Wii U

Click here for all of GamesBeat’s Wii U launch coverage. 

You’ve got to give it to Nintendo: When it locks information down, it’s locked down tight. Its latest console, the Wii U, launches in five days, and we still don’t know the full picture. Hell, Nintendo won’t switch its online features on until tomorrow.

But I’ve had a week to play with the hardware itself, plus a sample platter of first- and third-party titles, and I’ve noticed a few interesting things the Wii U does — and doesn’t do.

The WiiPad has a better range than you think

For months, I’ve listened to Nintendo reps downplaying how far you can travel with the WiiPad. Players chatted excitedly about bathroom-gaming Zelda and Super Mario while on the throne only to have official statements crush their dreams. The pad won’t work through doors. Sorry.

Except it does. I own a two-story house, and my Wii U lives down in the man cave. Just for laughs, I walked away from it while playing New Super Mario Bros. U off the pad’s screen. The fidelity held together at 30 feet, so I headed upstairs … and then closed the door at the top. Still fine. Now, I couldn’t wander too much further, and indeed, putting any more walls between me and the console pretty much killed the signal. But hey, those bathroom breaks show some promise again.

Wii U

The WiiPad’s touchscreen isn’t always finger-friendly

Touchscreens basically come in two flavors, capacitive and resistant. Capacitive screens, like your iPhones and iPads, register inputs when an electrical conductor (your finger, for instance) disrupts its electrostatic field. The WiiPad follows Nintendo’s tradition of using the more pressure-based resistive touchscreens, which respond better to less squishy, more pointy stimuli (a stylus, for instance).

So no, the WiiPad isn’t always as responsive as perhaps it should be when you swipe it with your finger. It works, but I frequently have to repeat inputs several times to get the desired result. That becomes an issue in several games, too. Fortunately, the pad comes with a built-in stylus — also a Nintendo tradition — that works well.

Screw SD cards

An 8GB model marks a major bump from the Wii’s storage capacity, and nobody should complain at 32GB for the Deluxe model. But if you really need more, the SD card slot does make a return to the new hardware. But screw that … this console’s got four USB ports. You can actually buy an off-the-shelf external hard drive, plug it into the Wii U, and have three terabytes of storage on that bad boy.

Go on. Do it. Just to make Microsoft and Sony cry. Until someone plugs an external drive into their consoles, anyway.

Wii U

It harmonizes

While I sat typing up notes with the new Wii U menu music playing away in the background, I suddenly noticed the song playing on my television differed slightly from what came out of the pad’s speakers. The two tracks harmonized into one piece, exactly as if they were recorded in stereo (which they probably were) and tuned for a forward/back setup instead of left/right.

I won’t pretend it’s balanced audio, or that the pad’s speakers aren’t a little tinny, or that serious audiophiles will be amused in the slightest. But it’s really a rather neat effect. I can see a savvy developer using that two-channel sound feature to their advantage — say, in Silent Hill-style horror game, where people on the TV tell you one thing and voices on your WiiPad tell you something very different.

It’s the best universal remote ever

I’ve tried a number of universal remotes over the years, and not a single one could sync to my Sharp HDTV (in fairness, it’s so old that I could get three bigger LCDs today for the same price I paid for it way back when). The WiiPad did it in 10 seconds. All I had to do was press the “TV” button on its face, identify the manufacturer, and we were in business.

That said, while we’re told you can use the WiiPad as a remote without leaving the Wii U on full-time, I couldn’t get it to work. Pressing the “TV” button on the pad supposedly does the trick, but it’s not happening here. We’ve reached out to Nintendo for clarification.

Update: After checking and re-checking everything, it looks like the problem was with my older-than-dirt TV. A few solid kicks solved everything, and the feature works as advertised now.

But that’s not all. Oh, no, that is not all.

New Super Mario Bros. U

Don’t ditch your Wiimotes

Did you go in for some Wii trade-in deal at your local retailer? You might regret it. Neither Wii U package, not even the 32GB “Deluxe Set,” comes with Wii Remote motion controllers. The only word we’ve heard on the subject claims Nintendo believes everybody who needs one already has one from their Wii days.

That might be a problem. While the WiiPad stands as the console’s primary controller, some games require Wiimotes to play — and sometimes not just Wiimotes but Wii Remotes fitted with the MotionPlus dongle. That includes several offerings in Nintendo Land, the game that comes with the Deluxe Set. If you don’t have (or never had) those things, firing up the software will eventually lead to some disappointment.

Creating a Mii is awkward

Before you can get into the Miiverse, you’ve got to Mii up. The Wii U interface for creating one doesn’t differ much from the Wii’s, though the options are just different enough that I couldn’t make as good a likeness of myself. Ah, but here’s where the WiiPad comes to the rescue! You can use its built-in camera to take a picture of yourself, which the Wii U then automatically translates into a Mii.

But it doesn’t actually work. I could gripe about how it didn’t capture my manly features, strong nose, and piercing gaze — it didn’t — but I do honestly wonder how it completely missed my moustache and beard. The Wii U seemed fairly convinced I’m clean-shaven. Maybe it took a picture of me from junior high.

Nintendo Land

It’s SpotPass compatable

On some first-party game at least — such as New Super Mario Bros. U — you have the option to turn on SpotPass. According to the Wii U, “SpotPass will be used to deliver news from Nintendo about New Super Mario Bros. U [including Mario-related promotions].” A quick email to Nintendo reps only netted us a slight elaboration. SpotPass will “provide automatic news updates about the game so long as you’re connected to Wi-Fi.”

We like the sound of that second explanation better, specifically the “updates” bit. Nintendo DS owners have used SpotPass for years to download new content for their games: exclusive videos, unlockable characters, even new levels. It seems impossible that Nintendo finally wants to seriously move into the DLC business, but not much else falls into both the “news” and “updates” categories. Consider our fingers crossed on this one.

The augmented reality stuff works

The WiiPad’s accelerometer responds very nicely, so augmented reality games have a real chance to work on the platform. Nintendo Land uses this feature in its hub world, giving you a full 360-degree orbital view with little-to-no lag. It’s currently unclear how well (or if) the controller detects distance from the console, but if that holds up as well, the possibilities really open up for AR games to do some seriously cool work.

 It also draws attention to one big flaw in the Wii U’s design to date.

You won’t always know which screen to look at

Right during the setup phase, I started seeing potential problem with the two-screen system. For starters, the instructions kept bouncing from the big screen to the hand-held device without warning or any kind of natural flow. I always seemed to be looking at the wrong one. And because of the way you naturally hold the WiiPad, you generally won’t even be able to split out your concentration between the two. You either focus on your TV or zero in on the WiiPad screen, and you don’t always make the right choice.

This happens in a few games, too. Occasionally, the Wii U must baldly tell you which screen to look at, and this might not always be the screen you want to use. Either way, this comes across as a problem based on inexperience; nobody’s really had to solve moving between two radically different game screens before. Hopefully, they will. Soon.

Nintendo supplied GamesBeat with a 32GB Wii U Deluxe Set for coverage purposes.