Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Twenty-Four Hours with the Wii U

I failed to secure a Wii U at launch, but thanks to daily supply replenishment and a very hand store availability tool, I managed to grab a Deluxe set from a freshly replenished store a day later.  As I returned home from my local Best Buy, Wii U Deluxe in tow, the unit’s weight was striking.  It’s a  heavy piece of gear, GamePad, console, cables, altogether. Even my lighter wallet didn’t help.

In my day-long delay to obtain a Wii U, I had followed the launch day reactions closely.  Reviews from media leaned positive, but specialty forums elsewhere were abuzz with technical minutiae, long launch-day patch, and inferior ports.  The heads up was helpful.   I hastily opened the box,  unwrapped the console, and let in the new AV electronics smell as I set-up my console to link to the internet.   A few set-up screens later, the patch was downloading.  

In the meantime, I busied myself cleaning the niche where my Wii sat for several years and prepared its retirement.   Two and a half hours, including a Wii data transfer later, I was ready to dig in.  And despite negativity in some corners about the console and my own reservations about buying a Nintendo console on launch day (I felt burned on the 3DS), the Wii U has had a solid first impression.

Wii Transfer & Backwards compatibility

The process itself, including the Pikmin movers is whimsical and straightforward.  The only pain point in the transfer process is that the Wii > Wii U Transfer channel  needed to be downloaded ‘twice’, once on the Wii itself and again in the Wii (subconsole) in the Wii U channels list. 

Other than that, the on screen instructions were clear and the process itself was painless.  I was very disappointed however several channels, including Nintendo Channel (useful for collating gameplay data) did not copy over and it looks like my game history and message board history did not come over either.

As noted elsewhere, the Wii BC in Wii U lives up to the promise of Backwards compatibility, but falls short on functionality.  The loss in data, lack of Wii Shop integration into the Wii U eshop and inability to play Wii games on the GamePad is a hard pill to swallow.

One item worth pointing out is the improvement in sharpness of the visuals of Wii games on HDMI output, even if it is upscaled from 480p.  This is a nice surprise, and a welcome one.


I love the Mii Wara Wara plaza.  Cynical gamers probably could care less, but like the Wii Menu, it does something to capture the zeitgeist of the period.  The Wii was launched at the dawning of the age of YouTube, and the channels format was fitting and it still often voted as one of the most pleasant console UI of the current generation (or more appropriately last-generation).  With the Wii U Wara Wara Plaza   you could say Nintendo is somewhat late to the party in  terms of making a social network, or ahead of the curve,  in terms of creating and integrating social networking specifically for games.  Either way, the console is conceptually on  a different plane that the 360 or PS3 (even if you include Home).  Social networking is integrated, and doesn’t live in a separate app, and the Miiverse itself is always on (more on this later).

Luckily, I also didn’t experience the first day problems (slowness, timeouts etc) with the OS.  By the time I got my Wii U running, the plaza itself was working.  I immediately got a sense of the popular apps and games.   Nintendo Land / NSMB U were the busiest with the most Mii’s around, followed by ZombiU and BLOPS 2.

I also avoided most of the timeouts and errors from launch day, but having used the OS for 24 hours now, I can say that aspects needs optimization.   It takes too long to exit apps, and jumping from  a game/app to Miiverse to make a post can take 5-10 seconds. Ideally, it should be instant, though 3-5 seconds is probably acceptable.   

Given Wii U is perfectly updateable and it’s OS will undoubtedly get patched many times in its lifetime, I have no doubt this will be fixed eventually.  I hope it is sooner rather than later.


There’s been lots of talk and speculation about this Miiverse feature. I had opined  at E3 this year that it could possibly be a game changer for Nintendo.

Though the jury is still out, my early impressions are very positive.  Like any social network, it requires people to ‘buy in’ , so sceptical users and people who hate Nintendo on principle will likely wonder what this ‘fad’ is all about.  That said, it is fair to say most users who spend at least $300 + tax on a Wii U tend to have bought in to the idea or are at least open to it.

The result so far are vibrant communities for every app and every game released, even with only one region and roughly 2 days of sales under its belt.  Even indie eshop games like  Nano Assault Neo already have 700+ posts in its Miiverse community.   The larger games have thousands.  The largest, Nintendo Land and NSMB U have twenty thousand posts each.  It’s likely the most popular games in the future will have hundreds of thousands and millions of comments.

It’s also been noted that the off-game commentating isn’t that ground breaking and Steam does something similar.  That’s very true.  I think Steam communities is a good analogue for Miiverse. However, Miiverse ultimately does it better.  The communities portion in Steam is largely out of the way.  There’s more emphasis on Workshop for Mods and Patches (for the game I play the most – Civilization V) than the community aspect.  I’ve played hundreds of hours of Civ5 without ever reading a post in the Steam community, largely because I use specialist website/forums for my Civ discussions.  Besides, the Steam apps runs worse than Miiverse in terms of ease of access to comments.  It's not really designed for feedback, but more of a Facebook wall for various things to be thrown at it,  which slows down the load times even more.

