Note: This review focuses on the Wii U hardware and the Nintendo Land game, touching on a few other launch games. Reviews of Wii U games will become part of regular coverage in the coming weeks as more of our contributors get their hands on the system.
When people are lost, they tend to drift in circles. Even if you’re trying your damnedest to walk in a straight line, your brain will make many small, unconscious adjustments that add up and cause your path to veer. Launched yesterday, the Wii U offers a similar experience. It wanders in one half-hearted direction and then another, the whole time insisting that it’s forging straight ahead. Now that I’ve spent the better part of a week with the thing, you’ll forgive me if I feel a little lost.
The Wii U is the successor to Nintendo’s Wii, a device built around the notion that your motions translate into action on your TV. The focus of the Wii U is a controller, the “GamePad,” that contains a full-color screen. The difference between these two centerpieces is that one of them is an idea, and one of them is a gadget masquerading as an idea. That explains why the initial experience with the Wii possessed a “Wow!” factor while the Wii U warrants more of an admiring “Huh.”
Along with the GamePad and the console itself, the Wii U Deluxe Set—which is the version Nintendo supplied to critics—comes with a GamePad charging cradle, a GamePad non-charging cradle for some reason, a console stand, cables, and the game Nintendo Land. The cheaper Basic Set ditches the cradles and stands, and it doesn’t include a game. It also offers only eight gigabytes of storage to the Deluxe version’s 32. That’s a paltry number, but the Wii U is compatible with standard SD cards—the same ones used in many digital cameras—so expanded storage is readily available (and pretty cheap). Also, while the Basic is white, the pricier Deluxe is black, so that your visitors will be able to see at a moment’s glance exactly how dedicated you are to the Nintendo cause.
As an object, the Wii U is one of the nicer gadgets that Nintendo has produced in a long time. The Wii always felt a little cheap, with its clattering disc drive and rickety access doors. And while later iterations of the handheld DS system were fairly refined, both releases of the more recent 3DS have come off as homely, plasticky-feeling toys. The Wii U unit is sleek and sturdy in comparison, and the GamePad is a minor marvel. It is surprisingly light but still solid, and it’s a handsome thing, too, with a pleasingly bright screen.
Perhaps the biggest surprise is that this enormous control surface is so easy to hold—only a little bit cumbersome. Unlike this year’s PlayStation Vita, which disregarded human anatomy whenever it inconvenienced the Sony engineers, Nintendo has taken pains to ensure that this intimidating device would start to win players over as soon as they got it into their own hands.
If only the experience of using the Wii U were as consistently pleasurable as these first impressions. The Wii U offers all of the technological advances that have migrated from PC games to TV games in the past decade—custom user profiles, networked play, an online store, downloadable updates—but it fails to integrate all of these features into a coherent system. Sure, Nintendo has come up with cute names and adorable icons for each of these things, but these superficial feints at user-friendliness are slathered on top of one setup screen after another.
After Nintendo made internet features available to reviewers late Saturday, it was time to link a Nintendo Network account to my user on the console. The Wii U wondered, did I already have a Nintendo Network account? It sounded like something I would have. But the Nintendo Network did not recognize me. That’s because I was putting in my Nintendo eShop credentials (I think), and those two things are not the same (I think), even though the eShop account is linked to my Club Nintendo account (also not the same). So I tried transferring my user information over from the Wii. To do this, I would need the Wii Transfer app. To get this, I would need to download the app from the store. But I couldn’t access the store, because I needed to link the Nintendo Network account to the cat that killed the rat that ate the cheese that lay in the house that Nintendo built.
Navigating the Wii U’s firmament of features and online systems is an unacceptably baroque experience; it’s almost as bad as the ongoing human-interface bed-shitting that takes place on Sony’s game consoles. I recognize that the infrastructure of video games has become far more elaborate since the days when you could slam a cartridge into the NES and it would flicker to life almost instantly. I do, however, wonder why we have allowed those structural improvements to take us so far from that power-on-and-play ideal.
