The good, the bad, and the ugly: Wii U impressions

It’s been almost a month since the Wii U has been on store shelves, waiting for stalwart Nintendo fans and doting parents to snatch them up. Nintendo has claimed that with the launch of the Wii U, so too does the next generation of gaming. Is the Wii U the true start of the next-gen, or is it merely a stop-gap until the “real” consoles come out some time next year? Here we break down some of The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly regarding Nintendo’s new console.

The Good

A Varied and Well-rounded Launch Lineup

It’s not the best launch in Nintendo’s long and storied history, but there’s no lack of quality content available for purchase and family members of all stripes will find something to like. Nintendo Land introduces quite a few entertaining uses for the novel touchpad controller, all set in adorable representations of classic Nintendo franchises. New Super Mario Bros. U – while not setting the world on fire with originality – plays better in its first world than all of the previous New Mario titles combined. [singlepic id=10133 w=320 h=240 float=left]And Zombi U creates staggering levels of tension and suspense in a unique return to survival horror form – something totally unexpected as a launch title for a Nintendo platform.

Sure, outside of a few games, most of the others are ports of titles that have been available for a few months – or even a year – but contain content not available on the other platforms. Darksiders II features several dungeons right on the disc that were previously only available as downloadable content, and Call of Duty: Black Ops II facilitates split-screen multiplayer, letting one player use the TV and another use the Gamepad. Speaking of the Gamepad…

The Gamepad Really Does Make a Difference

Some games may add a small map or radar, or allow players to access special powers at the touch of a button, but others do so much more. New Super Mario Bros. U allows one player to take command of the Gamepad and add platforms with a touch of the stylus, helping Mario and friends reach new heights. In Zombi U, the Gamepad is actually represented in game in a unique bit of fourth wall-breaking. The “Prepper Pad” gives players a map of their surroundings and radio transmissions from a mysterious guide. [singlepic id=10129 w=320 h=240 float=right]Punching in keycodes and picking locks is made much more frantic when zombie attacks remain a constant threat, especially when focus must be drawn to the Gamepad to interact with the game.

Outside of gameplay, having the Gamepad makes navigating the system’s user interface a breeze. Using the touchscreen to input messages or navigate web pages speeds up the entire process. Making the touchscreen a unified part of the controller – rather than adding support for external tablets – allows for a wide range of uses, all without having to juggle several different controllers.

Friend Codes Are Dead; Long Live Miiverse

The much-maligned Friend Code system is gone. In its place is the Nintendo Network ID, and the whole process is – mostly – painless. Signing in with an ID and adding friends grants access to one of the most innovative aspects of the Wii U: the Miiverse.

Part Facebook, part Twitter, and all Nintendo, Miiverse is a hub for social gatherings on Nintendo’s new console. After creating an ID, players can access communities that are built for every single game. Players can boast about accomplishments, ask for help on levels, or even draw fan art using the stylus. [singlepic id=10134 w=320 h=240 float=left]Plus, players are greeted with a “best of” on the home screen (dubbed “Warawara Plaza” by Nintendo), which displays some of the highest voted messages from the hottest games. It’s a really cool feeling to boot up the system and have some of the most impressive video game fan art waiting to be shown off, right there on the screen.

It’s not perfect, though. Other than some odd problems with interface and friends list interaction (more on that later), Nintendo is policing this with some 1984-like diligence. Any inappropriate phrases, words, drawings, or spoilers is considered thoughtcrime and dealt with swiftly. It may seem like a bit much, but Nintendo is literally trying to create the nicest place on the Internet, and if that means less penis drawings, then so be it.

The eShop Is a Step in the Right Direction

Day one digital releases for virtually all launch titles. Streaming trailers. An ecosystem where independent studios can set their own prices and can patch their games without abusive penalties. Yeah, Nintendo’s doing all of this.

[singlepic id=10131 w=320 h=240 float=right]It’s not perfect by any stretch of the imagination. The layout, while friendly and inviting, is a bit difficult to navigate, and a few promised demos still haven’t materialized, but if Nintendo can keep harboring good will among third-parties – both AAA and indie – and make some steady improvements, Nintendo will have the best digital storefront this side of Steam.

All of Those Wii Remotes and Nunchucks Lying Around Still Work

The Wii has sold almost 100 million units; chances are there are more than one of those Wii Remotes lying around the house somewhere, and a lot of Wii U games can use the Wii Remote/Nunchuck combo for game control. Heck, playing with four players in New Super Mario Bros. U controls exactly the same as it did on the Wii. It’s kind of nice to not have to re-purchase new controllers all over again.

The Bad

It’s Really Not As Powerful As Nintendo Claims

[singlepic id=10130 w=320 h=240 float=left]Reggie recently went on the record claiming that third-party games, specifically Call of Duty, “look dramatically better” on Wii U against their other console counterparts. While many of these games do have additional features not found on the Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3, Digital Foundry has proved that this claim is empirically, demonstrably false. The Wii U may be the “greenest” console, making the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 look like the Augustus Gloop of power consumption, but it’s clearly not pushing any boundaries. This could just be a result of bad porting, but intrepid hackers have sussed out the exact specs of the Wii U, and it’s telling:

Marcan states the Wii U’s tri-core PowerPC 750-alike CPU clocks in at exactly 1.243125GHz. For comparison, the CPUs of the Xbox 360 (also tri-core) and PlayStation 3 run at around 3.0GHz each. The Wii U’s GPU core clocks in at 549.999755MHz, compared to the Xbox 360′s 550MHz GPU. He noted that the CPU was similar to the Wii’s Broadway, but with more cache.

