How the Wii U Works

Nintendo visionary Shigeru Miyamoto, creator of many of the brands most popular games, showcased the Wii U at the Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles, California in June 2012.
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On November 18, 2012, Nintendo released its first HD console in the United States, almost six years to the day after releasing the Nintendo Wii. The Wii surprised everyone in 2006. Instead of focusing on HD graphics like the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, the Wii instead promised new ways to interact with video games, thanks to the Wii Remote, a motion-sensing wand-like controller. Some gamers who preferred traditional controllers criticized the Wii's motion and "waggle" controls and Nintendo's use of old, underpowered hardware. But the Wii sold, and sold, and sold thanks to games like Wii Sports and Wii Fit, ultimately selling nearly 100 million consoles worldwide.

And after six years, Nintendo followed up with a brand new console: the Wii U. Like the Wii before it, the Wii U focuses on a new feature or gimmick to differentiate it from the gaming herd. The console's primary controller is called the GamePad, and it combines traditional controls (analog sticks, face buttons and triggers) with an embedded touchscreen and motion sensors. The GamePad resembles a tablet/controller hybrid, and its onboard touchscreen offers some novel features.


The console streams video to the GamePad, allowing games to display content on both screens. Some games can even be played exclusively on the GamePad, leaving the larger television screen free for a movie or TV show.

While the Wii U introduces a unique feature that other video game consoles don't offer, in many ways it represents Nintendo playing catch-up with the other HD game consoles. Online games, a more robust download store, social networking, and media center functionality are all big features for the Wii U. More than ever before, Nintendo hopes to capture two different audiences: the gamers who love big-budget franchises like Zelda and Call of Duty, and the Wii fans who were introduced to gaming through Wii Sports and Wii Fit. The Wii U is backwards compatible with Wii games and Wii hardware, too. In fact, many WIi U games, including Nintendo's New Super Mario Bros U, still use the Wii Remote for control.

Understanding how the Wii U works means looking at its brand new GamePad, Nintendo's new eShop, its play for living room dominance called Nintendo TVii, and, of course, a new generation of video games. So let's dive right in.


The Wii U Console

While the Game Pad is entirely new, the Wii U console itself doesn’t look radically different from its predecessor.
©Michael Buckner/Getty Images for Nintendo

At first glance, it wouldn't be too hard to mistake a brand new Wii U for the six-year-old Wii. Nintendo's new console retains the same general shape and size of the Wii, but with rounder edges and a longer body. The front of the console retains its simple design with a slot-loading disc drive, power and eject button. There's also a sync button for wireless controllers, and a small panel under the disc drive pops open to reveal two USB 2.0 ports and an SD card slot for expandable storage. The back of the console hosts the rest of its ports: two more USB 2.0 slots, power, HDMI for audio/video output, a port for the Wii sensor bar, and an extra audio/video port. Just like the first Wii, the Wii U has no Ethernet port -- it uses built-in WiFi for Internet access.

Since this is Nintendo's first HD console, most of the big changes are on the inside. The Wii lagged far behind the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 in processing and graphical power when it was released. The Wii U doesn't have that problem, but it may in the future -- according to many game developers, the Wii U is roughly equal in power to the PS3 and Xbox 360, despite being released over half a decade later.


The Wii U runs on a triple-core IBM PowerPC processor, reportedly clocked at around 1.24 GHz. Its graphics are handled by an AMD Radeon GPU, reportedly clocked at around 550 MHz [source: IGN]. The system divides 2 GB of gDDR3 RAM, running at 800 MHz, between games and the Wii U's operating system. Numbers can only tell you so much about a console, of course. For example, even though the Xbox 360's CPUs run at a much faster 3.0 GHz, the architecture of those chips doesn't make them three times faster. For example, better out-of-order-execution, which makes computer processors more efficient, making the Wii U and the older consoles roughly equivalent. On the flip side, while the Wii U has more RAM than the Xbox 360 or PS3, it has slower memory bandwidth [source: Kotaku].

