Sunday, November 18, 2012

Wii U First Impressions

First of all this is a photography blog.  Nonetheless, I'm sure a portion of our readers are interested in tech-related news, so I hope you don't mind if I share some comments on Nintendo's Wii U.

UPDATE 11/22/12:  My son and I have played with the Wii U a couple more times since I last wrote this post, and that was enough to change our opinion of it -- this is a FUN system.  See update below.



When Nintendo announced the Wii U, I thought it was a strange idea.  I did not "get" the concept.  What was the big deal with a touchscreen?  Why couldn't they just find a way to connect an Android or iPad or even iPhone to the console instead of developing their own touchscreen device?  I wasn't interested in getting one.  However, we wanted another game console for the living room (our Xbox 360 and PS3 have died, and the Wii is in my son's room). We thought about getting another Xbox 360 or PS3 but I figured we may as well get a newer system for almost same price.  I was astonished that all pre-orders for the Wii U were already filled at all the stores I inquired.  I'm sure at least some of the buyers are just trying to flip it on eBay.

Anyway, I got lucky and scored a black Wii U this morning after lining up at 6am in the cold weather.  It was the last one at the store and it just so happened that someone ahead of me in the line inexplicably ordered a white Wii U instead (8GB $299 vs. 32GB $349 with NintendoLand).  Thank goodness I didn't wait for nothing.

The box was much heavier than I expected.  I later found out that this was in part due to the very large and heavy AC adapter for the console.  The touchpad on the other hand is quite light, which is great considering that many games expect you to hold up the screen during gameplay.

Setting up was reasonably easy but not as user-friendly as it could be.  There is a quick start guide but it's rather verbose.  The short answer is you plug the console to the TV via HDMI (other cables such as component are purchased separate), connect the sensor bar, and connect the AC Adapter.  You also plug the touchpad to its own AC adapter.  When you turn the Wii U on, you need to wait a few seconds for the HDMI connection to work.  Then you sync the Wii U and the touchpad (the sync process requires entering some codes.  It's not a one-button deal).

Although the basic setup was easy, connecting the Wii U to the internet was difficult:

  • The Wi-Fi is just 802.11b.  You should configure your router to broadcast in both b and g (assuming your other devices are g).  There is nothing in the setup screens that warns you about this.
  • I had a very hard time connecting the Wii U to my Wi-Fi network.  Although it found our Wi-Fi network, I couldn't just enter our password.  Instead, I had to configure the IP Address and DNS manually, using settings that I found here: http://techforums.nintendo.com/message/77869/  And even though I followed the instructions to the letter, it took several tries before I was able to connect successfully (even though I was doing the exact same thing each time.  Very strange).
  • There is a LAN Adapter accessory for the Wii U but it will take up a USB port (the Wii U has two four USB ports).  If you're planning to use one of the other ports for an external hard drive, then you won't have any USB ports left for games such as Skylanders Giants (which uses a portal that connects via USB).
  • The first time you're able to connect the Wii U to the Internet, you'll be asked if you want to update the firmware.  I later found out that updating the firmware is the only way to make it backwards-compatible with Wii games.  Anyway, I naturally said yes.  Then I saw the download bar didn't seem to be moving...
  • I found out that the update was 5GB.  No warning about this.  Lord have mercy on you if you only have DSL or less.
  • One more issue: if the firmware download is interrupted (accidentally or intentionally) the Wii U will be bricked.  Once more, no warning about this.
  • Some menu items take a very long time to load.
We tried NintendoLand very briefly.  It was a little bit challenging for our 5 year old, even though he often plays video games.  He had a little bit of difficulty understanding the instructions, and was still getting used to the controls.  He has only tried a couple of the mini-games (Ninja Castle and Metroid Blast).  So far he seems interested but not totally blown away.  But I didn't have high expectations for the launch games anyway, at least for his age group.  Hopefully they will have more interesting games in the future (especially for casual gamers).

Games we got:

  • NintendoLand
  • Skylanders Giants - the selling point is being able to play Skylanders on the gamepad.
  • Super Mario Bros. U - Haven't opened it yet.  I heard it's difficult, which would be unfortunate.  My son and I have enough trouble with Super Mario Bros. Wii.


Games I am looking forward to:
  • Bayonetta 2 - a Wii U exclusive.  If you haven't played Bayonetta, it's crazy over the top action.  But this is not for the kids :)
  • Rayman Legends
  • Super Smash Bros. Next - announced but don't hold your breath.
  • Street Fighter - I hope they make some version of it for the Wii U.  Even just a version of SF4 with simplified controls for kids would be great (similar to SF4 for the 3DS).
  • Hawken - I really wish they make a port of this amazing PC game.  I'm not into FPS games in general but the graphics on this one are just breath-taking.

