10 years later, the Wii U is still really weird – and we love it

A black Nintendo Wii U console on a swirling blue background.
Enlarge / The Wii U launched in North America on November 18, 2012, the biggest day of all time.


Ten years ago today, Nintendo released the Wii U – a clunky but endearing console with a tablet-like game controller. Although it sold poorly compared to its successful predecessor, Nintendo’s quirky gaming system still holds a place in our hearts. It’s a unique device that we may never see again.

The Wii U was launched in the US on November 18, 2012. Initially it came 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 came in black or white color schemes with 8 GB or 32 GB memory versions. It was Nintendo’s first HD console.

Compared to the Nintendo Wii’s 101 million sales, the Wii U sold only 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 (over 100 million) and Xbox One (50 million). Many consider it a failure, but the “Big U” still held a diehard following that perseveres.

The Wii U was never an easy elevator pitch: imagine a home game console with a main controller that’s also a touchscreen, similar to a smaller, thicker, lower-resolution iPad. It’s like a tablet, but it’s not: you still need a basic console. And this tablet controller? You can only use one. But maybe two, eventually (although that never happened). Sometimes you use this controller screen as your main gaming screen, sometimes you don’t. In addition, games can use up to five or more different types of control schemes, including Wii Remotes and a touchscreen stylus. Oh, and it’s a Wii in name, but it’s also a brand new console, although it’s very similar to 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, Wii U also allowed for unique and enjoyable gaming experiences, even if they weren’t appreciated by mainstream audiences. We’re going to discuss some of those notable quirks and features below.

The gamepad

The Wii U GamePad enabled touchscreen and second screen gaming experiences.
Enlarge / The Wii U GamePad enabled touchscreen and second screen gaming experiences.


The Wii U was the first home game console with a touchscreen game controller: the Wii U GamePad. It featured a 6.2-inch center touchscreen 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 the channels and volume on your TV (press the “TV” button) and two IR emitters on the front so you could play Wii games with a Wii Remote and GamePad only. Nintendo put a lot into that.

The GamePad can be used as a conventional controller, a primary screen, or as a second screen that provides additional information such as maps and character status. In fact, one of the most interesting aspects of Wii U is that it can offer asymmetrical gameplay on two screens (the GamePad and a TV), where each player has a different view of the same game.

Released in a world of iPads and iPhones, the Wii U gave the impression that Nintendo might have wanted to make a tablet console, but wasn’t quite ready to pack it all into one device. So the Wii U ended up as a strange hybrid: a tablet-like console that also needed a docking station to work properly. Although in reality the development does not seem to have gone that way.

In service of its tablet controller, the console has the prodigious ability to wirelessly stream video from the console, up to 30 feet away, with very little lag. It felt like a technological marvel at the time. It enabled one of the most exciting features of the Wii U: Off TV Play, where you could just play a game on the GamePad without the need for a TV set.

The ultimate Zelda to console

Nintendo released the <em>Zelda: Wind Waker</em> HD Deluxe Set out, including special styling.” src=”https://cdn.arstechnica.net/wp-content/uploads/2022/11/zelda_wiiu_special_Edition-640×320.jpg” width=”640″ height=”320″ srcset =”https://cdn.arstechnica.net/wp-content/uploads/2022/11/zelda_wiiu_special_Edition.jpg 2x”/><figcaption class=
Enlarge / Nintendo has the Zelda: Wind Waker HD Deluxe Set in 2013, including special styling.


Of all the Nintendo consoles ever released, the Wii U had the most Zelda games available for it: 15, including two original titles (Breath of the Wild and Hyrule warriors), two HD upgrades (Wind Waker HD and Twilight Princess HD), two backward compatible Wii games (Heavenward sword and Link’s crossbow training), a NintendoLand mini game (Combat questionst) and eight Virtual Console games (The Legend of Zelda, Zelda II, A link to the past, Ocarina of Time, Majora’s mask, The Minicap, Phantom Hourglassand Spiritual traces).

The Nintendo 3DS also played host to plenty Zelda titles, but if you were a home console Zelda fan in the golden age of the Wii U, there was no better place to be.

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