Nintendo Wii U Review: A Tale of Two Screens

The Wii U introduces the world to second-screen gaming, and reminds us why Nintendo wouldn't be Nintendo without its focus on how we play, as much as what we play.

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There’s a theory about Nintendo that goes something like this: Nintendo has the best IP in video gaming, the characters with the highest Q score. Mario, Wario, Zelda, Kirby, Metroid, Donkey Kong, Pokémon, you name it. Add up all the Mario-themed games alone and you’ve got the bestselling video game franchise of all time.

But that’s just part of the equation — call it the “apps” half, the one where leaping over barrels, butt-stomping bad guys and lighting torches to open doors is lingua franca in gaming-dom. The other half involves the way you interact with Nintendo’s characters, settings and design tropes. Call it the “interface” half.

If you have an Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3, take a look at the controllers. We have Nintendo to thank for popularizing what’s there: the four-way d-pad (the Nintendo Entertainment System), the diamond configuration face buttons (the Super Nintendo), the thumbstick employed to navigate 3D worlds, trigger buttons and force feedback system (the Nintendo 64). For all the talk about missed opportunities — that Nintendo ought to take Mario and Co. multiplatform — you could argue Nintendo wouldn’t be Nintendo without its focus on how we play, as much as what we play.

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Which brings us to the Wii U, Nintendo’s attempt to sneak what it calls “asymmetric gaming” — playing the same game from different perspectives — into our living rooms.

Out of the box, the system doesn’t look so different — a 3.5-pound base station that could pass for a slightly longer, curvier Wii. Flip it around and you’ll spot its new HDMI port (better late than never). Plug in the Wii-style sensor bar, dust off your old Wii Remote or Balance Board and you’ll find everything syncs and works just as it did before. Slide a copy of New Super Mario Bros. U into the slot-load optical drive and you’ll discover what it’s like to play a Mario sidescroller in stunning high-definition for the very first time.

But the showpiece this time is the Wii U’s tablet-like GamePad (capital G, capital P), sporting a vivid 854-by-480-pixel, 6.2-inch touchscreen sandwiched between a d-pad, face buttons and left/right thumb-sticks. It’s thicker than most tablets, but substantially lighter (just 1.1 lbs), and the extra plastic gives your hands comfortable grip room, even if the glossy finish warrants the usual grumbling about fingerprints.

It’s also packing motion control sensors, haptic feedback, dual speakers, shoulder buttons, left and right rear triggers, a microphone, an infrared sensor, near-field communication support, a front-facing camera and a rechargeable battery (it even has its own power adapter).

In short, the thing’s loaded.

You might be thinking the second screen makes the Wii U a Wii-plus-DS, and it clearly shares second-screen DNA with Nintendo’s dual-screen handheld. But the DS is about what you can do when you put a second screen beside the first in a device that fits in your hands. The Wii U is about what you can do if you make one of the screens your TV, then snap off the other and let it wander around a room.

And wander it will, especially when playing the closest thing to a must-have Wii U launch title, NintendoLand, a theme park game inhabited by Miis (Nintendo’s virtual caricatures of players) with a dozen mini-games that riff on Nintendo themes and characters. Like Wii Sports, NintendoLand is essentially Nintendo’s way of showing you how the Wii U works.

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Take Donkey Kong’s Crash Course, which has you tilting the GamePad left or right to steer a rickety roller through a zany Rube Goldberg-ish obstacle course. The GamePad view only shows you a portion of the course, where the TV view shows you everything. While you can’t really play using the TV, someone else can follow along, which highlights the first new Wii U idea: gaming as a spectator sport.

In Captain Falcon’s Twister Race, an F-Zero shout out, you hold the GamePad vertically, viewing the action top-down while twisting the controller left or right to guide a racer along a flashing track. The twist: When you pass through tunnels, which hide the racer on the GamePad, you have to look up at the TV to get your bearings. How do you know when to? An announcer shouts warnings, which highlights another new Wii U concept: shifting between screens using audio cues.

And in The Legend of Zelda: Battle Quest, an on-rails brawler, you’ll battle doll-like Moblins and ChuChus by tilting the GamePad to aim a bow. As enemies swarm from all sides, you’ll find yourself pitching up and down, even turning 180 degrees from the TV, borrowing a trick from the 3DS and using the GamePad like an all-angles window into another dimension — a totable version of the parallel universe viewscreen in Fringe.

Try a few of NintendoLand‘s multiplayer-only games and you’ll see how splitting information between the screens can solve a problem that’s plagued single-screen video gaming for decades.

In Mario Chase: The Great Getaway, for instance, up to four players use Wii Remotes and the TV to track a single player who uses the GamePad’s screen and controls to weave through a Pac-Man-like maze — the game shouts audio cues to help the pursuers determine the general location of the GamePad player, like a video game version of “Marco Polo.”

