I finally got my hands on a Wii U

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As I mentioned in a previous post, I finally managed to get hold of a Wii U. I've been talking so much about Nintendo's new game console that I figured I ought to have personal experience with it. At least, that was the justification I used!

I figured just to cap off my seemingly endless coverage of the console, I ought to share my initial opinions of it. Keep in mind I got it late on Tuesday and I'm writing this on Thursday; between the day job and writing blog posts I haven't had a lot of time with it. These are kind of my 'gut level' feelings about it.

As many have noted, the out of the box experience is awful. First you need to find two available wall sockets, which is a problem for some. I actually liked that I could hook up the tablet charging dock on a table next to the couch without running a wire across the floor, but I understand the disappoint that some users felt when they learned they couldn't charge the Tablet Controller via the Wii U console.

Next you have to get the machine on your WiFi network (there is no Ethernet port on the Wii U but I'm told USB Ethernet adapters will work with it). For most users this is a non-issue but for me (and enough others that I've seen blog posts about the issue) the Wii U would not connect to my WiFi network (a Time Warner Cable-provided Ubee cable modem/wireless router). I initially assumed this was a security issue since in the past Nintendo hasn't support the most recent wireless security protocols and I wasted a lot of time fiddling with that before I thought to just open my WiFi network and try it. When it didn't connect to an open network I realized the problem was with DHCP, and after I manually assigned the Wii U an IP address (and DNS server IPs) it connected with no issues. Since then the connection has seemed totally stable.

Once the Wii U was connected to the Internet I had to wait for that lengthy day one patch to download and install. That took about 2 hours for me and by that time, my evening was more or less shot. I wanted to do something with the console before bed so I fired up Netflix, which comes pre-installed. But uh-oh, Netflix too required a patch. In fact just about everything seems to require a patch, and they all come down the pipes pretty slowly.

In an interview with IGN Nintendo President Satoru Iwata has apologized for all these patches, admitting that he himself would like a system to run properly out of the box:

"Personally I think that users should be able to use all the functions of a console video game machine as soon as they open the box," Iwata told us. "So I feel very sorry for the fact that purchasers of Wii U have to experience a network update which takes such a long time, and that there are the services which were not available at the hardware’s launch."

Last minor issue for me was setting up the TV remote features. I had hoped the Wii U would double as a universal remote control but it seems to be limited to controlling two devices. In our apartment we have the TV, the cable box and the A/V Receiver. We had to pick two of the three and keep a second remote handy.

Finally the system was set up and ready to use. I spent some time roaming through the MiiVerse message boards and found them refreshingly upbeat. I'm sure there are gamers trash talking each other somewhere in them, or there will be before too long, but I am enjoying the overall ambiance of the service so far. And some users are creating pretty amazing digital art via the Tablet Controller! I know this sounds silly and trivial but I actually enjoy reading message boards, which these days is a pretty unusual feeling for me.

Overall though, the OS feels a bit half-baked, as if different parts were coded by different teams who were each working alone. For instance I looked up a friend that I knew was on the service and tried to add him as a Friend and was told I had to initialize my Friend List first. But I wasn't told how to do that. It took me an embarrassing amount of searching to find that feature (you have to hit the Home button on the Tablet Controller to find the option and at that point I was only vaguely aware there was a Home button). Why not link to the "Initialize your Friends List" feature from the error message? There's just a lot of slightly rough edges like that in the OS; I'm sure they'll be polished out in a firmware update.

It was night two before we tried any games and our first was Scribblenauts Unlimited. This is a favorite series for my girlfriend and she's played it on the Nintendo DS and the iPad in the past. She took the controls and I kibitzed. She is, I guess, a 'casual gamer' who got a lot more use out of the Wii than I ever did. She's never been interested in gaming on the PS3 or Xbox 360 but the Wii made sense to her, so I was interested to see if the same would hold true with the Wii U.

She seemed immediately comfortable with the system. (It's probably worth noting that she uses an iPad frequently so the whole tablet idea wasn't a new one for her.) As far as I could tell she never had to stop to figure out how to control the game, it was all intuitive for her. Seems like Nintendo has managed to retain it's casual-friendly appeal in this new console.

As for the game itself, I got the sense that it hadn't changed that much in its transition from the Nintendo DS and iPad to the Wii U, , but it was the first time it could easily be played 'socially.' It's a decent experience for onlookers who can enjoy the humor and suggest puzzle solutions. The display on the TV and the Tablet are effectively the same except you don't see the virtual keyboard on the TV, but this is one of the games that could easily be played by 1 person with the TV off.

One of the mini-games from NintendoLand

Source: Nintendo

After she'd had her fill I started messing around with NintendoLand. This is a series of mini-games designed to show off the possibilities of the system. I've tried two of them so far. One of them, based on the Legend of Zelda games, was an 'on-rails' shooter that had me firing a bow at enemies. Gross aiming was done with the left analog stick, drawing the bow was done with the right analog stick, reloading your quiver was done by tilting the controller away from you and precision aiming was done by moving the whole controller. It worked pretty well and reminded me of aiming in Bend Studio's Uncharted: The Golden Abyss for the Playstation Vita (where it was an ideal way to pull off headshots with a sniper rifle). I hope that FPS developers incorporate this kind of aiming (as an option) in full-sized Wii U shooters.

The other game I tried featured the Yoshi character from Mario Brothers games. In this one there's a start and an end point on the screen, and some fruit scattered around. You have to guide Yoshi from the start point, to all the fruit, and finally to the end point. You do this by drawing a line on the Tablet Controller using the stylus. Super simple, right? Well the catch is that the fruit is only displayed on the TV. So you have to look at the TV, see where the fruit is and mentally transcribe those locations to the Tablet Controller where you're drawing your line. It's still pretty easy at first, but then they start adding pits that you can fall into and fruit that moves and the challenge level ramps up. It was an interesting game and even more so, an interesting game system idea.

That's about as far as I've gotten. ZombiU is still in its shrinkwrap, sadly. A few thoughts on the Tablet Controller. First, I have a lot of trouble with my taps not registering. Since this isn't a capacitive screen it requires a lot more pressure than a Smartphone or iPad or Android tablet do. I find that if I use the included stylus I have better results since I don't have that 'feather touch' muscle memory that using tablets has taught me. Second, though the Tablet Controller is light and fairly comfortable to hold, I find hitting the face buttons with my right thumb causes me some slight pain. I have to 'curl up' my thumb to get to them and after a while it starts to hurt a tiny bit. It might be something I get used to over time, it just feels like an unnatural use of my thumb right now.

Overall I am thus far pleased with the Wii U but I'm also happy I didn't buy one on launch day. By the time I pulled my Wii U out of its box, I was prepared to encounter some issues like the huge initial patch. Had I not been expecting this I think I'd be much less happy with the device. I don't know what this will mean for all those Wii Us that get opened on Christmas morning. I almost wonder if gifters shouldn't open the system ahead of time, get everything patched up, then wrap it up again so gift recipients can spend that first day playing games rather than connecting and patching.

If you're on the fence about a Wii U, it probably makes sense to wait and see how things pan out. It seems to be a divisive system among game journalists and developers, and the latest tech sleuths seem to think the system isn't very powerful (though I'd take that info with a grain of salt for now). Will that matter? Will the Wii U capture solid third party support and wind up being a hit? It's just too soon to tell.

Read more of Peter Smith's TechnoFile blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Peter on Twitter at @pasmith. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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