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 by adding 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 take 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 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. The upside, is that 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).

Complete control

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.

Game on?

A console is only as good as its games. But even after the console has been out for 18 months, the Wii U games library is still disappointingly small. Just a handful of games are making interesting use of the GamePad’s unique technology, and most of these are Nintendo games that largely extend what we’ve seen before – basically, more of Mario and Zelda.

Other titles add content that does little to enhance the uniqueness of the Wii U experience, such as displaying the game map or objectives. There are some exceptions, however, with Rayman Legends by Ubisoft being a great example. It offers an innovative mode for co-op play using the touchscreen.

Mid-2014 has seen something of a turnaround for the Wii U however, with the launch of Mario Kart 8. Sales have supposedly increased fourfold, and the newly announced games such as Zelda HD (set for release in 2015) have rekindled interest in Nintendo’s console.

Less-powerful hardware means Wii U versions of cross-platform titles will not match the appearance or speed of the PS4 and Xbox One releases, which generally look and play better on those platforms. Wii U sales have been slower than expected, and third-party support for the console has declined. Major companies such as EA and Bethesda will offer limited or no support until the Wii U starts to pick up.

Credit must be given, however, to Nintendo’s commitment to backwards compatibility, as the Wii U can play Wii titles via a built-in virtual console. You can also download classic Nintendo games, from earlier consoles such as the SNES and Game Boy Advance.

Getting around with Mii and U

The GamePad’s touchscreen gestures make navigation easy and avoid getting bogged down in complicated menus. This easy-to-understand approach extends to games, apps and settings, making the console especially suitable for new players.

The Wii U is similar to Nintendo’s 3DS handheld’s dual-screen play in the way it displays different menus on the GamePad and your TV screen. By default, the GamePad is used for general menu navigation – opening games, apps and settings. Your TV presents the central community hub, WaraWara plaza, which expands into the Miiverse, the community driven online environment for Nintendo fans.

WaraWara Plaza details recent trends, popular games/apps and messages from other players, with whom you can communicate by tapping on their avatar (or Mii). Inside WaraWara is the Miiverse, which includes a community hub for each game released on the console. These areas are for sharing messages, information, achievements and screenshots. Most link directly to Miiverse.

This approach makes sharing content contextual and relevant, rather than arbitrarily posting info on a message board and hoping someone will see it. It really streamlines online interaction in a way that makes you feel like you’re connecting with players who are equally passionate about these games, and is an object lesson to the online services of other consoles.

Miiverse feels like a warm, inviting environment with a few nice features that enrich communication between players. For example, you can tag posts with spoilers that are turned off by default, or you can use the included stylus to draw simple doodles (although some pictures could possibly count as works of art). It’s the attention to detail of these little touches that make the Miiverse feel like a fun community.

CHOICE verdict

The individual elements that make up the Wii U are, on their own, quite impressive. The GamePad is an interesting piece of technology, games are still fun, if a little familiar, and the console performs relatively well, despite the lack of performance compared to the PS4 and Xbox One.

Overall, however, it’s hard to see what Nintendo’s vision for the unit really is. The result is poor sales and little support by game developers.

The original Wii was clearly aimed at the casual market, and it scored a home run. By contrast, the Wii U tries – and fails – to be a jack of all trades. Ultimately it lacks enough simplicity for casual gamers and enough complexity for hardcore players.

In a world where every second person owns a smartphone or tablet, touchscreen technology isn’t as impressive as it used to be, and it’s certainly nowhere near as intriguing as motion controls were when the Wii first hit the shelves. The GamePad just isn’t showing the potential that Nintendo may have hoped for, and games that don’t fully take advantage of the touchscreen become underpowered versions of their PS4 and Xbox One equivalents.

The real problem is that, with very few exceptions, playing games with a touchscreen combined with a traditional controller doesn’t feel unique or special, just different. Nintendo exclusives and the occasional title that uses the tech as intended will keep the Wii U alive for fans, but Nintendo will have to bring back some real innovation to win new fans over from the PS4 and Xbox One.