Nintendo hopes its wacky Wii U console will herald better times

It’s been a tough old year for Nintendo. The grand old company, which started life in 1889 selling playing cards (an operation it still continues in its native Japan), this year slumped to its first annual loss since going public in 1981. Lots of things were to blame: the end of the cycle of its Wii motion-sensing console; intense competition from Microsoft; a lack of support from some of the blockbuster games studios. Its response is the Wii U – and, in true Nintendo style, it is ingenious and bonkers in equal measure.

It maintains the motion sensing technology from the original Wii, which was subsequently copied by both Microsoft and Sony, but the Wii U’s big selling point is the GamePad. This controller-tablet hybrid functions as both a fully operational joypad and a second screen, which can run either a mirror of what is happening on the TV or a completely separate display.

It looks rather unwieldy but the first thing that strikes you is how light it is – almost to the point of being flimsy. Thankfully, it is also far more comfortable than it looks and after a few minutes it feels like an extension of your hands, as all good controllers should.

The question is: will it revolutionise gaming in the way the Wii did? At this stage, it is hard to say. Most of the launch titles don’t really use the GamePad to its full potential. New Super Mario Bros U (reviewed below), for example, only mirrors the main screen on single player mode. Nintendo Land uses functions like the built-in gyroscope for a series of mini-games, but none are a real showcase for its talents. ZombiU comes closer, allowing you to use the GamePad as a scanner (hold it up to the screen and reveal the clues such as UV markings), an electronic map and a knapsack housing your inventory. A small gripe is that the screen on the GamePad will seem a little grainy for anyone used to peering into the retina display on the latest iPad, and it is a marked step down from the crystal sharp HD display on the console itself.

The user interface will be very familiar to Nintendo aficionados, maintaining the rather sterile white screen and tiles from the original Wii and the portable 3DS. One very neat trick is the ability to sync your Mii (the personal avatar you create, under which your game progress is saved) from the 3DS straight to the Wii U, saving you the trouble of doing it all over again.

The set-up process is straight-forward enough, although I had some trouble connecting to the internet (which involved scouring Google for the type of password encryption my wireless router used). Don’t bank on playing immediately, either – the system update takes a painful amount of time.

Under the hood, the Wii U is impressive. Inside the svelte, unobtrusive box is more RAM and processing power than either the Xbox 360 or the PS3. The crispness of the graphics is pretty astonishing, even in the cartoony world of Mario and his brother, although part of me wonders just how much better the upcoming Xbox will be (my guess is: a lot).

The premium version comes with 32Gb of storage (8Gb on the basic model) and throws in a handful of extras, including two little bits of plastic that allow you to sit the console vertically (not including them as standard seems a little mean).

At £300 for the premium package (and I’d recommend spending the extra £50), it is actually pretty reasonable. The key, though, will be whether the big studios will get on board. Nintendo has a knack of appealing to new segments of the market and the inevitable Shigeru Miyamoto hits like The Legend of Zelda will keep long-standing fans happy. But without the support of blockbuster third-party titles, Nintendo may find it isn’t out of the woods yet.

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