The Wii U, released in 2012, was Nintendo's successor to the Wii. It brought HD graphics and the innovative second screen gamepad idea to Nintendo's table - but how good was it? Since this is a tech talks article, I'm going to start by detailing the hardware before talking about the system's pitfalls. I'm also comparing it to the Wii and Xbox 360 to give an idea of the generational leap.
CPU: 3-core 1.215GHz PowerPC-based CPU
GPU: Custom AMD "GX2" GPU @ 550MHz - 32MB embedded memory (eDRAM) @ 563.2GB/s
RAM: 2GB RAM @ 12.8GB/s
CPU: 3-core 3.2GHz PowerPC-based CPU
GPU: Custom ATI (now AMD) "Xenon" GPU @ 500MHz - 10MB embedded memory (eDRAM) @ 256GB/s
RAM: 512MB RAM @ 22.4GB/s
CPU: 1-core 729MHz PowerPC-based CPU
GPU: Custom ATI "Hollywood" GPU @ 243MHz - 3MB embedded memory (note: 21MB cache available to the GPU outside of embedded memory) @ 2.7GB/s
RAM: 64MB (88MB total) @ 2.7GB/s
So it's good to see that Wii U offers a nice jump over the Wii. But the Xbox 360? It's not much further ahead. The CPU isn't as far behind as it seems because the Wii U has a newer CPU, but it's unlikely to beat the X360's CPU on its own - the Wii U also has tremendous support for GPGPU (general purpose GPU) tasks to take load off the CPU as well. So... what's the big deal with this? Well, I'd like to draw your attention to the GPU bandwidth (the GB/s figure). Xbox 360 games often utilised this 10MB of very fast embedded memory by placing all the pixel information in here, because doing so with such fast memory gives you very cheap anti-aliasing and effects. The catch? 1280x720 wouldn't realistically fit in a 10MB buffer. A 720p setup with double buffered v-sync only requires 7MB, but double buffering has a fatal drawback; if a game drops even two frames below its target, it locks to the next lowest framerate - eg. if a game targets 60FPS and on-screen action makes it fall a few frames short, the game locks to 30FPS. This causes jarring slowdown in the middle of gameplay. So games often targeted lower resolutions - common ones include 1024x600 and 880x720 - and cleaned the resulting image up with anti-aliasing.
So now think about this; the Wii U has over 3 times this memory, at over twice the bandwidth. A regular 1920x1080 framebuffer (where pixel information is stored) with double-buffered v-sync takes up just under 16MB; so in theory, you could use 2x FSAA - full scene anti-aliasing, where the resolution is multiplied then sampled back down - on top of a 1080p game on Wii U and use just under 32MB! Not all of Nintendo's games did this, though, because Nintendo didn't make optimised Wii U tools; they ported over other PowerPC tools without considering this secret weapon. Some developers, such as Shin'en, did use the eDRAM by optimising their tools - and they talked about this themselves when talking about the development of two of their Wii U games, Fast Racing Neo and Nano Assault Neo. Manfred Linzer described the eDRAM as "a simple way to get extra performance without any other optimizations" and it shows that Shin'en knew what they were talking about. They opted for smooth performance by using triple-buffered 720p with their game Fast Racing Neo, because triple buffered 1080p would push it over the memory limit, and Fast Racing Neo remains one of the most beautiful Wii U games to date - pushing very high res textures and techniques not usually seen in Wii U games such as ambient occlusion and HDR.
So why do so many Wii U games look/run the same as, or even worse than, PS3 and Xbox 360 titles? There are a few answers to this. Firstly, most PS3/360 ports released around the time of Wii U launch and were rushed to the shelves. The developers likely had to make do with early tools and poorly ported libraries. Secondly, while the Wii U has a 32MB pocket of very fast memory, the main memory itself is significantly slower - almost half as fast - as the PS3 and 360. This can leave the fast eDRAM bottlenecked by slower memory everywhere else. Finally, some of the Wii U's bandwidth is used to stream a game to the Wii U gamepad as well, potentially incurring further delays.
Some final notes about the Wii U hardware:
- The Wii U includes full, hardware backwards compatibility with Wii. But what people don't realise is that Nintendont, a popular Wii homebrew program for playing GameCube games, actually runs GC games without under-clocking to GameCube speeds or using GameCube hardware - it runs the games at Wii speeds like any other Wii game. So you can play GameCube games on your Wii U with Nintendont. What's more, tools exist to mimic GameCube virtual console titles which auto-boot a GameCube game running under Nintendont. Nintendont even supports the Wii U gamepad as a controller for GameCube games!
- The Wii U has a main "GX2" GPU with a modern feature set based on AMD Radeon R600/700 series GPUs, but it also has a "GX1" GPU - which is the Wii's Hollywood GPU! When running in backwards compatibility mode, the GX1 does all of the work, but the Wii U is displaying everything at 1080p via HDMI - which the GX1 couldn't do, so the GX2 works alongside it.
- The Wii U GPU supports modern shaders, 4K textures, HDR, ambient occlusion, physically-based rendering, GPGPU calculations and an uncountable amount of other techniques the Wii didn't support. Compared to the PS4, it's a few generations behind (as in, GPU generations) but it certainly exceeds the Xbox 360 and PS3's feature set which predates even AMD as a company (when PS3/360 had their GPUs made, AMD were called ATI).
- The Wii U gamepad has a built-in microphone, camera and gyroscope, and the screen resolution is 854x480. This is a perfect fit for Wii/GameCube games while having a good enough pixel density as a 6.2" display.
So while this is a tech article, I thought I would also mention why the Wii U failed. Contrary to some beliefs, the Wii U didn't fail because of bad hardware or lack of games. The hardware was good enough for PS3/360 ports as well as some slightly cut down PS4/XB1 games, as well as Nintendo's own exclusives. And many people forget that Wii U launched with a respectable collection of third party games; ZombiU, Assassin's Creed, Call of Duty, 007, Need for Speed, Splinter Cell, Deus Ex and Sonic were all big name franchises which appeared on Wii U at launch or shortly afterwards. The third party games became a problem when third parties realised the Wii U was going to fail, not the other way around. Additionally, Nintendo's own Wii U games are proven smash hits on Switch and the Wii U had a high software attachment rate (ie. games sold:consoles sold ratio). The biggest reason why the Wii U failed was marketing. The Wii U, for millions of people, was seen as an accessory to the Wii. The name never made it clear that it was a new console, and many thought it was an expensive Wii add-on. So many, in fact, that I would argue that calling it even something like "Wii 2" would have saved the console from commercial failure. And for the people who did realise it was a new console, the marketing and advertisements for Wii U were remarkably cringey and did a poor job of enticing users to buy a Wii U - in fact, many Wii U ads have been the subject of memes online. It's easy to see why both of those factors resulted in a very limited potential audience.
Thanks for reading another one of these long Tech Talks articles! I'm sure by now you're sick of seeing these on the GBAtemp Blogs page, but I've had a lot of spare time and I enjoy writing these up when things are quiet. As usual, give me some feedback in the comments or even a like if you feel like a maniac. It would also be good if you told me what you would be interested in seeing next; a PlayStation 1/2/3/4 tech article? Atari articles? You name it and I'll see what I can do. See you in the comments and the next blog post!
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