The Wii U uses internal flash memory for storage. Nintendo offers two different versions of the console, Basic and Deluxe, which are mainly distinguished by the amount of internal storage they offer. The white $300 Basic set offers 8 GB of flash memory for storing downloaded content, game saves, the operating system, and other data. The black $350 Deluxe console ships with a copy of the game "Nintendoland" in the box and offers 32 GB of internal storage. Thankfully, Nintendo also supports USB external hard drives for storage, which makes it cheap and easy to add storage space to the Wii for downloaded games.


Wii U GamePad

Nintendo is hoping that the GamePad will be a big draw for consumers. The new controller is the primary thing that sets Wii U apart from other consoles.
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While the faster processor inside the Wii U gives it the power to run more complex games, the real changes in the console are all centered on the new GamePad controller. The GamePad looks a bit like a larger version of Sega's old GameGear handheld system thanks to its wide, rounded body and centered 6.2-inch (15.7-centimeter), 854 by 480 pixel display. But the GamePad has all the trappings of a modern game controller, including two analog sticks, left and right triggers and shoulder buttons, A-B-X-Y shoulder buttons, and a directional pad. It includes a few more buttons as well: the plus (+) and minus (-) buttons that were on the Wii Remote, a Home button for the Wii OS, a power button, and a TV button (more on that later).

The GamePad's traditional buttons and sticks are only part of the story, though. The tablet-like controller houses three three-axis motion sensors -- an accelerometer, gyroscope and magnetometer -- used to detect movement, orientation and positioning. The GamePad can essentially function like a big Wii Remote, since it uses the same technology. But there's even more to the controller: It also has onboard speakers and a microphone, a front-facing camera, rumble, a headphone jack, and an infrared blaster for controlling devices like your TV.


And then there's the resistive touchscreen, which works with an included stylus or the press of a finger. Resistive technology isn't as sensitive as the newer capacitive screens used on most smartphones and tablets, which is why it works better with an accurate stylus than finger controls. It doesn't support multi-touch interaction the way capacitive technology does.

The real magic of the GamePad is in how it interacts with games. Nintendo worked with wireless company Broadcom to develop a WiFi technology that works from up to 26 feet (7.9 meters) away and delivers extremely low-latency video. That means games can be played simultaneously with video streamed to the GamePad and video being displayed on the TV without lag. While some games can be played entirely on the GamePad, with no need for the TV at all, others only offer supplementary information or other game features on the GamePad, like maps or item menus. At launch, the Nintendo Wii U only supports one GamePad controller. Nintendo plans to support two GamePads later in the console's life.

Perhaps the most exciting thing about the GamePad is how games use it -- let's take a look at some examples.


Wii U Games

If you loved “Wii Fit,” you might want to check out “Wii Fit U” on the new console.
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The Wii U launch library consists of games created by Nintendo, including "Nintendoland" and "New Super Mario Bros U," original third-party games like "Scribblenauts Unlimited" and "ZombiU," and ports of older games that first appeared on the Xbox 360 and PS3. That last category includes quite a few popular games, including "Assasin's Creed 3," "Batman: Arkham City," "Call of Duty: Black Ops II," and "Skylanders Giants." There are also a range of downloadable games available from Nintendo's online eShop, and the Wii U can play Wii game discs and games previously downloaded from the Wii Virtual Console.

Wii U games ship on high-density optical discs that hold 25 GB of data on a single layer, just like Sony's Blu-ray. But Nintendo hasn't paid out the licensing fees to play DVD or Blu-ray content with the Wii U -- the console's disc drive is exclusively for games, while some of Nintendo's online features (like Nintendo TVii, which we'll get to in a bit) are geared towards non-game entertainment.