The original Wii’s PowerPC-based Broadway CPU was clocked at 729MHz, and the GPU at 243MHz. So, the Wii U’s CPU clock speed increased by less than double, whereas the GPU increased by a little more than double…

This may look like a jumbling of technical word vomit, but it means that the Wii U’s specs are about the same as its current competition. This is fine right now, but what will happen when Microsoft and Sony inevitably release their new video game consoles? Nintendo may claim that the next generation is here, but as far as technical specs are concerned, we’re still waiting.

The Gamepad Has Some Serious Limitations

While the Wii U may be a revelatory experience with actual gameplay, the Gamepad’s hardware leaves much to be desired. The Gamepad weighs far less than the New iPad and, despite the giant screen in the middle, remains ergonomically sound. This portability comes at a cost – the battery life is atrocious, lasting a paltry three to five hours from a full charge. [singlepic id=10132 w=320 h=240 float=right]Any extended gaming sessions see the Gamepad becoming a wired controller rather quickly; luckily the charging cable is a generous eight feet long.

Also, rather than opting for a capacitive screen like virtually every tablet screen available on the market, Nintendo has designed the Gamepad controller to use a resistive screen, similar to their own DS line of handhelds. Incapable of multi-touch and lacking the precision of its capacitive brethren, use of a stylus is virtually mandatory for any game requiring exact screen taps – spelling trouble when in the thick of any action.

No Achievements? Why Bother Playing the Game Then?

It’s a bit disappointing that there is no system-wide achievement or trophy system implemented. Sure, Nintendo has said that studios can create their own – and has even allowed Ubisoft to create its own Uplay app for download from the eShop – but the ability to share these achievements through Miiverse would have been fantastic. For those out there who enjoy the thrill of hunting down arbitrary objectives, this may be a deal breaker.

The Ugly

That Update…

When setting up the Wii U for the first time, new users can look forward to… waiting for an hour while staring at a blue bar slowly move its way to the right. In order to do anything with the Wii U – like playing Wii Games, accessing Miiverse or the eShop or Netflix – a mandatory update must be installed. And it takes forever[singlepic id=10135 w=320 h=240 float=left]New owners can look forward to the “Day One Update” until at least March, when systems released will have the update installed. Until then, settle in. It’s going to be a while.

It’s not just the system that needs updating; any of the launch games with the Nintendo Network icon affixed on the box require mandatory patches to update each game with network capabilities, and the whole process of downloading and installation – yep, like the PlayStation 3, each download also requires a separate install time – can take anywhere from a few minutes to close to a half-hour. The system grinds to a halt whenever a patch is downloading – the Home button, normally granting minimal access to various features during gameplay, no longer works – and nothing can be done until that update is completed. Luckily game downloads and future system updates will download in the background, but why can’t game patches be downloaded in the background as well?

Abysmal Load Times Permeate the Entire Experience

Want to fire up Zombi U? Prepare to wait at least thirty seconds before hitting the main menu. Loading up the campaign requires at least 45 seconds to a minute of thumb-twiddling. See something cool in-game and want to post it on the Miiverse? Hitting that icon will sap another thirty seconds of precious life. Every single application feels like it is separated from everything else, distanced by a giant wall of time. Hopefully this can be patched out, because as it stands, it is absolutely appalling.

Lots of Weird Problems That Shouldn’t Even Be An Issue

[singlepic id=10126 w=320 h=240 float=right]Want to transfer saves or Network IDs to a different Wii U system? Sorry, right now Nintendo won’t allow it. Have a TV with overscanning problems but no option on the actual TV to fix it? Well, this can be fixed… in the Miiverse and eShop options menu, but not in the system settings itself, meaning that only those apps will look right on overscanned TVs. Want to add some friends? It’s possible – but adding friends via the “Friends List” app means forcing both parties to add the others’ name to get them to appear on the list, while adding them in the Miiverse allows to send an actual friend request. There are tons of stupid little problems that a more online savvy console developer would have seen a mile away. Again, if Nintendo is smart, they will work on patching these issues, but Nintendo has a habit of ignoring these things until people just stop complaining about them.

Final Thoughts

It’s been so long since we’ve had brand new hardware to dig into that it’s easy to forget what a console launch feels like. The hype building up to release day, the glut of decent-to-poor launch titles, the exploration of the operating system and user interface – one thing’s for sure, it’s at least new. But will that “new” feeling last, especially with newer, “higher definition” consoles right around the corner? While the launch line-up is fairly high quality, it lacks a killer app that screams “this is why the Wii U needs to exist.” Even Zombi U, the game with the most inventive use of the Gamepad controller, is a bit too hardcore to catch on with any but the most ardent gamer.

Die hard Nintendo fans and tech fiends looking for something new and different would be best served by picking up a system right now, as they all know that, if anything, the Wii U will be a fun Nintendo box; first-party titles will come and will most certainly be quality. However, anyone with the slightest trepidation regarding the system’s third-party prospects would do well to wait until a solid roster of games is released before taking the plunge, as Nintendo has burned them time and time again.

Nintendo has one year; one year to prove that this touchscreen is absolutely necessary, one year before Microsoft and Sony blow the Wii U out of the water with their vastly superior technology, one year to build an install base and wow them with unique and innovative software only Nintendo can provide. If they can secure the indie developers to take full advantage of the Gamepad and its touchscreen, if they can convince third-party developers why they should make games for their system, if they can keep a steady stream of hits coming out of their own development studios, they might have a shot with this one. One year, Nintendo. The clock’s already ticking.

I've been gaming since my dad made the bad decision of buying me a Nintendo when I was four years old. Every day I'd find myself with my face glued to a TV screen, punching away at buttons, getting furious with Bowser, Dr. Wily, and those freakin' birds in Ninja Gaiden. Since then I have failed to get my parents to play any board game with me, I sold my full copy of Earthbound with box and guide for $300 to some dude in Austria for rent money, and I still believe in Nintendo even after all these years.

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