Games I might consider:
  • Trine 2
  • Nano Assault Neo
  • Ninja Gaiden 3 (if I can find it used and cheap).  I loved Ninja Gaiden 2 (back when I was a hardcore gamer).  I expect this will also be murderously difficult but it would still be fun.
  • Batman Arkham City Armored Edition (if I can find it used and cheap)

UPDATE: According to some folks on the r/wiiu reddit subgroup, it's possible to download the firmware and any other downloads (such as games) in the background.  When it asks you if you want to download, just press cancel.  Then you'll get a message saying it will download in the background.  Meanwhile you can play a game or something.  When the download is ready for installation the home button on the gamepad will light up.

11/22/12 UPDATE: After my son and I played briefly with the Wii U, we didn't think much of it and the system sat idle.  However, yesterday I left my son alone to play with the system and I was surprised that he was enjoying most of the games.  At the same time, I had ordered Wii Remote Plus controllers (the Wii Remote with built-in Motion Plus for greater sensitivity, required for some of the NintendoLand games).  I decided to join him for some of the games.

What I discovered was that the gamepad really did add value in a couple of ways.  First, in multiplayer games, the gamepad allows two players to have a full-screen instead of split-screen view.  That's one reason to get the Wii U version of a game instead of a port for another console.  Example: Black Ops II.

Second, many games allow you to play the game on the gamepad, freeing up the TV for someone else to use. Again, that's another reason to choose the Wii U port of a game that's otherwise available for other consoles.  Example: Skylanders Giants.

Third, and in my opinion the most important benefit of the gamepad, is that it enables a new kind of playing style that has been called "asymmetric gameplay," which means that in a multiplayer game, the one with the gamepad can have a very different experience than the other players.  Here are some examples:

  • In the NintendoLand mini-game called Mario Chase, one player plays "It," while the other players try to find and chase the one who's It.  The player who's It has the gamepad and has the benefit of seeing the overall map.  The other players ideally work together to systematically ferret out the It.
  • In the ZombiU game, there is a multiplayer Capture the Flag mode where the player with the gamepad plays 'tower defense' and protects the flag by spawning zombies.  The other players try to fight the zombies to reach the flag.
To me, this kind of experience is reminiscent of the games I used to play when I was a kid before video games were common.  Simple games like tag, cops and robbers, that sort of stuff.  All those were asymmetric.  The Wii U strongly reminds me of those kinds of games.  It was a different kind of fun, being able to take turns playing different roles.  So, I think that if developers do spend the time to design games around this feature, the Wii U can offer a unique experience that could not be available on other consoles. Unless of course the Xbox 720 or PS4 copy the Wii U's gamepad, which is not entirely a bad thing in my opinion because it would make those kinds of games more common, and with the Wii U's install base headstart, the Wii U's game library could only increase.

I have to admit - I underestimated the significance of the gamepad.  The first time I heard about it, I thought it was Nintendo's desperate and pathetic attempt to fend off the iPad's growing clout as a game machine by copying it.  But the Wii U's gamepad creates a completely different experience particularly for multiplayer games.  I can almost say the touchscreen aspect of it is not essential (although it is of course logical).

(Note: currently there are no Wii U games that support more than one gamepad, and the maximum the Wii U can support is two gamepads.  However, I think that because it is so useful, I suspect that there will be some sort of peripheral in the future that would allow the Wii U to use 4 gamepads for specific games intended for hardcore gamers.)

The other thing that I discovered is that the Wii Remote Plus could actually make FPS games fun.  I'm not a fan of FPS.  Part of the reason is that I find the controls frustrating.  I want to shoot at a particular target but I find it a little cumbersome to do that with the traditional gamepad controls. 

However, I used the Wii Remote Plus in a Nintendoland FPS minigame called Metroid Blast and found that it worked very well for me.  It still wasn't perfect, but the controller was accurate enough for me to shoot my intended target with usable precision.  For the first time in an FPS, I felt that the controls didn't get in the way.  My son and I had so much fun that I decided to get Call of Duty Black Ops II (which wasn't even on my original list).  Note: Black Ops doesn't support the Wii Remote Plus or the MotionPlus but I'm hoping it will have decent controls.

