Thirty years ago, Nintendo’s Gunpei Yokoi created the cross-shaped D-pad. In the decades following that touchstone event, Nintendo has been responsible for nearly every significant interface innovation in console and handheld gaming: shoulder buttons (SNES), analog sticks (N64), vibration feedback (N64’s Rumble Pak), wireless controllers (GameCube’s WaveBird), touchscreens/multiple screens (DS), and motion control (Wii).

In a very real sense, the Wii U is the culmination of those many innovations. Its revolutionary controller, dubbed GamePad, makes use of every feature noted above, and more. Wii U is Nintendo’s first high-definition gaming system, and the first new home console released in six long years. The eighth generation of console gaming has finally arrived.

It couldn’t have been easy to design a follow-up to the Wii. The system ushered in a revolution of gestural control, and introduced scores of new players to the delights of video games. It is, by a wide margin, the best selling system of the last generation – and the most successful home console in Nintendo’s history. At the same time, Wii has been all but abandoned by self-designated “hardcore gamers,” and sales have been steadily declining for years. Wii is simultaneously the uncontested champion and the pariah of the seventh console generation, leaving Nintendo with a difficult – potentially impossible – task: retain as much of the “Blue Ocean” audience that flocked to the Wii as possible, and bring back the “hardcore gamers” who have effectively written off the company and its products.

Wii U GamePad Front

To that end, Nintendo has once again chosen to focus not on pursuing raw hardware power, but on providing a qualitatively different platform and experience from its competitors. That philosophy has resulted in the GamePad, which packs the functionality of traditional game controllers, motion controllers, and internet-connected tablets into a single, surprisingly comfortable, device. The GamePad’s charms are less obvious than those of the Wii Remote, but the controller is every bit as trailblazing.

For starters, it just plain feels good to hold on to. The GamePad weighs in at 1.1 lbs (by contrast, an Xbox 360 controller with a rechargeable battery pack is just shy of 10 ounces) and measures 10 inches across, 5 1/4 inches top to bottom. Much of the controller’s face is taken up by a 6.2 inch, 16:9 single-touch LCD screen. This “second screen” is the Wii U’s defining feature, and the system makes the most of it at every turn. Playing games, navigating system menus, browsing the net, watching Netflix – the GamePad screen is integral to everything that makes Wii U unique. It’s a bright, glossy, attractive 854 x 480 display, and images on the GamePad screen very nearly equal their counterparts on an HDTV. Touch control is responsive, though occasionally a firm press on the screen is necessary.

Wii U GamePad Features

In many ways, the GamePad is the polar opposite of the Wii Remote. Where the Wii Remote pared down the game controller to its barest essentials, and its function was largely apparent from its form, the GamePad is a mass of control options and tech features – it’s the densest, most complicated controller yet. In addition to the touch-screen, the Pad sports dual analog sticks (moderate resistance and extremely smooth travel, with pleasantly tacky rubber thumb-pads), a nice, large cross-shaped digital pad, four “face” buttons (A,B,X and Y), Start, Select, TV, Power and Home buttons, four shoulder buttons (L, LZ, R and RZ) and a front-facing camera. Less obvious, but still present, are motion control sensors (an accelerometer, gyroscope and geomagnetic sensor), a microphone, a sensor bar, NFC technology, vibration feedback (pretty mild), a headphone jack, stereo speakers and a volume control slider. A handy stylus slips right into the top of the GamePad.

Nevertheless, the GamePad is elegantly designed and uncluttered. It’s ergonomics are remarkably good, and its build quality is equally impressive. The GamePad is light for its size, but doesn’t feel hollow or flimsy. The shiny black finish of the GamePad in the Wii U Deluxe Set is quick to accumulate fingerprints, though they’re easy to wipe away with a soft, clean cloth. The only real drawback is battery life, which runs three to four hours – less if the screen is on its brightest setting. The GamePad can be used while it’s charging, but that’s hardly ideal, and the 8 foot reach of the Pad’s AC adapter is barely sufficient for the purpose.

Wii U Console

The GamePad itself doesn’t render graphics of any kind – every image displayed on its impressive screen is served by the Wii U. Physically, the console looks very much like a revision of the Wii – it’s slightly longer and rounded on the sides, with an even neater appearance. In terms of build quality, Wii U is more solid and substantial than Wii, likely thanks to the elimination of Wii’s many doors and ports. Wii U’s sole sliding door (which hides an SD card slot and two USB ports) sits right on the front of the unit, and flips into the console rather than out. A second pair of USB ports sit at the back of the console, along with an HDMI port (a cable is included), AV Multi Out port, sensor-bar port and AC adapter port. Wi-Fi is built in, and supports 802.11b/g/n. Like the Wii, Wii U can be positioned either flat or on its side (console stand “feet” are included with the Deluxe Set). Flash is not the point with the Wii U console; clean, unobtrusive design is the goal, and it’s admirably met.

