Introducing the Wii U, the first home video game system that can be played with the TV off.
One of the system's neatest tricks is one of the first you notice: You can transfer the action from your TV to your controller, freeing up the tube if somebody wants to watch the big game.
This is made possible by a controller called the GamePad. The Wii U, Nintendo's sixth home video game system and the first to support high definition, still uses the motion-sensing controllers from the phenomenally popular Wii, and it can still play Wii games, but the star of the show is the GamePad, a dream come true for anyone who's ever wished their iPad would sprout buttons and joysticks. The GamePad essentially a huge controller, inlaid with a tablet.
The reason the GamePad is so pleasingly huge is the embedded 6.2-inch touchscreen, only a tad smaller than the 7.9-inch iPad mini, and with more ergonomic surroundings. The screen's not just for taking the game-displaying duties off the TV's hands, as mentioned; it can give a new angle on the gameplay. When someone hits a pop fly in the otherwise forgettable "ESPN Sports Champions," you can swivel the GamePad around to "look" for the ball, holding it at the right angle to catch it.
|» Price: Basic Set with 8GB memory $299.99, Deluxe Set with 32GB memory and "Nintendo Land" $349.99|
|» Info: nintendo.com|
The screen also allows for what Nintendo is calling "asymmetrical gameplay." While Big Sister is playing "New Super Mario Bros. U" with a Wii Remote, Little Brother can help out by touching enemies on the GamePad screen to stun them. Or, while Big Sister is dancing to the on-TV commands of "Just Dance 4," Little Brother can use the GamePad to mess with the choreography. The GamePad allows new ways to play old franchises (and lets five people play at once).
With the GamePad's resemblance to a tablet, let's hope Nintendo lives up to its hardware's potential. We know the GamePad can be used to browse the Internet, as well as show movies and TV shows from Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Instant Video, but it needs a wide-ranging app store. Otherwise, it's not a real tablet, just a controller that looks like one.
Another concern is the hardware's longevity. The Wii U's processing power catches it up to the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, but doesn't much surpass them. Meanwhile, Sony and Microsoft are projected to release their next consoles at the end of 2014, in just two years. Will the Wii U be doomed to lower-end versions of cross-platform blockbusters, like the Wii was?
Nintendo fans can only hope the company maintains its status as the world's greatest game developer, and keeps the Wii U going strong for years. If the Wii U's launch titles are any indication, the system has a bright outlook.
» 'Nintendo Land' (4 out of 5 stars)
What "Wii Sports" was to the Wii, "Nintendo Land" is to the Wii U. The best all-around showcase for what the Wii U can do, "Nintendo Land" features minigames based on different worlds in the Nintendo canon, like a platform racer in Mario's Mushroom Kingdom and swordfighting in Link's Hyrule. There are no breakout modes like Wii Tennis or Wii Golf, and the game is a bit shallow when playing solo, but it's a must for groups.
» 'New Super Mario Bros. U' (4 out of 5 stars)
Thirty-one years after his first appearance in "Donkey Kong," the world's most beloved video game character finally makes the jump into high definition, in what may be the perfect family game. Up to four people can enjoy the classic side-scrolling action simultaneously, while a player using the GamePad can touch the screen to help or hurt his or her companions.
» 'Scribblenauts Unlimited' (4 out of 5 stars)
The sequel to The Examiner's 2009 game of the year brings back one of the best gimmicks in video games. Type the name of any object on the GamePad's screen, and it pops into existence, interacting logically with the other objects you've summoned. This sandbox-style puzzler doesn't move the series forward much, but it challenges your imagination like few other titles in all of gaming.
» 'ZombiU' (3 out of 5 stars)
This London-based survival horror game takes the premise of a zombie apocalypse seriously, but has launch-title jitters, going out of its way to implement the GamePad even when it doesn't serve the experience. Still, the game has great sound, and is certainly scarier than anything we've seen from "Resident Evil" in quite a long time.
