The Nintendo Wii U and Lego City Undercover

On March 31, 2013, in Doing It Wrong, Personal, by Rob Levandowski

I’m a big fan of the Lego video games… and of Legos in general. I was hooked by the fun gameplay and brilliant humor of the first game, Lego Star Wars. Unfortunately, as the series has made its way through Star Wars, DC Comics, Indiana Jones, and Harry Potter, it has lost some of its magic and a lot of its humor. It’s also revealed a number of fundamental bugs in the code that Traveller’s Tales, the division of Warner Bros. that produces the Lego video games, has failed to address for years. Some of the games contained game-ending bugs, especially on the original Nintendo Wii.

I had high hopes for the new game, Lego City Undercover, even though I wondered how they’d fare with a game that isn’t based on some other media property, but is made up from whole cloth. But playing it would mean investing in Nintendo’s new game system, the Wii U. It’s not available for any other platform.

The short version: Brilliant game, idiotic game system.

The Wii U hasn’t been selling. When the original Wii came out, it took almost a year for stores to have stock for more than a few hours after a new shipment arrived. They flew off the shelves at an unprecedented rate. The Wii U… not so much. From day one, you could have a Wii U by walking in and asking for one.

There are reasons for this.

The first reason, the most immediately obvious reason, is that there were very few Wii U games when the console came out, and none of them were “gotta have” games. Many of the release games were ports of games that were out for Xbox and PS3 for some time. There was a new (but not very innovative) Super Mario game. Nothing, though, in the way of a game that would drive fans to go buy the thing. Lego? Didn’t come out for four months. Zelda? Wait until 2014. (Well, to make the fans happier, Nintendo is porting the old GameCube Zelda game “Wind Waker” to Wii U for this Christmas… but it’s a game we’ve already played.)

I decided to take the plunge for my birthday because the Lego game finally came out, and because retailers have started selling the Wii U at a discount to get rid of stock. Best Buy ran a sale cutting $50 off the price of the basic model. That’s not a good harbinger for a game system that’s less than six months old.

Nintendo sells two models of Wii U: The “Basic” model is white and has 8GB of internal storage. The “Deluxe” model is black and has 32GB of internal storage, and comes with a charging cradle for the new Game Pad controller (available separately for $20 or less), and also includes the game “NintendoLand”. The calculus, then, is (a) Do you want NintendoLand? and (b) Do you want the extra memory?

What Nintendo doesn’t clearly tell you is that the difference in internal memory is essentially a moot point. Neither version has enough internal memory to be useful. The Wii U operating system consumes about 5GB of space on either console. After that deduction, there’s not enough memory left on the Deluxe edition to download “Lego City Undercover” if you wish to purchase it online. If you have any intention of using that internal memory for anything other than game-save files, you are going to have to purchase an external USB hard drive to give the Wii U a useful amount of storage. If all you need to do is save games, the 8GB console will probably do the job… and when it doesn’t, it’s hard drive time anyway.

Although the Wii U has an SD card slot, you can’t use it to store Wii U games or data. The slot is only usable when you reboot the Wii U into Wii emulation mode. However, you can’t just move your SD card from your old Wii to your Wii U. You have to first move anything you care about off that SD card back into the old Wii’s internal memory. Chances are that you bought an SD card for your Wii because all your stuff wouldn’t fit in the Wii’s internal memory in the first place. That’s okay, because you’re going to need to redownload most of your Wii games anyway. Just concentrate on the save data. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

When you buy your external hard drive, if you go to Nintendo’s web site you will find that they recommend a desktop hard drive with its own power cord. It seems that the USB ports on the Wii U do not put out enough power to properly drive a bus-powered hard drive, i.e., the most commonly available, least expensive, and smallest models. Nintendo doesn’t officially support it, but you can work around this by buying a bus-powered portable USB hard drive and a powered USB hub to plug it into. Nintendo’s web site also warns that you shouldn’t use USB flash drives or SD-card adapters with the Wii U as it may not have enough power to operate them properly. In other words, the Wii U’s USB ports are decidedly nonstandard. They’re also USB 2.0 only, so you’re stuck with relatively slow hard drives.