It seems that from the first time we, as players, grudgingly accepted a “Now Loading…” progress bar as part of the TV game experience, the console makers have bitten off larger and larger chunks of our time while we reaped diminishing returns. It’s not just games that take a while to load on the Wii U—even going to the main menu freezes up the machine for a disturbingly long stretch. If the executives at Nintendo’s Kyoto HQ are wondering why smartphone games are eating their lunch, might I suggest one reason: Neither Apple nor Google would ever ship software that takes 20 seconds to bring up the system-settings screen.
(Indeed, one of my favorite stories from the early days of Apple is one in which Steve Jobs muses that with a reduction of 10 seconds in the Mac’s boot time, multiplied by millions of users, Apple engineers could save the equivalent of a dozen lives. In contrast, here’s the Wii U and its “Please Wait…” screens, gradually pressing a pillow over our collective faces as it hums the theme to The Legend Of Zelda.)
Nintendo Land is designed to show everything that the Wii U can do, and it does a nice job of that, but “technology demo” is not a very appealing formulation for a video game. The implicit question of Wii Sports—the phenomenal game that came with the original Wii—was, “Wouldn’t it be great if you could hit dingers on screen just by swinging your arms like a baseball player?” The technology acted in service of the idea. In Nintendo Land, the ideas act in service of the technology.
The game takes place in a Nintendo-themed amusement park, and the park is gorgeous even if the amusement end of things can be a bit shaky. Each of Nintendo Land’s 12 mini-game “attractions” is clearly designed to show off another aspect of the Wii U’s genius. For instance, in “Mario Chase,” up to four players with regular old Wiimotes (the same ones used for the Wii) try to chase down Mario, who’s controlled by the player using the GamePad. The twist is that the Wiimote players have a limited view of the playing field on the TV, while Mario benefits from a bird’s-eye view on his personal GamePad screen. It’s a demonstration of the GamePad’s capacity for asymmetrical play, in which one player works with a different set of information than the others.
That concept seems to have deep potential—it is the closest that the Wii U comes to a Big Idea—which is why it’s odd to find such a thin execution of it here. While “Mario Chase” is definitely enjoyable, it plays like a stripped-down interpretation of the “battle mode” arenas from the Mario Kart games. Another asymmetrical game, “Luigi’s Ghost Mansion,” has a spooky atmosphere and twisty architecture that do a little more to hold the players’ interest. Even so, its “Wiimote players chase down the GamePad villain” format is awfully similar to “Mario Chase,” and it could be a sign that Nintendo is already struggling to come up with ways to use its vaunted second screen.
On the other hand, perhaps the company’s developers are saving their cleverest stuff for something other than a grab bag of mini-games. I wouldn’t blame them. Some of the attractions in Nintendo Land are quite fun, like the Rube Goldberg-style Donkey Kong obstacle course that has nothing to do with Donkey Kong, or a wonderfully silly Animal Crossing capture-the-flag type game that has nothing to do with Animal Crossing. (Nintendo’s profligate branding might be just a touch cynical here.) But aside from their graphical polish and technological trappings, the Nintendo Land games possess the sophistication of an above-average browser game. They are designed to explain as much as they are to entertain.
Indeed, the emcee of Nintendo Land is an androgynous flying television with a robot voice who does nothing but explain. This creature swoops in whenever you try to do just about anything in Nintendo Land, wagging its finger at you to expound upon the rules, and the device, and whatever else it feels you might not understand on your own. This character is a huge annoyance, but Nintendo’s developers seem to think that players will find the Wii U baffling otherwise (an attitude I’ve noted before).
The trouble is not only that the litany of instructions is tedious, but also that the machine can be baffling anyway. Nintendo Land is supposedly a “party game,” but not even a key party in The Castro would force its guests to dick around with so many weird-looking toys. Some attractions require just the GamePad; others the GamePad and the WiiMote; still others the GamePad and the Wiimote and the Wiimote nunchuck attachments.