UPDATE 11/25/12: We tried more of the Nintendoland games:

Multiplayer games:
Metroid Blast - FPS. One person uses the gamepad and controls the ship.  The other characters are on the ground.  Still our favorite.  5/5.
Zelda Battle Quest - an on-rails shooter where one character uses a bow and arrow while the other players use swords.  Fun as well, though I prefer Metroid Blast. 4/5.  Hint: As the swordsman, use the shield often.  Pretty much whenever you're not striking.  Also observe which direction the enemy is vulnerable.  If he is holding his shield on camera left, strike him from above or camera right.  And you can bring your sword fully to the left, right or up long enough, it will charge up for a super attack.
Pikmin Adventure - I was never interested in the Pikmin games, thinking that they looked too boring.  Nonetheless I forced myself to try out this game, and was surprised that it was actually fun.  In 1-player mode, you control the astronaut Olimar, who commands small aliens called Pikmin to attack enemies and obstacles.  In multi-player mode, the other players control giant Pikmin.  Encourages coordination between the players.  My son likes this game as well. 4.5/5.  Hint: when pikmin jump on to the monsters, they can't get hurt and they can keep attacking the monster.
Mario Chase - 1 player hides, other players seek.  I find it fun but my son finds it too hard to be the one seeking. 3.5/5.
Animal Crossing - I never played any of the Animal Crossing games so I wasn't interested.  But when I tried this minigame out, I found it very fun.  Candies are scattered across a map.  Players collect the candies and put them inside a bin.  The gamepad player however will try to catch the other players and prevent them from collecting the candies.  The gamepad player can control 2 characters simultaneously.  My son enjoyed this too. The only thing is that it's harder to be the one catching the other players.  4/5.
Luigi's Mansion - Somewhat similar to Mario Chase, except that the gamepad player plays a ghost who is invisible and can attack other players.  The other players try to catch the ghost by shining a flashlight on him.  This was fun except that the other players have a strange control scheme, similar to the 1st generation of PS2 games (e.g. Onimusha), or some older Playstation games, where the controls are relative to the character's position.  It would have been much more fun if the controls were more conventional. 3/5.

1-player games:
Ninja Castle - On-rails shooter with a shuriken.  You flick the screen to throw shurikens at ninjas.  Cute graphics and more importantly, I found it fun.  However my son doesn't like it because he finds it too hard.  4/5.
Balloon Trip Breeze - Somewhat based on the NES game Balloon Fight, except that you use the gamepad to blow wind at the character, to navigate obstacles.  Easy at first then suddenly becomes challenging.  OK but requires me to keep changing views between TV and gamepad, so it's a little confusing. 3/5.  Hint: blow up the spikes by tapping on the gamepad.  Another player can also assist by using the wiimote to blow up obstacles.
Twister Race - a racer where you steer from a bird's eye view by tilting the gamepad.  I haven't played this, but my son liked it. ?/5.
Donkey Kong Crash - You tilt the gamepad to use gravity to maneuver a small car across an obstacle course. OK fun but quite hard. 2/5.
Yoshi's Fruit Cart - vaguely like pin the donkey, with a pen.  Your objective is to draw a path that will collect all the fruits on the screen.  The challenge is that you can only see the fruits on the TV.  They don't show up on the gamepad screen where you draw with your stylus.  At higher levels the fruits start moving, so timing is introduced as another element.  So-so fun but my son didn't like it.  1.5/5.
Octopus Dance - Like Simon Says, with a rhythm.  (Similar to Space Channel 5 on the Dreamcast, or Parappa the Rapper on Playstation 1).  You use the joysticks on the gamepad to copy the arm directions.  The concept is ok but I found it too unforgiving and difficult.  1/5.

[UPDATE: Apparently it is possible for one of the other players to participate in these 1-player games to help the player.  For example, in Donkey Kong Crash, the other player can create a zone of slow motion bullet time to slow down the cart to avoid crashing.  So perhaps the difficulty is intentional, to encourage getting help from other players.  See this video ]

NEW SUPER MARIO BROS. U: We finally played this game over the weekend.  It is ok, but I wasn't that impressed.  To me it is very similar to Super Mario Wii with better graphics and a few new elements here and there.  The gamepad wasn't a big deal but can be used to help the other players by creating blocks.  I find it somewhat challenging for casual gamers, and we haven't gotten past world 1 2.

FREEZING: It's been reported by some users that occasionally, the Wii U will suddenly freeze with a buzzing/siren sound (sounds like the 8-bit NES/Famicom when that one froze).  This happened to us once, while we set down the controller to do something else.  It suddenly froze.  The Wii U wasn't hot or anything.  I don't know why it froze.  When it freezes, it needs to be unplugged and replugged.  [UPDATE: According to the WiiU reddit subgroup it is some sort of bug with NintendoLand.  I infer that it hasn't happened with other games.]

SHOPPING TIP: Are you looking for more remotes, or the Wii Remote Plus?  ToysRUs is selling the game FlingSmash.  The game is boring shovelware but it includes a Wii Remote Plus, and the package costs less than buying a Wii Remote Plus by itself.  Plus, ToysRUs is currently running a discount on games.