First reviewed 30th November 2012
We've seen Nintendo pull off stranger things before. Remember the confusion that confronted the Nintendo DS at launch? The scorn poured on the nascent Wii just before it became the biggest selling console of its generation? By focusing on innovation rather than performance, graphics fidelity, services and all the other things Microsoft and Sony have traditionally sold consoles on, Nintendo has always played a risky game. So far it's paid off, but the Wii U feels like Nintendo's biggest gamble yet.
We needn't go overboard on the reasons why. Just as Sony and Microsoft prepare to launch new, more powerful hardware, Nintendo has chosen to launch a console that's – optimistically speaking – only marginally more potent than the existing 360 or PS3. It has a faster and more modern GPU, believed to be a variation on AMD’s Radeon 6760, and 1GB of RAM against the 512MB available in the 360. However, we're already hearing grumbles about the performance of the IBM PowerPC-based tri-core CPU, and early games do little to convince you that Wii U is even half a generation beyond the existing formats; we’ve yet to see anything that convinces us that it’s technically superior in any tangible sense. Yet nobody expects Wii U to sell based on its graphics muscle. Instead, like the Wii and 3DS, it will sell or not sell based on the unique experience it delivers.
The Wii U is selling in three bundles in the UK, with the key differentiators being the amount of onboard Flash RAM (vital for downloadable content as well as saved games) and software. The cheapest, at roughly £250, gets you an 8GB console, the Wii U GamePad, power adaptors and an HDMI cable. The £300 Premium pack takes the storage up to 32GB and adds a stand and a charging cradle. A final limited-edition Zombi U pack has mostly the same stuff at the same price, but swaps Nintendo Land for Zombi U and throws in the new Pro Controller. The Premium and Zombi U Packs would get our recommendation as although it appears like you can add storage to the 8GB version via its SD slot, this can't be used for Wii U content but rather is there for backwards compatibilty with Wii games and for extra features like downloaded content. Plus, that 8GB storage, once formatted and with the Wii U software installed only actually gives the end user about 3GB of space, which is a tiny amount.
Say what else you like about it, but the Wii U is a seriously impressive bit of console engineering. It's a few inches deeper and slightly taller and wider than the Wii, but still very compact and extremely quiet – even more so than the thin and light PS3. The front hosts the slot-loading optical drive, Power, Eject and Controller pairing buttons and – beneath a flap – two USB 2.0 ports and an SD Memory Card slot. At the back you’ll find an HDMI output, an AV Multi Out port, a connector for the new, slightly smaller Sensor Bar and two more USB 2.0 ports. The latter will support external USB hard disks of up to 2TB in size, though they’ll need their own power supply.
It's an unobtrusive unit, but then Wii U"s selling point isn't so much the console as the bundled Wii U GamePad controller. You might be expecting this to be a slim tablet-like device, but in fact it's closer to an oversized handheld games machine, with comfortable, moulded grips, twin analogue pads, digital trigger and bumper buttons and a large 6.2in LCD touchscreen.
As well as four face buttons, plus and minus buttons and an old-school D Pad, there's also a Home button, a power button that switches both the pad and console off' and another button marked TV. This, rather handily, switches the pad to a mode where it offers basic remote control functions for your TV. Having chosen your manufacturer and tested functionality in the initial setup routine, you can power on your TV, change inputs and adjust the volume using the Wii U pad instead of your TV remote. What’s more, if you use your TV’s built-in tuner you can access the guide and search for programmes. This won’t replace your TV’s remote or a proper universal control, but it might save you juggling remotes or searching for one when you want to get gaming with your Wii.
There's no question that the Wii U GamePad has been built to a budget. In terms of its plasticky materials and construction it's no match for a Google Nexus 7 or Kindle Fire HD, let alone a PS Vita or iPad Mini. The screen resolution is a standard definition 854 x 480 pixels. Yet within those constraints it's a really nice, comfortable and usable unit. The display might not be pin-sharp or super-vivid, but it's bright, punchy and clear enough to make games look good. The on-board sound is a little muffled, but also surprisingly usable, and you can always use the headphone output on the top.
This is important because the Wii U GamePad has two party pieces. Obviously it functions as a touchscreen controller, allowing you to play some games using touch controls, or access in-game functions like inventories and tactical maps. With built-in tilt accelerometer and gyroscope controls, NFC support and a front-facing camera, it’s a seriously versatile pad.
However, it can also be used as a mirror display, allowing you to play games on the Wii U even when the TV is switched off or tuned to another input. The processing isn't done on the GamePad - thus why it's not actually a portable games console - but rather your inputs and the resultant pictures are sent back and forth from the console.
It's quite a technical achievement as there's no discernible lag and it works at a distance of up to 10 metres – we’ve had it running in the next room and even the room directly upstairs - and it's rapidly become one of our favourite things about Wii U. No longer does the game have to end just because your housemate wants to watch the footie or your partner wants to watch Kirstie and Phil. You can play as long as you feel like it – though you might want to think about the sound.
Well, OK, there is one limitation. Battery life on the Wii U GamePad is close to awful, with around three to four hours from a charge in our experience. The two answers to this are to keep it plugged in to its charger, or play in bursts and remember to recharge between sessions – something that's much easier with the charging cradle bundled with the premium pack. Neither is entirely satisfactory, and when you consider how long budget tablets with more on-board processing now last for, it's a fairly irritating flaw.
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