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Beta-testing the Wii U: how the system’s launch is punishing early adopters

Beta-testing the Wii U: how the system’s launch is punishing early adopters

Nintendo handles hardware launches in a unique way in the gaming industry. We still don’t know the relative power or weakness of the Wii U hardware, as Nintendo refuses to release any detailed information about what’s in the box. In fact, AMD contacted me to see if I wanted to talk about the tech inside the case, and when I sent over questions, they quickly said any actual information has to come from Nintendo. During early demos of the system Nintendo PR would rarely share details as simple as the resolution of the GamePad. Now the system has been released, we’ve had around 12 hours to play with the huge day-one patch that adds online features and the eShop to the system, and it’s time to talk about what it does well and what it happens poorly. It’s hard to know what Nintendo has planned for six months from now, much less next week, so this is a snapshot of the things the system can do today, along with the games we’ve played so far. If you’re interested in a verdict before we get into the details, however, I’m going to say I like this system very much. The challenge is going to be teaching consumers what it does, and convincing developers to create games you can only play on the Wii U. Oh, and it would be great if the menus and software made a damn bit of sense.

The GamePad

The GamePad has all the controls you’d expect from a current-generation controller, but the selling point is the 6.2 inch 854 x 480 resolution screen they’ve been wrapped around. The screen looks better than those numbers would suggest, and I found myself playing many games by looking down at the smaller screen exclusively. You can play a game while your kids, wife or husband are watching something different on the television. The GamePad also acts as a remote control for your television, so you can change the channel or inputs without finding a lost remote. You may find some frustrations if you’ve grown used to the touchscreen on your iPad, however. The GamePad screen is resistive screen, not the capacitance touchscreen you’re used to in more expensive devices. There is also no multitouch, so things like pinch and spread controls to zoom in or out are unavailable. I rarely had issues getting the screen to recognize my taps, touches, and swipes, even in games like ZombiU where I often tapped things without looking, but it’s not nearly as nice and responsive as the screens you’ll find on tablets. The GamePad is light, comfortable, and used well in many games. Right now there are no games that use more than one GamePad, but we’ve been told the system can drive up to two of the controllers if the game has been coded for that feature. Range will vary, but don’t expect to be able to play with the controller more than a room away from the base console. This isn’t portable gaming as much as its an extra screen you can use in the same room as the console. That’s a hard thing to explain to players who are used to their tablets and smart phones traveling with them. I was sent the black Deluxe model of the hardware, and it collects smudges and fingerprints quickly and efficiently. Wipe it down all you want, it will almost never seem clean. You’ve been warned.

What can you do online?

