In 2006, the Wii launched with "Wii Sports," a game included in the box and built to demonstrate the capabilities of the system. "Wii Sports" was big on simplicity, utilizing just a few buttons and bit of stick waving, making it the ultimate casual gaming experience.
Today's Wii U's launch is complimented by "Nintendo Land," a world that contains 12 mini-games in one. (It comes in the box with the $350 Deluxe Wii U version and costs $60 on its own.) Some games take advantage of the stylus while others require a mix of the analog sticks, motion capabilities, and the actual touchscreen. The variety is a great showcase but lacks the level of simplicity that made "Wii Sports" an instant hit.
If anything, the Wii U's sampling of gameplay varieties will get you excited thinking what might be possible with the new hardware. Drawing with the stylus on your GamePad and seeing the end result on a TV screen is extremely satisfying. A possible "Mario Paint" meets "Draw Something" could be gigantic. My colleague Joanna Stern couldn't get enough of flicking stars on the touch screen in "Takamaru's Ninja Castle," I could see a full game centered around that mechanic doing very well.
At launch, there are almost two-dozen titles with various degrees of GamePad integration, spanning almost every genre. It feels like there should be more that directly take advantage of the touchscreen, however. We will be reviewing these over the course of the week, but I will say the $60 New Super Mario Bros. U seems like a must-have, just to experience Mario in HD for the first time.
The Social and Media Capabilities
With the Wii U comes a broadening of the Nintendo Network, the structure that has allowed Nintendo 3DS players to compete with each other online. On the Nintendo Network, video chat is now available through the GamePad's front-facing camera.
Mii avatars are being more integrated than ever into games, you can expect to be the star of the game more often and to see your Miis interacting with those of your friends, sharing screenshots, messages and accomplishments.
Even with more social networking and revamped cooperative play, the focus of this system is bringing back single players and defining Nintendo as a brand for both social gatherings and "me time," hence the "U" in Wii U. More "hardcore" single player games will be in the mix as well, reflected at launch with "Call of Duty: Black Ops 2" and "Batman: Arkham City" availability.
Like the competing consoles, Nintendo is also making moves to bring media capabilities to the console with YouTube, Netflix, Hulu Plus, and Amazon Instant Video integration. Nintendo has also announced TVii, an interface that integrates with those Internet video services and your cable box, but it has been delayed until December.
The Bottom Line
On paper, the Wii U sounds like a simple win. Take Nintendo's best-selling handheld, their best-selling system (Wii), the graphics of their competitors and mash that up with latest developments in tablet technology. And in many ways it is, combining the best of the last five years in an incredibly unique and well-designed package. That said, there's a ways to go in terms of games that take advantage of the touchscreen, the GamePad's battery life, and we really do wish another controller was included in the box.
Wii U has major potential and if Nintendo plays their cards right, the system can become a major player, especially once the media capabilities and game options are fully stocked. The second-generation Wii might not be as game-changing as the orginal, but it certainly is a lot of fun to play with.
Joanna Stern contributed to this review.