State of the Game: Nintendo Wii U

The full lineup of “next-generation” consoles have now been available to gamers for almost a full year and with a full years worth of games and firmware updates it is now the perfect time to look back on these last twelve months as well as look forward to the next twelve and see just how this new age of gaming has fared for both the companies behind it all as well as the gamers hoping for something fresh and exciting.

Today I am taking a look at the Nintendo Wii U, the oldest system among the “next-gen” contenders and the one that has struggled the most to capture market share. How does the console fare and how bright is its future? Well lets dig in.

Console War

“State of the Game: Nintendo Wii U”

Introduction:

The successor to the incredibly successful Nintendo Wii launched with terrible marketing and support, making both the casual customer as well as the avid gamer confused as to who this system was for and why they should plop down the cash to put it into their living rooms. Along with system specs that were only marginally above the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3 and games that had launched on those platforms a full year prior, to say the launch of the Wii U could have been better is a massive understatement.

Now, two years out, the Wii U is still a struggling contendor, now forced to put up a fight with much beefier competition and struggling to win a race it should have had a beneficial lead in. But while the little console has seemingly lost all third-party support and many are counting Nintendo out; this is a situation Nintendo is very familiar with, and one that many could say Nintendo thrives in. Gamers should expect this kind of situation for their favorite mascot themed company, they should expect this kind of endearing foolishness. Nintendo seems to love working in a  “one step forward and two steps back” mindset. With practically every decision fans are left shaking their heads while they wonder what could be, if Nintendo only had the foresight and technology lust that their competitors have, then they could truly be something to fear.

But that just wouldn’t be Nintendo, at least the Nintendo that has been around since the launch of the Nintendo 64, when they stubbornly stuck to their old cartridge based ways. But that is also the Nintendo that shattered platformer expectations with Super Mario 64 and also helped Rare with the creation of the beloved multiplayer shooter Goldeneye. Nintendo does things their way, even if it is sometimes rigidly archaic or bizarre, but that’s what makes them special. There is no other company like Nintendo in the gaming space, and for every mind boggling decision of not including a second analog stick on the Nintendo 3DS or requiring users to have a “Friend Code” in order to play with each other over the Internet, there is a motion controlled console that would shatter expectations and a gamepad that allows players to enjoy their console game while their significant other watches their favorite show on the tv.

While the other companies play in the sandbox creating things with the regular old proven tools Nintendo is the company that is off playing outside the box, experimenting with their imaginations and trying to create something new and different. While not everything may work for them and they may be said to not be as cool as the others, at least their trying things their own way. And for every failure, there is a success, and even if not everything sets the world on fire, it’s still providing many with good times and unique memories and at the end of the day, I think that’s what Nintendo is truly trying to do.

System OS:

Nintendo didn’t stray too far from the original Wii when its successors OS was being considered, with a large focus on a white screen with simplistic squares that can be rearranged however the user wishes it is undeniably familiar. However, one change is in how the user interacts with this minimalistic interface. The majority of the users focus will be spent staring down at the systems GamePad, while the televisions screen is used for the other half of the OS that is built into the system, mainly the community features. Oddly, the user has to flip between the two in order to use one over the other, always being forced to look at the systems GamePad over the bigger prettier screen sitting in front of them. This switching of screens is a design decision I find fairly annoying, as I would much prefer to simply use my television to navigate the console over the smaller Gamepad.

At systems launch the Wii U was a rather incredibly slow machine, with simple tasks such as going into system settings being a slow chore resulting in long pauses and frustration for the user. Since then Nintendo have released several firmware updates resulting in a much more zippy experience, but one that is still nothing to write home about. The biggest improvement thus far is one that has made turning on the system and getting into the action a much simpler and faster experience. Now when you power on the WIi U the GamePad opens up into a quick menu, allowing the user to touch the game or app icon that they wish to enjoy before the system fully powers on, never coming face to face or having to load up the default Home screen and bypassing much of the waiting game that haunted users previously.

A problem with such a bland Home screen and simplistic UI, and one that is fairly similar to a previous system, is that it removes much of the owners feeling of excitement and experience of something new. There is nothing fancy or fresh on offer with the Wii U’s presentation and app functionality, you get your Netflix and YouTube and that’s about it. Everything here is bare-bones and bland and as expected with no seasoning to spice it up. A little more of that Nintendo charm could have gone a long way in making simple everyday functions into something a little more special.

