It'S been a difficult couple of years for Nintendo. Last year the video games giant posted the first annual loss in their history, as their new portable games console, 3DS, initially struggled and sales of their record-breaking Wii console finally began to decline.
It was the Wii that, for many, catapulted video games to the heart of the living room. Its motion-control revolution appealing to those who had never played a video game before with an easy to understand concept: swing the remote, and your character on screen will duplicate it. 97 million consoles sold around the world confirming that its simple language was universal.
Nintendo's new home console, Wii U, arrives under a heavy burden and without the simplicity that made its predecessor so easy to sell. Communication has been a problem for Nintendo since the Wii U and its tablet-esque Gamepad controller was revealed. Was the Gamepad an add-on for Wii? Was it a portable attachment?
No and no. Wii U is a brand new home console that connects to your telly and the Gamepad is its fascinating controller. The new console itself is high-definition enabled and far more powerful than the Wii. The Wii U will come in two packages, the basic 8GB white version and the 32GB black premium edition, though the console is equipped with an SD card slot for you to add to your memory space. The black Premium console we tested is a lovely piece of kit too, the physical unit a sleek refinement of the Wii's compact form. It's longer, but discrete and more pleasing on the eye than its competitors.
Few will be too interested in what's on the outside, of course, preferring to focus on the Wii U's inner-workings. The Japanese company have been coy about releasing detailed specifications --their philosophy is to let their unique control system do the talking for them-- but the Wii U is largely on par with Microsoft's Xbox 360 and Sony's PlayStation 3 in terms of raw power, meaning most games will have visual parity. However, the CPU is reportedly slower and initial testing bears that out. The main hub-screen of the Wii U is slow to load, and stuttering on a playtest of the Wii U version of FIFA 13 does cause concern. However, this could be poor optimisation for the game itself and as developers become au fait with the Wii U's specs, we should see a marked improvement.
There's enough visual splendour in the games made specifically for Wii U to leave room for optimism too. New Super Mario Bros. U has gorgeous, bright and crisp visuals, while Ubisoft's ZombiU makes excellent use of light and shaders to build their grimy vision of London. It's quite possible that multi-format games will continue to look and run better on Xbox 360 and PS3, as developers are more familiar with the hardware, but the Wii U exclusive titles will have some of the best visuals around.
However, when Microsoft and Sony reveal their new hardware next year, the likelihood is that both will be considerably more powerful than the Wii U. But since the success of the Wii over its more powerful cousins, Nintendo have decided against chasing bleeding-edge tech in favour of a unique form of control. For the Wii it was the motion-sensing Wii remote, for Wii U, it's the Gamepad.
The controller incorporates a 6.2 inch, 16:9 LCD touch screen on its chassis, along with traditional buttons, two-analogue sticks, motion-controls, a front-facing camera, NFC scanner, stereo speakers and a microphone. It interacts with your television, providing a second screen along with your traditional controls. Maps and inventory in adventure games can be displayed on the Gamepad screen, freeing the TV display of clutter and allowing you to check vital info without pausing the game. This is demonstrated particularly well in ZombiU, which makes inventory management a tense affair as you peer into your rucksack on the Gamepad, while keeping a close eye on the TV screen to make sure you're not being crept up on. Other uses in launch titles include being able to position your squadmates on a Gamepad map in Mass Effect 3, or make substitutions and formation switches on the fly in FIFA. Developers will need to be careful not to separate the two screens too crudely, however, as switching your gaze between TV and Gamepad can be jarring if handled inelegantly.
The potential for the Gamepad's features is most keenly felt in Nintendo Land, a collection of mini-games that showcase different aspects of the controller. For solo players, there are neat tricks like flinging a ninja star from controller to the television. However, the most intriguing use of the Gamepad comes in the "asynchronous" multiplayer. The Wii U is compatible with Wii remotes from its predecessor, and many of the multiplayer games in Nintendo Land revolve around up to four players using Wii remotes, while one player uses the Gamepad to perform a slightly different task.
For example, one attraction in Nintendo Land has remote-wielders searching for a ghost controlled by the Gamepad. The hunters can't see the ghost on the TV, and have to communicate with each other when their controller rumbles when the ghost comes near. It's a little bit convoluted in explanation, but in practice it's enormous fun. This is why Nintendo need to get the Wii U into people's hands, or hope for strong word of mouth, as the concept is tricky to communicate, but in practice is easy to grasp.
A more simple use of the controller is that a selection of games (such as New Super Mario Bros. U) allow you to view all the action on the Gamepad screen, allowing someone else to watch the television. The controller is wirelessly tethered to the base unit, however, so you can't take the Gamepad on the bus. And even going in a different room can cause the connection between console and Gamepad to become unstable.
Despite its size, the Gamepad is surprisingly comfortable to hold, even for long periods of time. At 500g it's lighter than an iPad, and the contoured back helps. It's deliberately toylike and plasticky, so isn't the slickest tablet you'll ever see, but it's designed to be passed around and played with. One potential drawback, however, is that the Gamepad battery lasts between 3-5 hours depending on settings, with my own benchtests clocking in closer to the lower end. The Gamepad can be charged while playing, however, and comes with its own AC adaptor, plugged into the mains rather than the console itself.
Range and battery life complaints aside, the Gamepad is a beguiling thing. There's a real sense of fun in toying around with it for the first time, and a more technical fascination with some of the more subtle touches in games like ZombiU. It will be interesting to see how and if developers can harness the controller's myriad assets. One major issue that plagued the Wii throughout its lifespan was third-party developers inability to take advantage of motion control. It's something Nintendo are trying to rectify with Wii U by drawing in third-parties early, reflected in a decent launch line-up that contains ports of some of the year's biggest 360 and PS3 titles. Call of Duty Black Ops II, Assassin's Creed III and Batman: Arkham City all receiving a Wii U makeover. Some have performance issues, but the willingness to embrace the new controller is promising.
Nintendo has also learned from its mistakes in terms of online implementation, ditching the much-maligned friend codes for the simpler Nintendo Network ID. But the Wii U's most notable online aspect is the Miiverse, which provides a colourful hub for the Wii U community to interact, trading tips and opinions on games in title specific forums.The sticking point here is that the online features --such as YouTube and video messaging-- aren't enabled until you download a mammoth day one patch, a rather curious method of doing things, for which Nintendo CEO Satoru Iwata has already apologised.
So there are teething issues. The slow CPU could prove cumbersome if developers can't figure a workaround, the online patch is a memory-stealing nuisance and despite a solid lineup of games at launch --particularly Nintendo Land, Mario and ZombiU-- the Wii U lacks a real system seller at day one. As such there is the lingering doubt that the Wii U might not live up to its obvious promise. But it is a video games console positively brimming with potential, with the Gamepad's varied and flexible toolkit allowing for some tantalising possiblities. Most importantly, it is a console with a sense of playfulness and childish glee that only the House of Mario can seem to muster. Now that's a language that anyone can understand, Nintendo just need to find a way to spread the message.
By Tom Hoggins Telegraph.co.uk