall it seems more like a miss than a hit at this point.
Nintendo doesn't know what the Wii U is, and neither will consumers. Is it the Wii with upgraded HD graphics? Is it the Wii + a Nintendo DS? Is it a crummier version of an iPad + the Wii? Is it an attempt at all of those things? Yes. Does it succeed at any of them? Maybe. Is it a must-have console? No.
And what about the future? Has Nintendo released a console capable of competing with whatever Microsoft and Sony release next year? Doubtful. Consider the Wii U's slot loading disc drive: It's the smoothest slot loading drive I've ever used, but Nintendo still makes you insert discs and run them from the drive, without being able to install games to internal memory. Sure, you can buy games in digital form from the Nintendo eShop, but not every game is available. A large number are (and seemingly will continue to be) in disc form, which means ridiculously slow loading times for a console released in the age of SSD. Both Microsoft and Sony have been letting users install games for years now, and I'm willing to bet the Xbox 1080 and the Playstation 4 (or whatever) will push even further into digital delivery and SSD storage and further away from slow disc drives and physical media. The Wii U's disc drive is apparently some proprietary version of Blu-ray, but it doesn't play Blu-ray (or DVD) discs, which seems like another miss. If you're going to saddle us with another disc drive, at least make it useful for more than one thing.
Graphically, the Nintendo Wii looks decent, but it still pales in comparison to the older Xbox 360 and Playstation 3, which means new consoles will blow it out of the water. A common response to this is, “People don't care about graphics, they care about the gameplay and the experience.” This is true, in general, but if all games look sub-par on the Wii U, game developers will focus their efforts on platforms where both the gameplay and the visuals are top-notch. This is what happened to the Wii, and it seems destined to happen to the Wii U in two years.
The GamePad offers unique gameplay possibilities, definitely. But most of the launch titles don't do anything interesting beyond a larger map view or inventory management. Call of Duty: Black Ops II offers an interesting feature that allows two players to play multiplayer at once—one on the TV (with a Pro controller) and one on the GamePad. But other games squander the feature by simply duplicating what's on the TV on the GamePad screen. This creates a very awkward experience—which screen should I look at?—and doesn't add anything new or fun to gameplay. Apparently Nintendo is angling this as the ability to play Wii U when the TV is occupied, but it's a reach because only certain games work this way, and the Wii U GamePad's screen is lower resolution and smaller than an iPad.
Hardware and System Software
The console itself is nearly a foot long, it's made from shiny plastic, and it feels like little to no industrial design went into it. It's heavy, ugly, and it's big. This time around, Nintendo was smart enough to go high definition from the start (and they even included an HDMI cable, which neither Microsoft nor Sony do with their consoles). It still includes the Wii Sensor Bar and it has a giant external power brick (a quick aside: I've always complained about Microsoft's Xbox 360 having an external power supply, and now about the Wii U as well, because Sony's Playstation 3 does not have one and it feels so much more svelte. But then again, the PS3 overheats after 20 minutes of gaming or watching a Blu-ray disc and turns its fans up to fighter-jet levels, so give me external power supplies over that any day). The Wii U's hardware is boring, but then again who cares? It's not offensive, so if you're the type who keeps your consoles visible, it will be fine.
The GamePad looks one half of a giant Nintendo DS and features a large touchscreen, two analog sticks, a camera, a microphone, a gyroscope, and all that other kind of stuff. It also has a button layout different from every other game controller on the market, which is very frustrating if you play Xbox or Playstation regularly. It's unclear why Nintendo refuses to change BA to AB… and it annoys the hell out of me when I try to play any first-person shooter or game that controls similarly to a non-Nintendo game, because it's always exactly backward. Nintendo also placed both analog sticks above the lettered buttons, which is the opposite of how the Xbox and Playstation do it. This creates a lot more travel for your right thumb, and it breaks muscle memory. The GamePad also features NFC support, a stylus, a proprietary port on the bottom and OH MY GOD WHO CARES. Basically, the GamePad is Nintendo's answer to the iPad. Only its touch screen is non-capacitive (and therefore quite poor), its resolution is lower, it's thicker, heavier and uglier, and you can't play games on it without being in reach of the Wii U console. Playing for an extended period of time on the GamePad is very fatiguing because the GamePad is large and quite a bit heavier than any other game controller on the market.
System-software-wise, every single built-in Wii U app takes a ridiculously long time to load (including the root menu itself, which presents a secondary loading screen from time to time). It's actually confusing—how poor is this SDK and operating system that loading the Settings app takes 19 seconds? The software is so slow I have become overly careful when using the GamePad so I don't accidentally touch the wrong icon and launch an app I didn't want because I can't stand waiting the (often up to) 20 seconds to return to where I was. Nintendo needs to hire a group of people to make this whole thing faster and more useful. After some painful testing, here're some app load time averages:
- Returning to Wii U Menu from any other app or game: 25 seconds (!)
- Mii Maker: 22 seconds
- Parental Controls: 17 seconds
- Daily Log: 16 seconds
- Settings: 19 seconds
- Miiverse: 28 seconds
- Nintendo eShop: 27 seconds (!!)
