Nintendo's latest console has suffered from anemic sales and a software library to match since day one. More than a year after its launch, it's time to re-examine the Wii U's current features and future prospects, to answer the most important question about it: Should you buy one?
The Wii U ($300) had some leeway when it first released, since it was the only next-gen console on the market (leaving aside, for the moment, whether a system that's only slightly more powerful than the Xbox 360 and PS3 can really be considered "next-gen"). Now that the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One have hit the market, though, the Wii U has to stand toe-to-toe with two much newer systems.
Then there's the question of content. The Wii U plays host to a number of good games and innovative features, but it may not have enough to justify the relatively steep cost of entry — especially since its future prospects are hazy, at best.
Wii U games library
The primary function of a game console is to play games, and in this respect, the Wii U has both very much and very little to offer. There are a few standout titles on the console, but most of what the Wii U does well, the Xbox One and PS4 do well, too — as do the Xbox 360 and PS3.
While Metacritic, a site that aggregates media reviews, is not the last word in game quality, it's a good indicator of where critics and fans sit when it comes to major releases. While there are more than 40 games that garnered strong reviews (75 out of 100 or more), only 10 of them are Wii U exclusives. The rest are available on systems ranging from the PC to the 3DS.
Where the Wii U excels is in its high-quality exclusive titles. There's little argument that "Super Mario 3D World" is one of the better entries in the series, and "Lego City: Undercover" is a charming take on the open-world crime genre. "The Wonderful 101" provides a creative superhero romp, while "ZombiU" has enough intensity to please even jaded survival/horror fans.
The Wii U vs. other consoles
The problem is that unless you absolutely can't live without these games, you're probably better off with another platform. Yes, you can play "Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag" on the Wii U, but you'll get better graphics and smoother animation on the Xbox One or PS4. The Wii U port of "Mass Effect 3" is fine, except you can't play the first two games in the series, and the story can change radically depending on your past decisions, which carry over to the final installment.
The Wii U's difficulty in attracting third-party developers is also something of a stumbling block. While Activision ("Call of Duty") and Ubisoft ("Assassin's Creed") are willing to play nice with Nintendo, many other major publishers are not. Neither Electronic Arts ("Battlefield") nor Bethesda ("The Elder Scrolls") want anything to do with the Wii U. Bethesda has even gone on record stating that it's "too late" for Nintendo to attract third party support.
The perception of the Wii as a kids' system has carried over to its successor as well. At best, some of the Wii U's top games still have a distinctively kiddie vibe. At worst, shovelware developers use it as a dumping ground for games they would never dream of attempting to foist off on adults.
The device is also backward-compatible with all Wii games (but not GameCube games, as the original Wii is). If you never bought a Wii, this could be a good chance to catch up, but the Wii itself was also rather limited when it came to exclusive titles — especially if flagship Nintendo franchises like "Mario," "Zelda" and "Smash Bros." aren't to your taste.
Today, the Wii U has the same problem it did when it first came out: It's not bereft of good games, but you need to have very specific tastes to get the most out of it.
Wii U as an entertainment center
Whereas both the Xbox One and the PlayStation 4 want to dominate the living room, the Wii U seems more content as a companion piece. The device offers an Internet browser and a rudimentary social network (you can make a digital avatar called a Mii and chat about games), but its real strengths are in its streaming video and second-screen (playing games on the controller instead of the TV) functionalities.
At first glance, the Wii U's video streaming selection is fairly simple: Netflix, Hulu Plus and Amazon Instant Video. This is everything the average consumer expects, and nothing that he or she doesn't. Where Nintendo sets itself apart is with its TVii app.
TVii allows users to search for TV shows, movies and sports across all three platforms, plus certain cable channels and DVR boxes (provided a user hooks up the Wii U via HDMI pass-through on the cable/DVR box). Users can set up individual profiles so that they'll know where to find their favorite shows.
Even if you don't subscribe to a service, TVii will still search its archives, so you can determine whether it's worth the money. For example, if you're a Netflix subscriber and want to watch a movie on Hulu Plus, the TVii will still find the show and let you know that you can subscribe to Hulu Plus to access it.
Nintendo also has deals in place with a number of different professional sports organizations, including the NFL and the MLB. Although you generally can't watch complete games, you can follow statistics in real time, right down to pitches and touchdowns as they happen. You can also catch clips after the game.
The Wii U's strongest feature is actually one that downplays it as a central living-room device: its second-screen functionality. Because of the Wii U's unusual, tabletlike controller, you can play just about any Wii U game on the controller, bypassing the TV entirely. This feature is extremely handy, whether you want to let your spouse watch something on TV or play for a while in bed before turning in.
The PlayStation 4 has a very similar (and arguably more robust) feature called Remote Play, but Remote Play requires a $200 PlayStation Vita handheld system in addition to a PS4. This puts the cost to play a PS4 game on a second screen somewhere around twice that of doing so on a Wii U. The Wii U controller also boasts a much bigger screen (6.2 inches diagonal) than the PS Vita (5 inches diagonal).
The future of Wii U
Admittedly, the future for the Wii U looks a little brighter than the present. Within the next year or so, gamers can look forward to "Bayonetta 2," a stylish and sexy Japanese action game; "Hyrule Warriors," a mash-up of "Dynasty Warriors" and "The Legend of Zelda"; and the next "Super Smash Bros." installment, in which Mega Man will finally make an appearance as a contender.
Although Nintendo has no immediate plans to expand the Wii U's video capabilities, its price is unlikely to remain as high as it is. Right now, a 32GB Wii U costs $270 by itself (don't bother with the 8GB Wii U; taking requisite system data into account, there's almost nothing left for games), while bundles with either "New Super Mario Bros. U" or "The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker HD" cost $300.
Compared to the cost of both the Xbox One and the PS4, this may not sound like much, but the system capabilities and game selection are much closer to those offered by the Xbox 360 and the PS3, each of which costs about $200, or $250 bundled with hit games.
Much like Nintendo's successful 3DS handheld didn't really take off until a hefty price drop, Nintendo may slash the console's prices to eke out a new niche in the console market: a low-powered console with new games still being released for it. (Xbox 360 and PS3 game releases will slow to a crawl over the next year and eventually stop altogether.)
The question is the same now as it was a year ago: Does the prospect of a few good games and a decent selection of secondary services merit the asking price? The answer, as always, depends on the buyer.
Nintendo fans essentially have their hands tied; they'll need to pick up a Wii U sooner or later, or else miss out on the current crop of "Mario" titles and whatever comes next for "Zelda," "Metroid" and "Super Smash Bros." Parents or gamers looking for an entry-level console might be better served by grabbing an Xbox 360 or PS3 on the cheap.
The Wii U has been a stumbling block for Nintendo; even now, the company has to run ads reminding consumers that the Wii U is a whole new system, not just a tablet peripheral for the Wii.
Nintendo can only rely on its hardcore fans to take it so far; sooner or later, it will have to take drastic action to draw in a new audience, as the Wii did. If not, Nintendo could eventually disappear — unless it learns to embrace mobile platforms.