Wii U games can take advantage of multiple different control options: the GamePad's buttons, motion sensors and touch screen, the Wii Remote and nunchuk add-on, and a new Wii U Pro Controller that is geared towards "core" games. Its dual analog stick and face button layout makes the Pro Controller very similar to the Xbox 360 controller.

Journalists have commented that many games ported to the Wii U do little with the GamePad's extra features, but note that most games do support the ability to play exclusively on the GamePad without the TV [source: Ars Technica]. This is unsurprising, since supporting the GamePad requires adding new features to an already completed game. But there are games that make use of it: "Madden 13," for example, allows players to map out football plays on the touchscreen with the swipe of a finger.

Like every Nintendo console, Nintendo will support the Wii U with its most popular series based around consistently selling characters such as Mario and Zelda. The company will make use of its new GamePad in creative ways. The strength of the overall game library will depend on two things: how other developers approach the Wii U, and how its hardware holds up against the successors to the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.

This time, at least, Nintendo is supporting online. Nintendo Network will be a key Wii U feature as more and more gamers play with friends and strangers over the Internet.


Nintendo Network, MiiVerse and the eShop

Nintendo is famous for iconic characters like Mario and Donkey Kong. It's famous for making creative games, even when its hardware isn't the most powerful around. And it's famous for being really, really bad at online gaming. Nintendo's DS handheld and Wii console both use Friend Codes, a long sequence of digits gamers have to trade to be able to play games together. Even worse, since individual games can have friend codes, keeping track of friends is much more difficult than it is on the unified Xbox Live or PlayStation Network platforms. Nintendo also struggled to find success selling downloadable games through its WiiWare service. They've set out to fix those problems with the Wii U.

Nintendo launched the free Nintendo Network with its new console, doing away with Friend Codes in favor of a single username for an account that works with all Wii U games. The username is locked to a single Wii U console, and every Wii U supports up to 12 accounts. Accounts are tied to the Mii avatars and are used for everything online on the Wii U console: Connecting to friends with a friends list, playing online games, checking leaderboards, and downloading games from the eShop.


The eShop is Nintendo's successor to WiiWare and the Virtual Console and is the same service the company uses for downloadable games on the handheld 3DS. Full retail games and small independent games are available on the eShop, and Nintendo plans to sell classic games through the service as well. Gamers who buy the Deluxe Wii U also get two years of Nintendo Network Premium, which gives players 10 percent of any eShop purchase back in Nintendo Points, the eShop currency.

And then there's MiiVerse, Nintendo's big social networking initiative. MiiVerse is a bit like an Internet message board. Wii U owners can post messages about games they've played in communities dedicated to individual games, give comments "Yeah" votes (essentially Facebook-style "likes"), and send messages directly to their friends. Gamers can also post screenshots taken from games, either to show off a cool feature or get help from other gamers. The Wii U supports video chatting (handy when your controller has a built-in camera and screen!), and Nintendo aims to take Miiverse beyond its own video game console. The company plans to release apps for mobile devices, like iOS and Android smartphones, which will allow users to instant message with their Nintendo Network friends and participate in Miiverse.

Nintendo's obviously looking beyond games with the Wii U, and Miiverse is a big part of that plan. But there's one feature left that's even bigger. It's called Nintendo TVii.


Nintendo TVii, Netflix, Hulu and More

Nintendo is hoping to chip away at Microsoft's share of the console-as-entertainment-hub market by offering apps for Netflix and Hulu Plus.
Screen capture by Stephanie Crawford for HowStuffWorks

Over the lifetime of the Xbox 360, Microsoft has focused less and less on gaming and more and more on making the device a do-it-all media center powerhouse for the living room. Working with cable companies, providing apps for video services like MLB and HBO, redesigning the interface to work better with its Kinect motion controller -- Microsoft wants the Xbox to be used for everything. And Nintendo's aiming for the exact same thing, with what could be a secret weapon: the GamePad.

