The Nintendo Wii U Experience

Thanks to the technology grant offered by my wonderful university, I was able to purchase a Deluxe Nintendo Wii U — which means it comes with Nintendo Land so that you do not have to purchase it separately.  As part of my ongoing series as Dr. Geek for Clearance Bin Review, I wrote about my initial reaction to and experience with the new console system, the new gameplay interface GamePad, and the Nintendo Land game.  This is what I wrote.

One of the first posts I wrote for CBR addressed the next gen — 8th generation — video game consoles.  At the time, a whole year ago, all we knew for certain was the next gen coming from Nintendo, the Wii U.  Anything on Sony and Microsoft’s updates to their respective PlayStation and Xbox offerings were purely speculative.  Since then, the Nintendo Wii U was released for the 2012 Christmas season, and more details have emerged on what consoles will be joining them: from the OUYA to the PlayStation 4, reportedly code-named Orbis, to the Xbox 720, reportedly code-named Durango.

But none of them are out.  The Wii U has been for three months now.  And, well, it definitely has not made the same type of revolutionary splash that the Wii did.  In fact, Nintendo recently lowered their sales forecasts.  They claim to have sold 3.06 million Wii U games since their release, but that they are only expecting to sell 4 million units through March, almost 30 percent less than their previous projection of 5.5 million.  Experts and gamers alike are claiming the reasons for the lackluster sales are due to the games currently out — or, more to the point, not out — and the poor communication by Nintendo as to just what the hell the Wii U is.  As the New York Times points out, the Wii could make a splash because its motion-based interface was so different from the consoles on the market — there was a clear distinction between the Wii and its competitors.  However, the GamePad of the Wii U is essentially an amalgamation of a Wiimote, a tablet/smartphone, and a traditional game controller.  Being a chimera can turn off hardcore gamers, who like the traditional game controller, and casual gamers, who like the touchscreen or Wiimote options.

But, it is the first of the 8th gen video game consoles.  And that makes it a momentous occurrence in the long history of digital games.  Thus, I have wanted one.  And, since I can argue that having one is useful for my research and teaching purposes (as it absolutely is!), I was able to acquire one for my university (the same awesome university that also purchases a 3D printer for our teaching and research).  It arrived yesterday, and I brought it home to set up as I figured I would need hours to do so given the horror stories on the matter.

Even from the box I could get a sense about what I was getting into.  The box said there are separate AC adapters, for the console and for the GamePad (the tablet device interface), meaning that the game controller does not have batteries like the Wiimotes.  When I finally held the GamePad, I was glad there were no batteries, as the slim battery pack in the controller helps to maintain a lower weight — indeed, the controller weighed less than an Xbox 360 controller in my hands.  The weight was comparable to a Kindle Fire HD, as was the size: even the screens were basically the same.

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Also on the box, Nintendo wanted to highlight how this is the first Nintendo console designed for digital television sets with 1080p high definition resolution.  Stating this proudly was combined by indicating that the box included an HDMI cable to accentuate the high def.  However, in seeing only that cable included, a question immediately sprang to mind: does this mean you can only hook the Wii U up to an HDMI ready television set?  Luckily, in examining the console, it clearly had an AV Multi Out port, allowing you to hook up the Wii’s AV cable to connect to a more traditional television or audiovisual system.  The console also has four USB ports, two of which are in front with an SD card slot.  It also comes with its own sensor bar, which is necessary for Wiimotes to be additional game controllers.  However, unlike the Wii, there are no ports for GameCube controllers; meaning that while the console may be backwards compatible to play older games (that is, Wii games, nothing older than that), it will not be possible to play those games with older controllers.

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The console is visually bigger than the Wii console, and with far more fan vents, so they must be clocking that processor up — and they have to be, to crank out the 1080p, which does look prettier than the Wii graphics.  It is nice to be black — because that’s totally original — but, just as an aesthetic note, why ugly it up with a horrible light gray power cord?  They kept the black theme going with the new sensor bar — was it too much to ask to have it for the console’s AC adapter?  Just inconsiderate…

And why does the HDMI cord smell like Band-Aids?

