Wii U

It sounds crazy that a high-profile electronic device with price tag starting at $300 would ask consumers to take its features on trust. Nintendo’s new console, the Wii U, did just that.

In an era in which online gaming and downloadable content almost became mandatory for every major release, Nintendo’s smash-success Wii (with 97 million units sold in the last six years) fell dangerously behind the curve. The Wii U, promised Nintendo CEO Satoru Iwata, would fix that. He didn’t actually say how. Indeed, right up to the product launch, the game-publishing giant barely gave its customers any details on what the Wii U’s online experience might be like. It wasn’t until late afternoon the day before the console’s North American release that Nintendo even turned the feature on.

Iwata and his company leveraged 30 years of nostalgia and customer loyalty against one big question mark. Now, finally, we’ve seen what’s behind the curtain.

Jump to to Page 2 for a detailed overview on the major features, like the Miiverse, Friend List, TVii, and Internet Browser. Click here for all of GamesBeat’s Wii U launch coverage.

Can the Wii U go online right out of the box?
Well, no. You need to download a day-one update to activate the online functions, and you might want to plan well in advance when you do. When the update finally went live Saturday (Nov. 17), the download progressed at the speed of continental drift … likely due to hundreds, possibly thousands, of prerelease Wii U consoles flooding Nintendo’s servers at once. All told, it took about 90 minutes to download and install the update. We shudder to think what might happen when several million people show up on launch day.

Is it worth the wait?
That depends on your expectations. And we’re still waiting … not everything’s active yet.

Does it support voice chat?
Not yet … just video chat through the GamePad controller’s camera. That will have to do for now, I’m afraid. The Miiverse community (explained in depth on Page 2) centers on game-centric message boards, too, which allow for typewritten or stylus-doodled posts.

We’re not still trading Friend Codes, are we?
No! You create your own Nintendo Network ID and link it to a Mii. You can friend people in the Miiverse by entering their ID or by sending them a friend request from their profile page, just like FaceBook. First, though, you’ve got to set up your Friend List, which can’t actually be done from the Miiverse. Your Friend List has its own top-menu icon.

What about game matchmaking?
This remains to be determined. Yes, games with online multiplayer have some sort of matchmaking, but many of these servers weren’t switched on until late in the evening on 11/17. We’ll update once we get a bit more time online and get a better feel for how well it works.

Does the Wii U have Achievements?
Sadly, no. Individual titles will have in-game, achievement-like milestones,  just as a few did back on the Wii, but Nintendo did not include an over-arching Achievement/Trophy system in the Wii U’s design. As far as we know, they don’t plan to, either.

Go to Page 2 for a run-down on all the major features!

The Miiverse

The Miiverse is the Wii U’s main community hub for connecting and communicating with other players. If you’ve avoided joining Facebook and Twitter like the plague, I’ve got some bad news: The Miiverse functions like both. With message boards!

Everything centers on Communities, game-centric message boards you can post in and, if you really want, mark as a favorite to “join.” The two big cool things about posting in the Communities: First, you can doodle images or write messages with your stylus instead of using a dull ol’ keyboard. The Scribblenauts Unlimited Community is already showing serious artistic chops, too.

Second, depending on the Profile settings, you can see who’s actually played the game. The Miiverse reads the saved data off the Wii U hard drive and gives players a little checkmark, and that equals instant credibility, my friends. Naturally, you can respond to posts or simply “Yeah!” them — the “Like” button of the Miiverse. Any “Yeah!” clicks your posts earn show up under your Notifications tab.

You can also follow someone or send them a friend request from their profile page in the Miiverse. Either sends every post they make to your Activity Feed, a Twitter-style timeline, and you can message confirmed friends. That comes with a 100-character limit, so already it’s more hardcore than Twitter. Oddly, you get a 63-character limit for messages sent with your friend requests. Why 63? No idea … because it’s divisible by 21?

But before you can send any friend requests, you must set up your Friend List. Nothing in the Miiverse tells you what this is, but Nintendo has every confidence you’ll figure it out on your own.

Friend List

Hit the Home button. Friend List is the cheery orange smiley-box on the far left, and I’m afraid I want it to die. You might send out friend requests from the Miiverse, and you can even look at your Friend List from your Profile there, but Nintendo insists you come over to the Friend List for nebulous reasons. And you must set up your own preferences here before you can send out any requests at all. Oh, and the Friend List doesn’t even show up on the Wii U’s Channels dashboard like the Miiverse, eShop, Internet Browser, and TVii do. So what the hell is it for?

Aside from that quick, easy, one-time profile set-up (some of which repeats over in your Miiverse Profile), the only features here let you send a request by entering a Nintendo Network ID and track players you’ve recently played with … not just friends, but everybody. You can send them friend requests with a few quick taps.

Splitting out minor functions from the Miiverse — where you’ll do a lot of your connecting — then A) not explaining it and B) hiding it half the time adds up to a major user-interface misstep. I’m already counting the days before Nintendo votes Friend List off the island with a firmware update, but forgive me if I vote a little early. And often.

