Stranded on Wii U: The games worth saving before shutting down the eShop

The Wii U online services are dead. On March 27th, Nintendo will shut down the eShop for Wii U systems and remove the ability to buy games and download demos, although your existing purchases will still be accessible… for now. That’s a real shame, because the Wii U is home to top-notch software, including top-notch titles that have never been ported to Switch or rely heavily on the Wii U’s new-style controller.

So before it’s too late, we’re highlighting some of the most tech-savvy Wii U titles worth buying before the shutdown – including some that are significantly cheaper digitally. As well as some big first-party releases, there are some great games from smaller studios that at least deserve to be remembered for what they did with the Wii U hardware.

The obvious starting point are the two Zelda remasters for Wii U – Wind Waker HD and Twilight Princess HD. These are both essentially overhauled GameCube titles, modernizations that add new textures and effects but leave the original visual designs mostly intact. Wind Waker HD is definitely the more successful of these efforts, featuring new textures, a redesigned UI, gameplay tweaks, and revamped lighting with bloom, real-time shadow maps, and ambient occlusion. Even with the original geometric meshes, the game holds up brilliantly at 1080p. There are some issues, too – there can be noticeable aliasing on ambient occlusion and shadow maps, and the cartoon styles of the original models are somewhat lost in indirect lighting, but it’s still a nice looking game.

While words can paint a picture, the video rating gives a better sense of these Wii U games in action.

Twilight Princess HD is perhaps a bit shy in comparison, with the big visual changes largely limited to texture resolution boosts and a UI overhaul, but there are also tweaks to background scenery, shadows, and lighting. We’re back at 1080p here with decent image quality, but the more realistic style of graphics means the limitations of the original geometry and lighting are more apparent than in Wind Waker.

I’d still say that both HD versions are the best way to play these games right now – and the Wii U eShop is the best way to get them as they’re significantly cheaper on the eShop than in physical form. Twilight Princess HD is particularly expensive, costing over $100 even for a used copy. Once the eShop is closed, these games will become prohibitively expensive for many players.

For fans of 2D platformers, Yoshi’s Wooly World and Kirby: Rainbow Curse are two genre bests on the Wii U. Wooly World is a delight to play, an effortless little platformer that feels fantastic to control. It presents a stylized world of wool from a solid 2D perspective, and despite relatively simple visual techniques – solid blocks of yarn appear to be rendered with fairly basic textures, with fabric fringes treated with alpha textures – the look and feel of the game is genuinely enjoyable . Of course, in 2019 Yoshi’s Crafted World takes the concept to the next level, but Wooly World is worth experiencing on its own. Picture quality here isn’t great at 720p without AA, but the action is smooth at an almost locked 60fps. This is one of my favorite titles for the Wii U and it’s also relatively cheap on the eShop. Technically there is also a 3DS version of this game, but its drastic graphical cuts make the Wii U version superior.

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Yoshi’s Wooly World and Kirby: Rainbow Curse are two beautiful, colorful games with unique art styles.

Kirby and the Rainbow Curse is a sequel to 2006’s Kirby: Canvas Curse for DS, but with a much more compelling visual style as the entire game mimics the look of modeling clay – with careful material manipulation and intricate shadows. The game’s animation has a sort of stop-motion style, which appears to have been achieved largely by replacing models with common background animations. The title also takes full advantage of the Wii U hardware, with pen-based gameplay taking place entirely on the Wii U GamePad itself. The game runs at 720p 60 fps with some form of post-process anti-aliasing. Rainbow Curse is one of the best looking Wii U exclusives and well worth buying.

We’ve treated games in pairs so far, but Xenoblade Chronicles X stands alone as a massive open-world adventure that really impresses on the hardware. The sense of scale is breathtaking, with large enemies, trees, and shadows rendered even into the distance. The game usually looks great under direct lighting, and the cities impress with dense, high-quality artwork and plenty of civilian NPCs. Again, there are limitations – smaller objects can spawn near the player, human characters can have oddly exaggerated proportions for their otherwise realistic faces, and the player party can walk through many objects in the game, including NPCs. However, for a 720p30 post-process AA title, this is easily one of the best looking open-world titles on Wii U.

