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Stranded on Wii U: the games worth saving before the eShop shutdown

We highlight the best-looking, best-playing games that never got a port to Switch.

The Wii U's online services are on their last legs. On March 27th, Nintendo is set to close down the eShop for Wii U systems, removing 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-shelf software, including first-party, boundary-pushing titles that never got ported to Switch or rely heavily on the Wii U's novel controller.

So before it's too late, we're highlighting some of the most technically accomplished Wii U titles that are worth picking up 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 place to start here are the two Zelda remasters for Wii U - Wind Waker HD and Twilight Princess HD. These are both essentially respun GameCube titles, modernisations that add new textures and effects but largely leave the original visual designs intact. Wind Waker HD is definitely the more successful of these efforts, with new textures, a redesigned UI, gameplay tweaks and reworked lighting featuring bloom, real-time shadow maps and ambient occlusion. Even with the original geometric meshes in place, the game holds up brilliantly at 1080p. There are some issues, too - there can be noticeable aliasing in ambient occlusion and shadow maps, and the cartoon stylings of the original models are lost somewhat in indirect lighting, but it's still a beautiful-looking game.

While words can paint a picture, the video review gives a better impression of these Wii U games in action. Watch on YouTube

Twilight Princess HD is perhaps a bit gun-shy in comparison, with the major visual changes largely limited to texture resolution boosts and a UI rework, but there are also tweaks to background scenery, shadows and lighting. We're at 1080p here again, with serviceable image quality, but the more realistic style of the visuals means that the limitations of the original geometry and lighting are more obvious than in Wind Waker.

I'd still say that both HD versions are the best ways to play these games right now - and the Wii U eShop is the best way to acquire them as they're significantly cheaper on the eShop than they are in physical form. Twilight Princess HD is particularly pricey, clocking in at 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 platforming games, Yoshi's Wooly World and Kirby: Rainbow Curse are two genre-bests on the Wii U. Wooly World is an absolute joy to play, an effortless little platformer that feels fantastic to control. It presents a stylised world made out of wool from a fixed 2D perspective, and despite relatively basic visual techniques - solid blocks of yarn seem to be represented using fairly basic textures, with cloth fringes handled using alpha textures - the look and feel of the game is really pleasing. Of course, Yoshi's Crafted World in 2019 takes the concept to the next level, but Wooly World is worth experiencing on its own merits. Image quality here isn't great, at 720p without AA, but action is smooth at a near-locked 60fps. This is one of my favourite Wii U titles and is relatively cheap on the eShop too. There's technically a 3DS version of this game as well, but its severe graphical cutbacks make the Wii U release superior.

Yoshi's Wooly World and Kirby: Rainbow Curse are two beautiful, colourful games with unique artstyles.

Kirby and the Rainbow Curse is a sequel to 2006's Kirby: Canvas Curse on DS, though with a much more compelling visual style as the entire game mimics the look of modelling clay - with careful materials work and intricate shadowing. The game's animation has a sort of stop-motion style to it, which seems to have been achieved largely through swapping models in and out for common background animations. The title also takes full advantage of the Wii U hardware, with the stylus-based gameplay taking place entirely on the Wii U GamePad itself. The game runs at 720p 60fps with some form of post-process anti-aliasing. Rainbow Curse is one of the best-looking Wii U exclusive titles, and it's well worth picking up.

We've been covering games in pairs thus far, but Xenoblade Chronicles X stands alone as a massive open-world adventure that really impresses on the hardware. The sense of scale is stunning, with large enemies, trees and shadows rendered out even into the far distance. Under directly-lit conditions the game usually looks excellent, and cities impress with dense, high-quality artwork and plenty of civilian NPCs. Again, there are constraints here - smaller objects can pop in close to the player, human characters can have weirdly-exaggerated proportions for their otherwise realistic faces, and the player party can walk through many in-game objects, including NPCs. Still, for a 720p30 title with post-process AA, this is easily one of the best-looking open-world Wii U titles.

While some of the games we've covered thus far have popped up on other platforms, other titles just wouldn't work elsewhere thanks to their unique use of the Wii U hardware - and some are true Wii U eShop exclusives that will be impossible to acquire through legitimate means after March 27. (There are actually over 100 games that are both eShop and Wii U exclusives, though few are especially high quality.)

Xenoblade Crhonicles X is a surprisingly epic game for the Wii U, with a mixture of large open areas and detailed city environments.

One of the most ambitious is Affordable Space Adventures, where you pilot a small spacecraft 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 readouts for fuel, heat, electricity, and system status. The GamePad integration here is really impressive - it's hard to imagine the game without it. Still, it's one of just a handful of games that 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 aimed using the controller's gyroscope. The game has been ported to other platforms since, although it really feels designed specifically around GamePad use. Some multiplatform titles had effective GamePad integration too - Batman: Arkham City and Deus Ex: Human Revolution both pack stylised GamePad implementations that offload menus and various minigames onto the touchscreen to good effect. These aren't game-changing additions and the games are easily accessible elsewhere, but they do add an interesting element to the experience on Wii U.

Finally, it is worth quickly mentioning the Wii U games produced by Shin'en Multimedia, a highly accomplished Nintendo-focused developer. Two of their Wii U efforts - Nano Assault Neo and Art of Balance - are readily available in similar form on other systems, though 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 build a 1280x720 image from a 640x720 base resolution. Outside of a handful of frame-rate drops, it holds a smooth 60fps as well, a must-have given the blistering race speeds. It's one of the technically impressive Wii U titles ever published, despite coming in at a mere 829MB after installation. The caveat here is that while the game's technically a Wii U exclusive, an expanded 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 docked / 720p portable presentation with DRS. Content-wise, it includes all the tracks from Neo and adds six new courses as well. I tend to prefer the simpler handling of the Wii U release, but both games are well worth experiencing.

Fast Racing Neo is technically a Wii U eShop exclusive - but the Switch title Fast RMX does bring much of the same content to the next generation.

So those are some of the most technically impressive Wii U titles out there - but how do you actually download them on a Wii U account? If you have a Switch and pair your Switch and Wii U Nintendo accounts, you can add funds on Switch and access them on Wii U. These funds will remain accessible on Switch, so there should be no issue if you don't spend what you add on.

It's just a shame that the eShop itself is essentially being turned off. The Wii U launch was scarcely over 10 years ago and the console feels fairly modern, with built-in HDMI and novel game-streaming capabilities. There are a ton of games on the service that are worth picking up online, especially with the rapidly rising prices of some titles on the secondary market. This is an issue for the 3DS as well, which is also getting its eShop closed on the 27th.

Wii U preservation in general has hit some troubling markers in recent weeks, with a number of reports of failing consoles. At the moment, this seems to have been isolated to issues with the built-in eMMC-based system storage in early production units, though it's hard to say for certain. Preservation is also hampered by the relatively low number of units sold for the system, along with the fragility of a few key components like GamePad. Keeping Wii U systems in full working order feels like a tougher prospect than other machines from the era, which is concerning as systems start to fade.

While the Wii U didn't exactly light the world on fire like its predecessor, it provided a capable HD-ready platform for Nintendo's development studios and external partners to develop software for. Even with a low-wattage GPU and bizarrely weak CPU, the system was still far more capable than any prior Nintendo platform, and the visual accomplishment and complexity of first-party Wii U titles often impressed. In some ways it felt like a test run for the Switch, a system that arrived a few years too early to really make the concept work.

Today, some six years after the Switch debuted, there are still a substantial number of impressive games that are stranded on the aging Wii U. My advice would be to pick them up while you still can, because the window of opportunity is rapidly closing.

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