The console finally launched in the U.K on Friday, and courtesy of a very accommodating pal I was able to get my hands on one for a few hours that evening. Even after a short time it became obvious that this is something people are going to have to try for themselves. Picking up the pad, you're immediately struck by how light it is. For its size you're expecting something a bit weightier, though it does feel very robust. The size makes it bulky but not unwieldy. It's comfortable to hold and use, though people with smaller hands might find it tricky to juggle using the face buttons and the touchscreen.
On that, the screen itself is the real treat here. Brilliantly clear and bright, it's almost a surprise to see it display everything with the same sharpness as your TV. The Wii U allows you to stream your console game onto the pad. So if, for instance, someone wants to interrupt your gaming so they can watch something, you can switch to playing on the pad's screen with no issue. This is the sort of innovation you feel could become quietly revolutionary, especially considering that it'll work at a range of up to 25ft. Quite apart from being able to take games with you into different rooms (finally, a home console you can play on the toilet. The future is brilliant), built-in Lovefilm and Netflix apps will make streaming films in bed a tempting proposition, and surfing the internet should be simple too. For anyone that doesn't have a dedicated tablet, the Wii U could prove to be an ideal substitute.
The touchscreen also proves to be an entirely natural way to navigate menus, much more so than the slightly skittery Wii pointer. The screen isn't as touch-sensitive as you'd find on an iPad, instead making use of a stylus that slots into the back of the controller. It feels nice and precise though, with the pad easy enough to hold in one hand. Small functions, like being able to use the pad to change channels on your TV, are a very nice touch as well. Overall you realise that, as a selling point, the GamePad isn't too bad at all. There's something that just clicks when using it, and after no time it feels completely natural.
But how does it work for gaming? Nintendo are clearly pushing the social side of the pad first and foremost, with their minigame compilation Nintendoland filling the Wii Sports role of introducing people to the new controller's potential. As a collection it's typically charming, a virtual theme park that acts as a love letter to Nintendo's past. The games themselves range from the chaotically brilliant to the surprisingly dull, depending on how many people you have playing at a time. My own experience was with two other people, one on the pad and two with Wii remotes. The GamePad player will typically have a different role to play. For instance in the riotous Mario Chase the GamePad gives you an overview of a mazy stage in which you run and hide, while the other players on the TV have a limited view and have to hunt you down before the time runs out. It's a neatly balanced concept that comes to life after a few drinks, with a lot of shouting and giggling as you chase each other around the level.
Other games in the collection provide plenty of laughs. The Pikmin dungeon-crawler is charmingly tricky, while a Zelda-themed slash 'em up has you using the GamePad to fire arrows at onrushing enemies. Sadly Nintendo run the risk of over-explaining everything to players. Each game is preceded by lengthy tutorials telling you the exact rules for each player, what the controls are, and it all flits by so fast that you can go in fairly confused. Things click easily enough in practice, but it highlights the downsides of Nintendo's explanation-driven approach when marketing the console. It's tricky to communicate, but the best way to sell this to people will be to simply put it in their hands.
I sampled a couple of the other launch titles as well. New Super Mario Bros U is what you'd expect from a brand-new 2D Mario game, offering some brilliant platforming challenge and a great multiplayer. Given that this is Nintendo's first console to support HD, you can imagine it looks pretty wonderful as well. Everything's so bright and colourful you can't help but smile. Though it lacks the striking style of Rayman Origins, you get the impression that Nintendo and hi-def graphics are going to be a very nice match indeed.
Tekken Tag Tournament 2 has already been out on the PS3 and 360 for a few weeks, but Namco have upped the ante for the Wii U release. It looks just as good, if not better, than the other versions, showing off the console's graphical muscle, but it's the Wii U specific modes that stand out. Mushroom mode sees the stage littered with Mario mushrooms, that make the characters larger or shorter, all while thumping remixes of Nintendo tunes play over the action. The characters have alternate costumes based on Nintendo characters as well, adding a hell of a lot of charm. There's nothing like seeing a massive Mario-suited Kuma battering into a tiny Yoshimitsu in a Link costume to have you in tears of laughter.
Outside of Mario, the big launch title is clearly Zombi U. Ubisoft's survival horror exclusive has been developed with the console's features in mind, and it shows. The game has you stalking through a deserted London, fending off attacks from the rabid undead hordes. The GamePad is used to access your inventory and tools, but all in real time. There's no pausing to manage your items or solve puzzles, meaning you're constantly on your guard. What little I saw of the campaign seemed suitably tense, bringing to mind games like Bioshock and S.T.A.L.K.E.R. It includes some Dark-Souls style twists, with a brutal difficulty level making death almost inevitable, and online components that will see your game world crossing over with those of other players'. It also includes some interesting multiplayer modes; Capture the Flag has one player strategically controlling zombie placements on the GamePad, while the others survive in first person on the TV. It's fun when it clicks, but that will take a while. It's clear that Zombi U's real strength seems to be in its single player campaign.
And that's lucky, because the Wii U is strangely lacking in solo titles at the moment. It's launched with a handful of third-party ports, including Assassins Creed 3 and Darksiders 2, but it's unusual for Nintendo to release a console without a big first-party title that has solo players in mind. While you can play through games like NSMB and Nintendoland yourself, they'll be at their best with some mates round and a few drinks down. This has been designed as a party console first and foremost, and it seems you're best keeping pals in mind if you're going to pick one up for gaming, at least until the big first-party titles start dropping. Then again, I wasn't able to touch on the online modes during my time playing. Reports suggest that the Miiverse, Nintendo's stab at a sort of Wii U social network, is an absolute joy, with the potential to change the online side of console gaming.
Even as a bit of a Nintendo fanboy, I have to admit the Wii U has surprised me. For months I'd been telling myself this wasn't for me, that Nintendo didn't really know what they were doing with it. But having had one in my hands I can say that Nintendo might have convinced me they were right all along. It's now much easier to see why this touch screen integration might be the next big thing, one that will doubtless be copied in some way when Sony and Microsoft bring up their own next-gen offerings. However, as with the Wii the real key to its success will be to get people trying it. A few hours playing on a Wii U has done more to convince me it's worth buying than 18 months of marketing and explanatory videos ever could have. And as far as first impressions go, that's not too bad at all