This has been a really exciting few months for me from a video game standpoint. I picked up a PlayStation 4 and an Xbox One on their release dates. The Xbox One was a surprise Thanksgiving Day present to the family. The Wii U was our big Christmas present to the family. This console, unlike the other two, had been out for some time now. My youngest two kids are both tremendous fans of the Zelda franchise, so when the Windwaker edition of the Wii U was announced, I knew exactly what I wanted to grab them for Christmas.
Both of my younger two kids had been watching videos about the new HD Windwaker game, and both were interested in the Wii U. My younger daughter in particular was trying to figure out if she could save up her Christmas and birthday money to buy one. I suppose I eased that concern for her.
The console itself is a glossy black that looks really nice in my entertainment center. It matches the other devices, all but one of which is also black. The glossy finish is not my favorite, because boy that thing picks up fingerprints like nobody's business. The compact design is a huge perk though, because we are pretty cramped for space in there. It actually sits on top of the Xbox One, which has half of its casing used as a vent, and the other half is solid. We can rest it up there without blocking the Xbox One at all.
You can hear the console spin up a disc at first, but the system itself is quite quiet once it is up and running. Hooking it up was easy, and it never seems to get terribly hot, even after hours of use. Last generation, the Wii was our most reliable system. We went through three PlayStation 3s, two Xbox 360s, but only one Wii.
While the Wii U console appears very similar to the original Wii, the tablet controller was a controversial decision that really took things in a different direction. I will be the first to admit that I was not a big fan of the tablet controller when I heard about it. Would it be heavy? Unwieldy? Easily broken and expensive to replace? Perhaps most importantly - would it add anything to the experience?
The Windwaker version of the controller looks cool. It is a glossy black that does not seem to snatch up smudges quite as bad as the console, but I still worry about the screen and edges getting a bit grimy at times. Along the frame of the tablet are some nice rune-like Zelda decorations in gold. It is a small thing, but it makes the controller feel 'special' compared to the typical Wii U controller.
To answer the questions I posed above?
Would it be heavy: Not particularly. I tend to play with my hands in my lap anyway, so maybe that helps. My son and daughters have used it quite a bit however, and none of them have complained that it wears on their arms or wrists.
Easily broken and expensive to replace: Replacing would prove expensive, and odds are if/when we have to replace this guy, it will not be the spiffy Windwaker version. So far it does appear durable, but I do feel like the kids are more careful with this tablet controller than they might be with a typical one. They do not walk around with it, they are always holding it with two hands. I have not seen any indication that it will fall apart or prove to be of cheap quality, despite the abundance of use it has received.
Does it add anything to the experience: This is going to prove to be a game-by-game basis of course, but by and large most of the games have incorporated it pretty well. It is a must-use for titles like ZombiU, but it provides additional function for a game like Monster Hunter as well. Perhaps the best part of the tablet is the off-TV play. Other people, including our friend Coffee With Games, has touted this feature in the past, and I never really thought much of it. Not every game can do this - ones like ZombiU that utilize the tablet as a tool cannot perform this function, but some games like Windwaker let you play it completely on the tablet.
This comes in handy if my wife or oldest daughter is watching television, and someone else wants to play something on the Wii U. It has a fairly limited range in our house. I am not sure if that is always the case, or just because we have a million wireless devices that are creating some interference, but the tablet controller really needs to stay within about 25 to 30 feet of the Wii U or it might struggle to stay connected during the off-TV play. However, when it works, it works very nicely and the image looks pretty crisp.
The operating system
What you see on the Wii U is going to look very familiar to those who have used the Wii or DS over the last several years. There is a very app-like feel to the operating system, where programs are stored in a 'space' on a grid. They can be moved around as needed, and accessed with either the touchscreen or the controller and buttons.
