The Nintendo Wii U wants to be a smartphone. It also wants to be video-game console. It lands somewhere in between, occupying a weird space somewhere between a Nintendo 3DS and a clunky Microsoft Xbox.
The identity trouble with this device, which debuted yesterday, November 18, begins when you turn on the device and begin using the GamePad, Nintendo's brick of a touchscreen controller. The GamePad is a hybrid: It's part touchscreen, but also part traditional game controller with joysticks and regular buttons. At startup, as you jab at the sometimes-unresponsive resistive touchscreen to create the Mii avatar that will greet you every time you turn the device, you begin to get an idea of the controller's confusing and potentially frustrating nature.
The GamePad isn't all bad. At its core, it's a great idea: Give gamers a second screen that displays the information usually hidden in game menus, such as weapons, maps, and zoomed-in scope. In some of the mini-games within (a game created to show off the Wii U's new features), the GamePad is great. It lets you shoot spaceships with uncanny accuracy, and it acts as a true second screen, displaying information your TV-focused opponent can't see. And even though it's somewhat clunky, it's comfortable to hold.
Still, the GamePad leaves a lot to be desired. The battery life's no good (about three hours), the touchscreen doesn't always respond, and holding it in portrait mode is awkward. But what really disappoints is the concept itself.
Yes, there are bound to be games for which the GamePad excels and can serve as a useful second screen, displaying information that would be hard to get to otherwise. But some games, like the otherwise excellent , just have the GamePad mirror what's on TV. Here the touchscreen is a distraction; when you see something moving from the corner of your eye, you're bound to look, and next time you look up you'll realize you've been playing the entire time as if using a Gameboy.
And with most of the games currently available, the GamePad just confuses the players, leaving them wondering which screen to look at. In some, including many of the mini-games within Nintendo Land, almost all the action takes place on the GamePad screen. It's frustrating to start playing a video-game console connected to a TV only to find yourself staring down at a small screen in your hands (though I suppose we're all used to looking at handheld screens when our attention should be elsewhere). Games have to catch up to Nintendo's new idea of how we interact with screens—or Nintendo has to rethink what it's trying to do.
In the meantime, you can play excellent Wii U versions of games like Call of Duty, which look great in HD. Or you can play old Wii games, but the backward compatibility doesn't extend to the new controllers. Besides the GamePad, the deluxe edition of the Wii U also comes with a regular controller, which is basically a shiny cross between Playstation and Xbox 360 controllers. But if you want to play your old Wii games, you still have to use those wacky Wii remotes.
And just setting up the Wii U is a pain. That backward compatibility, for example, is only available after a software update, which took more than an hour on my high-speed internet. The update is also necessary to maintain an internet connection. Before I found that out, I spent hours in a cyclical hell of Wii U setup menus—all of which load at a dreadful crawl—trying and failing to connect to the internet and update my console as the screen told me to do. Even post-update, I can only stay connected to the internet via wired connection.
The bright side of all of this is that I can now play Mario Kart. But even so, I'm not using the Wii U to its full multi-screen potential, looking from GamePad to TV screen and enjoying HD graphics. The true test of the Wii U's take on second-screen gaming will be how developers try to develop the perfect game for Nintendo's peculiar setup.