At launch in the U.S., the Wii U featured individual downloadable apps for Netflix, Hulu Plus, and YouTube. Like on other consoles, those apps can be logged into with an existing account and be used to stream videos from those services. Nintendo TVii missed its scheduled launch alongside the console in November, but was launched in Japan on Dec. 8 2012. Nintendo TVii works very much like Google TV: It's designed to pull in programming guide data from television providers like cable companies and allow you to organize all your TV content (including the video available through Netflix, Hulu, etc.) through one interface.


The real draw, of course, is that that interface is on the GamePad. Content can be browsed with the touchscreen. Multitasking will be easy, since the guide won't have to take up a chunk of the TV screen. Nintendo also promises it will be compatible with all cable and satellite providers in the U.S., and will also support DVR and TiVO devices. Google TV failed to find an audience for a very similar service, partially because ensuring that quality of functionality across multiple carriers is no easy task.

Nintendo is again playing catch-up. Microsoft's been working with TV content providers for years to build out its media center experience, while this is all new ground for Nintendo. TVii could prove to be an extremely powerful service -- the GamePad's built-in screen and IR blaster make it a potentially perfect universal remote -- but the Wii U's launch has shown Nintendo struggling with the demands of designing an HD console. That could affect Nintendo TVii, too.

Overall, the launch of the Wii U was met with mixed reviews. Let's take a look at reactions to the Wii U, what Nintendo got right and what Nintendo got wrong.


Reactions to the Wii U Launch

It looks like attendees at the Tokyo Game Show in September 2012 had fun playing “Tekken Tag Tournament 2” on the Wii U, but we’ll have to wait and see if the console’s a success.
©Kiyoshi Ota/Getty Images

It's rare for brand-new pieces of technology to be perfect at launch, and the Wii U is no exception. All of the console's online features were enabled in a large day-one software patch that took many users hours to download. The president of Nintendo even apologized for the inconvenience [source: Joystiq]. Critics have also pointed out that the Wii U's operating system performs slowly and can take several seconds to browse from one menu to another.

The GamePad has been criticized for its resistive touchscreen, which lacks multitouch capabilities, and for its short battery life of only three to five hours. The GamePad comes with a separate charger for recharging its battery, which means the Wii U requires two separate power plugs in your home. (The deluxe console does ship with a charging cradle for the GamePad to make charging the device slightly more convenient.) While many launch games aren't especially creative with the GamePad controller, that may change over the lifetime of the console -- it truly is the Wii U's most defining and important feature.


The Wii U's external hard drive support is a blessing and a curse. Expandable storage will be cheap compared to the proprietary hard drives Microsoft requires for the Xbox 360, but it will also almost certainly be a necessity. Even the Deluxe Wii U's 32GB of storage is relatively small, especially considering Nintendo now offers full downloadable games via the eShop. Launch title "Tekken Tag Tournament 2" takes up nearly 17 gigabytes of storage [source: Siliconera].

Writers also criticized the convoluted transfer process of original Wii content to the Wii U and the system's backwards compatibility, which launches into "Wii Mode" to play old Wii games. Worst of all, Wii Mode only supports 512 MB of storage -- the amount available in the original Wii -- meaning all the Wii U's extra space is worthless when it comes to old Wii games [source: Kohler].

The good news is that most of the Wii U's issues can be improved. Nintendo can make the operating system faster. Its missing features, like Nintendo TVii, will arrive post-launch. And if developers put their minds to it, they may create some incredibly unique games with the functionality of the GamePad. The Wii U has the potential to change gaming like the Wii did, but at launch it's not quite there yet.


Lots More Information

Author's Note

As a longtime Nintendo fan, I hope that the Wii U turns out to be a great device. Nintendo changed the gaming world with the Wii in 2006, but after a few years, the console's outdated hardware caught up to it. Since the Nintendo 64, Nintendo has struggled to find good third-party support while delivering great games of its own. The Wii U launch is essentially a great proof-of-concept. Now Nintendo has to deliver with great games and software improvements.

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