Nintendo eShop

Certainly, the new eShop feels more accommodating than the old Wii Store and far more in line with the look and feel of other download services. The GamePad makes accessing and buying anything you want an iPad-like breeze … so long as you’re using a stylus. Once again, the resistive touchscreen doesn’t play well with your biology, and with so many clickable items on the page, odds are you’ll careen off into content you simply don’t want so long as you insist on finger-swiping. The eStore also encourages all resident Nintendaddicts to opt into SpotPass updates and link their Club Nintendo accounts. That’s good integration, right there.

And, of course, Nintendo showed Wii Points the door in favor of American greenbacks (at least in the U.S. market). That leaves Microsoft’s Xbox Marketplace as the last holdout in the fake currency arena.

It’s always annoying to see digital downloads priced the same price as retail discs, but an impressive number of launch titles (including New Super Mario Bros. U and ZombiU) feature prominently in the eStore, I’m also gratified to see indie games getting a place at the table, and right below the headliners, too. Less gratifying, the “More Indie Games” either isn’t a link to more indie games, or the link is broken. Or possibly they only have those three titles up on the eShop at present. Games by Category section also feels thin … for one thing, indie games isn’t one of the four categories (Action, Party, Sports, Something for Everyone).

Design-wise, the eShop looks cleaner than the PlayStation Store but not quite as slick as Xbox Live Marketplace. Of course, it also suffers from a limited selection, so some of these problems will hopefully go away in the next few months.

Internet Browser

For a company as endlessly creative as Nintendo, “Internet Browser” seems a bit pedestrian. That said, Nintendo just can’t get away from being cute. While your GamePad screen shows bookmarks and search fields, Internet Browser throws red theater curtains up on your TV and invites you to open them by pressing the X button. If you don’t, your Mii shows up to do magic tricks. I just watched my cartoon doppelgänger pull a pigeon out of top hat. Then it wanted to play Rock-Paper-Scissors with me. It’s not exactly a Google Doodle.

The X button just puts the GamePad image up on the big screen without any fanfare whatsoever.

Internet Browser does a nice job, overall. You’re better off using the stylus to scroll on the GamePad’s resistive touchscreen, but the Wii U scales images, video, and text from the pad’s screen to my television nicely. I’m actually reading this article on my Sharp HDTV from a good 12 feet away, and everything looks very crisp indeed. It’s also Flash-compatible, so grade the decent load times on that curve. Zooms and contracts are done with the + and – buttons (physical or touchscreen) or the right thumbstick. The left stick scrolls the page, as will swiping the touchscreen.

I did need to refresh several times when images didn’t load properly or a page froze. Those seem more like growing pains than real faults. Internet Browser, like then name suggests, isn’t fancy, but it gets the job done and offers a smooth control interface to boot.

Nintendo TVii

If you want a sense of how just ambitious Nintendo went with the Wii U, look to Nintendo TVii. It’s their full-frontal assault on the Xbox 360’s throne as the all-in-one entertainment device, and while it might not have deals to run HBO Go or NBC News, the feature set potentially (and arguably) outstrips those advantages. TVii, we’re told, will not only stream content from Amazon Prime, Hulu, and Netflix but live television as well, with built-in digital recording for fans of time-shifting their TV.

Nintendo’s never done anything like this before, and it could be a good game-changer for it. But launching TVii brings you to this message in English, French, and Spanish;

“Nintendo TVii will be available in December. We look forward to seeing you then!”

We also don’t know which cable providers will support TVii or to what extent. We’ll just have to wait and see what Santa brings.

Wii U Chat

Maybe Nintendo couldn’t decide where exactly to place the Wii U’s video chat feature, because it shows up in some menus and not in others … and it gets its own channel on the main page. That’s generally the easiest place to launch it.

You can call anyone on your Friend List, transmitting live video and sound from the Game Pad. It’s Skype on the big screen with a Nintendo touch, starting with the presentation. When your call connects, your image fades in watery ripples exactly as if you were experiencing a flashback scene on TV. When it clears up, your fellow caller comes up like a grainy memory. The picture is Skype quality, no better or worse, and I experienced a fair amount of lag and frozen images during a twenty minute call, though sound still came through strong. With any luck, that will calm down once Nintendo’s servers get past the launch-day strain.

It’s simplicity itself to switch the images between the Game Pad screen and your TV, but let’s not kid ourselves … you can draw on the video image you’re watching by clicking the pen icon in the upper left corner, and you will abuse this feature mightily. Callers can, of course, see how they’re vandalizing each other’s image and retaliate in kind. You can also erase all or part of your graffiti without much trouble. This all works best with the stylus.

Using the Game Pad’s camera while it rests in one of its cradles is a bit more of mixed bag. Both cradles tilt the pad — and thus, the camera — up slightly. Sitting on a couch at a distance of about ten feet, a viewer could still see me, but got an even better shot of my wall and ceiling. That seems like an odd oversight, design-wise. It’s better to hold the Game Pad as if you were Face Timing with your iPad.

When you finally hang up, a message pops up telling you to wave goodbye, and the image fades to white as if you’re waking up from a dream. Hopefully a good one. Wii U Chat works well enough to recommend, but dedicated Skype and Face Time users don’t have much to feel envious about.