It’s impossible, at this point, to offer any kind of definitive reckoning of the system’s graphical power, but the Wii U is clearly capable of delivering impressive imagery that is, at the very least, on par with Xbox 360 and PS3. New Super Mario Bros. U, for example, is simply gorgeous, with vastly crisper graphics than any previous Mario game (read our review). That said, this 8th gen system’s visual capabilities are not, in any obvious way, dramatically more robust than those of its 7th gen competitors, and how Wii U will measure up to forthcoming consoles from Sony and Microsoft remains an open and valid question. But – right now, today – the system’s graphical fidelity is not an issue; Wii U games look great, and odds are they’ll only get better in the next couple years. Then again, the success of the Wii U doesn’t really hinge on the strength of its visuals. It’s all about the GamePad.

New Super Mario Bros. U

The GamePad marks the Wii U as the most “of the moment” game console ever released. Whether by design or by chance, Nintendo has staked its claim on an activity that most of us engage in on a regular, if not constant, basis: giving our attention to two screens at once. The rise of smartphones and tablets has come to mean that many people now watch television while they also browse the internet, or play games on a couple of different devices at the same time (loading screen? Better make a move in Words with Friends). Wii U recreates that experience – in fact, the GamePad can be that tablet you’re browsing the web on, or play the game that occupies you during a commercial. That level of engagement is remarkably persuasive; once you’ve started playing, it’s tough to put the GamePad down.

A YouTube app was slated to be available alongside the Wii U’s launch, but didn’t make it in time (Amazon Instant Video suffered the same fate). The icon is still there on the GamePad screen, waiting for the app to be ready. No matter. YouTube works great with the system’s web browser, either on the GamePad or the TV. The browser is as speedy as advertised, and surfing the web on Wii U is flat-out better than doing the same on either Xbox 360 or PS3. But, this is Nintendo. Be prepared for some quirks.

Wii U Web Browser

Rather than simply support existing social networks like Twitter and Facebook (both of which work acceptably with the Wii U web browser), Nintendo has gone to the trouble of creating a social network in its own image: Miiverse. Here, users can participate in Communities focused solely around Wii U games: asking questions, drawing pictures, offering their opinions. This is kind of lame, because the discussions are, by design, limited (and, for that matter, heavily moderated). It can also be awesome. In the Epic Mickey 2 Community, for instance, there are posts (purporting to be) from one of the game’s designers and from an employee of the animation studio that crafted Power of Two‘s 2D cutscenes. The New Super Mario Bros. U Community has a post from Takahashi Tezuka, the game’s producer. That’s cool – direct communication between game makers and game players.

Miiverse feeds directly into WaraWara Plaza, the congregation of Miis that appears when Wii U starts up. WaraWara Plaza offers a visual representation of what Wii U games are popular at the moment (Miis will be standing around that game’s icon), and includes a sampling of what users have to say about those games. Not essential, but unique – and it encourages users to interact with one another in a way that, say, Xbox LIVE absolutely does not.

WaraWara Plaza

The “real” Wii U menu pops up on the GamePad (though it can be swapped with WaraWara Plaza), and closely resembles the Wii’s user interface. A grid-shaped series of “blocks” (15 per page) grants access to whatever games and/or apps users have installed, along with shortcuts to Miiverse, the eShop, the web browser, TVii (delayed from launch, now due in December) and Notifications from Nintendo.

Quirks are one thing; they can, in their own way, be charming. Fails are another and, unfortunately, Wii U has its fair share, starting with the massive, mandatory System Update that greets first time users. The 5GB patch is responsible for a number of the system’s features (Nintendo Network ID creation and linking, Miiverse, eShop, web browser, friends List, Wii U Chat, Notifications, download management, Wii data transfer, software updates, USB storage support) and takes forever to download – up to two hours for members of the Game Rant team (with high speed connections). Even worse, should the power or internet go out during the update, the Wii U could end up bricked. Not cool.

Systems have also been freezing during games, particularly Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 (read our review) and ZombiU (read our review). Less disastrous, but hardly less annoying, are the lengthy load times for games and applications: 19 seconds for the Mii Maker, 25 seconds for Nintendo Land, 48 seconds for Netflix (just to get to the “Select your Netflix experience” menu). Exiting back to the Wii U menu can take nearly half a minute. On the other hand, the web browser loads in under 10 seconds, and the Wii U’s TV remote function works beautifully, even without the full suite of TVii features.

Wii U and GamePad

It’s tough to consider a console separately from its games – each informs the other, and neither is especially useful on its own. Until the Wii came along, few players had ever coveted a given system just because they wanted to get their hands on its controller. With Wii U, Nintendo’s done it again. Yes, the Wii U is a graphically capable, modern console, but it’s the GamePad that puts the system in a class of its own.

The impact and pull of that sharp-looking second screen is undeniable, both in concert with a television and all by itself. Having a full slate of touch-based inputs, literally at your fingertips, fundamentally changes the way you conceive of interacting with a game console. That the GamePad is useful outside of gameplay – to browse the web, or control the TV – only adds to its allure. Nintendo has once again succeeded in delivering a console with a truly innovative, potentially transformative interface. There is no guarantee that developers will exploit that interface to its fullest – just look at what happened to the Wii. Still, the potential is there, and coupled with the reality of what Wii U and GamePad are right now, there are more than enough reasons to recommend the system.

The Nintendo Wii U is available now.

Follow me on Twitter @HakenGaken.

tags: Nintendo, Wii, Wii U