But then, the Wii U specializes in slow.

When you first start the Wii U, you will need to download a new firmware update before you can do much of anything. If you skip the update, you can play games that you bought on disc in a store, so long as you don’t want to play online, or receive patches to fix bugs. Without the update, many of the Wii U’s features don’t exist. The update is large and takes hours to download, even if you have an extremely fast Internet connection. It seems to me that the Wii U has a flawed WiFi system: in downloading the same program to both the original Wii and the Wii U in Wii emulation mode, the original Wii downloads the file almost twice as fast. Even over a 50Mbps connection, the Wii U needs about an hour and a half to download that first firmware update, and it struggles to hit 5Mbps doing so. This may be a combination of flawed hardware and overloaded servers on Nintendo’s end.

Unlike Xbox and PS3, you don’t have the option of using a wired Ethernet connection. Theoretically, you can use a Nintendo-licensed USB Ethernet adaptor made for the Wii with the Wii U. However, folks who have tried this have reported that it’s even slower than the WiFi connection.

That download speed problem doesn’t seem to get better as time goes on.

As for your home firewall, Nintendo recommends that you essentially disable it completely, forwarding every possible TCP port to the Wii U to prevent problems with online games. There’s no mention of whether or not the Wii U supports common protocols like UPnP or NAT-PMP to overcome firewall issues. The suggestion that the Wii U should sit essentially unprotected on the Internet is unforgivably naïve.

Once you have the firmware, you have to go through the process of creating a user account on the Wii U and creating a Nintendo Network account to link it to. This involves responding to a verification email. You can’t choose to have that email sent to your Wii’s email address, for some reason.

Then you get to stare at a “Please Wait” screen while the Wii U menu loads. This takes 20 to 30 seconds, possibly longer. It’s positively glacial, and it sets the tone for the Wii U experience. Nintendo promises a speed boost with an April firmware update, but the video they’ve released shows that menu loads are now merely measured in terms of historical eras instead of geologic epochs.

When you go to load a game for the first time, there’s a good chance you’ll be presented with a popup to download an update to the game. The good news is that, unlike the original Wii, game makers can issue patches to games you’ve purchased on a disc. The bad news is: slow download speeds. Sorry, kids, it’ll be another 15 minutes before that game we just brought home starts loading.

And once you get past that, wait some more while the game loads.

I’ve never, ever, played a Wii game that had anywhere near the amount of “Please Wait” that a Wii U game has.

Be careful about putting the controller down to go do other things. As a power-saving measure, by default the Wii U will turn itself off if you don’t use it for an hour. It doesn’t bother saving your game when it does so. If you get a call from Mom, remember to go unpause the thing periodically so it doesn’t kill your progress. You can turn this feature off, after more waiting for the settings app to load.

The new GamePad controller is interesting, but sort of gimmicky in usage. The use of the second screen is not yet mastered by the programmers. Technologically, it works fine. In terms of being useful instead of a hindrance in gameplay, that’s a tossup.

What the GamePad definitely is would be “uncomfortable”. For some insane reason, Nintendo designed it with a flared chamfer along the case join around the entire perimeter of the case. This means that there’s a sharp ridge biting into your palm as you hold it. Be prepared for a nice red mark after your first session. If, like me, you loved the Wiimote/Nunchuck combination because you could hold both hands in comfortable, supported positions… that’s gone for Player One. You get the GamePad, with its wide, square body. Aching wrists will join your sore palms after a few hours.