That this is the only one of the new consoles that offers backwards compatibility is also nice. You cannot play GameCube games on it (like you can with the Wii), but you can play Wii discs on it, and they work just fine. My daughter and I were playing Mario Kart on it last night. You can use your old Wii controllers if you have them, but they have to be equipped with Motion Plus. Not a big deal, but still useful to know. We already had two Motion Plus controllers, so that saved us a couple of bucks getting multiplayer options around.
The eShop and updating went quickly, and things are pretty easy to access. In someways, the touchpad again gets to be something of a superstar here, because you can often use it to navigate menus more quickly and precisely than you can using the controller.
I just wish it had more storage space. I bemoaned the 500 GB limit on the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, so you can only imagine my thoughts about the 32 GB drive space on the Wii U. I understand that most of those games are smaller in size, but that just seems ridiculously low and is going to cause us to have to consider external options sooner than the other two consoles as we have already used up well over half of that.
Compared to the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, the visuals are not as strong, but developers (Nintendo in particular is quite good at this) can still deftly handle what the system allows to create a pleasing visual experience. It may not be able to do everything at the highest of resolutions or smoothest of framerates as those other two consoles, but it is not limping along as an eyesore by any means either.
One other small complaint is the online component. Adding friends is easier than before, but it still feels a bit less robust than Xbox One or PlayStation 4 in terms of available apps and functionality. Also, I am a little disappointed that there is no trophy or achievement system in place. Gamers have a tendency to be a competitive bunch, and I do sometimes enjoy comparing my trophies in a game to a friend's.
The Windwaker bundle
Aside from the spiffed up tablet controller, the Windwaker bundle came with two other things that sets it apart from the other Wii U bundles. It has the Hyrule Historia in digital format, which is very cool. This was a book I had been considering picking up for a time anyway. My youngest has 'paged' through it a half dozen times already. It also comes with Windwaker - but in downloadable form. You get a code and you digitally install it. Now this is not a huge game, but it certainly contributed to the early use of our storage space. A physical disc would have been nicer, but I suspect this was a cheaper route from a production and packaging cost standpoint. The game is a blast and beautiful - I look forward to reviewing it soon.
So the Wii U has really surprised me. Not in that it was a good console with some good games, but in how quickly it has become the favorite console in my household. Last generation, the Wii got the least amount of use. It certainly had times where it got played heavily, but the PlayStation 3 was the console of choice for the most part. Now that we have our hands on the PlayStation 4 (which is in the den) and the Xbox One and Wii U (which are sharing the TV in our living room), the Wii U is getting almost constant use. I have probably used it the least - not because I do not want to, but because I cannot get a turn at it.
My wife loves Disney Infinity. My oldest daughter is eating up Nintendoland and Just Dance 4. My son cannot get enough of Monster Hunter, ZombiU or Windwaker. My youngest adores Windwaker and my recently purchased Doctor Luigi. We have other titles like Pikmin 3 and Super Mario Bros Wii U (my favorite so far) that are also getting rotation.
The biggest concern for the Wii U is going to be proper third party support. This has been a problem for the Nintendo consoles for a while now. Even the Wii struggled there at times, but the issue seems much more pronounced on the Wii U. Some of that I think falls on the developers because when they make a game, they can often easily port it to Xbox, PlayStation and PC without having to consider wholesale changes, but here with the Wii U and the tablet, there is an expectation of something 'more', and I get the feeling that many developers find this extra effort unappealing, especially since the Wii U has not sold enough to establish a really solid install base of customers yet. The risk/reward just is not there for the third party developers - but when you see titles like ZombiU and Monster Hunter, you see that they can create really compelling games for the platform. Unfortunately it is still Nintendo with their beloved franchises that generally create the best games for the console.
It is still early - only a couple of months now with the new consoles, but the Wii U is currently the most popular in my household. With upcoming titles like Super Smash Bros and Mario Kart still on the way, I get the feeling it will remain popular throughout most of 2014 with us. The selection of games certainly helps as the libraries for our PS4 and XB1 are obviously a good deal more limited, but the Wii U looks like a hit right now.
8 out of 10