REVIEW: Nintendo Wii U

Nintendo's latest console ticks a lot of boxes but with average execution and an inconsistent second-screen experience, there is plenty of room for improvement.

Nintendo has never been a company to avoid a risk.

It may be backed to the wall financially and its share price may have in the past year hit a six year low, but that hasn’t stopped Nintendo releasing one of its most ambitious gaming machines to day – the Wii U.

The concept of having a tablet built into the controller jarred many avid gamers when it was first revealed at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) conference in 2011.

There was a belief that the introduction of another gimmick would see Nintendo further abandon its long-time fans in the bid to capture an emerging market – the casual gamer. They’re the kind of gamer that prefers to play Angry Birds on the train rather than slog it out on a 40 hour role-playing game.

Now, with the console released, the tablet gamble appears to have paid off.

The Wii U’s tablet controller caters to an assortment of games, and doesn’t alienate either of the company’s die hard fan-base or new gamers.

But with that angst around the tablet controller aside, where does that leave the rest of Nintendo’s Wii U?

Unfortunately, it's not a flawless product. Nintendo may see its console as beacon towards the future of gaming, but it appears to have dropped the ball on a number of points that seem rather basic in this era of devices and internet connectivity.

Booting up the Wii U

Turning on your Wii U for the first time is both a pleasure and a pain.

It’s always a delight to witness a new gaming consoles interface – particularly when it’s operating across two screens, the one on your controller and the TV. But Nintendo makes you work for this reward with its rather meticulous set up process. 

The Wii U demands the date, time and even location it’s being set up in to operate. Smart thinking could have seen Nintendo automate a lot of this. Nobody should be forced to enter in either the date or time into a device in the online age.

The real burden of this set-up process is the hour and a half update that every new Wii U user will have to sit through in order to use the consoles online functions. The sheer scale of the update makes it feel as if Nintendo has released a half-baked product.

Though this perception quickly dissipates when you finally hit the home menu.

From here, the Wii U system shines with a clean, crisp and playful interface. This is Nintendo’s first foray into HD gaming and it shows.

While the graphics of each individual game vary, the console’s overall aesthetics seem graphically on par - if not better - than what's offered by its rivals, Sony’s PS3 and Microsoft’s Xbox 360. 

Nintendo embraces the internet

It’s at the main menu that you also realise that the Wii U is truly a console of the online age, as most of its functions are tethered to the internet.

Perhaps the Wii U’s most prominent online feature is the Miiverse, a social network system that’s woven through the design of the console and some of its games.

The real beauty of the Miiverse is that it makes you feel as if you are never alone when you’re playing the Wii U. The Miiverse chatrooms – which are centered around various games – are always brimming with commentary and through the set up of the Wii U’s main menu makes a point of always showing you just how many other people are online at one time. There’s always someone to play with.

The way it also allows you to interact through both drawing pictures and writing on the tablet game pad has also morphed would could have been a rather generic social media experience into an artistic and memorable one.

But despite its advances, the Miiverse’s true potential is stifled by inconsistency, as not all of the console’s games make full use of it.

For instance, Nintendo’s own Super Mario Bros U prompts you to post about your experience while playing the game. Others third party titles, like the fighting game Tekken Tag, just plain ignore the feature.

As for the Wii U’s other online offerings… they appear to discriminate against Australian users. 

Access to the US-based Netflix and Hulu video services were boasted as one of the main perks of the Wii U, and yet, both are notably missing from the Australian rendition of the console.

And it seems Nintendo has gone to no effort to fill the gap with an Australian based equivalent (Quickflix or ABC iView) either. It’s true that neither Netflix nor Hulu have yet expanded into Australia, but this is an online service – should geography really make a difference to it?

Adapting to the gamepad

Even the most avid of gamers will go through a teething period when it comes to adjusting to the Wii U’s game – its one of the largest controllers ever seen in modern gaming.

Having a 6.2 inch tablet built into the controller doesn’t take away from the gaming experience, but on occasion it doesn’t help it either.

On that, the screen is a battery drainer. It doesn’t switch off - even when you're using another controller - and at best lasts around five hours before it requires a recharge at its dock. Though, Nintendo has countered this flaw by allowing you to charge through a port in the back of the controller while you play.

On the gameplay side of things, Nintendo seems conflicted when it comes to the use of the tablet screen. In some cases – like with the game Nintendo Land - the company goes out to show off its prowess. The multiplayer potential of two-screen gameplay shines in the titles eclectic collection of Nintendo branded minigames.

But with Nintendo’s other in-house developed launch title, Super Mario Bros U, the tablet screen is almost redundant. In single player mode it just mirrors what’s on the TV.

A money-saving console

Good news for frugal gamers and parents, the Wii U is one of the most affordable consoles to date. Aside from being the cheapest new release console to date, Nintendo’s packed in a number of money-saving features to sweeten the deal. 

Original Wii owners will be delighted to hear that their former consoles Wii remotes are compatible with the Wii U. In some games their expected to be used instead of the tablet controller.

The console is also backwards compatible with all Wii games. This makes Nintendo’s older console redundant as your Wii U will do everything a Wii can do and more.

If your confused about what the difference between a Wii and a Wii U is, you’re not alone. Nintendo’s unusual move to name its console as a “continuation” of its former console is bound to confound non tech savvy Christmas shoppers.  It’s likely many of them will see the Wii U as being a tablet controller rather than a fully-fledged new console. 

Lets hope that many don’t end up with the wrong console for a present as a result.

The verdict

Overall, the Wii U is a product that is full of potential but is yet to meet its prime.

This console is a solid start for Nintendo, and its only set to get better over time as game developers adjust to the quirks of its tablet controller and as Nintendo adds in more features through online updates.

It has the potential to see the company once again lead the video game sector, but it’s still too soon to call whether the risk its taken on the Wii U will pay off.

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