Katherine Boehret

Gaming Proves Touchy With the New Wii U

From crockpots to thermostats, it seems like everything now has a touchscreen instead of physical buttons. This week, Nintendo joined the club with a new videogame console, the Wii U, which uses a 6.2-inch touchscreen controller.

This remote control, called the GamePad, upgrades the overall gaming experience with features commonly found on smartphones like touch gestures, a gyroscope, an accelerometer, a stylus for handwriting and a front-facing camera. Instead of using antiquated directional buttons to navigate the system, a tap on the screen can send a character into a game. A touchscreen keyboard simplifies writing messages and setting up accounts.

Activity on the GamePad’s screen is reflected on the TV, which means that more people can watch what players are doing in a game. Or you can play only on the GamePad, which frees up the big screen for people who want to watch TV, though the controller can’t be used on its own far away from the console.

Yet despite the Wii U’s refreshing features, its sluggish behavior makes it a product I can’t fully recommend. And some promised programs couldn’t be tested because they don’t function yet — a delay that could frustrate some people.

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The GamePad weighs just over a pound and has a 6.2-inch touchscreen.

Starting the system up for the first time took well over two hours because Wii U was downloading updates. In my four timed tests, the GamePad only held its charge for three hours and 30 minutes of use, and then needed about 2½ hours to recharge. (It also works when plugged in, but isn’t as fun to use.) Opening each new program took close to 15 seconds. And I was constantly plagued by alerts that my GamePad had disconnected from the Wii console, even when I was four or six feet away from it in my small, city townhouse.

If you already own a Wii, its games and accessories — like the Wii Balance Board — are compatible with the new Wii U. Some programs that come loaded on the Wii U GamePad don’t work yet, including apps for YouTube, Amazon Instant Video and TVii, a tool that will let people use the GamePad to control their set-top boxes, TVs and DVRs (including TiVo). Nintendo says these are expected to work next month.

I spent hours playing with Wii U, specifically testing how the GamePad worked with various games, and my husband joined me for some of the testing. We tried New Super Mario Bros. U, (our favorite thanks to nostalgic memories of the original Nintendo), Nintendo Land, Sing Party and Just Dance 4.

There are currently over 30 games available for Wii U, and 20 more are expected by March.

In New Super Mario Brothers, I controlled my character (Luigi), while also tapping the GamePad’s touchscreen to add helpful climbing blocks in midair throughout the game. It was a little distracting to control my character with one remote while also tapping the GamePad screen, but I only did this when we really needed help in a level.

I was able to keep playing on the GamePad while my husband watched “Monday Night Football” on the TV, though the sound of these games can still be heard through the GamePad speakers if they aren’t turned down, which may irk TV watchers. According to Nintendo, the GamePad won’t work if it’s more than 25 feet from the Wii U console, but, again, that distance was much shorter in my experience. Nintendo customer support hadn’t heard of the issue.

Of the games I tested, that which best illustrates the GamePad’s unique capabilities is Nintendo Land. Its 12 games range from Donkey Kong’s Crash Course, where a cart is moved through obstacles according to how you tilt the GamePad, and Takamaru’s Ninja Castle, which involves throwing ninja stars at enemies by sliding a finger across the GamePad’s touchscreen toward the TV.

Nintendo Land integrates with Miiverse, Nintendo’s Web-based social networking system, and I saw updates from lots of other users as the virtual character representing me (called a Mii) wandered around. I posted a few updates, writing in cursive with the GamePad stylus. One time when I tried to post an update, I got an error message saying servers were busy. Nintendo chalked this up to an “overwhelming response” of people using Miiverse, and it worked again later.

The Deluxe version of Wii U, which costs $350, comes with Nintendo Land as well as some other extras, such as 32 gigabytes of internal memory versus 8GB in the $300 Basic Wii U. Both versions come with the GamePad.

The GamePad itself weighs just over a pound. A built-in camera is mounted just over its 6.2-inch touchscreen. I used the built-in microphone below the screen while playing a game in Nintendo Land: I blew air onto the mike to move a cart in a game. In addition to its touchscreen, the GamePad also has traditional controls, like a cross-shaped control pad and two mini joysticks. A Power button on the GamePad powers the Wii U console, too, while a TV button let me switch TV inputs without my TV remote.

Nintendo deserves credit for creativity. But like a player who can’t seem to get through a difficult level in a videogame, the Wii U’s faults hold it back from success.

Write to Katie at katie.boehret@wsj.com.


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