One area that Nintendo did seem oddly forward thinking is with their Miiverse community functionality. Miiverse is a living breathing message board, where users may post questions, snapshots and random drawings in rooms based around each game released on the platform. Wish to find out what Super Smash Bros. fans are talking about? Then hop into its community area and be whisked away to a world filled with strange Mii’s and random fan art. The idea of building your fan base and allowing them to interact in such a way is oddly smart and ambitious for Nintendo and is something I’d be very interested to see the competition take inspiration from. The world is all about social media these days and always being in touch and enveloping yourself around others who share your same interests, and having your entire console fan base in one place, the console itself, is smart. It’s a shame then that it’s not introduced to a first time Wii U owner very well nor explained in depth much through tool tips or other means. You very much have to find the feature yourself and begin to tinker with it to fully appreciate its many uses.

Controller:

Oh the GamePad, what is, to me, one of the best features of the Wii U, and indeed it’s most innovative…is also one of its most crippling, but not for the reasons you may think. The Wii U GamePad is a large, comfortable and really ingenious controller. With a built in screen, microphone and speakers; the Wii U GamePad is essentially the Wii U console in the comfort of your own hands. With the ability to stream all of the systems games and apps fully to the Pad you are allowed to enjoy Mario Kart as you lay comfortably in bed, as you relax on the balcony or even in the bathroom, if that’s your thing. And while some have complained about the signal range, from console to GamePad, being too short, I have had no problems in two different apartments with losing connection and everything has worked as you would expect it to.

If you are playing your game on the TV the GamePads screen may be used for simple hud elements such as a map or more thoroughly as an easier to navigate inventory or it may simply be reproducing the television image itself; the GamePads screen is used however a developer wishes. This ability to use such a unique device at all times should mean that there are a plethora of great innovative experiences on the platform, but unfortunately, the GamePads potential hasn’t been fully utilized by any one studio, save for Nintendo themselves with Nintendo Land, and even they have seemed to give up on the controllers unique capabilities over the last year.

Indeed the GamePad is such a great little device that it is also one of the key reasons for the systems initial price point, and it’s still active overly high price point. The Wii U is almost as costly as both the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. Let that sink in for a moment. This is the area where the GamePad is in fact a hindrance for the struggling Wii U. With such a high cost and the fact you cannot currently purchase an additional GamePad in stores and the lack of innovative uses for the controller itself, the GamePad is a great idea that isn’t exactly paying off for Nintendo. Nintendo themselves should be out there showing people how great this controller can be and why it makes the Wii U unlike any other console on the market, case in point, Sony doing these same things with its struggling PlayStation Vita, a handheld that has now taken on the role of a GamePad for the PlayStation 4 and has found new success because of the same functionality that should be a selling point for the Wii U and its controller.

While the Wii U GamePad is the systems primary means for controlling your games and apps, the system is also fully backwards compatible with the original Wii’s WiiMotes and classic controller. The system also has a wide range of additional options such as the pro controller and the newly announced Smash Bros. branded Gamecube controllers. But your primary focus will always be the systems unique screen filled pad.

Games:

The Nintendo Wii U has been available for nearly two years now, with the first a mostly barren wasteland of old ports and mediocre shovel ware capitalizing on an empty market. Early adopters of the Wii U had few choices, although the system is entirely backwards compatible with original Wii games, new highlights were left to New Super Mario Bros. U, Nintendo Land and Zombie U. Throughout 2013 the only games worth mentioning were spaced out nearly five months apart, with Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate releasing in March and Pikmin 3 in July. Luckily the year ended on a high note with two big releases: The Legend of Zelda Wind Waker HD and Super Mario 3D World. Still, in between these games, there was very little of merit.

Once again, as is the case every time with a Nintendo platform since after the heyday of the Super Nintendo, it is up to the flagship company themselves to single handedly keep their console afloat. Third party support is severely lacking on the Wii U, save for a few key partnerships Nintendo has formed with companies such as Capcom (Monster Hunter) and Platinum Games (Bayonnetta and Wonderful 101) the Wii U is almost exclusively a Nintendo gaming machine. This fact is an unfortunate one for those who only wish to own a Wii U and nothing else, but, as with past Nintendo consoles, the Wii U should be looked at as the perfect partner for a Microsoft or Sony platform. Just as the original Wii should have been a companion for a 360 or PS3, the Wii U should be a system you own for when you want to indulge in some great Nintendo fun outside of your Halo and Uncharted time, and there is definitely fun to be had with this little white box.

