The best and worst thing about the Wii U is that you can’t quite figure out just what, precisely, Nintendo’s new console is trying to accomplish. The Wii had a clear-cut gimmick that became a revolution: Motion sensors and Wii Sports contributed to 97 million units shipped. Off-brand pretenders like the Kinect (a legitimate step forward by Microsoft) and the Move (an embarrassing step sideways by Sony) appeared just in time for motion gaming to look passé.
The Wii U is very different. It’s central innovation — the idea that your controller can also be a console unto itself — feels like an attempt to crossbreed two very different strains of videogame culture: The TV-based console games industry (which is ailing) and the smartphone/tablet/handheld-based mobile games industry (which is booming). New Super Mario Bros. U is a game that works equally well on your big HD TV screen or on your GamePad’s touchscreen. That is an impressive achievement, which would be even more impressive if the size of the screen could make New Super Mario Bros. U anything more than helplessly mediocre.
But the Wii U also represents a legitimate vision of a videogame culture that has fallen by the wayside: The experience of playing with people you know, in the same room, staring at the same television set. The Nintendo 64 was the first console to come equipped with four controller ports, and games like Goldeneye, MarioKart, and Super Smash Brothers perfected the whole idea of console multiplayer. (If you were male teenager in the late ’90s, every birthday party eventually became a Goldeneye marathon.) Nowadays, multiplayer has been exported from your living room into the cloud: A global nation of people screaming into their Xbox Live earpiece at teammates with inscrutable accents.
The Wii U has online capability, but it’s easy to tease out that the console has a basic mission statement of getting multiple people in front of a single TV set. If you pay for the deluxe model, you get a copy of launch title Nintendo Land and includes a host of games designed to be played with three to five people. Now there’s a certain breed of gamer that has been waiting over a decade for Nintendo to get back to making “hardcore” games — although it’s debatable what precisely constitutes “hardcore,” and whether that word could ever be used to describe a company built on the back of a plumber with a mustache who jumps real good. Whatever “hardcore” is, the Wii U isn’t: Nintendo Land is built on simple, straightforward gameplay with cartoonish visuals and enough exposition to qualify as its own strategy guide.
But then again, maybe the Wii U is the mythical “hardcore” Nintendo console. In sharp contrast to the Wii — which always advertised itself as the family-friendly, G-rated, good-clean-fun console — the Wii U arrives in stores this week with ports of some of the biggest, best, and most violent games of the modern era. For the first time in living memory, a Nintendo household can play the newest Call of Duty. Three of the biggest and most gorgeous games of the year — Assassin’s Creed III, Darksiders II and Mass Effect III — are available for the Wii U. So, for that matter, is Batman: Arkham City, one of the flat-out best games of the last decade.
Of course, none of these games are Wii U exclusives. The console’s one fresh-out-of-the-gate mature-content exclusive is ZombiU, a weirdly unremarkable entry in the popular undead-killing shooter genre. ZombiU has an interesting central premise — when you die, you take control of a different apocalypse survivor, and you might have to kill your undead previous self — but the visuals are muddy, and the control scheme is outright senseless.
Let’s talk about those controls for a second. Nintendo’s last revolution was controller-based: The Wiimote didn’t look like anything you’d ever seen before, but it played so intuitively that it made other videogame controllers look alien by comparison. The Wiimote was a monument to simplification. The Wii U’s control scheme is something very different. The GamePad works differently for every game: Sometimes it’s a second screen, sometimes it’s sonar, sometimes it’s your inventory. Some games require the use of an old-fashioned Wiimote; some of them only really make sense if you use the Wii U Pro Controller.
The big innovation here is the GamePad, which is ridiculously fun to use. It basically feels like a Game Gear with the soul of an iPad Mini, which is to say, incredibly intuitive and modern and retro all at once. And as you might expect, the current spate of launch titles feel like they only scratch the surface of the GamePad’s possibilities. The two games I played at E3 which made the best use of the new touchscreen controller — Pikmin 3 and The Wonderful 101 (formerly Project P-100) — aren’t in stores yet. The Wii U ports which try to retcon the GamePad into their design scheme are mostly noble failures. As my colleague Matt Cabral pointed out in his review of the Wii U’s Arkham City, the GamePad mostly serves the same function as the Pause Menu. On one hand, this is very cool; on the other hand, you’re paying a lot of money for something that used to be just a Pause Menu.
So the Wii U is a console which looks towards the future and recalls a glorious past; which prioritizes collective party-game experiences while also letting you access some of the best single-player games of the last generation; and which features an incredible new control scheme currently in search of a killer app. And that’s ignoring the TVii system, which promises to unite all the divergent strands of your TV viewership system — Netflix, OnDemand, Hulu, Whatever — into one handy and rather Apple-looking menu. (The TVii system is weirdly reminiscent of the mythic TV-fixing solution which Steve Jobs mapped out to his biographer before he died — I’m tempted to say that, even if the Wii U fails as a videogame console, it might turn out to be the best way to save your confused parents from another decade of juggling five remote controls for a single TV set.)
