The Nintendo Wii U is again trying to redefine the way we play but can the dual-screen attack really unite us all?
T3 was the first UK title to get hands-on with the Nintendo Wii U a full two E3s ago when it was just a fledgling concept. We liked it a lot. However, the landscape has changed somewhat since then, with everyone from Sony to Apple having a pop at second-screen gaming. With the next gen of consoles set to launch in 2013, has Nintendo left its home reinvention too late?
Nintendo Wii U: Size and build
Well, this new console certainly sees it trying to harness the social acceptability of its staggeringly successful predecessor – all the Nintendo Wii's peripherals are still compatible, as are the games, and the base unit even looks similar, if elongated – while returning to the company's more high-specced, GameCube-esque past.
So yes, the graphics are HD at last and, yes, you can buy a Pro Controller (£40) with an Xbox-like grip so you won't be excluded from full-fat Call of Duty Black Ops 2 like some pixelated pariah.
A good start, but that's not the main event. If all you're after is bleeding-edge tech specs, Nintendo is not your company. What it does do is innovate, and the results can be thrilling. With the Wii U it's produced a refined system totally in balance with itself rather than just an interconnecting collection of gadgetry.
Nintendo Wii U: GamePad controller
The key part is the wireless GamePad controller. It may look odd, but it's clearly been tweaked within an inch of its life. Originally toting Nintendo 3DS-esque circle pads, the design has been overhauled to offer full analogue controls, just like the Sony PS3 and Xbox 360.
Light at just 500g with ergonomic curves, we spent several days clutching it and not once did our hands ache or sweat. It's also reliably chunky, made to be passed around the family, down the back of the sofa, and back again. The 6.2-inch display is only a resistive one-touch screen, so it won't trouble the iPad or PS Vita in tech terms, but it's implementation that counts.
The accelerometer, gyroscope and geomagnetic sensor inside the GamePad mean motion-sensing is integral and, via a sensor bar atop your TV, very accurate. Use it to aim an archery bow in Legend of Zelda: Battle Quest, scan areas off of the main screen for signs of the undead in ZombiU or “sping, sping, sping” ninja stars like that game in the advert.
A TV button launches Nintendo's remote app to turn the GamePad into an infrared telly controller
Nintendo Wii U: Camera
There's also a front-facing camera of unquoted but clearly low meggage. Not just for video chat, it's also used to personalise games – Mario Chase, the hide and seek homage, shows the hider's face on your TV screen, smirking until you catch 'em.
Charged by microUSB from the console or in a dock cradle if you splash out on the Premium Pack, it gets three to five hours of gameplay out of a two and a half hour charge, depending on your preferred settings.
Similar to a 3DS's life with 3D fully enabled, it will therefore struggle with long, wireless gaming sessions, but thankfully it can be plugged in separately from the console. A plug socket by the sofa and there's still no need for wires all over your living room between unit and controller.
Nintendo Wii U: Features
As well as gaming and chat, the Wii U menu connects to the Miiverse social network, an internet browser and eShop for downloadable games, all accessed on your main telly or touchscreen. The GamePad can't be taken out of the house, connected as it is, graphically if not umbilically, to the console, but it can be fired up exclusively from the TV for quick tablet-like gaming or web browsing bursts.
All of the processing power is in the base unit, the GamePad merely a wireless vessel with a screen that houses a beamed signal from the main unit. That we didn't find any latency in picture or sound is incredibly impressive.
The Wii U only comes with one GamePad, but each console can support two – no launch titles take advantage of this, alas (or the NFC reader). Social gaming is still the key, though, with the ability to connect numerous Wii Remotes.
Titles like Nintendo Land are full of co-operative and collaborative challenges that use the GamePad as a second hub, away from prying eyes, whether it's to act as dungeon master against three Remote-wielders or as captain of a ship giving the others a lift.
Initially there may be fights over who gets control of the new toy, but the challenges are compelling regardless of your weapon choice. Although, the ability to take your widescreen gaming to the small screen when someone wants to watch telly will never fail to impress.
If anything, the problem with the Wii U is that away from graphical power, which is easily up to current-gen standard but sure to pale in comparison to what Sony and Microsoft have in store, it almost does too many things.
The Wii was such a simple concept; if you could waft your arms, you could play a game. The Wii U's “asymmetrical gameplay” is more complex, and after its initial announcement some gamers were left scratching their heads. The flip side is that if you give it a chance, the more rich and varied gameplay will have you hooked for far longer.
Nintendo Wii U: Connections
The GamePad is such a showstopper that the console itself can be overlooked. However, with HDMI, four USB 2.0 ports for peripherals and external hard drives, and an SDHC slot for further storage, it sure is connected.
The online network, eShop and TVii media streaming weren't up and running during our tests, while the menu interface was also not finalised, but check back here for an update when these go live.
Nintendo Wii U: Games
As with all consoles it's the games as much as the tech that attracts attention. The Wii U's launch line-up is strong, covering everything from triple-A big-hitters to cheaper indie downloads, single-player adventures to multiplayer feasts. We'd have liked more new franchises, rather than big name games with Wii U features bolted on, but we're hopeful this will improve post-launch.
Nintendo Wii U: Launch games
Nintendo Land - A great intro to the Wii U's inputs a la Wii Sports, this comes bundled free in most packages. Includes 12 meaty mini-games themed round Nintendo classics from Donkey Kong to Zelda.
ZombiU - Call of Duty aside, this survival horror is the Wii U's killer app for the hardcore. Check inventory, maps and clues in real-time on the GamePad while prone to attack? Tense.
FIFA 13 - EA hasn't quite packed in all its footie sim's 360 and PS3 features, but stat-heavy sports games really sing on the second screen. No more pausing to make subs or tactical masterstrokes.
New Super Mario Bros U - Sure, it's a 2D platformer (Galaxy will have to wait), but the breadth of its multi-terrained world is stunning and collaborative multiplayer engaging.
Mass Effect 3 Special Edition - You may have already completed this, but as an example of reinterpretation, it's a blast, with ace graphics and team organisation via the touchscreen excellent.
Trine 2 Director's Cut - Proof that Nintendo is upping its downloadable content game, this overhaul of the excellent Xbox Live Arcade fantasy is reborn in new Scribblenauts-esque touchscreen trousers.
Nintendo Wii U: Verdict
Ultimately, the Wii U is a potential-packed system that plays like a dream and at a decent, if not recession-proof, price. An obvious upgrade for Wii owners as it utilises a lot of the hardware you'll already have, it's the clear attempt to tempt hardcore gamers that will be intriguing to see play out.
Like Apple, Nintendo has become a conscientious objector in the tech spec wars, building fine products that you only really appreciate once they're in your hands. The Wii U once again sees Nintendo plotting its own course and the results are as unique as they are satisfying. We just hope everyone is game.
Nintendo Wii U release date: Out now
Nintendo Wii U price: £250 (8GB basic pack), £300 (32GB premium pack), games from £40