Depending on where you live, the Wii U has been out a few days, a couple of weeks, or is yet to be released. Regardless, you may be wondering whether to invest 300 to 400 Earth credits on Nintendo's latest offering. Having sunk several hours into playing with the console, here are a few thoughts that might help you decide.
Wii U is not a Wii
This sounds obvious, but it warrants mention. The Wii U is not a Wii. The launch titles do not require that you stand up and wave your arms around. This is significant. For many, the Wii experience was Wii Sports, and that experience was largely a social one. Though a great game, once the appeal waned (as eventually happens with nearly all games), the Wii suffered from a lack of quality software (though not a total lack, of course). Few movement-based games delivered on the promise of Wii Sports, and few quality traditional (or so-called hardcore) games appeared to supplement them – at least not in the volumes they did for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.
You might argue that, thanks to the screen built into the Wii U's GamePad, the console is founded upon a similar gimmick, which may in turn lead to a similar dearth of meaty gaming content further down the line. Perhaps, but consider: New Super Mario Bros U, arguably the best of Wii U's launch titles, does not rely on the GamePad's screen – at least not for the main thrust of the game. The same is largely true for the cross-format titles appearing on Wii U: Batman: Arkham City, Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 and Assassin's Creed 3 all make use of the GamePad's screen through maps, additional information, menu navigation and object selection, but it is not core to the gameplay. The GamePad's screen may be the most eye-catching facet of the Wii U's design, but it doesn't feel quite so central to the concept as the Wiimote was for the Wii. There's more to say on that, but for now, know that that's probably a good thing.
About that GamePad, then…
If, like me, you were never quite sold on the sideways Wiimote as a traditional gamepad, the good news is that the Wii U's controller delivers. Screen aside, this is a perfectly capable and comfortable controller that does not feel compromised in any way (it has the full quota of buttons, for example). In fact, thanks in part to its size, the GamePad may be the most lap-friendly controller yet devised. One particularly punishing challenge in New Super Mario Bros U calls for a series of coordinated, sprinting triple jumps. After a few failed attempts I instinctively placed the GamePad on my lap, the better to simultaneously press the controller's face buttons with fingers rather than thumbs. Weirdly, this felt perfectly comfortable. It did the trick, too. Boing, boing, badoing.
The screen itself is good, if not great. Look at it, and you see pixels. Retina display aficionados may dry-swallow an unpalatable ball of nothing at the prospect of playing the latest triple-A title using it – I certainly would – but for tackling an odd level or two of Mario while the TV is otherwise in use, it's perfectly fine.
For multiplayer gaming, it's certainly less of a visual pain in the behind than split-screen mode. That the Wii U can handle two-player over two separate screens in, say, Black Ops 2, is impressive. However, I'd be loath to experience the spectacle of Assassin's Creed 3's single-player campaign, or undertake an extended Ghillie-suited deathmatch campathon (where every pixel can count for long-distance movement-spotting) using the GamePad alone. For certain purposes, the 854×480 resolution isn't up to the job.
That said, the most exciting aspect of the screen are the opportunities it presents for asymmetric multiplayer gameplay. If you're not familiar with that expression, bear with me. This could be a thing.
Live, in glorious asymmetry, it's…
If you want to get asymmetric multiplayer gameplay, play Nintendo Land. The main point of the GamePad's screen seems to be asymmetric multiplayer gaming. If that concept isn't as central to the Wii U as the movement-sensing Wiimote was to the Wii, that's simply by virtue of the fact that most gamers spend most of their time playing alone. That said, Nintendo Land is the Wii U's Wii Sports: the game that shows off what the console is about, and what it can do.
What is asymmetric gaming? I'll answer that with an example. Mario Chase is one of the various mini-games that make up Nintendo Land. In it, one player, with their Mii dressed in a Mario suit, is given a few seconds to run away and hide from up to four other players (with Miis dressed in Toad costumes). We were playing two-player, so the other Toads were replaced by CPU-controlled robot Yoshis. Mm. When the count is over, the hunt begins, and quickly, inevitably and rather joyously descends into a chase.
Anyway, I, vicariously playing the part of fugitive Mario through my fancy-dressed Mii, take the GamePad, and view the game through its screen. On it, I can see a map of the level with the location of all my pursuers indicated. A pop-out window shows as third-person view of the more localized action, so I can attempt to dodge yapping Yoshi-bots and of course, the Toady Mii of my human pursuer.
My human counterpart, meanwhile, views the action through the television, but is limited to a much more restricted over-the-shoulder view of the technicolor world. The only additional clue to my whereabouts is an indicator revealing the distance I am away, which will either roll up or down on according to whether my assailant is traveling in broadly the right direction. Of course, with more human pursuers, they would be verbally sharing information as to my whereabouts as they glimpse my panicky breaks from cover: instead, my assailant has to settle for robotic Yoshi yaps. It's great fun.
