On Sunday, Nintendo finally released Wii U, its new game console. We've raved about early launch games like NintendoLand and New Super Mario Bros. U, showing that the big N still has the magic touch when it comes to making great play experiences.
Unfortunately, Nintendo is still lagging behind when it comes to creating what consumers are increasingly expecting out of their devices: a feature-rich, multimedia online experience. Wii U, available in $300 and $350 configurations, has a bunch of these features - Netflix, a social network feed called Miiverse, a digital game shop - but all of them have distinct problems that make the user experience less fun than it should be.
Problems like this at the launch of a new piece of hardware are to be expected. Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 had all kinds of problems when they shipped, and remember when the iPhone didn't even have copy-and-paste? Nintendo does have the ability to upgrade all of these features over time - and it should get cracking on them immediately. Until then, Wii U has over-promised and under-delivered. Here are the 10 things that tick me off the most.
1. The Big-Ass Firmware Update.
The reason you're only reading about Wii U's online features now is that out of the box, it doesn't have any of them. You can't even connect to the internet on Wii U without first downloading a massive firmware update. Nintendo released this at the eleventh hour - almost literally, since it was released a couple of hours before the midnight launch on Sunday - and anyone who took home a Wii U realized that if they wanted to play games with online integration (that is, the way they were meant to be enjoyed) they had to first update the firmware.
Okay, no problem. Except the giant update - which contained Miiverse, Netflix, a web browser and God knows what else - was such a ginormous download that it took users around 90 minutes to pull it down. So be aware: If you buy a Wii U for Christmas, you're going to be spending a good part of Christmas morning and some of Christmas afternoon updating the OS first. Oh, and don't get impatient and stop the process halfway, or as L.A. Times reporter Ben Fritz found, you might permanently brick your new Wii U.
2. Brutally Slow OS.
This is the problem that makes every other problem seem that much worse. Clicking on anything in Wii U's menu, anything at all that you try to do, takes For. E. Ver. People can post text and images to the Miiverse feed, kind of like Twitter where you can draw pictures. But imagine Twitter where every time you wanted to view a new tweet you had to wait five seconds. Booting up, loading software, loading games, refreshing feeds.... Everything is accompanied by an agonizing wait.
This should have been an early killer app for Wii U, and instead it just sucks. "Netflix will be great on Wii U," I'd tell friends, apparently talking right out of my ass. "Say somebody has to get a drink from the kitchen: They don't have to pause the movie for them! They can just take the GamePad with them! Or say you're browsing: You could show a movie on the TV screen, while you browse for more on the GamePad! It's going to be our Netflix machine for sure."
Netflix on Wii U, as it turns out, doesn't do any of that. The only difference between it and any other bog standard Netflix app is that you can show the movie on the TV or the GamePad. Convenient, but nothing you couldn't do - better - with an Xbox and an iPad.
4. Tiny Battery in the GamePad.
Wii U's big defining feature, from which all things flow, is the GamePad controller. It features a touchscreen right in the middle that can display graphics perfectly in sync with the TV, allowing for new types of gameplay. Unfortunately, you'll find yourself needing to charge it constantly. This problem is compounded by the fact that even though Nintendo built the GamePad to hold a large battery, it ended up putting a smaller one inside the case, presumably to keep the cost of goods low. Oh, and you can't charge GamePad by plugging it into the Wii U console. It has its own proprietary AC adapter and it must be plugged into the wall.
5. Miiverse, the Social Network in Which You Are Not Allowed to Socialize.
I signed up for Nintendo Network, Nintendo's first (!) ever attempt to create an account-based online service for its players. I clicked through the Terms of Service, skimming them. As you do. OK, I'm not going to post anything offensive, no problem. I enter my details into my profile and throw Game|Life's URL and my Twitter handle in there so people know it's me. Big mistake. Minutes after I posted my profile, I got a message saying that I had posted prohibited content and that Nintendo had blocked my profile pending a change. The hell? Turns out that you are strictly prohibited from posting anything on Miiverse that might allow someone to personally identify you. It didn't specifically call out Twitter URLs, but I guess those must also be banned. Nintendo clearly doesn't want any stories in the press about harassment (or worse) stemming from people meeting on Miiverse. So it is doing everything it can to make sure its members do not know who each other actually is.
That's apparently not the only thing that Nintendo's eagle eyes are looking out for. Destructoid writer Jim Sterling said he had a message banned for using the word "idiot" in a funny Batman quote (it was later reviewed and re-posted). One parent said on Twitter that his son cannot use his first name - Killian - because Miiverse deems the word to be offensive.
I changed my profile to "Hi!" Nintendo has not flagged it - yet.