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Anyway, from the beginning of the set-up, I could see how they were going to handle the trade-off of having to attend to two screens instead of one.  At times, each screen would offer different information about what was happening, with the GamePad screen being the focus for times of actual interaction.  The TV would give the instructions, and the GamePad would accept the answers.  Heck, they are so integrated that the GamePad can become a TV remote, making the Wii U far less focused on physical movement and returning to the idea of video games cultivating couch potatoes.  And the GamePad is designed for comfortable holding, not for fast motions like the Wiimote: it has built in grips and stand, allowing it to rest in the hands far easier than any tablet on the market.  It also has rather good stereo sound, and a head phone jack to allow you to enjoy it in peace.

After the set up, the download did take about an hour.  During this time, we switched over to the PS3 to watch The Daily Show, so you can switch over to other functions on the television while the GamePad remains connected and interactive with the console.  Oh, and game designers, please realize that the cycle of updating, downloading, installing is killing gameplay.  There is no more infuriating sound than soothing download music.  And why do I have to update the game software the second day I play it?  People want to play games, not wait for games, and no amount of pretty graphics will make up for constant updating.

After the system was ready to actually be a video game console, setting up a new user account meant creating one of my favorite things with the Wii, your Mii.  The Wii U provides four options for this avatar creation: from scratch, which is comparable to Mii creation with the Wii; from photo, where the GamePad will snap a picture of your face and merge it with the Mii; from connecting with your Nintendo 3DS, to import your avatar from that device; or by scanning a QR code, which allows you to download pre-designed avatars.  I opted to have my GamePad use my face, which was quite a comical process.  After merging my face onto the Mii’s face, I could further modify how it looked with the standard Mii customization controls.

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Finally, I was ready to play a game.  We had purchased the Deluxe Set to have the game Nintendo Land, specifically designed for the Wii U, to experience the full capabilities of the system.   The game opens in a 3D plaza, brightly colored in high def, and this robotic creature, Minooka, greets you to walk you through the plaza’s purpose, and also shows up in each mini-game to provide guidance on how to play the game.  The 3D plaza is navigated through a combination of moving the GamePad around and using the screen as a view finder, while coordinating by the two thumbsticks to move the avatar (left) and control the camera (right) with more finesse.  Experiencing the plaza in this matter really felt like an augmented reality experience, and made me wonder if we could create interfaces for virtual worlds like Second Life this way, then perhaps more people would be willing to go into those worlds.

Now, the plaza is just a social gathering area that apparently has some personalization capabilities, but it is not the main reason you play Nintendo Land.  The game contains a dozen mini-games, each of which represents some Nintendo licensed character or game that has become famous over the years (you can tell they are famous because they keep popping up in the Smash Bros. Brawl games).  Three games require multiplayer — “Animal Crossing Sweet Party,” “Mario Chase,” and “Luigi’s Ghost Mansion” — so I could not experience all of them.  But I can break the remaining nine games down into those I liked and those I did not.

“The Legend of Zelda Battle Quest” has a single player mode option other than the multiplayer, but I was not a fan.  You had to use the thumbsticks to both aim and fire arrows at approaching monsters, which made targeting and fighting clumsy, and it was hard to know what screen to focus on.  ”Balloon Trip Breeze” seemed to be a silly waste that required you to look at both screens almost simultaneously, although you are admonished by Minooka to try to focus on the TV screen.  ”Metroid Blast,” like the Zelda game, has both modes, and in the single player mode you are operating a flying craft while shooting at enemies.  I’m sure someone who has played a lot of FPS games in 3D environments would be able to handle the navigation and fighting mechanisms, but I again found it clumsy and hard to control.  ”Octopus Dance,” from the world of Mr. Game & Watch, requires you to dance along to the beat and instructor, using the thumbsticks and the motion sensors of the pad.  This game would have been far better as a true motion-based game, using the Wiimotes and Balance Board.

“Pikmin Adventure” is a scaled down version of the other Pikmin games, where you can focus on the GamePad and use a stylus (which, I have to say, should have been included with the game for the amount of games that wanted me to use one) to throw pikmins and destroy enemies.  The game has a single player and multiplayer mode, and in the single player an assistant Mii is sent along with you.  I found the controls very easy to handle as it was all focused on the GamePad and did not require too much manipulation, i.e. too many different types of controls simultaneously.  ”Yoshi’s Fruit Cart” is a clever game that correctly utilizes both screens in an inventive way.  You are tasked with gathering fruit and avoiding obstacles, and to do so, you have to draw the path you will take through the screen.  But, the positioning of the fruit and obstacles are only seen on the TV, while you have to draw the path on the GamePad.  Because you are not required to look at both screens simultaneously, having the information differentiated between the two makes it a true cognitive challenge.

