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Wii U: The Year Two Review

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Still a monstrous disappointment commercially, yet now a must-have system for any devoted gamer.

Mario is often the first word that springs to mind when thinking about past Nintendo consoles, but the Wii U bucks this trend for the wrong reasons. The extent of the console's problems, and the continual emergence of them, marks it with the taint of failure.

It's the console that most third-party publishers have collectively abandoned, quietly and politely turning their attentions elsewhere, leaving a revered games company with a duty to singlehandedly carry its own system through an entire generation. This is unquestionably a nightmare scenario for any platform holder, and a burden of care that will drag on for years.

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Now Playing: It It Time to Buy a Wii U?

But is the Wii U a console that gamers should abandon too? That is a different question entirely. After all, Nintendo and its internal teams have been working tirelessly to create world-class games that, they hope, will demonstrate that the Wii U is a worthy purchase no matter what the rest of the industry is saying.

Below GameSpot has created a comprehensive review to mark the two-year anniversary since the system's release, guided by a simple yet important question for any gamer: Is it time to buy a Wii U?

On Saturday, November 15, GameSpot marked the one-year anniversary of the PS4's release with a similarly styled analysis. On Saturday November 22, we'll conclude with a breakdown of the Xbox One.

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The Wii U is Burdened by Old Architecture

It is a challenge to measure the sheer extent of commercial damage Nintendo has inflicted on itself from manufacturing a console with a relatively poor hardware performance.

One of the worst outcomes, undoubtedly, is the inferiority of the hardware (combined with its uniqueness) has convinced many triple-A publishers to outright avoid porting their games onto Nintendo's console.

Granted, this is just one of several reasons why the Wii U's third-party game library is demonstrably barren. Other issues, such as customer demographics and Nintendo's business relationship with publishers, each make their own contribution to the problem.

The Wii U processor is a re-architected version of the Wii's CPU
The Wii U processor is a re-architected version of the Wii's CPU

But put it this way: Even if third-party publishers were financially convinced by the idea of shipping their games on Wii U, developers would still face the complex (and possibly hopeless) challenge of porting code designed for high-end systems.

The processor is a major culprit, clocking at 1.24 GHz, and famously described by a senior Metro Last Light coder as a "horrible, slow CPU". Weeks after the Wii U's release, it was revealed that the chip is a re-architected version of the original Wii's Broadway processor, which itself was an overclocked version of the GameCube's Gekko CPU.

The Wii U processor clocks at 1.24 GHz, and was famously described by a senior Metro Last Light coder as a "horrible, slow CPU"

Although skilled coders tend to be proficient at creating software that is scalable across many platforms, the Wii U's bottlenecks require the kind of man-hours and expertise that only blockbuster sales potential could justify.

Complicating matters further is the paltry 1GB of DDR3 memory reserved for games, which is dwarfed by the PlayStation 4's 4.5GB of DDR5 available to devs, and the Xbox One's similar make-up. Capacity is another major setback, with developers explaining problems with fitting their digital games on a hard-drive that can be as small as 8GB.

In terms of form-factor, the Wii U is slick, small and quiet. Much like with any Nintendo product, one shouldn't have concerns over its mechanical reliability and premium finish.

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The GamePad Makes Matters Worse...

It is a natural law of electronic consumer goods is that the poorer the performance, and the cheaper the components, the more reasonable the price. Perhaps the most damaging flaw of the Wii U is that it does not adhere to this.

What creates this exception is the Wii U GamePad, a chubby and clumsy touch-screen controller that packs numerous technologies such as NFC, a slightly-better-than-SD display, along with its own sensor bar, a microphone, a gyrometer, an accelerometer, added with all the trappings of a regular controller.

Such a concoction doesn't come cheap. According to initial teardown evaluations (now old, but still a useful measure) the GamePad alone costs $80 in materials. That equates to more than half the price of the main console unit itself, which is roughly $148. Look no further than these figures when pondering why the Wii U is so disproportionately expensive, with the PS4 and Xbox One priced at just $50-$100 more despite their strikingly advanced hardware.

