Wii U
Image: Damien McFerran / Nintendo Life

Soapbox features enable our individual writers and contributors to voice their opinions on hot topics and random stuff they've been chewing over. Today, following up on his piece from a few weeks back, Jim delivers his verdict on the ten-year-old console and how it holds up in 2022 ...

Picture the scene. The year was 2012. I, age 14 at the time, was at my absolute coolest. Did that mean being myself and not worrying what others thought of me? Absolutely not. I was 14. What others thought of me was the be-all and end-all of my existence. My 14-year-old coolness — or lack thereof — was the precise reason why 10 years ago I didn’t buy a Wii U, and the reason why I haven’t bought one since.

In 2012 I was busy doing what everybody else was doing, and that was not buying a Wii U. While I was still obsessed with playing Ocarina of Time on my Wii or Pikmin on my friend's GameCube, most of my friends were deep in talks about mysterious games like Call of Duty and GTA, and a thing called ‘Xbox Live’. All this is to say that when the Wii U released, for me there was nothing un-cooler than to get one.

Ten long years have since passed without me having a Wii U to call my own. That is, until recently. Seeing the anniversary approach was like a shock to the system. I suddenly realised that it had been a decade and that one console which I always thought I was too cool to buy was soon going to be on our minds once again. How could I call myself a genuine Nintendo fan without ever having held a GamePad? All of this had to change.

I got myself a Wii U around a month ago. I asked my friends and you, our wonderful readers, what I should do to make my experience a U-phoric one.

What followed has been a journey of highs, lows, and a fair amount of confusion.

The Console

Wii U White
Image: Zion Grassl / Nintendo Life

Beginning with the bigger picture, or its smaller GamePad counterpart, the console might just be the most Nintendo that Nintendo has ever gone. Yes, it doesn’t hit every beat and its physical design isn’t fantastic (more on that later), but it sure is one of the most innovative home consoles to date.

The whole idea of taking what worked with the DS and with the Wii and mashing them together, Frankenstein’s monster-style, is such a chaotic approach to console design, but one that I genuinely love. Despite its Fisher-Price fashionings, the Wii U is not a console that plays it safe by any stretch of the imagination, and that is what Nintendo is all about.

the GamePad feels like it has been designed by somebody unfamiliar with the proportions of hands

Getting to grips with a new home screen and UI has always been a favourite moment of mine, and the Wii U delivers Nintendo touches in droves. Having become so used to the Switch, booting up the Wii U felt like a real return to what made me fall for Nintendo in the first place. Seeing all those Miis running beneath giant game icons is an inspired choice. Sure, it might not be the most practical approach to press here to play game, press here to do settings – something that it achieved in the quick start-up mode on the GamePad which was added in a firmware update – but it is oozing with Nintendo-ness all the same.

So too is this the case with the console’s use of music. The Switch has made us too used to silence, but the Wii U takes the Wii’s approach to creating vibes and dials it up to 11. Oh, you want to make a Mii? Here’s a banger. You want to chill on the home screen? Another banger. Feel like changing the parental settings? Guess what, it’s a banger again.

This being said, it wouldn’t be fair to talk about the console without addressing the elephant in the room – I mean, just look at that thing. The console itself looks too much like a Wii (a big reason why I and many others initially thought that it was nothing more than a new accessory) and the GamePad feels like it has been designed by somebody unfamiliar with the proportions of hands. What go-go-gadget bethumbed designer decided to swap out the original design’s 3DS-esque circle pads for analogue sticks and then place the right one above the buttons? A few games of Splatoon on this bad boy and I was a carpal tunnel case waiting to happen.

The Games

Wii U Games
Image: Zion Grassl / Nintendo Life

I am very aware that playing this console for the first time once it has ceased production puts me in the highly privileged position of having all the games ever released at my disposal. Yep, I missed out on the big waiting times between tentpole releases, and the entire virtual console library is just there. This console had some great games.

