First impressions and a mini review of the Wii U (and a few games)

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I picked up a pair of Wii U’s on launch day. I ordered a few more when I thought I would be able to cash in and make a quick buck. As it stands right now, I’ll barely break even – auctions on eBay for Wii U consoles aren’t going much higher than retail, and by the time you throw in a game and offer free shipping to make your auction enticing, you’re not doing so well. Prices may go up as we approach the holiday, but this isn’t about whether or not I make a dollar, this is really about what Nintendo has to offer with their early lead in to the “next generation” of consoles.

Because I have a lot of positive things to say, more than most people, I think, I want to get the negative out of the way, first. Honestly? It doesn’t feel “next gen.” Nintendo’s own Reggie responded to comments this week that the Wii U doesn’t look as good as games made for the Xbox 360 and PS3. Some video evidence disputes that, providing side by side comparisons. What I noticed when watching them closely, though, was that other than a few minor details (like how full or voluminous smoke is, or the clarity of blades of grass) the Wii U looks great. Maybe not 100% as great as a game on the Xbox 360, but without a side by side comparison, you’d be hard pressed to spot the difference most of the time.

The Wii U is a much smaller package than the other consoles, and continues to impress me, showing that games can look good – even when they aren’t optimized to run on the Wii U. Developers will outright tell you that they optimize games for the most popular platforms. If the Wii U can keep up without the optimization, I wonder what would happen if it took off as a platform? The big problems seem to arise when lots of polygons are on the screen – the performance takes a bigger hit than when on its counterparts. But again, a little time and a few tweaks, and developers will be able to get the Wii U running in top shape. And if my hunch is correct, Nintendo has something up their sleeve for the short term, not another 6-7 years before the next Nintendo console.

I believe Nintendo kept the Wii branding on this console to show that it wasn’t a true “next gen” console. They don’t mind being crowned the king of “first out of the gate with a new console” – but I believe something new from Nintendo will arrive shortly after the “Xbox 365” and PlayStation 4 (or whatever their names may be). Until then, we have the Wii U. I love that the Wii U includes a full-blown Wii under the hood. You literally exit the Wii U environment, and boot to the Wii menu. It’s like two consoles in one – it’s not just backwards compatibility, it’s just the Wii, and is fully compatible with any Wii accessories you may already own, like your Wii Remotes and Nunchucks.

But what about the Wii U? The core, the guts, the real things that make the system tick? What about the Gamepad? The Gamepad shows you what gaming is going to be like in the future. Some people may not want to call Nintendo “the best” console maker, any more – but Nintendo should take pride in the fact that they are the most inventive. The gamepad works spectacularly in games like New Super Mario Bros. U. This title shows the power of the Wii U’s gamepad unlike any other. You can literally turn off your TV, walk in to a different room, and play Mario, exactly as it looks on your TV, on your Gamepad.

Do you know what I would’ve given for technology like the Gamepad when I was growing up? When there was only one TV in the house, and when I wanted to play Mario, but my parents wanted to watch the news, guess who always lost? What a massive leap forward it is to play Mario on a tablet with some great controls. It’s surreal! But other games show you some of the limitations of the gamepad, as well. For example, games like ZombiU are far too graphically intense to be played on the gamepad. In this case, the Gamepad must suffice as an accessory like your radar, map, backpack, and occasionally lets you look through it as though you’re looking at the screen – though I doubt it will look quite as good as what you’re seeing on your television. I don’t have the game, I can’t speak in certain terms – but I can tell you this: I still want to buy it. I’m eager to pick it up!

I did unbox one of my two “Deluxe” units shown above (of course, I’m keeping this one!), and, in case you were unaware, that means I got a free copy of the game Nintendo Land. This game is designed to be a carnival game of sorts. You can visit various booths and play several mini games. Each mini game is designed to show you the potential of the system. They also each feature memorable characters from other successful Nintendo franchises. An example is a game where you must feed Yoshi by pointing him from a start gate toward an exit gate, and eating all of the food in between. The trouble is, you have to map his route on your Gamepad’s screen, but the start, finish, and food items only show up on your TV, so you have to plan your route carefully!

The friends list and “online” features still leave a little bit to be desired – it still feels like it is bolted on, not melded in – although, “in game” elements feel a bit more subsumed – things like messages from other players, other people’s Mii’s showing up in games and plazas, things of that nature. But when you’re at the main Wii U Menu, it feels awkward and detached to have to “load” the Miiverse, or your friends list.

I’ve had a chance to use the Netflix app – and I thought I loved it at first. You can flip-flop the video from the TV to your Gamepad, without the need to re-buffer, and take it to another room without missing a moment of your show or movie while you’re putting the finishing touches on dinner. I thought I loved it, until I exchanged a few Facebook posts with Activision’s Dan Amrich, AKA OneOfSwords. He pointed out to me the experience he was hoping for: the ability to read more detailed character information while watching a show, or flip through your Instant Queue or browse movies while another is playing on your TV. You could use the controls and the Gamepad to figure out what you’re going to view next, or supplement what you’re viewing now. Not just see a quick blurb about what you’re watching, and some actor’s names. I had to admit, his ideas were pretty cool – and something like that is by no means out of the question, and could likely easily be accomplished with a future software update.

All in all, the Wii U has so much potential. Unlike the Wii. People latched on to the Wii because of what it promised, and failed to deliver. The Wii U hasn’t made such lofty promises, it only promised to bring you something new, something different. It delivers on that over and over again and in impressive ways. The Wii U isn’t about changing the way you play games, it’s about enhancing the way you play games. The Gamepad brings back the physical, tactile controller, and puts it in the palm of your hand – and then unlocks another world that you can get lost in. Nintendo does it again with the Wii U, this time bringing back that little bit of elegance that made them the kings in the 90’s. They don’t need “blast processing” to have great games.