Sunday, June 29

Easy on the eyes: Wii U impressions

This past week, all I wanted to do was play some video games on my relatively large screen TV. Suffering from jet lag and a vicious chest infection, there was no way I was going to be up to the standard required to shoot faces online, or even be able to concentrate on linear, narrative fare like Transistor, Supergiant Games' follow up to one of my all-time favourites, Bastion. For most of the week, the best I could manage was one or two levels of Donkey Kong Returns 3D on my 3DS.  

The only way I could hope to get any console gaming done during my convalescence was with a smaller, more eye-friendly screen. With the release of Mario Kart 8, perhaps now was finally the time to consider a Wii U.  

On Thursday, retailer Big W commenced its Total Toy Domination sale. Games were not spared from this promotion, and the Premium Wii U console bundle with Mario Kart 8 was being sold at a considerable discount. First party Nintendo titles, usually sold at a premium years after release, were also going for a song (plus $58). I did what any sick, tired nerd would do and asked my beloved wife, Carly if she would mind going toe-to-toe with parents looking to save a buck in order to retrieve the last piece of machinery I would need to complete the next-gen (now current-gen) console Holy Trinity. 

As Carly was suiting-up in her finest armour, an anomaly occurred. I was browsing online and found that rival, K Mart was selling the Basic Wii U console with 2 games for less than half the price Big W were asking for the Premium counterpart. I had some thinking to do: both versions had meager hard drive capacities (8gb in the Basic, 32gb in the Premium), and the Premium machine came with additional pieces of plastic, a Wii sensor bar and a game I actually wanted to play. 

I already had a Wii sensor bar, and upon further reading, I found that the hard drive capacity issue was moot as I had a self-powered external hard drive spare. Carly's mission had changed somewhat: she would still need to wander into the Big W battlefield, but only after having retrieved the Basic console from a hopefully-quieter K Mart.  

Thursday morning went as close to plan as I could have hoped. I had a cheap Wii U (our local K Mart store had divined that only 1 was required for the entire sale period) and Big W had stock of most of the first party games I was looking for; including Mario Kart 8, the whole reason for this impulsive endeavour. For a console and 6 games, I'd pay less than I would have for the Premium bundle: a solid score. 

The Wii U takes just as long to set up as its more powerful competitors. Thankfully, Nintendo have included the penultimate firmware update on the Mario Kart 8 disc, so I only needed to download a small file to keep proceedings on track. After about 3 hours, the console was finally ready for use: plenty of time to accommodate an unintended spell of unconsciousness.

Apart from a few kart races this weekend, I've spent most of my time playing on a screen exponentially smaller than my 47 inch TV screen. It's been spectacular. 

The Wii U gamepad is somewhat more awkward to wield than your DualShocks and Xbox (both One and 360) controllers, but off TV support is going to trump ergonomics every day of the week. Off TV play is the kind of thing that strengthens relationships; it could even potentially save some. What do I mean? Allow me to set the scene. 

My wife loves sports. She loves Rugby League and Tennis, but worse, she's drawn to events like the Olympics that are scheduled from dawn to dusk for weeks at a time. I am a nerd. The sports I enjoy watching are either covered ineffectively by Australian broadcasters (read: Basketball) or viewed for primarily sentimental reasons (Dutch World Cup campaigns) and everything else I merely tolerate. With the Wii U, I can now skip Monday Night Football and keep plugging away at 150cc races in Mario Kart 8. Thanks to off TV play, I can play Game Boy Advance classics while Carly watches Wimbledon. It's not like we argued over who got to use the TV previously, but now it's a non-issue. We can both enjoy all that we love without (much) compromise. 

I had my first experience with off TV support last year with the PlayStation 4, but the Vita's clusterfuck of touch controls and 6 buttons wasn't a great fit with your average AAA blockbuster. I could get through FPS campaigns with a bit of patience, but Sony handheld's sub par shoulder buttons never held up well against human competition. The Wii U gamepad feels like far less a compromise when it comes to off TV play. 

I'm yet to test the Wii interface which allows for backwards compatibility, save for ability to play Gamecube games. This is a true shame and it's not helped by the fact that the process to transfer your Wii saves and purchases appears too laborious to even consider. Still, good to know that I'll be able to play Wonder Boy III and Majora's Mask at some point should the urge consume me.   

The Wii U iteration of the eShop is well presented but it's hampered by less than optimal load times. Pricing for Virtual Console titles is consistent with the 3DS and Wii (read: just a smidge too high), but the range is pretty great. I couldn't resist picking up Advance Wars, Super Mario World and one of the few Zelda games I enjoyed, A Link to the Past. There's no support for the Nintendo 64 as yet, nor the Segas Master System or Mega Drive. It was pleasing to see that Dr Kawashima's Brain Training was available for free. Not only because I played it regularly back in the day, but also because it foreshadows that more DS games will be available in the near future. 

Download speeds appear to be on par with competitor consoles, and Spotpass functionality downloads demos and other free titles to your console if you opt in. Speaking of demos, there are only 14 demos available for download from the eShop; talk about a dying breed. 

2 years on and the Wii U looks to be a prime acquisition, particularly if you can find one cheap. Off TV support is the future of gaming for the average gamer that is now over 30 and, for some, sharing a TV with one of more people. The eShop can take its sweet time to load, but the solid offering of past classics will be sure to suckle the contents of your wallet. It's only been 4 days, but I can see myself becoming unwholesomely attached to the white, Nintendo-branded hunks of plastic now occupying my living room.