Luigi’s Ghost Mansion: Haunting Hijinks takes that idea and cleverly inverts it: The GamePad player becomes the pursuer — a ghost trying to sneak up on Wii Remote players who carry ghost-detecting flashlights. Where the ghost is invisible on the TV, the Wii Remote players are visible on the GamePad screen.

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There’s even a real-time modding angle in New Super Mario Bros. U: In story mode, one player can use the GamePad to create “boost blocks” that help other Wii Remote players navigate tricky sections of a level or access tough to reach areas. Or play in Coin Rush Mode (two to four players race to snatch up the most coins) and you can use the GamePad’s touchscreen to tweak levels, planting coins in tricky spots.

What else can the second screen do? Say you want to play a little New Super Mario Bros. U or Batman: Arkham City while someone else watches TV. Knock yourself out: The GamePad can double as the main screen in most games. New Super Mario Bros. U is mirrored on the GamePad’s screen by default, and in Arkham City, you just tell the game to pipe everything to the controller. The distance the base station can stream to the GamePad is limited — about 24 feet — but stay in range and you’ve essentially got the best looking, best controlling handheld on the market (including Sony’s PlayStation Vita).

Keeping track of two screens could have been a mess, but it’s actually pretty intuitive. Once I stopped trying to follow both screens (it’s almost instinctive to want to) and just followed the audio-visual cues in the games I sampled — NintendoLand, Batman: Arkham CityNew Super Mario Bros. U and Ninja Gaiden 3: Razor’s Edge — everything came together. It’s also kind of liberating having that second screen in more traditional games, making information you’d normally pause the game to access available at a glance, say the map view in Arkham City, or the list of combo moves in Ninja Gaiden 3.

Does the GamePad have shortcomings? A few. For one, it’s a battery hog (that, or the battery’s too small), lasting about three hours in my tests before going back to the cradle or having to run plugged in (the power cable’s reasonably long at eight feet). The GamePad also sometimes slips out of sync with the base station, the music running a microbeat behind the TV, causing sonic chaos unless you turn the GamePad’s volume down. That said, I’ve experienced zero gameplay latency.

Neither issue’s a deal-breaker, but it’s a little disappointing that something this physically big, not doing any serious local processing, can only manage half the battery life of something like Apple’s iPad playing a game like Riptide GP. Since the 1500 mAh Li-ion battery is replaceable, I’d like to think we’ll see more capable aftermarket options arriving shortly.

(MORE: Nintendo: Wii U Is Core Enough and It’s the Most Innovative Game System Ever Made)

Let’s talk pricing. Nintendo’s made it all but impossible to justify the less expensive $300 Basic model. NintendoLand sells for $60 standalone, so that it’s a pack-in with the $350 Deluxe model justifies the extra $50 alone. But the Deluxe model also includes 32 GB of internal storage (the Basic only has 8 GB, and roughly 4 GB of that is earmarked for system data), a Wii U GamePad charging cradle, a Wii U GamePad stand and a Wii U console stand. Yes, you can plug in external hard drives of whatever size — kudos to Nintendo for not pulling a Microsoft and trying to sell us overpriced storage — but if you’re planning to pick up NintendoLand and want the charging cradle, the extra $50 for the Deluxe set is a no-brainer.

What about the online features? TVii? Miiverse? Nintendo eShop? Wii U Chat? I wasn’t able to test these because they weren’t ready, and in TVii’s case — the vaunted tie-in service designed to let you browse or interact with live TV using the GamePad — Nintendo just delayed its release until December.

Make of that what you will, but it means the Wii U you’re getting on Nov. 18 isn’t entirely the Wii U Nintendo’s been promising for several months. (We’ll follow up with a review of the services once they’re live.)

The Wii caught everyone by surprise six years ago. Many expected it to fail. Even now, with nearly 100 million systems sold worldwide — tens of millions more than either Microsoft or Sony — you’ll still find people dismissing the Wii as an underpowered, overhyped game system everyone bought but no one plays.

Whether that’s true or not, the Wii U already feels like a much more robust and fascinating idea, one that shows even more promise, in my opinion, than the Wii did in 2006. That’s partly because the Wii U is still a Wii (a radically more powerful Wii with a second screen that floats around your living room, true), and motion control still factors big in the Wii U’s future.

But it’s mostly because I haven’t been this impressed with a new interface since Nintendo put a joystick on a gamepad in 1996. Sure, launch showcases like NintendoLand feel more like teasers for the next big Zelda or Metroid or 3D Mario game, and while I admire what Nintendo’s done with New Super Mario Bros. U — especially the clever multiplayer modes — it’s no Super Mario 64.

That said, unless Microsoft or Sony have more than burlier hardware up their sleeves, and assuming third-party developers can match Nintendo’s skill utilizing the second screen, the Wii U already has a lock on the future of big-idea gaming.

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