My month of play has meant that I have hardly been able to scratch the surface but there is so much out there guaranteed to keep me entertained for many more months to come. Xenoblade Chronicles X, Wind Waker HD, Yoshi’s Woolly World, (dare I say Star Fox Zero?). These are all top-notch titles which haven’t seen a subsequent Switch port, so the Wii U is still the place to play them.

used properly, Nintendo was really onto something with this tech

The fact that so many console exclusives now find themselves on the Switch is a credit to the quality of the games. What if Breath of the Wild had only come out on Wii U? Would it still be a fantastic game? Heck yeah! Would it have had the impact that it did? No way. Sure, there were a couple of missteps – Twilight Princess remains a boring Zelda game, HD or not (don't @ me, please) – and most third-party studios did only the bare minimum to support the GamePad, but the overall hit rate on first-party titles really was something.

And this isn’t even to mention the Wii-ked (sorry) Virtual Console! I have had an absolute field day going through the eShop and snatching up every title that I have been wanting to play for years but never got the chance to grab a physical copy. Yes, this was made all the more pressing by the knowledge that the Wii U eShop will be closing in the next few months and my time is therefore limited, but boy what a rush!

Of course, I can’t talk about Wii U games without at least touching on Nintendo Land. This is a weird one. It’s not quite Wii Sports, nor is it quite Wii Party, but it is a fantastic display of what the GamePad could be used for and had me and my willing friends in stitches with its uber-simple minigames.

Mario Chase remains a highlight and a prime candidate for party nights going forward, and while there are some games which feel like they are repeating the process a little too closely, there is enough variation to show that, used properly, Nintendo was really onto something with this tech. I’m still not quite sure what I was supposed to be doing with those coins and subsequent prizes, but I had a good time doing it all the same.

The Experience

Wii U
Image: Damien McFerran / Nintendo Life

True, the GamePad is great when it works well, but when it doesn’t it is at best redundant, and at worst a weighty distraction. I played through a strange selection of games over the past month, some used the GamePad effectively (Rayman Legends, Twilight Princess) but others — many others — found no use for it. Quite why I was playing Assassins Creed III (a game series I generally cannot get behind) is beyond me, but seeing the GamePad subjected to being the home of a dull map with no care or detail paid to it made one thing very clear – this was a good bit of kit desperate for a purpose.

a piece of gaming history that is so brilliantly weird, I doubt we will ever see something as inventive again

That is perhaps the thing that I came back to more times than anything else in my last few weeks with the Wii U. I played up on my TV, at my desk, even in bed, but at no point did I feel like I knew what the console was trying to do. Is it a fun handheld? Yeah, kinda. Is it a fun home console? Yeah, kinda. But why be average at both when you could be really good at one?

Long before the Microsft was boasting of Xbox One that ‘this console will play your games, it will stream your TV, it will massage your feet and it will do your taxes!’ the Wii U was kind of doing just that. It was much to my surprise to find a video camera, TV remote, streaming options, and a (defunct but cool-sounding) social media platform all built into a console which I had foolishly assumed was all about the games. I'd be intrigued to spy on a parallel universe in which the global pandemic happened five years earlier and mankind turned to the Wii U’s video chat to keep the economy running. Many of these features are not functional anymore ten years down the line, and the lack of direction seems like a bit of a mess (is this for games, for TV, for social media?) but the ambition is there. This is a brilliant mess indeed.

After a month of playing the console that I rejected for so many years, I don’t think it is fair to call the Wii U a failure (unless you are talking financially, in which case it is difficult to disagree). Yes, at the time it may have been a marketing disaster with some pretty big gaps between major game releases, and my heart goes out to all of the fans who stood diligently by it. However, now we can see it for what it truly is, a piece of gaming history that is so brilliantly, confusingly weird, I doubt we will ever see something as experimental and inventive again from one of the 'big three' console manufacturers.

If you play as I did, then you get a chance to be selective with a console for which there are, admittedly, a fair few lows. You get to play the best first-party games without needing to wait for months for the next, the entire virtual console library is right there with GBA, DS, and Wii games to boot, and the marketing campaign is so far in the past now that I think I can safely say that this is a console in and of itself and not just a Wii accessory.

Both I and the Wii U are 10 years older now and we are both all the cooler for it.