The point is that, thanks to a second screen that only one of the players can see, multiplayer games can take on new and interesting game mechanics by virtue of different players being afforded different views of the game world. The additional possibilities afforded by a second screen aren't limited to asymmetric gaming, of course; nor are they restricted to disposable mini-games; but it's the asymmetric examples that most vividly communicate the potential.
And yet at this stage it is only potential. As fun as they array of mini-games available in Nintendo Land are, this is not a title of sufficient depth and quality to launch a console. It's no Wii Sports. But then it doesn't need to be: Wii U has New Super Mario Bros U for that. And though we've not spent sufficient time with the major launch titles to definitively pass judgement on the absolute worth of the second screen, the aggregate signal emerging from the mess of critical noise appears to be that, so far, the second screen entices more than it delivers. Is that a problem? Not necessarily – it's very early days.
Is Wii U powerful enough?
Recent reports that the Wii U's main processor is clocked at an apparently modest 1.24 GHz per core have added fuel to the fire that the Wii U is outgunned by existing games consoles, let alone their forthcoming replacements. In reality, viewed in isolation, this number is close to irrelevant. What's clear from the latest wave of multi-format games appearing on Wii U, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 alike, is that Wii U more than holds its own. But then, since it's up against seven-year old hardware, it would need to.
How will Wii U stack up against the Xbox 720 and PlayStation 4, and whatever else might appear in the next few years? That's the 64 million dollar question, the answer to which may come to define the console. For now, no one knows, and we can gaze into the crystal ball with both optimist and pessimist hats on. So, let's.
On the one hand, Nintendo fans will justifiably argue that a game's quality isn't defined by its graphics. The Marios, Zeldas and Pikmins of this world have never sought photorealism, and they don't need to begin now. In fact, more realistic graphics can be detrimental if the artificial intelligence isn't there to match it: a perfectly-rendered enemy just seems all the sillier if its AI tells it to face a wall and march on the spot.
Conversely, anyone but the most diehard of Nintendo fans will feel fobbed off if Nintendo once again trots out the same predictable Mario, Mario Kart, Zelda and Metroid sequels that offer little in the way of innovation and new gaming experiences. Playing New Super Mario Bros U, it's glorious to see Mario in HD for the first time. But whether or not this constitutes a return to form for 2D Mario platforming on the big screen, a breakthrough innovation it's not.
Should other franchise updates prove as or more derivative, it may be third-party games that define the success or failure of the Wii U. For now, the signs are good. Big-name franchises are seeing release on the Wii U. It's logical that that should be the case, given that the hardware is broadly on a par with the competition.
But, come Xbox 720 and PlayStation 4, will this continue to be the case? Will developers and publishers be willing to publish a graphically inferior (and potentially crippled) edition of their latest multi-million blockbuster for Wii U if the new Xboxes and PlayStations prove capable of so much more. The historical precedent suggests not. The availability of third-party blockbuster titles for the PlayStation 2 and original Xbox fell off steeply when their successors appeared, and, with one or two exceptions, the Wii was rarely included in such releases. It all depends on what the next Xbox and PlayStation will be capable of. There's a nagging doubt that the Wii U embodies the console that the original Wii should have been.
Join me on the fence
Whether you should buy a Wii U depends on your outlook and circumstances. If you're a die-hard Nintendo fan, or religious collector of every console going, you don't need me to tell you to buy one because you already have. If, though, you merely have strong inclinations in either of these directions, but are waiting for confirmation that the Wii U isn't a dud: good news. The Wii U is a fine console: HD Nintendo games! Finally!
If you're holding it for the console that will offer the most innovative games experiences, the smart thing to do is to wait and see what the future holds. The GamePad's integrated screen holds tantalizing possibilities. The Wii U may yet prove the pick of the emerging generation so far as interesting games are concerned. If your house has, or is likely to contain small children in the next few years, this also counts very much in the Wii U's favor. Nintendo delivers charming, child-friendly experiences, while others belatedly put out cynical clones by comparison.
However, if you don't own a gaming PC, are intending to buy only a single games console in the next few years, and want it to offer the latest and greatest (well, prettiest) blockbuster titles for years to come, plumping for the Wii U would be very foolish indeed. It may find itself outgunned by new hardware within a year or so.
Chances are, like me, you don't fall cleanly into any of the above categories. All I know is, having bought an Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and Wii the last time around, two of those devices ended up seeing precious little use. Now, I'm looking to make smarter (and more restrained) choices. Obviously, that means seeing what Microsoft and Sony come up with, but having spent some quality time with the Wii U, it's still very firmly in contention.
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