...And, Worse Still, the GamePad is Flawed

Concluding this nightmare scenario for Nintendo is the GamePad itself which, in addition to driving up the price of antiquated hardware, is unwieldy and often unpleasant.

Purely from a traditionalist's viewpoint, holding a controller with palms nearly a foot apart takes some time to acclimatise to. This distance is to accommodate the 6.2" touch-screen, which ultimately proves to be at the heart of the controller's problems.

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Nintendo isn't afraid of thinking different, which is a key theme of so many of its previous success stories, but this time the corporation has overlooked a fundamental rule: game controllers are supposed to disappear in players' hands. The GamePad does anything but. Its screen flashes imagery you'll try to ignore, its layout is a distractingly bad fit that you're supposed to overlook, while the force feedback amounts to an eerie phantom rumble situated in the no-man's-land between your hands.

Pikmin 3 ofers an excellent example of how the GamePad is more a distraction in practice. The game plays impeccably with the Wii Remote and Nun-chuck (sold separately), meaning the GamePad itself could've been peacefully relegated to the coffee table, were it not for routine in-game prompts which demand players read text from the touch-screen rather than the TV itself.

This kind of shoehorning is something Nintendo has gradually learned to avoid, which is why even its flagship Wii U games, such as Super Mario 3D World, Super Smash Bros, and Mario Kart 8, do not employ touch-screen controls in a meaningful way. Nintendo's general neglect of the Wii U's unique control properties is somewhat surprising, but nevertheless a wise sacrifice.

Nintendo's neglect of the Wii U's unique control properties is somewhat surprising, but nevertheless a wise sacrifice.

There are numerous other isolated problems with the controller, such as the questionable button layout, and rock-bottom quality of the shoulder buttons, as well as the clumsiness of the single-touch-screen, along with the noticeably cheap materials. This is more GameGear than iPad. The battery life is also rather poor, while the charging connectors are proprietary, and there is no single genre of game one could say the controller is ideally suited for.

Furthermore, GamePads are not sold standalone, so if they break or malfunction, they'll need to be sent to Nintendo for repairs rather than replaced in-store.

Awesome Bonus: It’s Also a Wii

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One dreadfully underappreciated aspect of the Wii U is its extensive backwards compatibility. Nintendo has opted for hardware emulation, meaning that all Wii discs and digital games (WiiWare and Virtual Console) can be played on the Wii U without any hassle.

The system itself comes packaged with a sensor bar, meaning it is compatible with all Wii Remotes (not just Wii Remote Pluses, as is sometimes misreported) as well as Pro Controllers and various peripheral attachments such as the steering wheel.

One should not underestimate the value presented here. There is no lost magic in games such as Wii Sports, or Mario Galaxy 1 and 2, or the Metroid Prime Trilogy (if you can still find it), or Zelda Twilight Princess. Nintendo has some of the most capable minds in the industry when it comes to creating content with long-term appeal.

Furthermore, players can still access the Wii Shop channel and buy all its digital games, offering access to a vast library of retro content. At the time of writing, the virtual catalogue offers:

  • 79 NES games
  • 61 SNES games
  • 21 N64 games
  • 74 Mega Drive/Genesis games
  • 15 Master System Games
  • 54 NeoGeo games
  • 58 Turbografx games
  • 20 Virtual Console Arcade games

Again, there is nothing backwards about playing Super Mario World in 2014. It’s as glorious and essential today as it was in 1992. That applies to Ocarina of Time too, and F-Zero X, and Mario 64 and Super Puyo Puyo and Harvest Moon and Super Metroid and dozens of other evergreen classics. At the very least, it’s worth taking a look at what’s on offer, especially considering that the Wii U’s digital library is hardly oceanic.

There is one caveat: The currency model remains a little consumer-hostile, because cash deposited is still converted into points, and it’s very likely that you’ll still have non-refundable points hanging over after making a purchase.

