Today's unexpected Japanese Nintendo Direct broadcast gave us various details to frantically decipher and translate, ranging from confirmation that the Wii U GamePad won't have backward compatibility with WiiWare or Wii Virtual Console games, to some less intriguing information about parental controls. Another section of interest was undoubtedly that focused on external hard drive usage, as many gamers want to know the practicalities and choices for adding some extra memory to their Wii U. This part of the presentation, with its visual demonstrations involving glass jars, also brought home a simple truth — Wii U isn't giving us much space to work with.
A common complaint with Wii was the stingy amount of on board memory, often forcing us to resort to storing Wii Shop games on SD cards and — until a system update allowed them to be loaded from these cards — complete a process some called "cleaning out the fridge". We were dealing with small file sizes due to the WiiWare 40MB limit and the similarly small Virtual Console games, but nevertheless it was rather difficult — probably impossible — to actually fill all of the windows offered up by the Wii interface before space ran out. Before long buying a new game from the Wii Shop had an all-important first-step: look at the games on the system memory, choose your least favourite and relegate it to the SD card, and then buy the new game.
As we mentioned, an update eventually allowed us to load games directly from the SD card, as long as some space was left clear on the system memory for the game to temporarily dwell. Fridge cleaning was reduced, we were happy and it was a practical way to work things, but it was inescapable that the memory provided with the system was paltry, and buying an SD card became mandatory for almost all gamers with a taste for downloads. So we come to Wii U, and it appears as if the situation will be almost exactly the same, but we're dealing in GB, not MB, and working with external hard drives as opposed to SD cards.
Although we're yet to hear it definitively said, in English, it looks as if it'll be possible to play games directly from a hard drive, especially as Satoru Iwata today explained how games on both the internal and external memory are shown on the home screen. It seems highly unlikely that Nintendo would neglect to include this feature, as it would undermine any strategy to sell retail downloads before the system even gets into stores. Once a hard drive, up to 2TB in size, is connected and formatted, memory problems can be swept away and gamers can download plenty of games for their collection. And yet, there's a realisation that many gamers — including many readers of this site, we imagine — will need to expand their memory sooner rather than later.
It's not a problem, as such, but does call into question whether the difference between the Basic and Premium/Deluxe model, 8GB to 32GB, is actually significant enough to matter. The larger model will have undoubted early advantages, with Satoru Iwata and his anonymous assistant showing that even adding relatively small retail downloads, such as New Super Mario Bros. U (2GB) and Nintendo Land (3.2GB) would either nearly fill or be too big for the Basic model, due to system files hogging some space. Of course, eShop-exclusive downloads should be smaller and more accommodating of the 8GB system, but even so we'd expect a title such as Trine 2: Director's Cut, with its detail-rich graphics engine and sizeable (for comparison) PC download, to test the capacity of the smaller console. 8GB would be a lot with Wii software, but is small-fry as Nintendo enters the HD age.
And then we have the premium model, which at 32GB should at least accommodate a good few eShop games and perhaps the occasional retail download before external memory's needed. Even so, consider that Tekken Tag Tournament 2 will be available to download in Japan, and comes at a reportedly whopping download size of 16.7GB, which is well over half of the available space on the black system. While Nintendo's two launch titles are relatively small downloads, that's possibly due to the fact that New Super Mario Bros. U is a 2D platformer with an art-style focused on crisp, colourful visuals rather than an exceptionally high polygon count; a similar argument can be applied to Nintendo Land. Tekken Tag Tournament 2 perhaps gives us a greater indication of the file sizes we can expect, especially if graphics-intensive titles such as Assassin's Creed III become available to download, which Ubisoft would certainly like to be the case.
Now, of course, Wii U's HD rivals have had a variety of internal memory sizes in their history, and at present there's a budget "super-slim" PS3 with just 12GB of memory, and there's been an Xbox 360 with as little as 4GB. Yet there are now options with included system memory from 250GB to 500GB, and these are consoles that Wii U is directly up against. While it's undeniable that a part of the Wii U audience may happily exist with just 32GB and never actually use it all — as some have little interest in downloadable games, for example — many will fundamentally need an external hard drive within a relatively short time, which is an extra expense. When you consider the file sizes that we're likely to be dealing with, it can be argued that the difference between the Basic and Deluxe models comes down to the inclusion of Nintendo Land, the Nintendo Network Premium eShop discount and the console colour; the difference of internal memory is barely worth writing home about.
Of course, this may all sound negative, so we should remember that the extras in the Deluxe Set do offer value for the extra money. We should also consider that Nintendo will already be selling Wii U at a loss, initially, which is likely due to the complexities of the GamePad, which has functionality that shouldn't be readily dismissed. If Nintendo had paid to mass-produce and include more internal system memory, it would in all likelihood have increased the cost further, which wouldn't have gone down well with consumers. We're not necessarily decrying the memory in the two SKUs as inadequate, but perhaps giving necessary context to show that, ultimately, we're all likely to need an external device.
With all of the hype and excitement around Wii U and its various functions, its innovative controller and more, it perhaps fell under the radar that the included system memory is arguably nominal, at best. It'll serve a purpose, but won't be able to satisfy the needs of enthusiastic gamers.