Review: Nintendo Wii U

With the HD-capable Wii U, Nintendo has finally caught up with Sony and Microsoft. While the PS3 and Xbox 360 have had their share of faults, Sony and Microsoft have managed to address most of those over the past six and seven years of their respective console's lifespans. The question for the Wii U is whether that nascent game ecosystem can manage to evolve to similar maturity in today's highly competitive market.

Yes, the Wii U plays games well and the Mii avatars are charming as all get out, but modern conveniences like friends lists and more are hidden behind too many sluggish menus and confusing option placements. I've spent a large chunk of the past week poking and prodding my shiny new fingerprint magnet, and my enjoyment of the gameplay was leavened considerably by what seems an odd resistance on Nintendo's part to modern console and user interface design.

Are the Wii U's idiosyncracies for you? Read on.

The Hardware

The hardware itself is clean and attractive, though the design is not without its share of missteps. Nintendo deserves kudos for packing each console with an HDMI cable, but we're a bit baffled at the decision not to include an optical audio port. Not every gamer has a dedicated home theater setup, so they'll have to settle for running HDMI from the Wii U to their TV and then an optical cable from their TV to their headset and limiting themselves to stereo (depending on the TV) as opposed to 5.1 surround. To be fair, while the PS3 has had optical audio output since its introduction in 2006, it wasn't until Microsoft introduced the Xbox 360 Slim in 2010 – five years after the first model hit shelves – that optical audio was available on that platform without using a separate dongle. But we were hoping not to have to repeat that journey. Hopefully Nintendo or a third party steps up and takes care of this misstep with an inexpensive solution.

Even then, not every game supports surround and neither does the dashboard, instead outputting only stereo. Stranger still is the fact that the Wii U's main gimmick – the controller/tablet hybrid "GamePad" - also outputs audio. In some cases, that audio is independent of what's coming out of the TV or surround speakers. Whether you're plugging a pair of headphones into the GamePad or wearing a pair of Astro A50s outputting the console's audio, you're losing one aspect of the audio or another.

The GamePad is a solid and sturdy feeling piece of kit weighing just over a pound, but again, questionable design choices abound. The most unique feature -- the 6.2" touchscreen - relies on resistive (stylus-based like the Nintendo DS) as opposed to capacitive technology (iPhone, PlayStation Vita or any other modern touch-based device) for touch interaction. Using my finger worked well enough for most navigating, but sometimes making selections resulted in the virtual buttons I pressed "depressing" in animation but not performing the desired task until I pressed firmly and with pressure. Using the included stylus worked like a charm, but it isn't always easy to grab at a moment's notice, nor is holding it while manipulating face buttons comfortable.

It's too early to say if it's a game changer or not, but some games allow you to eliminate a TV from the equation altogether by streaming video output exclusively to the GamePad. The Wii U will even boot without a video cable plugged in, meaning it's possible to take the GamePad and console on an airplane or in a car and game without a TV. For instance, New Super Mario Bros. U mirrors video output to the controller and the TV, turn the TV off or change the channel and you can still run the Italian plumber through deserts and castles. Some of the Wii U Deluxe model's pack-in game Nintendo Land's mini-games only use the TV as a means for couch-bound spectators to see the action; in several others  gameplay takes place entirely on the GamePad's screen. Scribblenauts Unlimited relies so heavily on the touch interface of the controller that I found myself not even looking up at my TV's screen and opted to output only to the controller. No, the color isn't as rich as on my Panasonic GT25, but the GamePad's 16:9 854x480 display looks pretty great running the few games that use the streaming screen tech. Netflix looks less impressive at the lower resolution and contrast ratio, though.

The GamePad also features universal remote control functionality for TVs and cable boxes. Setup is a cinch and the "app" allows volume control, input selection and powering the TV on or off. As a single guy who doesn't have to share my TV, it's more of a novelty than anything.

Where the GamePad really falls apart is in terms of battery life and range. With volume at half and brightness turned all the way down, I'm going about four hours between charges. Again, I'm hoping a third party creates a solution to fix this. Some reviewers I've spoken with say they've been able to take their gamepad into an entirely separate room and even all the way around their house and still play New Super Mario or Ninja Gaiden 3; I'm only able to go 20' with a clear line of sight. Your mileage may vary.

The Software

It wasn't until a few hours before the system went on sale in the U.S. that online functionality and a slew of other features were even present. When you bring home a Wii U for the next few months - or whenever the initial hardware shipment runs out - after initial setup you'll  be prompted to download a five gigabyte system update. Depending on your connection speed, the amount of time this takes can vary wildly. I have 6 MBPS DSL from AT&T at home and it took me three and a half beers (about an hour and a half) before I could finally start playing any games. Nick Chester, publicist for Harmonix Music Systems – best known for Dance Central and Rock Bandtweeted "Parents: carefully open and update the Wii U before wrapping it if you'd like to avoid tears on Christmas morning." And if your power or Internet goes out during the update? You're the proud owner of a bricked system that'll have to be replaced by Nintendo under warranty.

The majority of the Wii U's problems could (and hopefully will) be fixed with another firmware update. And while the Miiverse social network itself is a fantastic mash-up of message boards and Twitter, it suffers from over-moderation by Nintendo. Features I take for granted in their simplicity on my other consoles or PC like a straightforward friends list, playing disc-based media other than games, or accessing files on USB drives aren't present on the Wii U. To send a proper friend request so that the recipient will actually see it, as opposed to provisionally adding them and them only showing up if you mutually add each other in the friends list (phew!), you have to log into Miiverse, search for the user by username and then send a request. Following them so their activity pops up in your Miiverse timeline is another click away instead of automatically doing so for each friend request that's accepted. And for any of this to work to start with, you have to log into Miiverse and manually check a box to accept friend requests. Because that makes sense.

Not being able to read anything but Wii and Wii U game discs or files from USB devices and SD cards makes things unnecessarily difficult, too. And it makes calibrating the input the console plugs into a pain when I can't use either AVS709 or Spears & Munsil. I used the settings from my Xbox 360's input and applied them to the Wii U and they look good, but I know they aren't 100% correct.

Where Do We Go From Here?

As far as the future is concerned, Nintendo needs to make good on the Wii U's potential in order to maintain momentum. There's another bundle of games set to arrive by next March and their streaming video organizer, TVii, is supposed to release next month. What the Wii U needs is a killer first-party lineup over the next year (I'd like to see a 3D Mario and new Legend of Zelda or Metroid) and strong third-party support (the original Wii didn't have it) in order to be a serious contender once Sony and Microsoft launch their forthcoming systems. 

Of course, when I'm playing games, a majority of my gripes become nonexistent; it's when I take a step back that worries and complaints surface. Lets hope that like Microsoft and Sony, Nintendo can work out the kinks over time. The Wii U of today is a shaky promise that I hope Nintendo follows through on.