Elementally, it’s a system that ensures you deposit £10/$10 to buy a Master System game, as opposed to a reasonable price.

Off-TV Play is a Perk, But Not a System-Seller

Perhaps the most positive aspect of the Wii U GamePad is how it bypasses the necessity to play games through the TV, and the relative ease in which this can be done.

However, much like with the PlayStation 4's Remote Play function, Off-TV Play proves to be a luxury that requires a particular set of circumstances to be necessary. To wit; only if the television is otherwise occupied, and if there is enough charge in the Wii U GamePad, and if the player is sitting close enough to the Wii U console, does Off-TV Play enter into the equation.

This is clearly a superior service than Remote Play, by some margin, due to its low latency and how, unlike with PS Vita, it does not compromise the button layout. However, the GamePad needs to be within a ten-foot range from the console in order to function, and one must accept that they are condensing a full-screen experience onto a 6.2" 854x480 display.

Off-TV Play is supported by the majority of Wii U games already, which makes it a useful plan-b. It's also excellent, some say, for those who want to play games in bed. However, most people will not use it with any regularity, and only a few will swear by it.

The Wii U Pro Controller is an 80-Hour Miracle

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Even if the Wii U GamePad is possibly Nintendo's worst controller since the Virtual Boy, one shouldn't forget the corporation's long-established reputation for designing fantastic controllers.

Certainly, Nintendo's signature expertise and craftsmanship can be found in the Wii U Pro Controller, a beautifully calibrated and meticulously programmed pad that apes the standard Xbox model.

There are no dramatic breakaways from tradition here--everything works how one would assume and, with the exception of the rickety shoulder buttons, it performs better than expected. The battery life, meanwhile, is remarkable. One full charge lasts a staggering 80 hours.

Those who are saving up to buy a Wii U should absolutely try to find some extra cash to buy a Pro Controller. It makes playing games on the system that much more enjoyable.

PC enthusiasts: This is the controller you need to mod.

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Wii U's Operating System Has Improved Dramatically

Only those who bought the Wii U at launch day can fully appreciate the lengths Nintendo has taken to revamp the Wii U system software. Several key updates, released across 18 months, have transformed how fast and manageable the OS has become.

In fact, as hard as it is to believe, in some cases the Wii U has swung from being the slowest console to the fastest. Testing the time between power-on to game loading screen shows that the PS4 takes 35 seconds, compared to 24 seconds for Xbox One and 20 seconds on Wii U. By comparison, at launch the Wii U took about 25 seconds just to boot the system menu.

As hard as it is to believe, in some cases the Wii U has swung from being the slowest console to the fastest.

Key to the transformation is the Quick Start option, which displays ten recently used games and apps on the GamePad as the console begins to boot. Selecting one of these means the console will bypass the home menu and launch the game straight away. Sony and Microsoft would be wise to duplicate this.

While switching between game and home menu is still painfully long compared to the instantaneousness of the PS4 and Xbox One, it has nevertheless been reduced from 24 seconds down to just nine.

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Meanwhile, the home screen layout is uncomplicated and familiar, opting for a grid of games and apps much like iOS and Android. Folders have also been implemented for us to indulge in our inner-OCD, as well as hide away system apps that you cannot uninstall.

Another touch, and an important one for those who want to use their console regularly, is the general pleasantness of the Wii U menus. The ambient music, the unfussy visuals, the adorable blabber sound of a Mii in the background, makes the Wii U a console with five-star hospitality.

Miiverse is Adorable, but Throwaway

Granted, when you power on the Wii U it probably won't be due to a pressing urge to read Miiverse posts. Nevertheless, it's hard not to chuckle at doodles and hand-written messages as they automatically pop up on the home screen.

Plus, the social network itself has a wonderfully friendly community that would make any Twitter denizen believe that world peace is possible. Just take a look here to see how much love is thrown around the place.