There are further permutations. New Super Mario Bros. U—which is exactly what you’d expect it to be, for better or worse—can be played with either the GamePad or Wiimote. If you play with the GamePad, the full game displays on the controller’s screen, complete with audio, meaning that you can take the controller into the next room and play while another member of your family watches something else entirely on the TV. This is actually a nice perk of the Wii U system. It’s even better than playing on a true portable system in some ways: Because the storage and processing guts reside in the Wii U console, the GamePad is noticeably lighter than an all-in-one handheld game system or, say, an iPad. Just don’t get used to this feature, because sometimes it won’t be available. Ninja Gaiden III: Razor’s Edge and Madden 2013, for instance, use the GamePad to display additional information to the player, so the mirroring function isn’t available.
So sometimes the GamePad is a venue for asymmetrical play. Sometimes it’s a readout for supplementary info, or a different view of the action on the main screen. And sometimes it’s just a TV alternative. This is without even mentioning the Pro Controller, which is yet another interface for Wii U games. It looks like an Xbox or PlayStation controller, except that the joystick and the buttons on the right half of the Pro Controller are reversed from the positions that “Pro” players are used to. Why did Nintendo reverse them? Because shut up, that’s why.
The upshot of this gadgetry kudzu is that before you even start playing a Wii U game, you practically need a flowchart to figure out what you’re supposed to have in your hands, and how you’re supposed to be holding it. That state of affairs is perplexing when you remember that not so many years ago, in the heyday of the Wii, Nintendo was stridently insisting on design simplicity. But this is what happens when a company loses track of a clear idea to orient itself. These myriad details are all the results of little adjustments that Nintendo has made, perhaps without being conscious of their effect on the whole, since the early days of the Wii. Each new feature is minor, yet each of them veers from the Wii’s once-clear path.
The upside to this less directed design, of course, is versatility. Games like ZombiU, in which the GamePad is used to “look around” your environment with, for instance, night vision or a sniper scope, offer some early promise of this versatility. It may be only a mild twist on the shoot-at-zombies trope, but this is where the greatest potential of the Wii U lies: in offering a new and thought-provoking window on the game worlds we inhabit.
Whether that potential will be fulfilled is anyone’s guess, and I don’t pretend to know. I will admit that I’m bearish on it. It’s easy to look at the Wii U hardware and say that it provides an opportunity for experimentation, even more so than the average high-definition game machine. Still, the Wii U doesn’t change the underlying calculus that has made groundbreaking thought so rare on the major consoles in recent years. The experimental developers like to ply their trade with smaller downloadable games on computers and phones because the cost of entry is low and therefore the financial risk is limited. Developing for a console is an expensive enterprise, after all. Sony and Microsoft recognize this problem and make a concerted effort to fund small independent developers that can provide at least a little offbeat flavor for their machines. (Sony in particular has an admirable penchant for funding weird projects.)
But Nintendo doesn’t work that way. Instead, it occasionally pushes the bounds with games developed in-house and then frets when the major studios don’t follow its example. Nintendo seems to believe that with new, more flexible hardware, the juggernauts—the Ubisofts and EAs of the world—will finally develop a taste for fresh new design ideas. I’m dubious of that thesis. I see no reason to believe that the library of the Wii U will shape up so differently from that of the Wii: a handful of landmark titles from Nintendo itself, a bunch of multi-platform ports from other studios with some token Wii-specific features tossed in, and a vast sea of chaff.
The Wii U may provide the venue for some world-changing games. It is not a “bad” console at all. Neither is it an especially compelling one quite yet. (New consoles rarely are.) It provides yet another box on which to play Netflix and Hulu (coming soon), yet another proprietary social network to join and ignore, yet another online-shop password to remember. Anybody can find something to like in this machine, the same way that a traveler wandering in circles will end up going your way once in a while. The trouble with forging ahead in every direction, of course, is that you tend to end up going nowhere. Or getting lost.