- Notifications: 15 seconds
- Internet Browser: 19 seconds
- Wii U Chat: 40 seconds (!!!)
- Netflix: 42 seconds (!!!!!!)
(Keep in mind it took 25 seconds on average to return to the Wii U Menu after loading each of these others apps, so if you were to start each app listed above once and return to the Wii U menu afterward, it would take eight and a half minutes, not including initial startup and loading time, to do it. That can only be described as fucking insane.)
The Wii U can run YouTube and Hulu and Netflix, but who cares… what can't run those things these days? If you don't have an Apple TV or a Roku or an Xbox 360 or a Playstation 3 or a modern TV or a Mac Mini or a Windows Media PC or TiVo or a Blu-Ray player or… seriously—if the Wii U is the first device you own that can play Netflix on your TV, this review probably isn't for you. Pretty much every piece of electronic technology released in the last four years can play Netflix on your TV.
The “Internet Browser” is decent (but again, does anyone need this at all?) and rendered most sites I visited well. I'll never use it again.
The First-Run Experience
This is a bit unfair because this isn't a permanent issue, but the first-run experience two days after launch was terrible. After setting up the hardware, I was greeted with a mandatory system software update, which promptly took two and half hours to download. My experience was not unique. During that two-hour period, the GamePad remained on and by the time it was finally done, 10 seconds into playing New Super Mario Bros. U for the first time, the GamePad ran out of battery and shut off. You can't play single-player “story” mode without the GamePad, so that was it for me until the controller was charged.
Nintendo President Iwata apologized for this out-of-box experience, so at least they know this is something that needs to be much better. No luck thus far, however: As I wrote this my Wii U performed a new required system update which took 49 minutes.
Wii Support, Sure, But Bring Your Glasses
The Wii U has a Wii emulation mode, in which you can play all the older Wii games as well as old Virtual Console titles (which are not currently for sale in the Wii U store). To enter this mode, you must use a Wii Remote (and have the sensor bar plugged in), and you must enter the Wii emulation software, which effectively reboots the Wii U into Wii mode. And then you remember that until a month ago, Nintendo's console was standard definition.
Going from the Wii U menu to the Wii menu is painful. The Wii looked bad on modern televisions before but now with this direct juxtaposition it's even more glaring. Having given away my Wii back in 2008, I never got a chance to play the newer titles in two of my favorite series, so I bought a copy of Metroid: Other M, and The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword. These games were obviously SD because the Wii was SD, and it's rough to play them. They look blurry as hell, and they really highlight just how poor the Wii was, graphics-wise. For some reason, Wii mode also paints a thick neon green line on the right side of my TV, which I cannot get rid of (or ignore).
1st Party is the Only Party
Nintendo has a few cherished, amazing first-party franchises: Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, and Metroid. Most of Nintendo's core gamers have been playing games from these series for decades and they always rally to new releases regardless of their quality (*cough* The Adventure of Link, *cough* Metroid Prime Hunters, *cough* Mario's Time Machine). Of course, that means it's fairly disappointing to have a new Nintendo console with only one new franchise title, and a boring one at that.
New Super Mario Bros. U is a fine game, but it feels lifeless. Clinical is probably the right word. Compared to the thrill of Super Mario World for the SNES or Mario 64 for the Nintendo 64, NSMBU is a love letter to SNES' Super Mario Bros. 3 made with far more technical prowess and far less passion. I found myself playing through levels quickly without much interest in the game. It was hard to play for more than 30 minutes at a time. Something about it doesn't feel right.
The Wii U isn't the first of Nintendo's consoles to launch without other franchise titles (remember the Gamecube's Luigi's Mansion fiasco?), but given the 6 years between the Wii and the Wii U, I would have hoped we'd see some new stuff here. The problem is Nintendo recently released new franchise titles for their aging Wii console (Mario and Metroid in 2010, Zelda in 2011), which seems like a mistake to me. As a fan, I would have preferred new, HD titles for the new console in 2012.
From everything Nintendo and developers are saying, it sounds like a new Zelda game is coming in 2013, as well as a new Metroid game, but nothing is concrete. This is a wasted opportunity. Sure, you can play Wii U versions of multi-console releases like Call of Duty: Black Ops II, but Nintendo's game systems have never excelled in this regard.
Based on my experience over the past two weeks with the Wii U, I'm not exactly bullish on its likelihood of massive success. But then I wouldn't have thought the Wii would explode the way it did either. It's possible I'm too jaded or interested in maturely-themed content to appreciate the confusing playfulness of Nintendo's newest console. From a technology standpoint, I think the Wii U is too small of a step forward (and, in many ways, a step sideways) to compete with forthcoming consoles from the other big two companies.
Perhaps new Zelda or Metriod games will make me feel like a fool, but if all they use the GamePad for is inventory management and a larger map, we'll know the Wii U was a misstep. So far, that's the direction in which things are headed.
For now, I'll be here waiting for the system menu to load.