On the other hand, all you’ll get is a few hours. The GamePad’s rechargeable battery only lasts 2.5 to 3.5 hours, depending on usage. Once it’s depleted, it needs 3.5 to 4 hours to recharge. You can keep playing while you’re plugged in to recharge… if you unplug the charger from the charging cradle, of course. And if the game you’re playing expects you to wave the GamePad around, that cord will get in the way. The battery appears to be a cost-saving measure; there’s room for a larger battery in the GamePad’s bay, and at least one third-party vendor plans to introduce an aftermarket replacement with three times the capacity that fits into the existing battery bay.

So, you’ve got your external hard drive, you’ve banked up patience for the slow download, you’re thinking about buying a game online. You’re prepared for the idea that it may take all night, even if you have Google Fiber speeds. There’s still more gotchas there.

Unlike Xbox and PS3, your downloaded game is not tied to the account you used to purchase the game. It’s tied to the particular Wii U that you used to download it. If that Wii U breaks, you’re out of luck. You’ll need to buy a new copy.

You won’t get a discount for purchasing online. Downloads are priced at full retail, unless the game manufacturer is running a sale, which isn’t terribly common so far.

Even after downloading the game, you may still have to wait to run it as that patch download system kicks in. That’s right, the game you buy and download won’t be fully patched when you download it.

As for funds to buy the game, you can’t use leftover Wii Points from your old Wii. And don’t buy a Wii Points card in the store to charge up your Wii U unless you want to buy old Wii games with them. For Wii U games, you need to find a Nintendo Network prepaid card or use your credit card. Nintendo Network cards aren’t all that widespread yet. Oh, and you can apply Nintendo Network points to a Wii U or a Nintendo 3DS, but once redeemed on one or the other, you can only use them there.

In short, Nintendo has been paying absolutely no attention to its competitors’ online stores or to the App Store model that’s taken over the mobile world.

So what we have here is a fundamentally flawed console with few good games, limited future prospects, unforgivably slow operating software, flawed connectivity, a painful controller, and a brain-dead online store.

The sad thing is, it’s the only game in town when it comes to playing the wonderful new Lego City Undercover.

If you like the Lego video games, you’ll want LCU. The humor of the first Lego Star Wars, which has petered off and become stale and scarce in recent releases, is back in a big way. LCU is essentially a parody of every cop show and movie trope of any note, with a heavy emphasis on cheesy 1970s/80s cop show. The voice acting—a distraction in Lego Lord of the Rings, where it seemed forced and obviously recycled—is a huge asset to LCU. The dialogue is witty and often laugh-out-loud funny, with the occasional “did he really just say that?” double-entendre.

LCU is easily the most bug-free Lego videogame I’ve played. On very rare occasions, event triggers can get confused, but we’re talking once per four hours or so, instead of the constant negotiations involved in playing Lego Indiana Jones or Lego Harry Potter on Wii. Characters do a much better job of walking and jumping where you want them, too. Busted bricks and showers of studs don’t trigger massive slowdowns and don’t threaten to lock the system up. Given how frustrating the Traveller’s Tales engine has been on the Wii, this is a massively welcome improvement.

It’s also a huuuuge game, with a massive overworld that will take days, not hours, to explore. As another reviewer noted, think “Lego Grand Theft Auto, but as a cop.”

The only downside is that transitions to special events or story levels involve yet more “please wait”. At least the game’s theme music is catchy. You’ll hear it a lot during load screens.

LCU could have been the “gotta have it” game to drive sales of the Wii U. Ultimately, I think the console is too flawed for even a great game to propel sales. If you want LCU, and you know you’ll buy the next Zelda the day it comes out, whatever form it takes, you might think about a Wii U if you find a great discount.

On the other had, if Nintendo wants the Wii U to start selling, they need to:

  • massively improve the operating system’s speed
  • figure out how to speed up the optical drive
  • fix the broken WiFi and their server farms
  • add a wired Ethernet port
  • add fully-standard-compliant USB ports that support bus-powered drives and flash drives, preferably with USB 3.0
  • smooth out the sharp ridge on the GamePad
  • put a better battery in the GamePad
  • tie online purchases to a user account instead of the console

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