» 'Disney's Epic Mickey 2: The Power of Two' (3 out of 5 stars)
The first-ever video game musical pairs Mickey up with forgotten (real-life) predecessor Oswald the Lucky Rabbit to once again save Wasteland, a junkyard of (real-life) unloved cartoons. The songs and art are charming, but the premise has worn a bit thin. Way more fun with a second player.
» 'Ninja Gaiden 3: Razor's Edge' (1 out of 5 stars)
It's understandable that Nintendo, seeking to shake its "kiddie" reputation, would make at least on Wii U launch title ultraviolent. But did it have to be this one? With the "Razor's Edge" edition, the folks at Team Ninja have made a sincere attempt to improve the worst game in an otherwise acclaimed series. But the camera still acts like it's in a tornado, rendering the experience an incomprehensible, bloody mess.
» 'SiNG Party' (3 out of 5 stars)
"SiNG Party" gives the karaoke genre the "Just Dance" treatment, with a mode that lets the singer read the lyrics off the GamePad, while other players dance along to moves shown on the TV.
» 'Rabbids Land' (2 out of 5 stars)
Designed for people whose favorite thing about "Mario Party" is the dice rolling, this video board game acts like the GamePad doesn't exist. The result is nearly indistinguishable from all the other minigame collections out there, and doesn't even stand up to "Rayman Raving Rabbids," a launch title for the first Wii. Stick with "Nintendo Land."
» 'Batman: Arkham City Armored Edition' (4 out of 5 stars)
Nintendo loyalists finally get the chance to play the most acclaimed action game of last year, with all the downloadable add-ons included for free. Too bad the added GamePad functions, like a sonar system that reveals bad guys around Batman, are pointless at best. Let's hope the "Armored Edition" isn't an indicator of the effort game developers will make in bringing future blockbusters to the Wii U.
» 'Sonic & All Stars Racing Transformed' (3 out of 5 stars)
Much better than the "Mario Kart" knockoff you'd expect, "Sonic & All Stars Racing Transformed" is a tight racer that doubles as a love letter to the company that Sonic represents, with a wide character list and tracks based on games you'd never expect ("After Burner," anyone?).
» 'ESPN Sports Connection' (2 out of 5 stars)
One would expect the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 to have "Wii Sports" clones. But why the Wii U? Everything "ESPN Sports Connection" does, "Wii Sports" did better six years ago. The one exception is baseball, in which fielding involves "looking around" with the GamePad to spot and catch fly balls.
» 'Just Dance 4' (3 out of 5 stars)
Fans of Ubisoft's hugely crowd-pleasing series, which has players dance along to on-screen commands, won't find much new here. The Wii U version of "Just Dance 4" is identical to the Wii version, except for Puppet Master mode, which lets a player who isn't dancing use the GamePad to mess with the choreography.
» 'Skylanders: Giants' (3 out of 5 stars)
This "Spyro" spin-off, which ingeniously ties its on-screen platforming to real-life toys using RFID chips, is way better than it has to be. But warning to parents: Depending on how demanding your kids are, buying this game may sentence you to buying a complete figurine set, which could prove costly.
» 'Game Party Champions' (1 out of 5 stars)
"Game Party Champions" is the best argument for why the Wii U should have an Apple-esque app store. The game, which offers a good version of air hockey but little else, would be much more acceptable as a $1 download than a $50 disc.
» 'Your Shape: Fitness Evolved 2013' (2 out of 5 stars)
The latest installment of "Your Shape: Fitness Evolved" suggests the GamePad won't prompt a revolution in workout games like the Wii Remote did. "2013" tracks your movements better than the Kinect versions -- and jettisons the awful resistance bands from earlier Wii versions -- but still can't tell what you're doing half the time.
» 'Tekken Tag Tournament 2: Wii U Edition' (3 out of 5 stars)
"Tekken Tag Tournament 2" has the best tutorial of any fighting game on the market, and the "Wii U Edition" includes a mode that uses Nintendo power-ups like Mario's mushrooms. Still, the underlying "Tekken" blueprint relies far too much on memorized button combos, at the expense of strategy.