Off-screen capture of a zoomed-in Wara Wara Plaza
In contrast Miiverse excels in is how the postings melds in with the Wara Wara OS level plazas.  As the Mii’s congregate around the apps on Wii U start-up, speech bubbles pop up with various twitter sized comments (text comments are limited to 100 characters).  The size of the crowd and tone of the comment give a quick overview on game popularity and the mood of the community.  Unlike twitter however, Miiverse also allows the space for the block of text to be used for hand written notes.  And many Miiverse users have instead used the allocated space to draw some pretty impressive pieces or art that can get across ideas that would take more than characters words to explain.   And it’s not all Mario or Zelda art either, although the quality of art for those two franchises is off-the-scale just two days in.  The Netflix community has plenty of in-jokes and art ranging from Breaking Bad to Arrested DevelopmentZombiU has a series of excellent Zombie related art with a strong crossover of Walking Dead discussion.   This is something I think that is ‘new’; although it’s been happening on gaming forums for ages, it’s unique to see a console’s entertainment apps directly reflected in comments made in the gaming side.

Unlike Steam, it is also very easy to share and comment on pretty much every app/game on the Wii U, even if the software doesn’t support Miiverse natively.  The Miiverse itself sits on the OS level and is always-on.  Pausing any game allows players to make a quick post about the game to the game’s community, and attach the current screenshot.   

Some games such as Nintendo Land and New Super Mario Brothers U, built with Miiverse integration in mind, brings those comments directly into the games themselves.  The game prompts users to post comments at the end of each level, to create level specific comments, and in Nintendo Land, a sampling of the NintendoLand Miiverse community is brought into the game, Mii’s and all, into the theme park, creating something of an asynchronous on-line community.  

Finally, nothing in Miiverse is console specific, which makes Nintendo’s promise to bring it to the PC, Smartphones and 3DS credible.  The interface is rather plain, but utilitarian.  From the hub, players can search for friends and add friends without the need to exchange friends code (thank heavens), message friends directly (essentially a Private Message feature), and access the ‘Activity Feed’ which is more or less, the Miiverse equivalent of the Twitter feed.  The feed funnels posts of yours friends posts, plus the posts of people you are following.

And here’s the last major light-bulb moment for the Miiverse.  Mingling in the Wara Wara plazas are Nintendo certified personalities.  They can be told apart from regular Miis by an extra green checkmark next to their portraits.   They can’t be friended but can be followed.  So far, people have found the accounts of Katsuya Eguchi (Nintendo Land ) and Takashi Tezuka (New Super Mario Bros. U).   They haven’t said much, except welcoming users in French, English and Spanish to their games.  It’s not something that’s immediately obvious when Miiverse was revealed, but the kind of close interaction game designers can have with the community is certainly interesting even if we expect most of their posts to be put through ‘official’ PR filters.  

Nintendo Land

I have done a 180 on this in under 24 hours.  I barely played my WiiSports disc six years ago and really felt the extra $50 I was paying for my Deluxe was mostly for the GamePad charging crade, the stand, extra memory and the Digitial download promotion.  But between NSMB U, ZombiU and Nintendo Land, I’ve played  Nintendo Land the most.

Pikmin Adventure
Much to my surprise, there is a healthy number of single player only attractions and all appear to be quite challenging with plenty of depth.   'Balloon Trip Breeze' and 'Captain Falcon’s Twister Race' are unforgiving and difficult.  'Takamaru’s Ninja Castle' is easy to play through but difficult to master. 

Of the multiplayer attractions, several have single-player modes.  My favourites so far are 'Pikmin Adventure' and 'The Legend of Zelda Battle Quest'.   Controlling Pikmin’s with the GamePad touchscreen is amazing, and gives something of a preview of what a DS Pikmin could have been.   Both games looks gorgeous, and dare I say, I prefer the Nintendo Land’s Pikmin aesthetic to the Wii up-port Pikmin 3 (I’m sure I’m going to hell for saying that)

Utility Apps

NintendoTVii is still offline, but I can comment on the Internet Browser.   The browser is neat on the game pad. It’s pretty fast.  It allows for multiple tabs (up to 6 max), and most sites fast.  YouTube support is excellent, though there will be a YouTube app rolling out later this year.  Note that the browser is HTML5 compatible, but no flash.

Wii U chat is a surprisingly cool and utilitarian app.  The app uses the GamePad’s built in Mic and Camera for video chats. The quality is surprisingly good and it even lets users preview the video feed  to position their cameras appropriately before they make a call.

Netflix is what you’d expect, but GamePad viewing is a neat feature. 

All in all, the Wii U has provided a very pleasant 24 hours for me.   Does this mean everything is great?

No. I have plenty of concerns as well, and I had planned to put them all in one posting.  But it looks like I’ve ran long on this one, so my concerns and critiques will be posted next time.

No comments: