Wii U launches, still has some growing to do

November 20, 2012

The Wii U hit stores over the weekend, bringing its unique approach to the second-screen trend to buyers across the country.

The new console — Nintendo’s first in six years — has a tablet controller that can work as a smaller screen for different aspects of gameplay or when users want to make their TV gaming a bit more mobile. It’s a novel idea, and certainly one that developers and games can tinker with in the future. In fact, you could say that about a lot of what the Wii U has to offer. It has potential. But it’s not living up to it quite yet.

There are some big problems with the console at launch. The company released a big first-day update for the console, which takes a while to load onto the system. On its Twitter feed, Nintendo warned users against unplugging their systems mid-download.

“Doing so may cause damage to your Wii U,” the company said.

There are other problems with the console. For one, the system is laggy. Loading screens hang just long enough to make you wonder if something’s wrong with your system. A lot of the menu design feels clunky, not unlike the original Wii.

There are more updates to come. The console’s TV service integration features have been delayed for at least a couple of weeks until December. That means some of the console’s most compelling features — letting users access streaming video services, comment on television programs and see supplementary information while watching TV — have yet to see the light of day. In some ways, any review of the console now is premature. It also means users can expect another big update in the coming weeks.

Early adopters can nearly always expect launch issues, and it’s not unusual for gaming companies to release big updates to their products soon after they hit the market. But there are a lot of things the Wii U could use that go beyond a firmware update.

Graphically speaking, the Wii U is a step up from its predecessors but isn’t noticeably better than the PlayStation 3 or the Xbox 360; CNET’s Jeff Bakalar noted problems with some textures and frame rates. Overall, the graphics catch up to but don’t exceed the performance of the competition.

The GamePad tablet controller itself is a pretty good piece of hardware, and one that could slide easily into your daily routine. It also works as a television remote, which can be convenient if you’re trying to switch between a game and a television show. It will be more useful once the TV update rolls out.

Playing on it does require a bit of adjustment. The familiar controls are all there, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that you’re using some sort of enormous GameBoy Advance simultaneously with your normal game. But the controller itself feels good-in-hand and doesn’t increase the lag on the system. And the ability to leave the TV screen open for other things while gaming is pretty enticing.

One major problem with the GamePad is that it needs its own power source to charge — it can’t plug into the console — which can be a pain point for those living in outlet-challenged homes. The deluxe version of the console does come with a docking station, which can sit comfortably with your other remote controls on the coffee table.

Gameplay is where the Wii U needs the most growth, and sadly much of that advancement is out of Nintendo’s hands. There’s also no killer game that makes it worth buying the Wii U.

So while there’s a lot that’s appealing about the two-screen system, it’s not being used to its fullest. The Wii U launched with a star-studded lineup of games, many of which take a good stab at using the second screen — for menus, different kinds of play, etc. — but none that give you an “a-ha” moment about dual-screen gaming.

That’s what Nintendo needs more than anything. There’s certainly innovation here but, as was arguably true with the Wii, there aren’t games that hit or stretch the boundaries of what one could do with the system. Nintendo is stepping up its relationships with third-party developers — a sign for cautious optimism that it can deliver on the promise of its hardware.

Until then, Nintendo has a wait-and-see device on its hands.

Hayley Tsukayama covers consumer technology for The Washington Post.
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