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Analysis Gaming

Nintendo Wii U review

A great game system for kids, but its successor is on the horizon

Late 2016 update

The video game titans have been busy of late, announcing and introducing a slew of new and upgraded systems. In August, Microsoft introduced its Xbox One S, a thinner version of the Xbox One, and announced Project Scorpio -- an Xbox on steroids, scheduled for release in 2017. In September, Sony slimmed down its PlayStation 4 and introduced the forthcoming PlayStation 4 Pro, which supports 4K resolution and high dynamic range (HDR) gaming. And in November, Nintendo will begin selling its NES Classic Edition, a miniature version of the original Nintendo Entertainment System with 30 games built in.

Meanwhile, Nintendo has officially unveiled its next big game console. The Nintendo Switch is a tablet, a home console and a portable multiplayer tabletop hybrid.

The Switch connects to a TV like a traditional console and works as a tablet-style handheld with its own controls. Nintendo's preview video shows people playing games on the TV, then popping the tablet out and playing on the sofa. Its Joy-Con controllers detach and become standalone wireless controllers. It's slated to arrive in March 2017.

And then there's the Nintendo Wii U, which is coming up on its fifth birthday. It's the only home console where you can currently play Mario, Zelda, Metroid, Star Fox and other Nintendo-specific franchises. But in graphics it lags behind the newer Microsoft and Sony consoles, and the Wii U is the only one of the three that can't play DVDs and Blu-rays. You also won't find many of the latest and greatest triple-A third-party titles like Call of Duty and Madden on the Wii U, either.

The Wii U is still great fun for kids, but with other affordable holiday options like the Mini NES, 3DS XL and 2DS -- and the Switch less than five months away -- it's tough to recommend.

Editors' note, October 23, 2016: This review has been updated from its original version with updated impressions and comparisons, new pricing and bundles, and holiday game releases.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Wii U bundles

In the US, the Nintendo Wii U currently comes in a variety of bundles with games or accessories packed in. Almost all of them cost $300, but what you get varies.

The bundles currently include:

$360: Black Friday bundle with Wii U (32GB), Nintendo Land, Super Mario 3D World, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze and Super Smash Bros.

$300: Wii U (32GB), Nintendo Land, Super Mario 3D World

$300: Wii U (32GB), New Super Mario Bros. U, New Super Luigi U

$300: Wii U (8GB), Nintendo Land, Skylanders Swap Force, 3 Skylanders figures

$300: Wii U (32GB), Nintendo Land, Mario Kart 8

Of these, we'd recommend the bundles with Super Mario 3D World and Mario Kart 8 the most since you get a better game assortment, plus the 32GB storage.

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Mario Kart 8, one of several great kid games.

Nintendo

What's great?

For a start, it's totally kid-friendly. I have a 6-year-old, and I don't want him anywhere near most PS4 or Xbox One games. There are kid-friendly PlayStation or Xbox titles, but they're like finding a stuffed animal in a pile of machine guns and zombies. The Wii U's interface, Mii characters and most of its best games are very approachable, Disney-esque, and fun for families to play together. Except for Bayonetta 2, of course.

Tons of multiplayer cooperative party games

The best games for the Wii U can be played by more than one person in the same room: Nintendo Land, Mario Kart 8, Super Mario 3D World and Super Smash Bros. In fact, it's the best single-room multiplayer game system out there. If you have more than one kid, or like party games, the Wii U is hard to beat.

It can use old Wii accessories and play old Wii games

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.

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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).

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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 with 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 redownload later from the E-Shop, but you won't want to.

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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 has 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.

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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 3 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.

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.