The Wii U GamePad also doubles as the main interface to the Wii U, with the TV screen occupied by crowds of Miis and floating icons, and the Pad screen hosting a grid of fifteen icons, plus shortcuts to the MiiVerse (more later), Nintendo’s eShop, the built-in Web browser, Nintendo TVii and Notifications. UK models seem to come with Netflix and Lovefilm pre-installed, with Netflix usable in either a standard or family-friendly mode, with all the adult content hidden away.
These apps give a glimpse of what a good media-oriented console the Wii U might eventually become. Netflix has a Wii U specific interface, with the Wii U Pad and TV screen displaying the current category, and the next available at a tap. Lovefilm goes one better with a catalogue of movies on the TV screen, and either a search panel with virtual keyboard or an info page on the Wii U Pad. In both cases streaming quality is very good – up to the standards of the PS3 – and you get the added advantage of being able to switch displays from the TV to the Wii U Pad for private viewing. All in all, it makes the quiet-running Wii U a great little platform for streaming media, provided it gets the services it deserved.
Nintendo is being proactive here. At some point in 2013 it will release its TVii app and service over here. In the US this is set to offer a mix of live TV channels, movie-streaming services and catch-up TV services like Hulu. At the moment we can only speculate on what a UK version might include, but if Nintendo could strike deals with the BBC, iTV, Channel 4 and/or Channel Five, then the Wii U would be an even better media device than it is at present.
The MiiVerse is probably the most interesting bit; a typically madcap take on an online community, complete with forums devoted to the various games where players can quickly post hints, comments and their own fan artwork, lovingly scrawled with the stylus on the touchscreen. There’s still a sense that Nintendo’s online services aren’t as sophisticated or fully-featured as Microsoft or Sony’s, but you can see that they’re beginning to develop their own character, and the integration of MiiVerse with games is already quite intriguing. Load up New Super Mario Bros U, for example, and you can opt to see comments posted on the in-game map, or even add your own smug boasts or desperate pleas for help.
It’s possible to import existing Miis from your old Wii (as part of a protracted file transfer option) or a 3DS, while the Mii Maker app has been updated so that it now resembles the 3DS version, complete with the option to have your Mii made semi-automatically from a photo captured with the front-facing camera. This works roughly as well as it did on the 3DS, producing results that usually need a lot of tweaking. Personally, we’d rather do it the old-fashioned way. The front-facing camera is also used in the Video Chat app, though we haven’t yet found anyone to try this with at the time of writing.
The Wii’s UI is clean and easy to navigate, but it has two flaws. One is that there are lengthy delays when doing just about anything, from launching Netflix to playing a game to changing simple settings. The other is the way Wii games are handled. Kudos to Nintendo for maintaining backwards compatibility, but to play a Wii game you have to sit and wait while the Wii U switches into its version of the old Wii menu, then ditch the Wii U Pad and use an old Wii remote to navigate the interface. Of course, you need the Wii remote to play the game anyway, but it still feels a bit cumbersome and old-fashioned, and note that there’s no upscaling of the visuals, either.
We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again: consoles don’t sell on their specifications, their potential, or even on the bundled services: they sell on their games. Now, how you take the Wii U’s launch line-up will depend on your own interests and expectations. If you’re looking for showcases of next-gen power, you’re not going to find them here. The Wii U is launching with credible versions of some of the biggest and/or best games of the last twelve to eighteen months, including Batman: Arkham City, Assassin’s Creed 3, Mass Effect 3, Trine 2, Darksiders II, Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 and Sonic All-Stars Racing Transformed, but the quality of the ports varies, and in any case the Wii U-specific features aren’t enough to justify buying the new versions over any versions you have for existing consoles.
We’ll leave detailed frame-by-frame comparisons for another time, but having played the Wii U versions of Batman: Arkham City, Assassin’s Creed 3 and Mass Effect 3, we’d have to say that frame rates occasionally struggle in comparison to the Xbox 360 versions, though not to the extent that they seriously compromise the experience. If you came to Wii U from the Wii, then there’s a good chance you’ll be wowed by the change in visual quality; these are good-looking games, and they look fantastic on Wii U. If, however, you have a PS3 or 360, then it’s doubtful that the lure of a few extra touchscreen control options will encourage you to play them on the Wii U. You’re not getting a second-best version, but there are trade-offs to be seen.
Trusted Reviews is part of the Time Inc. (UK) Ltd Technology Network