So: Is the Wii U worth it? I’m tempted to say “not right now,” which is the de facto ham-handed response that reviewers trot out with every videogame console launch. It’s rare for a new system to come out the gate with a defining killer-app masterpiece — although Nintendo managed that trick with Wii Sports on the Wii and Super Mario 64 on the Nintendo 64. If there is a killer app for the Wii U, it’s the lone standout minigame in Nintendo Land, “Luigi’s Ghost Mansion,” which perfectly blends together the GamePad and the regular Wiimote controllers. Up to five people can play. One of you uses the GamePad, and plays as the Ghost; the other people play off the TV screen. You can see them on the GamePad; they can’t see you on TV. This sounds so simple. I had a couple friends over, and we laughed and screamed and threatened to punch each other and could have played just that single minigame for hours.
You can see how that design philosophy will reap benefits down the line: How it might be incorporated into the next incarnation of Smash Brothers or MarioKart. The deluxe edition of the Wii U — which comes with Nintendo Land — costs $350, which is about half what a top-of-the-line Playstation 3 cost six years ago. If you’re a parent with a big family, or a college kid, or anyone who regularly sits in front of a TV set with three or more people — basically, if you’re in the market for a one-size-fits-all entertainment option — then the Wii U is probably a safe bet.
But the Wii U doesn’t really solve the main issue that has plagued Nintendo in the last half-decade. See, Nintendo’s defining franchise used to be Super Mario. Every mainline incarnation was built on the same philosophy: Combining simple gameplay fundamentals (run, jump, fireball) with complicated environments. They were epic adventures built on a million little details. Nintendo’s new defining franchise, though, is probably Mario Party, the regularly-updated minigame orgy. Mario Party is basically the million little details with the adventure removed: It’s a tweet-length videogame, designed for everyone and no one all at once. There’s no Mario Party for the Wii U yet, but Nintendo Land is a rose by any other name; fellow launch title Rabbids Land advertises itself as “the perfect party game!” and there’s another game with the boardroom-brainstorm title Game Party Champions.
The weird focus on “Party” games — which, in context, seems to mean “so simple that five people can play it while carrying on a conversation and cooking dinner” — meant that the Wii always had a central problem: It just didn’t have very many good games. The Super Mario Galaxy duology was fun, but felt simultaneously overstuffed and undernourished, sacrificing the clean design philosophy of earlier Mario games in favor of candy-caffeinated ADD aesthetic. The Wii had one defining masterpiece which essentially provided redemption for the whole idea of motion gaming: Skyward Sword, a game which I’ve discussed at length elsewhere. But that was an unexpected last hurrah. And the Wii U is the first Nintendo console ever to launch without a big mascot-franchise single-player adventure — unless you count New Super Mario Bros. U, a manic travesty which feels like Super Mario Bros III was pumped full of steroids and Four Loko and then left lying on the street to choke on its own mushroom vomit.
So if you’re the kind of Nintendo fan who yearns for the grand epic adventures — the Marios, the Zeldas, the Metroids — then the Wii U is a wait-and-see proposition: Wait for those games to come out, see if they look more like Skyward Sword than New Super Mario Bros. If you’re a helpless Nintendo fan who just wants to have a new MarioKart, the Wii U is for you. If your kids want to play videogames and you don’t want them to kill a million digital people, the Wii U is also for you — with the caveat that you might be better off just getting them a 3DS.* If you’re willing to invest in the future hope that TVii becomes the revolutionary system it claims to be, then by all means, buy the Wii U and enjoy having a remote control that actually makes sense.
But if you’re someone who values innovation and evolution in videogames — who found yourself waiting in vain for Nintendo to use the Wii’s motion-control scheme to push the boundaries of the medium forward — then the initial launch of the Wii U feels like a gimmicky missed chance. It’s like one of those countertop touchscreen videogame systems you find in bars. The Wii U is Megatouch writ large: Fun enough to amuse you, too cheap to complain about, and nothing you’ll ever remember in the morning.
*One of the best Wii U launch titles, Scribblenauts Unlimited, is also one of the most frustrating. It’s a beautiful-looking game on your Wii U Gamepad, but the visuals look too plastic on your TV set. In essence, then, it’s a game designed for your GamePad. It’s also available for the 3DS. Which brings us back to the original question: Is the Wii U just a handheld-games console that happens to occasionally plug into your TV set?
Follow Darren on Twitter: @DarrenFranich
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