Wii U Panorama View remains one of the most impressive demonstrations of Wii U's potential: a collection of videos filmed with a special camera array so that you can look around 360 degrees and see the film from every possible angle by moving the GamePad. It's coming to the Wii U eShop at some point this year – at least in Japan – but until then there's a new application that uses the technology in a different way: Wii Street U.
A collaboration between internet wizards Google and Nintendo, Wii Street U takes data and imagery from Google Maps' Street View, which allows you to get right down to road level and investigate the world through 360 degree 3D environments made up of photographs. Wii Street U uses this treasure trove of geographical information differently, however: there's no way to work out directions, none of the public transportation schedules. This is Street View stripped down and re-imagined for the living room.
Whereas Google Maps is an extremely useful tool – for planning routes, finding and scouting out that restaurant your friend's been chattering about, or just looking up where an obscure country is – Wii Street U aims purely for entertainment. It has no real practical advantages over using standard Google Maps. If you thought Street View was fun with a mouse, though, you're going to have a ball using the Wii U GamePad.
The television displays the familiar overheard view of Google Maps, with satellite images also an option. Select an area you want to visit by dragging and tapping on the GamePad touch screen, or entering a location into the search field, and the handheld screen will show off Street View images. You can click on-screen arrows to trot along the roads and explore, or if you'd prefer to put the stylus away you can press A to move in the direction of the highlighted arrow; you can 'walk' continuously by holding down the button. You can flick between these anchor points with left and right on the D-Pad.
It's all pretty familiar if you've ever used Google Maps, where you would usually click, hold and drag the image about to check out all the angles. Wii Street U makes this action simpler and infinitely cooler: you move the GamePad around to look about, turning 180 degrees to see behind you, pointing towards the ceiling to see the clear blue skies – or smoggy grey clouds if you're in a city centre. If you don't feel like moving around, you can also sweep the camera about with the left analogue stick, though this is a tad too sensitive and springy for our liking.
Just as with Panorama View, it's like you're holding a tiny window in your hands; a portal through which you can see the entire world, or at least the bits that Google has got around to snapping. The GamePad never lags behind, smoothly adjusting no matter where it's shifted, pulling in more data seamlessly when you swap between horizontal and vertical positions. It's hugely impressive.
It wouldn't be much fun for the rest of the room if the view was restricted to the GamePad, though. By default the TV shows a small window mirroring the GamePad's content alongside an overhead map and the name of the current location, but the entire display can be filled with the same view as the controller screen's with a push of X. As one person stands rotating like a maniac, others can sit back and comfortably share the experience.
Really, that's what Wii Street U is all about. It's not a hugely useful tool: it takes the most socially viable parts of Google Maps and extrapolates them into a little application that encourages you to peer at the world around you just for the sake of it, without any particular purpose. You can seek out anywhere in the world with its search function and just take a virtual tour.
It's the sort of thing you might use to show a friend where you've been on holiday; we spent several minutes hunting down a tucked away hostel and several locations from a past holiday in Krakow. Would you do that on Google Maps on a computer? Quite possibly. But having it beamed from a TV while moving a physical window to the perfect angle to get just the right view of a hidden doorway, without having to cramp around a laptop at a desk? Wii Street U is a far more enticing prospect if you don't have practicality or planning in mind, and only want to look about a bit.
To this end, 72 recommended tour spots are highlighted. It's a shame they're not actual tours, with automatic movement and information about the locales; instead you're dumped in the middle of the selected locations and left to your own devices in the same way as if you'd just searched for something for yourself. They do, however, offer a number of fascinating places to check out if you're not sure where you want to go today. We glugged about underwater near Apo Island in the Philippines, poked at Stonehenge and even found our way inside an underground restaurant next to an HMV in Tokyo. It'd be great to see even more of these, though we would prefer them to be expanded to feature something approaching tour guidance in the future, too.
Wii Street U does have a few flaws. You can't bookmark locations, which would be great for easily showing off any interesting discoveries to others. Movement – shifting to a new photograph, basically — is a little jilted, a hangover of standard Google Maps and perhaps unavoidable given the amounts of data being thrown about. You can't adjust the position of the search box's cursor, so if you make a mistake while typing out a location you can only correct by deleting and re-entering. Finally – and this is a problem of Google Maps as a whole – not all images are up to date, with some last refreshed in 2008; though considering the size and logistical challenges of the project, we're willing to cut it some slack in this area.
However, for the most part these issues can be looked past, simply because the Street View concept has been adapted for a new platform and purpose so well. There are several ways it could be pushed further – perhaps expanding the social side with the ability to leave notes in locations for friends to discover, interesting facts about recommended tour spots – and it could definitely be tightened up for a slicker experience, but even as it is Wii Street U is a great use of the hardware; we're really interested to see if Google and Nintendo have any more collaborative efforts tucked up their sleeves. Currently a free download that takes up less than 100 megabytes of your system memory, there's no excuse not to download Wii Street U and start globetrotting right now.