Nintendo Wii U review: The underdog rises

The Nintendo Wii U has been called a lot of things since its launch at the tail-end of 2012. Most of them far from positive. But two years on, and in the wake of the Sony PlayStation 4 and Xbox One launches, Nintendo's underdog is on the up; it's a console coming back from the brink.

It might not be the most powerful machine on the market, it's certainly victim to a weak name and botched marketing, and the behemoth GamePad controller is questionable, not for its concept, but for its sheer scale.

But the Wii U is the only place to delve into some important Nintendo gaming franchises: Mario Kart 8, Super Mario 3D World, Super Smash Bros, the exclusive Bayonetta 2; and with more to come, including Starfox and Zelda due in 2015, Nintendo's console is strong enough to stand toe to toe with Sony and Microsoft.

Two years in, and in light of a significant price drop, it's more than twice the fun, so is now the ideal time to buy into the Wii U?

Controller > Console

The one thing that defined the Wii U when it was announced back in 2011 was its touchscreen-bearing controller, the GamePad. Used as a second sort-of-virtual-reality window onto the gaming world for certain titles, for additional touch control input, or instead of the main TV to play games, it was - and still is - a fun concept.

But it's huge. The 6.2-inch LCD touchscreen sits at the centre of the hefty 500g controller, which delivers a larger footprint that the Wii U console itself. The placement of the two analogue thumbsticks, diamond-shaped four button array and shoulder triggers is fine though - it's not hard to use, it's just huge, and the touchscreen response isn't particularly great.

The fact it's so large does raise an interesting point about the Wii U console itself though. It's far smaller than the PlayStation 4 or Xbox One, both of which we've been playing over the months since their respective launches. The Nintendo is a neat and tidy looking machine, only really let down by noise from the optical drive that blows even the older PlayStation 3 out of the water. It's much louder than we'd like; but when not playing games its app-based tasks are near-silent.

Of course when it comes to gaming you don't have to use the GamePad all the time. We've reverted back to using Wiimotes - remember those, from the original Wii - to play through the likes of Super Mario 3D World with ease, or there's a Pro controller which is, well, a lot more like an Xbox controller.

However, Nintendo seems hell bent on forcing GamePad control quirks into games. One such party trick is using that controller screen to "look around" a virtual environment, such as in launch game ZombiU (which, upon reflection, wasn't so great, nor was it necessary for many of the GamePad quirky controls). Super Mario 3D World has specific GamePad-only levels too, Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker expands upon that further, while the forthcoming Zelda looks to use the controller sensibly, with map integration to the centre screen seeming logical.

'Remote Play'

But the highs and lows are piqued by what is, in a sense, Nintendo beating Sony to its Remote Play punch. If you're in a single TV household then the channel can be changed to watch the telly, while you can keep on playing the Wii U game on the GamePad. The 'Pad can even be set up to act as a TV remote control, including power, volume, channel and source input controls. All very clever, eh?

However the GamePad's communication range with the Wii U console is fairly poor in our experience. It's not based on a standard Wi-Fi setup, which limits where you can be in relation to the console. We've been unable to play from the room next door to the console, even with the doors open, as things start to glitch out. Musical splutters, stuttery visuals and, you know where we're going here, your chances of gaming success - just like whichever character you happen to be playing - therefore die. In our previous home it was possible to play a room away with the doors closed, so part of the range is based on your home's layout, wall thicknesses and so forth.

Same-room play is a fair expectation, but as the GamePad doesn't exploit a full Wi-Fi connection for longer-distance play it misses the mark of its potential. And that's where Sony's Remote Play system suceeds, in particular the ability to utilise Sony smartphones and tablets to expand that experience. Something that Nintendo, we would think, could update somehow in the future. But then it's a company too busy making games to be working on such details.

When the GamePad is let off its lead - well, it's a cradle charging dock, which is included in the box - the battery life isn't particularly impressive, giving around four hours of play. Rejuicing the battery is as easy as plonking it back in the cradle though and, as luck would have it, for an extra £25 you can buy an official high-capacity battery to last out for as long as eight hours. Much better.

Glorious gaming

Whichever controller you opt to use, there's no doubting that Nintendo has delivered some exceptional Wii U games since launch.