“Donkey Kong’s Crash Course” is an interesting combination of motion sensors and game control buttons, but at least you can focus on the GamePad screen as you navigate the obstacle course.  And it is funny to crash and burn.  ”Captain Falcon’s Twister Race” relies primarily on the motion sensors and GamePad screen, but will utilize the TV screen in a particular way. The racing car is seen from the top down on the GamePad screen, and rotating the pad steers the car.  But when going through a tunnel, your view of your car is blocked, and you have to look to the TV screen to navigate.  It is an odd way to run a race, but you get used to it, and rather immersed in it.

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But of them all, “Takamaru’s Ninja Castle” might just be my favorite.  This is the game you see in commercials where the young boy is using the GamePad to throw throwing stars at the television screen.  You are doing this to destroy paper ninjas before they destroy you.  The graphic design of the game is clever, like a puppet show that seeks to kill you.  And the controls are perfectly suited for the Wii U, and do well to showcase what the console is capable of.  You are looking at the TV screen the entire time to determine where you enemies are, and flicking your finger over the touchscreen to throw weapons at them.  You also draw certain symbols on the screen to activate special powers, and tilt the GamePad to reload your weapons.  The ability to reload means you can just throw out a barrage of weapons if you are not particularly a patient marksman, as I tend not to be with FPS games.  The controls are far better for fighting than in the Zelda game, and the controls for navigation work because there are none — the game controls that for you.

An interface with more options for controlling gameplay means there are more ways to design games to capitalize on those control options.  The array of games in Nintendo Land that I could play indicate how designers have taken these options into consideration.  In my opinion, some have done this better than others.  And overall, I do miss the actual physical motion that was required to play the flagship games of the Wii.  Given that there is no way to strap the GamePad to your arm and flail it about the room, that revolutionary aspect is gone.  Sure, you can make Wii-style games that play on the Wii U with the Wiimotes, but then that is the point of making the GamePad?  The only real benefit would be in the enhanced graphics, which will be a bigger sell when titles are released that would capitalize on them, like an upcoming Legend of Zelda game.

In order for Wii U to be modestly successful, their game designers will need to do two things.  First, the designers needs to figure out a way to take advantage of the unique combination of the various control options on the GamePad in a way that is not cumbersome by asking us to do too many types of control simultaneously.  Second, they also need to determine how best to help people negotiate the dual screen nature of the games by considering how hard it can be to shift focus and attention between the two screens in order to keep up with quick action.

But above all, they are going to need to convince us why we need to invest in this system when, as a casual gamer, we already have gaming apps on our tablets and smartphones or, as a hardcore gamer, we already have as good of graphics and controls on our current PS3 and Xbox 360 systems, with far more advanced graphics and controls upcoming from those same companies.  I think there is the potential to create very immersive experiences with the GamePad, as the way I experienced the plaza of Nintendo Land and the battle with the ninjas demonstrates.  And games that only require the GamePad, that can be played when someone is doing something else with the TV, is another great potential, allowing me to get lost in my races or my pikmin without fear of annoying those around me.

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So, ultimately, would I recommend buying one?  Only if you, like me, are a tech geek who likes to have the newest toys.  But I would recommend everyone else wait until the games library is beefed up.  Wait until there are some titles that you know you will want to play repeatedly — that is something Nintendo is good at — and then invest in one for your social gatherings and solitary downtime.  And, if you would like an additional tablet for the house to stream movies through, then the GamePad is no bulkier than a Kindle Fire, and perhaps easier to hold.

But if this system is any indication, then the 8th gen consoles may be the consoles of the long wait times for updating, downloading and installing.  So that’s exciting.

Overall, I think it has potential, but it also has some pretty big hurdles to overcome: the primary being, how to convince people to purchase it who are either playing with apps on their tablets or waiting to shell out money for the advanced graphics of the next gen PlayStation and Xbox.  I am not really sure there is a real good argument, unless it is being made to die hard fans of Mario, Link and Samus.

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