Nov. 18, 2012 -- The Nintendo Wii turns six this month, making the video game system past its prime in console years. Nintendo and third-party developers have been slowly grinding Wii titles to a halt as all prepare for its successor, the $300 Wii U (say it with us, We-you), to launch today.
The latest Nintendo comes with a shiny new console and a shiny new GamePad tablet controller. (They may actually be a little too shiny, as the system and controller easily pick up smudges and fingerprints.) A mess of long cords also come with the system, including the Wii U's power cord, the GamePad's charger, the HDMI cord and the motion sensor's long, thin cord.
The box is packed with contents, but also high expectations.
The GamePad controller, which we will get to in a second, is one of the biggest changes to the system, but there are a lot of other changes inside the actual console. With an IBM multi-core processor, 2GB of RAM, and an AMD Radeon graphics chip, a Nintendo console is capable for the first time of pushing along full HD, 1080p games on your HDTV. It connects to your HDTV via that aforementioned HDMI cord, which is kindly included in the box.
At least for a brief period we have a Nintendo with better internal organs than the Xbox 360 and Sony PlayStation, though not many expect that to last.
Of note, the graphics processor on the Wii U is far more advanced than its competition, but the computer processor has been hinted to be a little less powerful than both rivals. This means stronger graphics, but potential processing issues when more moving items are presented on screen.
Back to the main event -- the Wii U's GamePad controller. Nintendo's latest toy takes the best aspects of the company's top-selling handheld, the Nintendo DS, and has supersized them, putting a larger, 6.2-inch touchscreen in your hands. But that's not all that is found in the controller. It also has a front-facing camera, stylus, dual analog sticks, an accelerometer and a gyroscope.
At 1.1 pounds the controller is easy to hold and very light. And while it is a bit wide, it is durable enough to avoid much damage when in the hands of an enraged 7-year-old. Yes, I slammed it on a carpeted floor a few times and it withstood the abuse.
There is only one GamePad included in the box and you can expect there to be fighting over it. At the moment, Nintendo isn't selling GamePads separately, but that's intentional; there are no games that support dual GamePad experiences at the moment.
Nintendo calls its one-pad approach "asymmetric gameplay," where the person using the GamePad has a different role in how games are played, equivalent to being "it" in tag or the dungeon master in "Dungeons & Dragons." For this role, what they see on the controller's screen is sometimes completely different than what others see on the TV.
For instance, in "Nintendo Land's Animal Crossing: Sweet Day," the person with the GamePad controls two characters while the person with the extra non-GamePad controller controls just one. The person using the GamePad sees their characters on the touchscreen, while the non-GamePad player sees theirs on the TV.
Nintendo is releasing a Pro controller with the Wii U for an extra $50. The controller looks very similar to the Xbox 360 controller, and while we do wish it was included for the $300 price, you don't have to buy that controller if you want to add more players. That's because your original Wii games and Wiimote controllers will work with the new system.
Nintendo sold 97 million Wii consoles in six years and plenty of Nintendo fans have stashes of iconic white wands sitting around the house. All those still in love with motion controls can rest easy, this move means all your past, present and future arm flailing will endure.
Word to the wise: if you haven't already purchased WiiMotion Plus add-on accessories for your old Wiimotes, now is the time, they're crucial for games like Zelda Battle Quest in "Nintendo Land."
Since the Gamepad is wireless, it can be used when away from the TV, but not too far away. You can play a game on it while in another room in the house, but it needs to be in close proximity to the console. You'll want to make sure you're in close proximity to the charger, too. All that technology inside the Gamepad takes a hit on battery life; after four hours of continuous gameplay it begins to warn you of its need for juice.
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.