Nintendo Wii U review: ​A great game system for kids, and you might like it too

You can use old Wii remotes as extra controllers. For families with a lot of kids, that cuts down on some of the Wii U's overhead cost. And older Wii games -- both the disc versions and downloaded content -- can play on the Wii U. It means you can unplug that old Wii, if it wasn't already unplugged, and sell it at a garage sale. Many older Wii games have excellent replay value and still look good years later.

The GamePad works great for playing nearly all games off the TV. Sarah Tew/CNET

You can play away from the TV.

The weird, innovative GamePad that comes with the Wii U has its own screen, speakers, full control pad, stylus, camera and microphone. Basically, it's a self-contained game system...except it needs to be within wireless range of the Wii U to stream games to it for off-TV play. It works extremely well: drop it in a kid's hands while you're watching TV, and you've instantly solved the living-room problem.

The software and loading times have gotten a lot better.

A quick-load launch screen and a series of firmware updates have made the Wii U boot up and launch games far more quickly than it used to. It's still not zippy, but it's acceptable.

It can act as a TV remote too.

The Wii U GamePad has its own IR blaster, and a separate button allows access to your TV for input switching, volume, power and channel control. It means you can control your TV and game system with one controller. Unlike the Xbox One, it doesn't require a bulky set-top Kinect (but, you'll still need to plug in a sensor bar).

Nintendo's new amiibo figures sync via the GamePad to unlock some extras in games, and even store data. Sarah Tew/CNET

NFC, and amiibo, could eventually be something cool.

Nintendo's new little chip-enabled figurines, called amiibo, are a lot like Disney Infinity or Skylanders figures: they pair with the Wii U GamePad and can be used in a variety of Nintendo games to unlock characters and other extras. These figures store their own game data, and use NFC (near-field communication) technology to automatically work with the GamePad. That means you don't need a separate cradle or base for these types of collectible-figure games. amiibo don't have a lot of use right now: in Smash Bros. they unlock AI-controlled characters that learn from your play style. Upcoming Nintendo games might use them more. At $13 a figure, they're not cheap, but some people might pick one up for nostalgia.

What's not great

It should cost less.

Pack-in games like Mario Kart 8 or Super Mario 3D World make Wii U bundles a better value, but the $300 cost of the Wii U (£249 to £299 in the UK) isn't all that affordable. Both the Xbox One and PS4 have had price cuts and bundled game offers that nearly level the playing field compared to a year ago. The Nintendo 3DS handheld, meanwhile, comes in a base 2DS version for as low as $99. Considering those game console price cuts, the Wii U should at least come in a $250 configuration. There still isn't an extra controller in-box to go with the GamePad.

Limited onboard storage: 32GB, or less.

There are tons of games you can download from the Wii E-Shop, but you won't be able to store them all without an external hard drive. The Wii U has, at best, only has 32GB of internal memory (about 25GB of which is usable), unlike the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 which use beefier 500GB internal hard drives. Retro Virtual Console NES games and cheap indie games don't take up much space, but premium AAA games like Mario Kart 8 can chew up nearly 10GB a pop. You can, at least, delete and re-download later from the E-Shop, but you won't want to.

Inserting a USB flash drive into the Wii U for extra storage: you can't use SD cards. Sarah Tew/CNET

External hard drives can only be attached one at a time.

There are two USB ports on the front of the Wii U, but you can't plug in two USB drives at a time: it'll ask you to remove one. The Wii U recognizes hard drives and even USB flash drives to expand storage. Some hard drives need to have their own power adapters to work. On another side note, it's annoying that the Wii U can't use SD card storage for games, despite having an SD card slot. Go figure.

Its streaming media, TV and home entertainment support is OK but not fantastic.

The Wii U can act as a streaming-media box and TV accessory, to a point. YouTube, Netflix, Amazon and Hulu Plus apps work well and shows can be streamed on the TV or on your GamePad, like a mini-tablet. The Wii U can search live TV shows, too, with a TV guide service that's a bit like the Xbox One. But, the Wii U's software just isn't as smart for searching for content, and the console can't play DVDs or Blu-rays, either.

It's a limited game library.

The Wii U's game offerings have gotten a lot better in the past year, with some top-notch Nintendo games that are easily among the best on any Nintendo console, ever. But, if you're looking for non-Nintendo games, you might be disappointed. Most third-party developers are focusing on the Xbox or PlayStation for current games. Some of these games end up on the Wii U, but not all of them.

Expect about 3 hours of GamePad battery life. Sarah Tew/CNET

GamePad battery life is still short.

The GamePad, which is the only game controller packed in with the Wii U, is still plagued with a short battery life: about three hours. It's fine for a quick evening of gaming, but it's not ideal. A GamePad AC adapter/charger packed in the box can be used while playing, but for more battery life you'll need to buy a separately-sold extended battery and put it in yourself.

The Wii U barely cross-plays with Nintendo 3DS.

I say "barely" because the Super Smash Bros., the holiday's flagship game for Nintendo owners, lets you pair a Nintendo 3DS and transfer game data between the 3DS and Wii U version, and even use a 3DS as a extra game controller with the Wii U. Still, unlike the PlayStation 4 and PS Vita, which connect, locally stream games, and can even play some "cross-buy" multi-platform games, the Nintendo 3DS and Wii U don't share games at all...which is annoying, especially for retro games like Super Mario Bros. or the original Metroid which you'll have to buy twice.

Conclusion: Better than ever, but not a complete slam-dunk

I love the Wii U. It's probably even my favorite "new" console right now. I can recommend at least seven great games for it that are truly excellent. It's got limitations. The game library is still a step short of stellar. Third-party game support isn't great, either. But the Wii U's games look fantastic on a big-screen HDTV, and the graphics, while not up to the level of the Xbox One or PlayStation 4, are a serious leap from the older Wii.

If you're looking for great family and kid games, or love Nintendo, this is a good time to dive in. More great games are coming next year, and the Wii U is now at least as good as the GameCube once was: that system, too, was less than popular, but ended up with a lot of great games that earned it a spot in gamer hearts.

The Wii U's focus on warm and wonderful family games is something to celebrate. It's a rarity. And as a father of two, I welcome it. I come home and play Nintendo games for a reason: they're fun. And because I won't end up bothering my wife while she watches TV.

You might feel the same way.

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    • Regional specs shown for US. AU specs are unavailable.

    • Color white
    • Media Type Nintendo Wii U disc
      Nintendo Wii disc
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