We've been absolutely blown away by The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild on Nintendo Switch, awarding it the maximum of 10/10 in our review. As a game to introduce players both to a revolution in the IP and new hardware it delivers in spectacular fashion. Yet, of course, just like The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess it is straddling two generations of Nintendo hardware. In that Wii / GameCube showdown Link swapped hands and motion controls were the offering on the newer hardware - in this case with Switch we have the ability to play the game on the TV or on the go, and the perception has been that the Switch delivers the 'better' version on a technical level.
Of course, plenty quite reasonably want to know about the Wii U version. When receiving our Switch unit and a copy of the game we asked about access to the Wii U game, but were politely told that the focus was on the Switch iteration; from Nintendo's perspective that was understandable, it had new hardware to show off. For Wii U owners not yet upgrading, though, it's understandably been a slightly frustrating state of affairs, with the system's iteration not really seen since a cameo in a gameplay demo during The Game Awards last December.
Well, today we were provided with a Wii U download code by Nintendo, and it took a while to download it, wait for it to install and then wait longer while the same happened for the relatively large update that - likely similar to a Xenoblade Chronicles X equivalent - helps the system stream and process the large open world. We have, though, now had time to jump into the opening of the game. We'll play more and bring detailed impressions later this weekend, but we thought some initial reactions and screens were worth sharing at this stage.
First of all, it's worth remembering that this game was, for the majority of its development, solely a Wii U project. Just like with Twilight Princess, the amount of time it took to complete development led to overlap, prompting Nintendo to make the call last year that it would be a dual release. Right off the bat, then, we'll say that early on the signs are promising for an enjoyable experience on the Wii U. There's not been a huge improvement in the opening area since the E3 demo - performance wise - but it's an acceptable outcome. The 'stutter' effect that does occur in the Switch version (one of the game's few downsides) is more frequent on Wii U, as grass and effects cause additional disruption - but, it's not disastrous.
As you can see in the images above and below [apologies for lighting discrepancies due to slightly different times in the game's 'day'], though, we're not exactly talking about an enormous gulf visually. The image is softer on Wii U, and initially there's a sense that the more basic textures stand out more than on Switch, but the overall effect is still rather pleasant. After a little while playing the comparable lack of sharpness becomes less noticeable as subconscious expectations shift. After all, it's the same underlying art style and engine, and Nintendo's flair for style over raw pixel count remains in place for this final hurrah on Wii U.
In terms of control, too, everything's the same. Bear in mind that the inputs are identical, with just a few differences in button and stick placements; the GamePad is underutilised, as was expected, with the controller's screen simply instructing you to tap if you want to shift to playing solely on the pad. Same concept as Switch, then, albeit you need to be within throwing distance of the base Wii U console.
To summarise the gameplay experience, based on the first hour or so of gameplay it's absolutely solid; though we feel the visuals and framerate are behind the Switch version, this is still an attractive Wii U game. The frame dips are a little more frequent, but the nature of the game and minor impact of these drops so far mean we don't mind terribly. It's not struggling all of the time either - for decent spells this title happily trots along at 30fps or a little below that.
Forgetting the Switch for a moment, let's pretend we're in an alternate universe where the Wii U has sold 50-60 million units and has another year or two as the big N's premiere hardware. On that basis we're looking at a bold Wii U project that is stretching the hardware and pushing its capabilities. We sense the system is working hard to deliver a reasonable level of performance (which it largely achieves) - for example when you go to the HOME menu and return the game pauses and buffers / loads for a few seconds (that's with the game installed on the console's internal memory); this isn't the normal process with Wii U games. It reminds us a little of Super Smash Bros. for Nintendo 3DS on original models - the game runs fine, but it's stretching the hardware to the point that it has little room for niceties beyond simply running the software.
Based on initial play, we can see that this is a version of the game that the development team worked hard on, and the staff were evidently passionate about delivering an impressive experience back when this was solely a Wii U title. Standing on its own it's an attractive, ambitious title that occasionally has performance hiccups - pretty much like every other console open-world game at launch, it could be argued.
The Switch, which isn't entirely stutter free either, does offer - based on our impressions so far of the Wii U version - a cleaner image, a more consistent framerate and performance, and a more vibrant colourful experience (the Switch outputs full RGB range on a decent TV, unlike the Wii U). Yet let's also be clear on this, we haven't come away from our initial playthrough on Wii U waving any red flags; in fact, we're happy to do the opposite.
We need to play more, testing the Wii U in more areas and different scenarios, but initially what we see is an impressive title on the system. We feel it's stretching the hardware's resources, yes, but the old gal is just about keeping up, and that's pleasing to see. After all, this is a game that was made for Wii U, and right now we feel the console is delivering a welcome iteration of a Zelda title that could, perhaps, be regarded as the best of them all.
We'll have more impressions, screens and hopefully video for you in the coming days.