In 2012 we might have harked on at length about launch freebie Nintendo Land - essentially a showcase title of what the Wii U can do - which nobody really gives a flying hoot about any more.

Nope, for now it's all about much better quality games - and there have been a number of games landing the prestigious five-star score on Pocket-lint. Now we're not saying hang up your PS4 for its Grand Theft Auto 5 and other forthcoming excitements like Uncharted 4, but think of the Wii U as a complementary console and you'll probably buy more games for it than anything else.

And they're not all fluffy bunny, puppy dog eyes games either. Take Bayonetta 2, a game whose protagonist may well be female, but, as the saying goes, she's got balls too. Not literally, mind. It's a madcap Japanese venture of explosive proportions and one of the best games in 2014.

READ: Bayonetta 2 review

Then, but of course, there are Nintendo classics. The company may have a formulaic way of producing some of its games, with sections of Super Mario 3D World not always feeling brand new, for example, but there is new invigoration thrown in the mix. Whether new superpowers, the graphical flourishes - don't forget, the Wii U is more powerful than the PS3 and Xbox 360s of this world by a long stretch - or just something so out-there and oddball that you won't have seen it coming, Nintendo is always on the money when it comes to its classics.

READ: Mario Kart 8 review

Third party development may have slowed, but with titles like Watch Dogs arriving, it's not entirely dried up. Playing on our Wii U two years after the initial launch and we feel that it's Nintendo's own catalogue that gives it a sturdy backbone. It's reminiscent of owning a Sega Saturn or Dreamcast back in the day: PlayStation had more titles, and often some incredible ones, but the exclusives up for grabs (Guardian Heroes, the Panzer Dragoon series, Jet Set Radio - we'd better stop before we sound too old) made it worth investing in the underdog. It's much the same here.

Interface

At launch the Wii U continued to lead with the earlier Wii console's Mii concept: the idea of a miniature version of "you", living in a Miiverse, able to mingle with friends and communicate with users around the world. It's all very cutesy but not the most practical arrangement out there.

Indeed the whole user interface is somewhat slow. It's more than usable, but each core app - Friend List, Miiverse, Nintendo eShop, Internet Browser, Nintendo TVii (which doesn't work in the UK), Notifications, Download Management - has to load, some taking longer than a modern setup should. The eShop, for example, takes upwards of 12-seconds to load for us, which is downright slow.

There are smart apps available too. For example the pre-loaded Netflix - the subscription-based movie-streaming platform - can plug in to 1080p Breaking Bad, Orange Is The New Black, Lilyhammer and plenty more shows and movies besides. But you'll probably just run that from your set-top box or other console instead.

The Nintendo eShop - the place to go online and buy all things Wii U - has filled with far more content than at launch. You can buy titles to download, demos to play - there are even short infomercials like the Cat Mario series. All very Nintendo in its way.

If you're into downloading then you'll want to ensure the 32GB Premium console is purchased, which leaves 25GB available out of the box due to the operating system install. The Basic 8GB Wii U, which you'll probably only find second hand rather than brand new, has only 3GB of accessible space out of the box. However, the are USB ports which can be used for storage expansion, but with game downloads ranging from 20GB to less than 1GB, that space could fill fast - so we've been sticking to boxed games.

Verdict

Even two years after launch the Wii U can't shake off its day one issues. The GamePad controller is undeniably large, its communication distance to the console is limited, no more than one can be used at a time, there's no multi-touch functionality and having a second screen in front of you isn't always practical. A Wiimote or Pro Controller is the preferable option, but neither of those appear in the box.

What sells the Wii U is simple: its exclusive gaming lineup, which has expanded with a number of must-have titles since launch. From Super Mario 3D World, to Mario Kart 8, and titles such as Bayonetta 2, there's plenty of merit to bag a Wii U at its now more affordable price point.

The Wii follow-up name might not have helped cement the Wii U's success, and while Nintendo's console won't replace the PS4 or Xbox One, nor get close in terms of graphical prowess or multi-media abilities, it's a complementary addition that any gaming fan ought to have sat under the TV.

It looked for a while as though its days were numbered, but with one of the strongest new-gen lineups already under its belt, and with Starfox, Zelda and Yoshi all due in 2015, there's life in the Wii U yet. Just because it's not selling in huge numbers doesn't mean the quality lacks. In 2015 we'll watch the underdog rise.



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