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Nintendo Airstream 2012: Wii U Hardware - Sean's Impressions

Posted by: Sean Colleli at 10/17/2012 1:53 AM
I wasn’t lucky enough to be at E3 this year, so last week was my first opportunity to get the Wii U in my hands and see the console and GamePad up close. Unfortunately, my initial impressions from when Nintendo first unveiled the Wii U still stand.

I’m pretty lukewarm about the actual hardware aesthetics. Now I do understand why they made the console so unobtrusive—Shigeru Miyamoto even stated that with newer devices like Kinect, the console box itself isn’t the main attraction, the games and interface method are. That being said, the Wii U console is not a terribly inspiring piece of hardware from a physical design perspective, to the point that it might even confuse consumers.

It’s plain, and not in the sleek, minimalist way the original Wii was. Wii U is a nondescript plastic lump, a squat, fat and convex console that just looks like a Wii got obese. It doesn’t even stand vertically on its own, you need the little console cradles that come in the deluxe kit. In fact the Wii U console is so bland that almost every casual consumer I’ve talked to thinks it’s just a Wii at first glance—most of them assume that the GamePad is just some new gimmicky controller for the original Wii, the next in a line of quickly forgotten gimmicks like the Zapper, Balance Board and Wii Wheel.

I admit that the shiny black console is a lot sexier than the white one, but that’s simply due to the fact that black is a great color for technology and ages very well—other colors, such as gray, beige and white, not so much. My Sega Genesis, GameCube, PS2 and even N64 still look pretty slick, no mean feat considering the latter is another misshapen lump of plastic with possibly the most terrifying controller ever designed. My PS1, 360 and Wii all look really dated, especially that hulking concave 360 with its enormous power brick and ridiculous chunky hard drive.

Come to think of it, the Dreamcast is really the only console to still look compact, futuristic and cool with a white shell, but I digress. Like the Wii and so many near-instantly obsolete Apple devices, the white Wii U already looks sluggish, sloppy and behind the times. Again, I understand that Nintendo is drawing attention away from the console—the actual box is becoming less and less important—but the Wii U console should have at least been distinct enough from the original Wii to tell the difference at first glance.

At least, then, my biggest fear has been allayed; while the GamePad will definitely take some getting used to, it is far more comfortable than I expected. It’s light, and when you get your hands around it, it feels like a game controller. I was afraid that, like the DS Lite, the touch screen would be the main draw, the rest of the ergonomics would take a back seat to that and consequently the GamePad would feel like a big awkward tablet. But that’s not the case—the back of the controller in particular cradles the fingers nicely, and there are ergonomic grooves for the triggers and shoulder bumpers. It felt so much like a standard controller, if a bit wider, that I almost forgot there was that big touch screen in the middle.

In fact my biggest concern is the rather unorthodox placement of the buttons and sticks. Unlike the Playstation controller, which crams the control sticks down in the middle for some awkward thumb cramps, the Wii U GamePad places them high and wide, above the D-pad and face buttons. This wasn’t really an issue on the left side but on the right, well…it’s going to take some time to reverse my thumb-switching, moving it up to the control stick as opposed to down.

This same scheme translates over to the Wii U Pro Controller, which was also on hand during the event. If you’ve seen the promo renders you know it’s shaped like a 360 pad, but I was surprised to find it much lighter and with Nintendo’s characteristic aesthetic. In fact it felt so light that it almost seemed a little cheap, but then again it was tethered to the console so I imagine the retail controller will have a nice heavy rechargeable battery inside. As with the GamePad, my only concern is adjusting to the control layout, with those sticks on top and the button placement.

If you’ve noticed, for their traditional controllers Nintendo has stuck with the button layout they pioneered on the SNES. Compared to a Dreamcast or 360 controller, the Nintendo face buttons are swapped, with the A button on the outside right and the X button on top, while the B button takes the bottom “home” position and the Y button is on the left. After using the layout on the 360 for so long, and with the upper placement of the control sticks, I imagine I’ll need some time to warm up to both the GamePad and the Pro Controller.

That said, the GamePad is far less gimmicky than the Wii remote, which is odd because it doesn’t look that way at first; the Wiimote fired my imagination, but the GamePad almost looked like Nintendo was grasping at straws when I first saw it. What matters is that Nintendo has really been pushing developers to try all sorts of weird ideas with the GamePad, at launch no less. I admit with the Wii I was pretty blinkered by the prospect of motion controls. But with the Wii U, I actually got to try it on several games ahead of time, and I can tell that it’s a solid piece of tech with a lot of real potential.  After six years of Wii waggle, with maybe some second-thought peripherals and a cheap plasticy classic controller, it’s nice to have a real choice again with the Wii U.