Six years after the Wii took the world by storm, Nintendo have returned with their newest console, the Wii U.
Given the Wii U's statistics (it's apparently twice as powerful as the Xbox 360) there's a lot of debate about whether this is the start of a new generation of consoles or just an adaptation of existing tech to see us through until Sony and Microsoft reveal their latest offerings sometime in 2013 (presumably, anyway. It can't be too far away now). While it's certainly an interesting discussion (and one I'd happily spend hours on if you want to drop us a line), a much more important thing to look at is this: is the Wii U actually any good?
The main selling point of the Wii U is the Game Pad, which is basically a massive touchscreen surrounded by control sticks and buttons. The touchscreen is used in conjunction with your TV - in some cases the same picture might be displayed on both screens, but at other times you might have the game playing on your TV and the touchscreen might be used for accessing your map or your inventory or whatever. Seasoned gamers might find this a bit of a nightmare to begin with, because it feels really unnatural for the first few hours. You'll find your eyes being drawn away from the TV so you're solely using the Game Pad, and you constantly have to remind yourself that if you just look up a bit you'll be able to see what you're doing and won't have to squint quite so much.
The other initial drawback to the Game Pad is the placement of the buttons. It's become standard over the last generation of consoles to have the face buttons above the right thumbstick towards the top right hand side of the controller, but Nintendo have decided to place their buttons UNDERNEATH the right stick. Even after a couple of days I'm still not sure if I'm really used to it, and I keep having to look down at the buttons to make sure I'm pressing the right one. There's always the option of changing your controller to a standard Wiimote (if you own one), but that seems to defeat the object slightly.
Screenshot from Super Mario Bros U
On the plus side, the Game Pad is really comfortable to hold and the graphics on the touchscreen look amazing thanks to the Wii U being Nintendo's first HD console. It's also packed with features, including a motion sensor, built-in vibration, a headphone socket, volume switch, and a camera which can come in handy during some games but it's hard to shake the feeling that even when the Wii U is switched off Nintendo are possibly still watching you.
One secret weapon in the Game Pad's arsenal is that it's possible to switch the TV off and carry on playing just using the Pad. So if you've got work in the morning and should really be in bed but you need to finish this level otherwise you'll be too annoyed with yourself to be able to get to sleep, you can at least get halfway there by switching the TV off and taking the Game Pad to your room. And when you finally decide to let yourself go to sleep, switching off the power on the Game Pad will also turn the Wii U off in your living room. Quite fancy, really.
So that's the Game Pad covered, what else have we got?
As mentioned, the Wii U is Nintendo's first HD console and it really does make all the difference. If the Wii had looked this good, it might not have spent five of the last six years gathering dust under the TV. It certainly had enough games to keep everyone going, just with the unfortunate side-effect of looking like we'd gone back in time to the early PS2 days. It's not an issue with the Wii U though, because it looks just as good (occasionally even better) as anything you might have played on your Xbox 360 or PS3 recently.
The usual online suspects are all here as well, including a built-in internet browser, Netflix, Youtube, and Nintendo's eShop where you can access full games, demos, preview videos, and in time any downloadable content for Wii U titles will be available here. It certainly seems like Nintendo are having a good crack at giving Microsoft and Sony a run for their money on the "everything in one box" stakes, but there's still a way to go yet before the Wii U catches up with all the features currently offered elsewhere.
The Miiverse is another smart innovation (although why they didn't call it the Umiiverse is anyone's guess) where you can access online communities and message boards to interact with other players and offer/ask for help and advice on their games. Nintendo are clearly trying to create a fun place for gamers to talk to each other, with messages appearing every now and then telling people to "play nicely" and a very welcome option to tag any comments with spoilers so as not to ruin anyone else's game. Given time this is surely a feature that will grow to incorporate inviting other players to games and who knows what else Nintendo might have up their sleeves, but it doesn't seem to have quite got that far just yet.
Screenshot from ZombiU
Game-wise, the Wii U has launched in Europe with 26 titles including some of the most recent blockbusters like Assassin's Creed 3, Black Ops 2, Mass Effect 3, Arkham City, Tekken Tag Tournament 2 and Sonic All-Stars Racing Transformed. While most hardcore gamers will have already played a lot of these on whatever system they currently own, the added novelty of the Game Pad functionality might encourage some people to pick them up again. It's the Nintendo exclusives that most people will be interested in though, the main ones being New Super Mario Bros U, ZombiU, and Nintendoland (and Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate if you're fortunate enough to live in Japan). At roughly £50 a pop (give or take a fiver here and there), games for the Wii U are a bit more pricey than anything we've been used to over the last few years which is certainly going to discourage a lot of people from picking up another copy of something they've already played, but we can always cross our fingers for a price drop after Christmas...
So, do you need to buy a Wii U? In short, probably not at the moment. It's a great console with plenty going for it, but so far nothing's really had the "wow factor" that would make anyone really rave about it. If you've got some spare cash and feel like you're ready for a new gaming adventure then you won't be disappointed, but right now it's not got that killer game or function that makes it a must-have piece of equipment. It's telling that it's still possible to go into town and pick a Wii U up off the shelf, when you know full well that Nintendo were hoping it would be sold out all over the place in the run-up to Christmas. Given another year to add more features, increase its game library (a couple of new "proper" Mario and Zelda games would certainly help), and drop in price a little bit, perhaps the Wii U could be the must-have console for Christmas 2013. But will they have the new Xbox and/or Playstation to contend with by then?
Whatever happens over the next 12 months, the Wii U is an interesting piece of kit and could potentially become something incredible if Nintendo are truly serious about going after the "hardcore" gamers of the world. Whether those hardcore gamers will accept it (and then keep playing once the other big boys have released their new consoles) is a question that only time can answer though. Hopefully for Nintendo, the answer will be "yes".
Oh yeah, and a word of warning for anyone who might be picking up a Wii U for the youngsters in your family this Christmas. The console requires an online update when you first plug it in, which seems to take most people around two hours to complete. It might be worth waiting until junior's out of the house and getting everything updated before Christmas Day, otherwise you're going to have a very impatient child to contend with!