Until Sunday, my Wii U’s lobby screen came up population: me — a skinny little guy in a red wool cap and glasses, wandering in a white void, mumbling stuff like “Been playing NintendoLand” as effervescent electronica grooved in the background.
Nintendo’s launch day system update ended my seclusion (if not my word balloon soliloquies), dispatching a full company of Miis in multicolored clothing to invade my lobby-space. They scampered across the screen after the system update finished, congregating in little clusters beneath clickable, hovering icons designed to highlight key Wii U features.
And then they started talking.
“Connect to the Internet, and play a game with your friends!” said one, waving its little ball-hand.
“What should I play today?” asked another, facing no one in particular.
“You never know what you’ll find until you go online and see!” said a third, smiling and doing a little victory dance.
Of course they’re just ersatz pals — cute little Nintendo robots designed to plug the system’s features and warm up the joint until I’m able to add actual friends of my own.
I was worried even these fake friends wouldn’t make it by Sunday. The Wii U’s online features were supposed to be ready a while ago, but Nintendo kept pushing the rollout back, right up to launch. My review unit could play games last week and that’s it. Netflix, Hulu Plus, YouTube, Miiverse, Internet browsing, Amazon Instant Video, Nintendo eShop — all unavailable until Nintendo deployed a massive zero-day update on Sunday that added them.
Well, some of them anyway. Netflix, Miiverse, Internet browsing and Nintendo eShop are working at this point, but Hulu Plus, YouTube and Amazon Instant Video are missing in action. Tap their icons in the Wii U’s menu screen and you’ll see a note saying you need a software update — an update that’s coming no one knows when.
What about TVii? Nintendo’s ballyhooed interactive live TV service was supposed to be one of the console’s crown jewels, but the company just pushed it back to next month. The icon’s now there in the Wii U menu after your run the system update, but if you click it, you’ll see a note stating “Nintendo TVii will be available in December.” That’s a shame, and really bad timing for potential customers hoping to use TVii’s interactive sports features for November NFL-watching.
Let’s talk about Miiverse, then, the most interesting service/portal/feature in the update and Nintendo’s version of Facebook for video gamers. Launch it and you’ll interact with other players in your region — Americas, Europe/Oceania or Japan — texting missives or crafting handwritten notes and doodles on a whiteboard, then posting to “communities” built around games or services. Your posts appear in a timeline, one after another, sort of like Facebook’s News Feed. You can also “Yeah” a post (analogous to a “Like”) or click a “tag” icon to sort posts accordingly.
Doodling with the GamePad’s stylus can be liberating, even if the results look a little primitive — like signing a UPS tablet, or one of those credit card checkout machines (I blame the resistive touchscreen). But it’s undeniably fascinating, seeing random hand-drawn pictures pop up in post streams. Call them “video game hieroglyphics.”
I’d tell you more, like which communities have the most posts so far, or how many people drawing pictures of Mario flipping the bird have been removed — even how many “Yeahs” I received for a doodle I drew of Mario’s face. Alas, Miiverse went dark mid-Sunday-afternoon, and clicking the icon brought up a “Miiverse System Error” message with an unintelligible error code.
What can you do? “Launch day.”
Unlike Facebook — and more like a message board — anything you post and any comments you make on others’ posts are publicly viewable. Bear that in mind if you have children who’ll be using the system (Nintendo includes robust parental controls that let you tweak how much of Miiverse your children can access). You can also “follow” people whose posts you like, giving the entire apparatus a “best of social networking” feel.
My favorite two Miiverse features? If you want to talk shop about a game, you can check a “spoiler” box before posting, marking your message as such for all to see. And if you’ve played the game you’re posting about, an icon indicating this will appear by your username. The latter won’t eliminate trolling, but it just might mitigate it.
Things I didn’t like? Just one, really, but it’s a biggie: Moving between apps on the Wii U feels sluggish, and I don’t mean just a little.
Let’s be generous and chalk some of it up to network performance issues at launch, i.e. people hammering the online services. But I’m noticing a more fundamental problem that involves a critical offline function: The Wii U Menu, which has to reload each time you exit an app, takes forever to come up.
Check out these timings. From the main menu, tapping “System Settings” took 14 seconds to load. Exiting back to the Wii U Menu took another 20 seconds. Again, from the main menu, tapping the Netflix icon took 33 seconds to load (for this, I blame Netflix, since it’s equally slow to load on my Xbox 360, PS3 and Apple TV), but exiting back to the Wii U Menu took an unbelievable 30 seconds to load. I tested this repeatedly with everything else and consistently clocked 20-30 seconds whenever reloading the Wii U Menu.
You see the problem. Launch and exit a dozen apps in an hour and you’ll spend roughly as many minutes staring at load screens. The Wii U’s icon-driven, multi-screen menu system may look like iOS, but it’s nothing like it performance-wise.
I’m genuinely upbeat about Nintendo’s two-screen approach to gaming, but the online angle is a little disappointing. A bunch of stuff is still missing, the stuff that’s there has stability issues and when it works, load times are annoying. Now that we’re getting a clearer picture of how the Wii U works with the rest of its features enabled, it’s hard not to see Nov. 18 as overly optimistic — Nintendo corporate putting its “in time for Black Friday” foot down.
No doubt Nintendo’s scrambling to remedy these deficiencies, but it may be a while before they’re fixed, and we know for a fact that TVii won’t be here until December — all of which means that unless you’re okay just playing the games (which work fine), or living with some initial letdowns, there’s no reason to rush a purchase decision.