Ten years ago today, Nintendo released the Wii U—an awkward but endearing console with a tablet-like game controller. Although it sold poorly compared to its smash-hit predecessor, Nintendo’s quirky game system still holds a place in our hearts. It’s a one-of-a-kind device that we may never see the likes of again.
The Wii U launched in the US on November 18, 2012. It initially shipped in a “Basic Set” for $299.99 and a “Deluxe Edition” for $349.99 that came with a copy of NintendoLand (more on that later). The console shipped in black or white color schemes with 8GB or 32GB memory versions. It was Nintendo’s first HD console.
Compared to the Nintendo Wii’s 101 million sales, the Wii U sold a mere 13.56 million units during its more than four-year lifespan (November 2012 to January 2017). And it moved far fewer units than the PlayStation 4 (100-plus million) and Xbox One (50 million). So many consider it a failure—but the “Big U” still kept a diehard following that endures.
The Wii U was never an easy elevator pitch: Imagine a home game console that has a main controller that is also a touchscreen, similar to a smaller, thicker, lower-resolution iPad. It’s like a tablet, but it isn’t—you still need a base console. And this tablet controller? You can only use one of them. But maybe two, eventually (although that never came to pass). Sometimes you use this controller screen as your main gaming display, sometimes you don’t. Beyond that, games can utilize up to five or more different types of control schemes, including Wii Remotes and a stylus on a touchscreen. Oh, and it’s a Wii in name, but it’s also an entirely new console—although it looks a lot like the last model and can use the same accessories and play Wii games.
The Wii U was an identity crisis in a box. But despite the confusion, the Wii U also allowed unique and enjoyable gaming experiences to emerge, even if they weren’t appreciated by a mainstream audience. We’re going to cover some of those notable quirks and features below.
The Wii U was the first home game console with a touchscreen game controller—the Wii U GamePad. It included a 6.2-inch touchscreen in the center, flanked by traditional analog sticks, buttons, and triggers. It also included a front-facing camera, stereo speakers, a microphone, a rumble motor, and a stylus. It even had an IR emitter on the top that allowed you to change channels and volume on your TV set (press the “TV” button), and two IR emitters on the face so you could play Wii games using a Wii Remote using only the GamePad. Nintendo packed a lot in there.
The GamePad could be used as a conventional controller, a primary display, or as a second screen that provided additional information such as maps and character status. In fact, one of the most interesting aspects of the Wii U is that it could offer asymmetrical gameplay on two screens (the GamePad and a TV), where each player had a different view of the same game.
Released in a world of iPads and iPhones, the Wii U gave the impression that Nintendo may have wanted to make a tablet console but wasn’t quite ready to put it all into one device. So the Wii U ended up as a strange hybrid—a tablet-like console that also needed a base station to work properly. Although, in reality, development doesn’t seem to have proceeded that way.
In service of its tablet controller, the console has the miraculous ability to wirelessly stream video from the console, up to 30 feet away, with very little lag. That felt like a technological marvel at the time. It allowed one of the Wii U’s most exciting features: Off TV Play, where you could just play a game on the GamePad without needing to use a TV set.
The ultimate Zelda console
The combination of dual screens, a touchscreen, and a stylus oddly made the Wii U ideal for emulating handheld Nintendo DS games on the big screen. In 2015, Nintendo introduced Nintendo DS games for the Virtual Console service, and generally, they played well. In particular, we enjoyed revisiting New Super Mario Bros., and in the absence of a proper Animal Crossing title for the Wii U, dug into Animal Crossing: Wide World once again.
Speaking of which, Nintendo’s Virtual Console line was always a distinctive part of the Wii U experience, especially during the periods between waiting for major releases. We appreciated being able to play NES, Super NES, N64, Game Boy Advance, and TurboGrafx-16 games on both the big screen and the GamePad with suspend features. It’s worth noting that Nintendo will shut down Virtual Console game sales in March 2023.
In a way, one of the best things about seeing all the Wii U ports coming to Nintendo Switch is that you can play all the latest and greatest Nintendo games on a 10-year-old console. We’re exaggerating, of course, but some of the Switch’s best games are also on the Wii U, including Breath of the Wild, Mario Kart 8, Super Mario 3D World, New Super Mario Bros. U, Bayonetta 2, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze, and Pikmin 3. True, the Switch versions usually have extra features (and the Switch has plenty of wonderful games that the Wii U doesn’t), but it just goes to show the absurdly potent first-party software development strength Nintendo wielded in the Wii U era.
While we’re talking about the Switch, there are a few small hardware things the Wii U did better than its successor. For one, it had an actual cross-shaped D-pad, which was nice for some games (although the Switch Lite does too). And unlike the Switch Pro Controller, which runs out of battery charge just sitting around after a few days, the Wii U Pro Controller can keep a charge for months. (Oh, yeah—and no Joy-Con drift!)