» 'Assassin's Creed III' (3 out of 5 stars)
Setting an installment of this stealth action series in Revolutionary America was a truly inspired decision. GamePad features like being able to see the map at all times just exacerbate the game's pre-existing camera problems, though, as your view of your character on the TV is often blocked by trees and walls.
» 'Darksiders II' (4 out of 5 stars)
As "Zelda" clones go, "Darksiders II" is first-rate. This epic adventure game, starring, of all characters, the personification of Death from the Book of Revelation, takes you through bigger dungeons than Link has ever faced, and will more than tide fans over until the Wii U gets a "Zelda."
» 'Mass Effect 3: Special Edition' (4 out of 5 stars)
Don't worry if you haven't played the first two. Set in an imaginative, fully realized sci-fi universe, this cerebral shooter is sure to equally please "Star Trek" and "Star Wars" fans. Along with "Darksiders II," it's the Wii U launch title players can sink their teeth into deepest.
» 'Madden NFL 13' (3 out of 5 stars)
What's expected is that the Wii U version of "Madden" lets you pick plays using the GamePad, so your buddies don't see. What's unexpected is that you can use the GamePad to draw routes for receivers, making them as effective -- or ridiculous -- as you want.
» 'FIFA 13' (3 out of 5 stars)
Ironically, America's least popular major sport has the most accessible video game series. "FIFA 13" continues the tradition of user-friendliness, but the implementation of the GamePad cries out for your body to sprout a third hand.
» 'NBA 2K13' (3 out of 5 stars)
The "2K" series of basketball games is different from other sports franchises in that each new edition isn't just the last year's game, plus a few new features. The upside is that each game is unique. The downside is that features you liked in previous installments may not be around this time. "2K13" is missing "2K12's" excellent Michael Jordan mode, and the trademark this time around is that the game is "executive produced by Jay-Z." The biggest way this is felt is that Jay-Z's name is on the game's cover.
» 'Call of Duty: Black Ops II' (3 out of 5 stars)
The folks behind the unreasonably popular military shooter series seem to be trying harder than usual, with new features like giving the player more control over the game's story. The experience is still held back by perennial annoyances like infinitely spawning enemies, but it's nice to have this caliber of multiplayer shooting action on a Nintendo system at all.
» 'Transformers Prime' (2 out of 5 stars)
Fans of the TV series will be more than pleased by this slick beat-'em-up, which, ahem, transforms the act of transforming from a neat cosmetic trick into a tactical decision. Grown-ups, though, will want a deeper experience.
» 'Warriors Orochi 3 Hyper' (1 out of 5 stars)
In keeping with series tradition, here is a "tactical" action game whose only tactic is hitting the attack button nonstop. Wiping out 20 demons at a time on a battlefield in feudal Japan is way less fun than it should be, and even the relentless electric guitar can't make up for it.
» 'Wipeout 3' (1 out of 5 stars)
The obstacle courses in this tie-in to the ABC series sure do look fun. Too bad playing them isn't. "Wipeout 3" puts your character on an invisible train track running through each course, so all you can do is run forward, run back and jump at the right time. It's like Mario, but way worse.
» 'Tank! Tank! Tank!' (2 out of 5 stars)
Essentially a high-tech version of the 1980 arcade game "Battlezone," this simple little tank-fighting game is fun for four people, but the lack of online multiplayer makes it a do-miss if you're playing solo.
» 'Funky Barn' (1 out of 5 stars)
This cross between "Harvest Moon" and "Farmville" involves rubbing the GamePad to "pet" your farm animals, while their Happiness Meter rises. Meanwhile, the player's Happiness Meter falls.
» 'Ben 10 Omniverse - The Video Game' (1 out of 5 stars)
Ben Tennyson has found a magical watch that lets him transform into various aliens. Unfortunately, the only thing these advanced creatures seem capable of is slapping boring enemies while you hit the attack button over and over. Players will be hoping for a magical watch that speeds up time.