01.Out with the old, in with the Wii U
Nintendo Wii U
Price: $348-428 (basic and premium models)
Basic console: White, 8GB internal storage
Premium console: Black, 32GB internal storage, console stand, gamepad stand, charging dock
Note: We reviewed the premium version.
The original Nintendo Wii sent a shockwave through the games console market when launched back in 2006, with its unique motion controls, family-friendly image and agreeable price point capturing the attention of gamers and non-gamers alike. After seven years and 100 million Wii sales, Nintendo has released a follow-up called the Wii U, which tries to follow in the innovative footsteps of its older brother with touchscreen controls and high-definition graphics.
Does Nintendo have another juggernaut on its hands? We did more than a Wii bit of investigating to find out.
The GamePad: a unique approach
Once again Nintendo has opted to focus on a different approach to how we interact with games, rather than just relying on the latest high-speed processors, cutting-edge visuals and multimedia add-ons. This time they’ve turned the attention away from motion sensing to dual-device gaming and built-in touch controls, coming up with the innovative Wii U GamePad. It's a rather bulky-feeling rectangular controller, with an inbuilt 6.2-inch touchscreen, flanked by traditional buttons similar to an Xbox One or PlayStation 4 (PS4) layout.
It’s designed to extend gameplay to a second screen while giving developers the opportunity to add gesture-based navigation to their games or enhance gameplay with extra features specifically for the second screen. Some games even let players combine controllers to work together in co-operative play. For example, a standard WiiMote controller manoeuvres a character on the TV, while companion provides assistance for the same character using the GamePad touch controller.
The GamePad is quite large and feels bulky, but it's fairly lightweight and responsive, with no noticeable lag between the touchscreen and TV. While adults and teens should have no trouble getting their hands around the GamePad, younger gamers may have trouble reaching across it. By including a traditional button layout at either side of the touchscreen, Nintendo is playing it safe with a successful formula.
Importantly, this layout brings the Wii U into line with the controller button systems of the PS4 and Xbox One, so developers should find it easier to port games from those platforms to the Wii U.
Theoretically a second touchscreen can add a new dimension to typical gameplay, but very few games effectively combine onscreen touch gestures with the GamePad’s traditional buttons. Instead, most seem to treat the second screen as an afterthought, with a few novel, but not essential, touchscreen features thrown in (see Game On? for more).
The Wii U can also stream games from the console remotely, which means you can play games on the tablet while the TV is turned off or being used for something else such as watching DVDs or the news. Not all games support this feature, however. You can also synchronise the GamePad with your TV and use it as a basic universal remote. A dedicated TV button switches the controller between game and TV mode.
Although the Wii U can support two GamePads, Nintendo aren't yet selling extras. Up to four other players can connect using WiiMotes. It ships with the same sensor bar as the Wii, so you can navigate using motion controls if you prefer, although some Wii U games may still require you to connect the GamePad to play. The classic-style Wii U Pro Controller is also available and recommended for some games such as first-person shooters. This freedom of controller choice is a great addition to the Wii U.
What makes a Wii U?
Aside from the new controller, the update to high-definition (HD) graphics is the most significant improvement the Wii U has to offer over the original Wii. While the motion controls of the first-generation Wii were fun, Nintendo fans were forced to make do with standard definition (SD) graphics while the competition revelled in graphics-rich HD. Internal storage has also been given a boost, with 8GB of space available in the standard Wii U model and 32GB in the premium kit, as well as four USB ports and support for SD and SDHC cards to expand storage.
While this may be a big improvement for Nintendo, the Wii U’s internal hardware is well behind that of the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One , and feels more in line with the hardware Sony and Microsoft have been pushing for years with their previous-generation PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360.
The Wii has always seemed a little underpowered by comparison, but previously this could be justified by the lower price tag. While the Wii U is the least expensive console on the market, the price gap has dropped significantly, arguably reducing the perceived value for money.
Nintendo’s key to success with the Wii was ground-breaking motion-sensing control and its wave-and-click ease of use. Anybody could pick up a WiiMote controller and be happily playing almost immediately. The Wii U lacks such innovation. Cross-platform conventional shooter titles such as Call of Duty: Ghosts can’t compare to the visual spit and polish of their PS4 and Xbox One equivalents.
And like the Wii, the Wii U notably still doesn’t support DVD or Blu-ray. It does include some media-streaming apps, but the biggest-name online movie conduits such as Netflix and Hulu aren’t yet available in Australia. Likewise, the free TV service TVii is available to download, but the streaming services it has partnered with so far are US exclusives.