The Wii U, which hits stores on Sunday, is the first new video game console in six years. With all the technology world’s advances in processing power, graphics capabilities, online delivery and input breakthroughs in the intervening years, that’s a minor miracle. Just about every other category of gadget has been iterating and improving on an almost monthly basis, so it’s nothing short of amazing that console makers have been able to get as much mileage out of their machines as they have.
Nintendo, clearly, is the first to flag. Its previous Wii console revolutionized gaming in 2006 with its innovative motion-sensing controller and initially sold like crazy, but with its early momentum long since sputtered out, it’s time for a new kick at the can.
While the Wii courted a large, broad audience that wasn’t being catered to by traditional game makers – including families, young children and even seniors – it ultimately didn’t attract those developers themselves. Set in their ways, game makers continued to create increasingly deep and graphically rich games that the Wii hardware simply couldn’t handle.
Now, the Wii U is boasting high-definition graphics and the option of regular non-motion controls, both of which represent an effort to win back the core gamers shunned by its predecessor. But with an innovative tablet-like touch-screen controller that incorporates a camera, microphone, speakers, gyroscope and accelerometer, all of which is set up to tailor to all sorts of casual iPad-like games, it’s also an attempt to woo that same broad market that the Wii enticed.
Will the move pay off? After a few days with the Wii U, it’s clear Nintendo is going to have a hard time with this all-things-to-all-people approach. While the new console is likely to initially appeal to non-core gamers with its novel functions and capabilities, its future with the regular market – and therefore with game makers – remains questionable since it doesn’t offer many advantages over competitors.
On the plus side, the most noticeable thing about the Wii U is its charm, which it oozes right from set-up. The grid-like main menu interface, displayed on the tablet-resembling GamePad, has the same simplistic elegance as its predecessor. The menu screen is also accompanied by a soothing melody playing in the background. It’s the sort of tune you might hear when getting a massage.
As an added bonus, the music plays from the controller’s speakers as well as the television, creating a nifty and trippy stereo sound vibe. The effect isn’t quite the same when a character is speaking since there’s some lag between the two sound sources, but in that case the volume on the GamePad can be turned off.
The controller itself is much lighter than it looks. With iPads and other tablets creating an expectation of heft for a similarly sized device, it’s almost a shock to hold the super-light GamePad. The tradeoff is that while it’s comfortable to use for long periods of time, its battery life is short. I averaged about three or four hours before having to plug it in. While that’s not the end of the world and certainly more than enough for casual sessions, core gamers are often at it for much longer than that.
The touch screen is generally a pleasure to use. Rather than looking up at the TV screen, many game options and settings are adjusted by looking down at the GamePad. In an age where many people are used to this sort of interface on phones and tablets, it feels completely natural to navigate game menus this way.
Button placement, on the other hand, doesn’t feel as right. For gamers used to Xbox and PlayStation controllers, the GamePad will feel weird since its buttons and thumbsticks are spaced considerably farther apart. There’s a learning curve involved for playing the sorts of big games also found on other consoles, such as Call of Duty: Black Ops II or Assassin’s Creed III.