Now is the perfect time to be jumping aboard the Wii U wagon. Not only do you have some great unique first year titles that you won’t find on another platform such as the aforementioned Monster Hunter, Pikmin and Wonderful 101, but you also have one of last years best platformers, Super Mario 3D World along with several terrific and exclusive sophomore games that have released in 2014. Titles such as Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze continue to show gamers that no one does platforming better than Nintendo while the return of Mario Kart with Mario Kart 8 stands as one of the best offerings of that long lasting franchise.

This continued reign of excellence with their intellectual properties is no surprise to gamer’s everywhere, as that’s kind of Nintendo’s thing, but with the Wii U Nintendo is trying to once again garner the eye of the more “hardcore” gamer and it’s a nice turnaround from the original Wii and its success with the casual crowd. Nintendo’s partnerships with key 3rd party developers on games such as the oddball but frenetic wonderful 101 in the first year show that they are willing to take chances on low key but solid titles, to build up a diverse library, no matter how slowly. This bravery can also be seen with two of Nintendo’s boldest moves of the last few years, their partnerships with Platinum Games and Koei Tecmo on the titles Bayonetta 2 and Hyrule Warriors respectively.

To have such a hardcore series such as Bayonetta being exclusive to a Nintendo platform is a step in the right direction, even if it doesn’t pan out exactly how they’d hoped sales wise, it still shows they’re willing to try and take risks. I’m nearly done with this sequel and it is truly a fantastic action title with an exquisite combo system and some truly memorable moments that will stand out as some of the best of 2014. The fact that the game comes with the original Bayonetta packed in is just a cherry on top for any potential buyers.

Along with some great retail games, the Nintendo eShop has steadily been building up a collection of unique and exclusive content that is easily downloaded to the systems hard drive. Titles such as Pushmo World and NES Remix offer unique experiences you can’t get anywhere else while releases such as Shovel Knight and Mutant Mudds Deluxe have exclusive features or content unique to the system. On top of all of this is the excellent retro collection available to every Wii U owner with options available from systems such as the NES, SNES and Game Boy Advance. While the Wii U suffered early on in its lifecycle, and can still use some work in the 3rd party area, the system definitely has more variety and exclusives than the competition at this time, but with a year head start that should be expected.

Future:

The future of the Wii U is one full of questions. Rumors abound that Nintendo are actively working on the consoles successor so as to forget about this possible blunder, but yet games such as Super Smash Bros. (arguably one of the biggest releases of holiday 2014) Yoshi’s Woolly World, The Legend of Zelda, Splatoon  Shin Megami Tensei X Fire Emblem, Star Fox and Xenoblade Chronicles X paint a very different picture. There is still much room for the Wii U to grow for sure, third party support needs to improve and Nintendo needs to better advertise the system, but the Wii U can still prove itself to be a console that can cater to every type of gamer and one that could be remembered very fondly down the road. If Nintendo continues to delve into its rich history of franchises, and they surely will, games such as Metroid, Advance Wars and Pokemon could add even more weight to Nintendo’s GamePad fueled argument that they are a studio to never count out and one that will continue to take risks and do things their way and somehow find success each time. My hope is that the company holds off on pushing that emergency button just yet, as I believe the Wii U has quite a bright future ahead of it…although a price cut wouldn’t hurt the systems case.

Conclusion:

The Wii U has had its problems, but there is no doubt in my mind that it is a system that every gamer should add to their collection, preferably next to an Xbox One or PlayStation 4. Nintendo may not have made a console with the most incredible of computing power and one that is able to compete graphically with games such as The Witcher 3 or Uncharted 4, but they have made yet another fun and inventive platform for those willing to create some truly memorable experiences on. From the classic staple of Mario, Link and Samus to new unique mascots such as Bayonetta, Inkling and Shovel Knight Nintendo have created yet another platform for the unique, goofy and group oriented games to thrive on. Forget about all of the doom and gloom of realistic military shooters, hop on over to the side with vibrant colors, laughter and glee!

The Rundown

  • + Great exclusive franchises
  • + GamePad offers comfortable experience
  • + Multiplayer focus
  • + Miiverse functionality
  • + Huge back catalog
  • – Still priced too high
  • – Not enough 3rd party support
  • – A “companion” system.
  • – Technologically can’t compete

Verdict

“Great”

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