Hey look, no more friend codes! You can now simply put in someone’s network ID and, if they put in yours, you’ll be friends. You can also click on posts in the Miiverse and send friend requests that way. None of this is made very clear, and it seems that you’re sometimes sent a notification when someone wants to friend you, and other times you are not. The Wii U is filled with odd little UI quirks that make little sense, and there is no guide to figuring it all out. Why do we need two ways to send people friend requests, when only one of them tells the other player you’re doing so? It takes around 15 seconds to move from function to function in the menus. For a modern console, that’s insane. It makes doing anything feel like work, and it hurts the Wii U’s colorful, inviting atmosphere. No other system takes this long to load a simple application in its menus. It’s maddening. Surfing the Internet is fast and easy, but flash isn’t supported and I doubt many early adopters really care how well you can browse the Internet while you play. Still, it’s a feature, it’s there, it works well. One neat feature is that you can hit the home button, bring up the browser, look up a game or a walkthrough, and then go right back into the game. Since the Wii U takes so long to switch between tasks this is more cumbersome than using your phone or laptop, but you don’t need to put the controller down and pick up another piece of hardware. That’s definitely a neat use of the tech. The eShop is likewise easy to navigate and use, and it looks very much like what you’re used to from past Nintendo consoles. The layout is slightly more attractive, and you can save your credit card information behind a password if you’d like, but buying games is a snap. There is also support for full titles, although you’ll get a warning that you’ll need external storage if you’re using the standard Wii U console; there is around 3GB of usable space on the less expensive models after firmware and features are installed and updated. Nintendo has already begun to send reviewers download codes for their games instead of retail, boxed copies, but without a Wii U option that comes with a realistic amount of storage for digital distribution it’s unlikely the feature is ever going to take off on Nintendo’s hardware. I doubt many gamers are going to be excited about formatting and using an external hard drive. Distressingly, third-party developers have told me that while they’ve been promised codes to send to the press, none have arrived. If Nintendo wants their online games to be promoted, this isn’t optional. The Miiverse is a collection of communities that allow you to leave or look at messages from other players, and right now it’s pretty clean, but other writers have already bumped into Nintendo’s moderation and I’ll be shocked if this doesn’t turn into a collection of genitals and pseudo-racism once the system is in the hands of more players. If you ever wanted to look at a version of a message board where people can draw little pictures, here you go. I said that TANK! TANK! TANK! needed more tanks, and a few people agreed with me. This may be the only time I interact with this feature, at least from the system’s menu. The ability to leave people messages and doodles inside games is much more appealing, even if the possibilities for abuse and spoilers are problematic. It worked fine last night, but right now I'm only getting error codes when I try to access Miiverse. Things seem to be going up and down on the first day of the system's availability, so there may be some chop as you begin to use features. It took me a little under an hour to download the day one patch, and that's not how you want people spending time with your system out of the box. I'd like to give you a taste of what my Twitter feed has been like since the system launched, with this image: Just to give you some context, Nick Chester used to be the Editor in Chief of Destructoid, and now he works with John Drake at Harmonix. Ben Silverman is a Senior Editor at Yahoo Games. These are people with years and years of experience, many hardware launches under their belt, and familiar with games and hardware. And they're stumped. “Has anyone figured out how to get screenshots in Miiverse messages?” Kotaku's Stephen Totilo asked. “I see some, but I can't tell where they're coming from.” I'm in no way trying to shame these people, because I'm just as lost. The system is host to many weird oddities. I removed my ZombiU disc and put in my Super Mario disc, and the system locked up and asked me to place the “correct” disc in. I had forgotten that you could only switch discs from the main menu. I powered down the system using the GamePad, but then I couldn’t turn the system back on until I walked over to the console and hit the power button manually and everything synced up again. When you want to play a Wii game, the GamePad turns off completely, and the system effectively turns into a Wii. You can’t just launch a Wii game by putting it in, you have to select the Wii button, wait for the system to load, complete with the Wii’s menus and UI, and then launch the game from that dashboard. It’s not that big of a deal, and backwards compatibility is always a nice feature, but it seems antiquated and needlessly complicated. It also means Virtual Console games can't be added to your Wii U's home screen, nor can Wii Ware games. It's good that they still work, but it sucks that I have to dig into an older menu and UI to play them. Sadly, you won't be able to play GameCube games. I doubt that's a concern for many players, but it's worth noting. There’s also the small fact that much of what you seen on the system’s menus doesn’t work. You can watch Netflix films, but YouTube, TVii, Amazon Instant Streaming… all those options that you see on the menu are placeholders until the features are made available at some later date. Official Nintendo Miis advertise the TVii features on the home screen, even though it’s not out yet. It’s clear Nintendo had to cut some features right before launch, and didn’t have time to clean up the interface to make that clear. Everything feels slapped together and rushed. In many ways I was happier with the system before the day one patch was added. I could play games, enjoy them, and that was that. Now I’m trying to figure out how to send and receive friend requests, I’m wrestling with trying to make the image fit my screen, and I have no clue what it means to “follow” someone’s account. I’m clicking on icons that go nowhere. Right now the added features, menus, and options of the Wii U’s UI are a mess, and I’m hoping things get fixed quickly.

But wait, don’t you like the system?

I adore the system so far. I enjoy playing games on the GamePad’s screen, and I love games like ZombiU that use the GamePad well. The multiplayer Nintendo Land games that require the GamePad and Wii Remotes are a blast with friends, and you can now hide information from other players on your screen, and I’m looking forward to seeing how multiplayer works on Black Ops 2 when one person looks at the television and the other looks at the GamePad screen. I see nothing but possibilities for the future, especially if sales are strong and third-party developers support the system. I think the hardware is great, and the early games are promising. The problem is that the firmware is half-baked, and simple tasks are more complicated than necessary. How simple are the mistakes? The image doesn’t fit my screen when I set the resolution to 1080p and, while I can change the size of the image in the Miiverse menu, that adjustment doesn’t work on any other screen. Games look fine, but the user interface is chopped off around the edges. I finally had to manually adjust my television, the first time I've had to do so for overscan. Why does only one area of the Wii U (Miiverse) give me the ability to adjust the image size? Why is my friends list limited to 100 people? At this point we’re all beta-testing this software, and it could be days, if not weeks, before everything is sorted out.I like the system and many of its games, but anything you try to do that isn't playing a game proves tedious. The games and system are filled with neat Nintendo touches, such as the use of the front-facing camera to show the player's reactions on the TV during some Nintendo Land games, and I think we've only scratched the surface of what developers will be able to do with the features on the GamePad. The problem is that Nintendo rushed the system's software, and much-publicized features are non-working buttons on the home screen. I'm still trying to figure stuff out. What's the difference between being someone's friend, and “following” them? Why can't I use the GamePad to control menus when they're displayed on the television instead of the smaller screen? The icons at the bottom of the menu screen aren't labeled, but if you hit the home button you'll be able to tell what they do, and you can also access your friends list from this screen. The menus aren't ugly, they're just laid out in ways that make little to no sense, and almost nothing is explained. Nintendo used to be the system that offered simplicity and ease of use. That's why the Wii became such a smash: Everyone who saw it immediately understood how to use it, and that included navigating the menus and playing in the options. Now users are greeted with a long, tedious download, and a mixture of things that don't work, work poorly, or are incomprehensible. The game portion of the Wii is fine, and I've loved playing Nintendo Land, New Super Mario Bros. U, and ZombiU. Everything else is a train wreck.