It’s the worst kept secret in tech: 2013 will be the year of the console refresh. Microsoft will announce the Xbox 720 (which may have augmented reality glasses), and Sony will inevitably debut the PS4.
With the Wii U, Nintendo got a head start on the next gen. And after playing with a review unit for more hours than I’d like to admit, here are my thoughts on the system.
Wii U’s Interface Juggles Old And New Paradigms Well . . . Mostly
You can’t underplay this accomplishment, even though most have: The Wii U has a new touchscreen controller with a bajillion buttons on it. Yet its main menus are just as navigable with the classic Wiimotes. Thanks to a clever button layout (similar to the Wii’s), it’s just as intuitive to tap the screen as it is to aim and click.
Unfortunately, you can’t use the Wiimote in apps like Netflix or YouTube. In fact, the Wiimote won’t even turn on in these modes. Will future updates bring more Wiimote control options? I’m guessing no but hoping yes. The Wiimote still works.
It’s The Simplest Universal Remote Ever
When you set up the Wii U, you’re asked what your cable provider is and if you have a dedicated box. You’re whisked through a few questions about the make and model of your TV and suddenly, you’re controlling your TV inputs and cable box with the Wii U GamePad. You can even pull up this TV remote at any time with a dedicated hard button on the GamePad.
The controls are absurdly basic. (Onscreen controls are like one of those big-buttoned remotes for seniors in a good way, allowing you to change the channel and volume and view your program guide, but not much more.) All the same, I can’t stress how liberating it is to use a D-pad or analog stick to look through shows, swapping between playing games and watching TV without ever putting down the controller.
Drawing On TV Feels Right
MiiVerse is like a mega messageboard on the Wii U, where bored players can chat about games or whatever else is on their mind. It’s like any other message board, with one fantastic trick: You can use the Wii U pad (which comes with a stylus) to draw messages instead of just typing them. These drawings permeate your welcome screen, too, where avatars from other players fill a public space (and frankly, the drawings are so good that one can’t help but wonder if Nintendo is curating a bit behind the scenes). Even still, I can’t help but wonder, in five years, if we’ll think it was absurd that we couldn’t always draw on our computer screens and TVs so simply.
What’s it like to play on the Wii U GamePad? It really depends on the game. Super Mario Bros. U actually asks up to four players to use Wiimotes, with a fifth person optionally holding the Wii U GamePad only to add blocks for others to jump on or stun enemies. The touchscreen controls feel tacked on and, frankly, pretty boring compared to really playing as a character. You can also play Mario single player, using the Wii U GamePad with full character controls. The screen mirrors the game so you can even play with the TV off, but you lose all the touchscreen components you get in multiplayer.
ZombiU, on the other hand, uses the new remote at its core. This personal screen serves as a map and your inventory. It’s actually often quite frustrating to juggle two screens, never sure if a zombie is sneaking up on you—and that’s part of the fun. In a gaming world full of convenient HUDs, the remote is a digital simulation of digging through your backpack with your eyes down and a zombie at your back. In multiplayer, the Wii U gamer gets to place zombies tactically on a map to attack friends, which is an equally fun, innovative use of this second screen.
Above I mentioned that the Wii remote doesn’t work in some menus. It’s annoying. But the Wii U Pro controller, which is Nintendo’s take on the Xbox/PS3 controllers, isn’t supported in many games for reasons that simply don’t make sense. Super Mario Bros. U won’t support it, for instance. Why not? It has a D-pad and A/B buttons. What’s missing? Nothing. Just support.
Make no mistake about it, the Wii U is absurdly designed. It’s built with physical buttons, a touchscreen, occasional motion controls and even a stylus. But there are occasional payoffs to this everything-for-everyone approach: You can often control the system on your terms, unrestricted to a single UI. Heck, you can play Mario from the bathroom. When Nintendo enables every sort of input you can imagine, the Wii U’s dissonant control schemes make jazz. When Nintendo (or its developers) restrict its controls for no good reason, any semblance of reason or flexibility is lost.
It’s Also The Most Confounding Universal Remote Ever
Wait, I just said it was the best remote above! Well, that’s the stock remote. There’s also a newly released alternative called TVii, which we previewed before. TVii is like a funnel for your media content, allowing you to set your favorite shows and explore them with a thumbnail view. It will dig for your shows through your cable subscription or services like Amazon (Netflix is coming soon, too). You can even set a reminder to watch something, and the Wii U GamePad will change the channel for you at that time. Then, while you watch the show, you can surf IMDB to learn more about the actors. There are a lot of great ideas here.
The problems are twofold. TVii is perpetually, stutteringly slow, and no UI can feel like a joy unless it’s fast. (I’d sacrifice the pretty thumbnails for clean, quick text any day.) The other problem is its crazy, radial virtual remote for when you just want to change the channel. It has 36 buttons, it spins, it’s too large to reach with my thumb and I still can’t use it to dig through my DVR library or swap my inputs for some reason. TVii also disables the D-Pad and analog remote controls, which are so satisfying for gamers to use. Ultimately, the TVii remote is a magnitude more complex than that basic, senior-friendly remote we mentioned above, but it actually has less functionality. It’s unusable.
The Battery Life Actually Limits Use Cases
This is a design publication, so it’s rare we’d even mention battery life. But in this case, the 4-hour (or less) run time of the rechargeable Wii U GamePad severely limits functionality. It can’t be your go-to media device for TV and games when it can’t make it through a single evening binge of Breaking Bad. My iPad is great because it feels like it always has power—I think of my iPad whenever I think of relaxing on the couch. With the Wii U, I’m always tense that the controller isn’t charged enough for me to play.
The good news for Nintendo is that most of these complaints are firmware-fixable (though sluggish speed and lousy battery life are likely here to stay). At the end of the day, the company has, yet again, built a seemingly absurd controller that has a surprising amount of ergonomic flexibility. And while Microsoft, Sony, and Apple are all trying to sell us on closed-system media content, it’s revelatory to have Nintendo do something as simple and thoughtful as enable us to swap an input to just watch TV. That is, assuming anyone out there other than me is still watching TV.
The Wii U is out now starting at $299.