While some of the games we’ve covered so far have popped up on other platforms, other titles simply wouldn’t work elsewhere thanks to their unique use of Wii U hardware – and some are true Wii U eShop exclusives that will be impossible after Purchase March 27th legitimately. (There are actually over 100 games available both eShop and Wii U exclusives, although few are of particularly high quality.)

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Xenoblade Crhonicles X is a surprisingly epic game for Wii U with a mix of large open spaces and detailed city environments.

One of the most ambitious is Affordable Space Adventures, in which you control a small spaceship through alien worlds, solving puzzles and overcoming various obstacles. The touchscreen interface allows players to manipulate the spacecraft’s systems in real time and also serves as the ship’s control panel, complete with gauges for fuel, heat, power and system status. The GamePad integration here is really impressive – it’s impossible to imagine the game without it. Still, it’s one of only a few games that has truly exploited the Wii U’s unique functionality and achieved something special.

Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water is another eShop-exclusive title that requires heavy use of the GamePad. Gameplay revolves around using the Wii U GamePad as an in-game camera, which is aligned with the controller’s gyroscope. The game has since been ported to other platforms, although it feels really purpose-built for GamePad use. Some multiplatform titles also had effective GamePad integration – Batman: Arkham City and Deus Ex: Human Revolution both pack stylized GamePad implementations that offload menus and various mini-games to the touchscreen to good effect. These aren’t groundbreaking additions and the games are easily accessible elsewhere, but they do add an interesting element to the experience on Wii U.

Finally, a quick mention should be made of the Wii U games produced by Shin’en Multimedia, a highly skilled developer focused on Nintendo. Two of their Wii U attempts – Nano Assault Neo and Art of Balance – are similarly available on other systems, although both impress here too.

Fast Racing Neo is the key release here, a high-octane racer that features physically-based materials, ambient occlusion, and a novel temporal upsampling technique that appears to create a 1280×720 image from a base 640×720 resolution. Aside from a handful of framerate dips, it also maintains a smooth 60fps, a must given the blistering racing speeds. It’s one of the most technically impressive Wii U titles ever released, despite being just 829MB once installed. The caveat here is that while the game is technically Wii U exclusive, an enhanced version called Fast RMX was released as a launch title for the Switch – with improved lighting, better weather effects, higher quality UI elements, and a proper 1080p docking station. / Portable 720p presentation with DRS. In terms of content, it includes all of Neo’s tracks and also adds six new courses. I prefer the easier handling of the Wii U version, but both games are worth experiencing.

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Fast Racing Neo is technically exclusive to Wii U eShop – but the Switch title Fast RMX brings much of the same content to the next-gen.

So these are some of the most technically impressive Wii U titles out there – but how do you actually download them onto a Wii U account? If you have a Switch and link your Switch and Wii U Nintendo accounts, you can add funds to Switch and access them on Wii U. That balance stays available on Switch, so there shouldn’t be a problem if you don’t spend what you add on.

It’s just a pity that the eShop itself is practically switched off. The Wii U was launched just over 10 years ago and the console feels fairly modern, with built-in HDMI and new game streaming capabilities. There are plenty of games on the service that are worth buying online, especially given the rapidly increasing prices of some titles on the secondary market. This is also an issue for the 3DS, whose eShop will also close on the 27th.

The preservation of the Wii U in general has hit some worrying marks in recent weeks, with a number of reports of failed consoles. At the moment this seems to have been limited to issues with the built-in eMMC-based system memory in early production units, although it’s hard to say. Preservation is also hampered by the relatively low number of units sold for the system, along with the fragility of some key components like GamePad. Keeping Wii U systems fully functional appears to be a more difficult task than other machines from the era, which is worrying as the systems begin to fade.

While the Wii U didn’t exactly set the world on fire like its predecessor, it did provide a powerful HD-ready platform for Nintendo’s development studios and outside partners to create software. Even with a low-wattage GPU and a bizarrely weak CPU, the system was still far more powerful than any previous Nintendo platform, and the visual performance and complexity of first-party Wii U titles often impressed. In a way, it felt like a test run for the Switch, a system that was released a few years too early to really make the concept work.

Today, some six years after the Switch’s debut, there’s still a significant number of impressive games stranded on the aging Wii U. My advice would be to pick them up while you still can because the window of opportunity is closing fast.

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