You'll also spot Miiverse posts in some games, with users offering throwaway comments and helpful tips, though you can switch these off if you wish.

This isn't a system-selling app, nor a serious alternative to Twitter or Facebook. It's not a place where you'll spot your friends either, and perhaps this is the most significant drawback. But it's free and puts a smile on your face, which surely classifies it as a win.

Wii U is a Meagre Media Player

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If you want a console that offers an all-encompassing multimedia solution, the Wii U won't even come close to satisfying you. It contemptuously spits out Blu-ray discs, and even DVDs and CDs, as well as movie files via external hard drives. Also, its digital film and TV offering is limited to Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Video, and YouTube.

The Wii U contemptuously spits out Blu-ray discs, and even DVDs and CDs

Meanwhile, the TVii channel (which attempts to unify TV streams with digital services such as Netflix) is notoriously slow, which outright negates the convenience of turning to it in the first place. Elsewhere, the remote control app, which runs on the GamePad without needing to powering on the console, makes for a nice emergency replacement, but is far too basic to be a true alternative to the TV remote.

If by some reason you only watch shows and films through Netflix, you're in luck, as the GamePad makes it one of the best platforms to play it on. But if you want anything beyond that, you'll need to look elsewhere.

The eShop is Delightful

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Motivated by the credo of putting smiles on faces, Nintendo often goes extra lengths to make its services accommodating and enjoyable. Few things typify this better than the Wii U eShop, which is presented with a hospitality that is both quirky and carefree.

First, and it needs to be said, the eShop plays the most adorably bad muzak you'll ever hear. Its saccharine chip-tunes will hang around in your head long after you've switched the console off. Also, the music changes every few months, and during certain times of the year such as Christmas. It's hard not to fall in love with this.

The eShop plays the most adorably bad muzak you'll ever hear.

In terms of layout, while the PS4 and Xbox One go for an automated grid system, Nintendo painstakingly builds the shop as though it were a magazine, resplendent with artwork spreads, spotlights and trailers. It's bold and colourful yet easy to read, and an ideal fit for TV or GamePad.

As well as custom layouts, the eShop is also rich on ideas, featuring staff picks and unique categories, such as "games to play together." Also, each game page is packed with useful data, such as trailers, screenshots, to data on download sizes.

Nintendo Has Made Strides, But More Must Follow

It's encouraging to witness major improvements and additions to the Wii U system software over the past two years, each contributing to a more reliable, faster and convenient system to operate. Modern services, such as pre-downloading and remote purchasing, are gradually being introduced. But the company is still far away from mission accomplished.

The lack of cloud saving options is quite shocking for a console that is supposed to be next-gen

The omission of cloud saving options, in particular, is quite shocking for a console that is supposed to be next-gen. Also, tying games to Nintendo Network IDs, as opposed to hardware, is an essential step Nintendo must take in order to modernise. There's also a surprising lack of personalisation, with no achievements, nor much other valuable data, attached to your profile.

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Wii U Has, by Far, the Best Next-Gen Games Out There...

It's almost as though Nintendo's internal development teams are possessed by the desire to singlehandedly revive the Wii U's fortunes. From Super Mario 3D World to Bayonetta 2 to Wind Waker HD to Mario Kart 8 to Pikmin 3, right now the Wii U has more essential, can't-miss games than the PS4 and Xbox One combined. For a system that launched with Nintendo Land, it's a stupefying achievement.

Right now the Wii U has more essential, can't-miss games than the PS4 and Xbox One combined.

Cynics will view Nintendo's first-party line-up as little more than HD rehashes, but in truth these games are some of the best editions of the company's most legendary franchises.

Building games in high-definition for the first time has strained and stretched the Kyoto corporation's internal development teams, resulting in frequent delays, but the payoff has been worth it. As much as the Wii U hardware can be criticised (see all above), there are few games more visually impressive than Mario Kart 8 and Wind Waker HD. These are games so staggeringly beautiful that one begins to question the significance of raw hardware specs in the first place.

