For a company that focuses on familiar, family-friendly entertainment, Nintendo can occasionally be full of surprises.
Sunday marks the launch of the Wii U, Nintendo’s first new video game console since the Wii made its debut in 2006. It’s also a significant roll of the dice for the gaming giant, which hopes this new machine, with its high-definition graphics and unusual touchscreen controller, will manage to excite longtime fans, intrigue casual gamers and satisfy the so-called hardcore gaming crowd.
I’ve been playing with the Wii U for a few days now, and we’ll dive deeper into specific games soon. For now, here’s what you need to know about Mario and company’s bold new adventure.
* It’s familiar yet different
Although the Wii U introduces a brand new type of game controller (the touchscreen-equipped GamePad, which looks like a melding of an iPad Mini a Fisher Price toy), its ties to the original Wii are strong. Existing Wii Remotes are used in multiplayer games, and it can play nearly all Wii games in addition to the new, high-def titles designed specifically for the Wii U.
* There’s more than one
The black Wii U Deluxe Set ($349.99) comes with 32 GB of internal storage, a copy of the Nintendo Land game (also available separately for $59.99) and a few other bells and whistles, such as a charging cradle for the GamePad. The white Wii U Basic Set ($299.99) has 8 GB of internal storage and doesn’t include a game or other extras. Unless you absolutely need to save $50, opt for the Deluxe Set. Because…
* You really want Nintendo Land
Presented as a whimsical virtual theme park with 12 mini-game attractions, Nintendo Land teaches Wii U owners everything they need to know about the unique uses of the GamePad. So-called asynchronous play (when one player uses the GamePad for his or her view of the action, while the others watch the TV) is highlighted in several minigames, including Luigi’s Ghost Mansion, Metroid Blast and Animal Crossing Sweet Day. It’s no coincidence these are also the most delightful of the bunch.
* You should connect it to the Internet
From being able to buy and download just-released games such as Assassin’s Creed III to the MiiVerse community that allows gamers to swap tips, notes and doodles, the online offerings for the Wii U are useful and charming. There’s an Internet browser, a Netflix app and December will mark the launch of a streaming TV service dubbed (wait for it) TVii. You can even have video chats with other Wii U users using the camera on the GamePad. And as with all things Nintendo, there are parental controls that can be used to restrict these features.
* So far, I really like it
Any new game console release is going to be marred with technical hiccups, supply shortages and some crappy launch games. But so far I’m quite enamoured of the Wii U’s whimsical charms and novel ideas. Its ultimate success will depend on what game developers do with the hardware and whether the Wii U will be able to compete with the next generation of consoles from Sony and Microsoft. For the moment, though, Wii U is a pleasant, peachy surprise.