Nintendo’s first foray into the HD console era is finally here. We put the Wii U and its GamePad controller under the microscope to help you decide if Wii U is for you.
So, 18 months after its first scrappy public appearance at E3 2011, Nintendo’s successor to the Wii has launched in the UK. Rarely can a console have launched with such a mixture of expectation, dismissal and confusion about the merits of its core hardware, functionality and place in the market. For better or worse, the Wii U feels like something approaching a gamble for the longest running of the Big Three console manufacturers.
In this review, I’ll be focusing on the console’s hardware and software functionality over the likes of graphical and gaming performance, not least because the Wii U presents so many varied ways to interact with those games that it is better left to the individual reviews of each title. The review unit was the Wii U Premium Pack black console and GamePad controller, and if you are considering purchasing the console this and the Zombie U bundle are really the only SKUs you should be looking at – with its meagre 8 GB storage, no pack-in Nintendoland and lack of extras such as the sensor bar and GamePad charging stand, the Wii U basic set makes no sense unless you’re absolutely wedded to white consumer electronics in your lounge.
I won’t go into full unboxing details, not least because Mr Iwata himself did the job so in such charming fashion before the console was launched. Suffice to say, everything is contained simply and functionally in two slide-out cardboard trays without any of the horror that is styrofoam packaging. It’s not quite Apple standard, but a damn sight more pleasant to unbox than most consumer electronics.
The Wii U console itself feels surprisingly robust, far more so than the Wii, and weighty in the hand. It’s slightly enlarged over its predecessor with nicely rounded edges, and significantly longer, though not more so than any of the 360 or PS3 models. Despite this feeling of chunkiness, it is remarkably smaller than the competition.
The front panel houses the power and sync buttons, a slot-loading drive with eject button, and a pull down flap that recesses into the casing to reveal the SD card slot and two of the four USB ports, the others being on the back of the machine. The rear also includes ports for the power cable, the sensor bar, an HDMI cable and a slot for an expansion cable enabling other outputs such as component, though only a HDMI cable is included in the box.
The USB ports are of course of interest as they are the principal means of expanding the rather meagre onboard storage. Hooking up a variety of portable USB2 drives confirmed that the Wii U was incapable of powering them via USB – you’ll need to invest in a desktop style USB hard drive with it’s own power cable to use it with the console.
This lack of USB power probably explains why the GamePad comes with its own power cable and attendant power brick, which can be attached directly to the controller or to the dock included with the Premium edition. Talking of power bricks, the console’s own is pretty hefty, only slightly smaller than the 360 Elite’s – you’ll want plenty of space behind your TV cabinet to fit these out of sight. The Wii U does run quietly in comparison to those other consoles as well, with fan noise minimally intrusive.
Overall, the console unit itself feels despite its diminutive size like a quality piece of consumer engineering, with even the significant venting in its right side for the cooling system worked into the industrial design. Interestingly, unlike the Wii, all the labeling is horizontal, which makes the inclusion of the stands in the Premium edition a moot point – Nintendo clearly intend for the Wii U to be placed on a flat surface.
Nintendo’s latest innovative controller is more of a mixed bag on the design front. The first thing that hits you is how light it is the hands considering its size, especially in comparison to a tablet such as the iPad. The GamePad is surprisingly comfortable to hold even for prolonged gaming sessions, thanks in part to the use of a more textured plastic on the rear and the inclusion of a rounded ridge where your fore fingers naturally curl round, into which are placed the digital triggers.
The front is made of glossy plastic, and while there is a slight air of the toy about it, the GamePad doesn’t feel as cheap as first feared. Embedded the faceplate is of course the touchscreen, camera, microphone and a variety of buttons. It’s here that issues with the GamePad rear their head.
It’s not the size of the controller that presents problems – I found myself adjusting to the far greater distance between my hands over the likes of the 360 controller or PS3 Dualshock without even really noticing the difference – and the dual analog thumbsticks have a textured rubber finish that makes up for not being concave. But the size of the screen itself, and possibly a desire for a symmetry in the GamePad’s design, have led Nintendo to make some rather strange ergonomic decisions.
Foremost of these is placing the right analog stick above the face buttons, unlike pretty much every other controller that has utilised a dual stick layout. In practise, it proves a difficult adjustment to absorb, making quick movement between buttons and stick tricky, especially if you own other consoles and play alternately on them and the Wii U. It’s entirely possible that it will become second nature in time, but it’s a choice driven by aesthetics rather than usability.
Because of the requirement to fit them around the screen edge, it can also prove awkward to easily navigate to the likes of the Home, Start, Select and TV buttons without concentrating on the controller and not the TV screen – not ideal for rapid pausing, for example. The buttons and D-pad are all good quality though, and while some may take some getting used to the face buttons following Nintendo’s own layout, with the right hand button being the main input, I didn’t find it an issue. The inbuilt speakers are surprisingly gutsy too, but the less said about the weedy rumble function the better.
The lightness of the GamePad has clearly been at the expense of battery life. Nintendo were clearly faced with a difficult choice – most of the weight of an iPad is down to the massive battery, and a game controller of similar heft simply would not be comfortable in use for any period of time – but the estimation of 3 hours 30 mins total battery life was bang on the money in my testing. I found myself quickly getting into the habit of placing the GamePad into its charging stand any time I took a short break.
I’ll return to the GamePad and its most significant feature – the ability to stream video to the touchscreen – later in the review.
Setting the Wii U up
First time set-up is as smooth and straightforward a process as you’d expect from Nintendo, starting off upon powering up the console by syncing the GamePad, which involves pressing the respective red sync buttons on both (you’ll need to get the stylus out to reach it on the GamePad) then tapping on a series of icons in the order displayed on the TV screen. Set your language and location, and the GamePad can from then be used to power the console up or down.
After setting the correct date and time, the console will auto-detect your television’s optimal resolution over HDMI, and you have the option to set the GamePad to also function as a TV or DVR/Cable remote by selecting the manufacturers name. It’s a feature that works well enough but whose limited functionality beyond volume, input and channel changing means you’re likely to keep your other remotes to hand.
Finally, you notify the system of your sensor bar placement and then the Wii U will attempt to connect to local wireless networks. Despite the issues other users have experienced (in the UK, Virgin routers seem particularly affected), this went smoothly first time for me, and the system saved my router as the default Wi-Fi connection, and hasn’t dropped it since.
It’s at this point that you might want to make a cup of tea (or two), as it’s time for the dreaded System Update.