...But the Library is Desperately Thin

The Wii U is one of the only active games platforms that does not support Minecraft
The Wii U is one of the only active games platforms that does not support Minecraft

The ultimate sacrifice Wii U owners make is that they are cut off from the vast majority of third-party games, both triple-A and indie, unless they buy an additional system.

To fully understand how desperate the situation is, look no further than the list of multi-platform games released in 2014 that haven't arrived on Wii U: Minecraft, The Evil Within, Sleeping Dogs Definitive, Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel, Dark Souls II, NBA 2K15, Alien: Isolation, Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, Destiny, Metro Redux, Diablo 3, Ultra Street Fighter 4, GTA V, Trials Fusion, Call of Duty Advanced Warfare, Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes, South Park: The Stick of Truth, The Wolf Among Us, The Walking Dead Season 2, and Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition.

Oh, and all EA games. And all Assassin's Creed games this year, both last-gen and new. Wii U may have the best exclusive games in town, but it will still guarantee jealousy unless another console is bought along with it.

Nintendo No Longer Fears Generosity

For a company that once publicly warned developers about the apparent hazards of selling games for just a dollar, Nintendo has been surprisingly cavalier with its deals and prices in recent months.

Perhaps most strikingly big-hearted of all Nintendo's offers was the free game it bundled with Mario Kart 8 in the UK. Those who bought ahead of release could download one of eight major games, including Wind Waker HD and Pikmin 3, at no additional cost.

But there are also numerous discounts and offers spread across the eShop, offering savings between 10 and 50 percent. You'll find roughly the same number of discounts here as you would with PS Plus, though without needing to pay a subscription to take advantage of it.

For Now, Amiibo Are Missed Potential

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Nintendo's Amiibo figurines, which are premium plastic toys that transmit data to the Wii U via NFC technology, are laced with promise but have yet to realise much of it.

At the time of writing, they are principally used to create AI characters in Super Smash Bros for Wii U. It's hardly the most compelling reason to buy a small plastic toy, especially one that fetches $13. Also, Nintendo recently revealed that Amiibo can only store data for one compatible game at a time. Not ideal.

GameSpot senior editor Justin Haywald, who has spent a fair amount of time with the Amiibo range, says they are "a me-too idea that's a good reflection of Nintendo's recent philosophy: Taking other people's ideas, in this case Skylanders, and not doing them quite as well".

He adds: "Amiibo have potential, especially since they can work across lots of games, but Nintendo hasn't come close to realising that yet."

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VERDICT: Is It Time to Buy a Wii U?

Should Nintendo just abandon the Wii U and move on? It's an unpleasant question that has likely crossed the minds of most game devotees.

Certainly, the console's mortal clock is something that hangs in its owners' minds, much in the same way early Xbox 360 adopters battled subconscious anxieties over the emergence of three red rings.

The rest of the industry appears to have made up its mind, with hardly any major established publishers showing faith in the system. You cannot blame them for this. In an age where Nintendo needed to be more proactive than ever with third-party relations, the Wii U represents the company at its most stranded from the rest of the industry.

The Wii U offers some of the finest Nintendo games in years... Just enough, in fact, to make the console an essential purchase.

But Nintendo is fighting back, possessed by that longstanding and essential rule of business: keep your customers happy. And it does this so capably, creating some of the finest Nintendo games in years. In fact, not just the best versions of its garlanded franchises, not just an answer to critics, but outright some of the best games you'll play in years. Just enough, in fact, to make the console an essential purchase.

Let's be honest: The Wii U, when compared to the phenomenal success of the original Wii, is a disastrous console. But that won't be its legacy. When it finally goes gentle into that good night, people will look back on it the same way they speak about the Dreamcast; a strange few years filled with the best games of a generation. Does that really sound like something you should miss out on?

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Rob Crossley

Rob Crossley was GameSpot's UK Editor between 2014 and 2016.

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