6. Content Transfer From Old Wii Is Terrible.
If you have tons of content - game save data, Mii characters, and downloaded software - on your old Wii, you'll want to transfer them over to Wii U. The process is about as convoluted as can possibly be. You'll actually need to alternate between your Wii and your Wii U, which means either hooking them both up to the TV or swapping cables. First you have to get an SD card. Then you have to put it in your Wii U to "prepare" it for transfer. (You'll need an internet connection to do this so Nintendo can transfer the digital rights to the software.) Then you put it into the Wii and wait for, oh, about half an hour as it copies over all of the files from the internal storage to the SD card. (Admittedly, this is dressed up with a very cute animation of Pikmin hauling your files away.)
Then you put the card into the Wii U and wait another half hour as the Pikmin move the files from the SD card to the Wii U. But besides being time-consuming, there's also a big missing feature. If you had games already stored on an SD card and not on the Wii's system memory, you have to move them back to the Wii or else you can't transfer them. But if you have games stored on the SD card in the first place, that's probably because you ran out of memory on your Wii (not hard, since it only has 512 megabytes in there). So you are screwed. The transfer process will move over all of the digital licenses, but to get those games onto your Wii U, you'll have to individually download every single one again from the digital store, which will take forever.
Adding insult to injury, if you pop the SD card full o' games into your Wii U, it will actually recognize them, show them as icons on the menu, then tell you you cannot play them if you try to click on them.
7. Playing Old Wii Games Is Sub-Optimal.
Wii U is, sort of, backward compatible with the vast majority of your Wii software, whether it was on disc or downloaded. But the way it does it is not exactly seamless. In fact, it's kind of like Boot Camp. You click on a Wii icon on the Wii U menu. This causes the system to actually reboot in "Wii mode," running the old Wii operating system. At this point, you can play Wii discs in their original 480p resolution, and access your downloaded games once you've transferred them.
So instead of simply being able to drop all of your previously owned Virtual Console classic games into a folder on Wii U's main menu, you have to navigate into the Wii mode, basically rebooting the system, to do it. Most things on Wii U take forever, but man does this take forever: one minute, 28 seconds, two controllers and five clicks from startup to gameplay.
And yes, even though Wii now has tons of internal storage, you can still only use 512K of it for old Wii games, meaning you'll have to still keep an SD card full of Virtual Console games in your Wii U even if you connect a terabyte hard drive to it.
You can't play old Wii games on the GamePad's screen. This would have been pretty amazing for the classic Virtual Console games - imagine just sitting back with the GamePad and playing the 8-bit version of Legend of Zelda while someone else uses the TV. Nintendo says it's going to release new versions of the games with GamePad support for the Wii U's eShop. Hopefully it will offer some kind of upgrade path instead of screwing its most dedicated big-spending customers.
Finally, I don't know about yours, but my TV will not let me go into "normal" 4:3 display mode when it gets a 16:9, 1080p signal. And that's what Wii U outputs all the time, even for the old games. So unless I want to play Secret of Mana stretched out like a freaking funhouse mirror across my whole TV, I have to manually set the Wii U's display to 480p.
8. Non-Functional Buttons on the Home Screen.
Hey, remember like a week ago when Wii U was going to be released with "Nintendo TVii," a piece of software that was going to let you run your whole television experience using the GamePad, adding interactive content to football games and such? Yeah, that's not out yet. But there is a great big useless button on the GamePad screen for it. Also see: Hulu Plus, Amazon Prime, YouTube.
9. Resistive Touchscreen Not Great for Fingers.
The GamePad comes with a stylus, which works well with the resistive touchscreen. But you don't always want to pull out a stylus pen; sometimes you just want to press a button with your finger and get on with it. That's not so good on this type of screen. One wants to, when using Netflix, just sort of lightly swipe with a finger and scroll through the cover gallery. Not so much.
10. Miiverse Is Just Plain Confusing.
Contrary to Nintendo's every desire, I was able to find someone I knew in real life on Miiverse, 1up editor Jeremy Parish. Or I figured it was him anyway. So I decided to make him my first friend. "You must complete initial Friends List setup first," I was told. Okay, how do I do that? It did not say. I looked around all of the different sections of Miiverse and found nothing, nothing at all. Kept looking. Looked in the Wii U instruction manual. Nothing. Jumped out to the Wii U main menu. Nothing. Edited my Nintendo Network profile. Tried all of those things over again in case I missed something. Where the eff was the Friends List Setup? Finally hit the Home button and there it was, a button that said Friends List. Clicked it.
"Do you want to have a Friends List?" it basically said. "Yes," I clicked, exasperatedly. "Okay, now you have one!" it said (again I paraphrase).
That was the Whole. Entire. Process.