The Karmic Wii U

Obligatory “this happened a long time ago, or at least it feels like it”, but…

I had been wanting a Wii U ever since Modern Vintage Gamer did an excellent video on why the Wii U is such an excellent gaming console if you care about retro things. And it really isn’t hard to see, either! The Wii U feels like Nintendo’s last real shot at really caring about bringing its past library (and other publishers’ past libraries too) forward for the masses to experience. The Virtual Console of the Wii U is just…unmatched for the amount of good games on it.

(I must also remind you: This is the console that gave us Earthbound Beginnings. It has since been ported to Switch, but for a while it was very much stranded on Wii U.)

It doesn’t just stop at the Virtual Console, though. As the name implies (and said name also is probably to blame for dooming the poor thing) the Wii U can also do Wii games. So you have that massive library at your fingertips as well. And we haven’t even talked about mods! Because the Wii U’s CPU is pretty similar to that of the Wii’s (which is again similar to the GameCube’s, they’re all PowerPC based), you can not only mod the Wii environment, but you can–just like on a real Wii–install something called Nintendont, which now allows the system to play GameCube games! (Only ISOs, though. But the fact remains that it isn’t running these games in emulation, it’s running them on actual hardware since the architectures are the same.)

Now you can see why I really, really fell in love with the Wii U. Don’t get me wrong, I love Dolphin for emulating GC games, but nothing really beats real hardware if you have it available to you.

I kept on the prowl for a Wii U, and…an opportunity arose! One of my friends in Texas actually had one he had acquired. We brokered a deal and he sent me the Wii U with everything included. What’s odd…is it was a Japanese Wii U. I’d be not surprised to see one of those in California, but Texas? Hm. I didn’t plan on actually getting any physical games for this system so maybe this would be fine?

My luck, however, had other plans. The GamePad worked wonderfully, but the Wii U itself was utterly dead. Try as I might, it wouldn’t boot, just giving me a blinking blue light. Resources online said this was due to something with the HDMI handshaking, but try as I might there was nothing I could do. Taking it apart and reseating everything did nothing.

I threw the Wii U in a shoebox and forgot about it for a few months.

That’s when my fortunes changed.

Me and the girlfriend occasionally go to this thing a few towns over that’s essentially a free swap meet. By free, I really mean free: People bring things to leave for free, usually clothing, books, toys, and the occasional electronics. (I’ve acquired a few Apple keyboards this way, along with my Echo Dot. Pretty cool place!)

This time I opted to stay behind while my girlfriend went in (due to capacity restrictions at the time. It is outdoor, but they still wanted to keep capacity in check). Within minutes she found something, and I got a picture of what looked like a pretty beat up Wii U. “You want it?” 

“Hell yeah I want it!”

I wasn’t expecting anything at all out of it. Because it looked pretty beat up and it was clear from the screws being missing that someone already had a go at it. Still, I was cautiously optimistic that maybe I could salvage something from it and maybe make one working Wii U. That’d be cool.

Once we got it home, I did some due diligence and made sure that my power adapter (seeing as it was a JP adapter) would work fine with a US Wii U. Thankfully, the frequencies match and the voltages are close enough that it didn’t matter. So I plugged it in just to see what it would do.

It fired right up. Holy crap. We have video! Oh my god, it can’t be this easy, could it?

Alas, it was not. I paired my Wiimote up to the Wii U and poked around the home screen before firing up one of the VC games that the previous owner left on here. I played for a few minutes and the Wii U shut itself off. Hm.

I went to go check it out and the thing was scorching hot. Oh no.

Thankfully, nothing was damaged, I let it cool down and it fired right back up. But this time, I looked at the back while it was on and noticed the fan wasn’t running. Hmmmm.

I took both the US and JP units apart, because I was going to use the screws from the JP unit to put the US unit back together. Sure enough–and I couldn’t believe my eyes–the fan was unplugged.

That was it.

The fan was unplugged.

I wasn’t convinced it would be that easy. I did, however, pull the unit the rest of the way apart and put fresh thermal paste on the CPU just to give it an even better chance. I put the system back together (using the better condition components from the JP unit), fired it up, and this time the fan DID come on.

It…really couldn’t have been that easy, right?

It was. I left the Wii U idling in a game for hours. Never once did it complain. That really was it. Whoever worked on this before was convinced it was dead because they worked on it and forgot to plug the fan in.

I call this the Karmic Wii U because after getting utterly hosed on the JP Wii U this was a very welcome surprise.

Unfortunately, while I had a working Wii U, I did not, in fact, have a working GamePad.

Oh, the GamePad worked alright, still convinced the JP Wii U existed and showing the games that were installed on it. However, because Nintendo does what Nintendo does, the GamePad is region locked. 

This means–you guessed it–it won’t work on my US system.

Thankfully, there is a solution to this: I was able to hop on eBay and find a mainboard from a US GamePad for a very agreeable price. Oddly enough it was located in China so I had my doubts, but I couldn’t say no for the price. A couple weeks later, it arrived, I installed it, and now I have a fully working Wii U, GamePad and all. (Albeit after changing the mainboard, the charging dock no longer works. Which is fine, I can plug the cable directly into the GamePad, but…yeah. Kinda sucks. What can you do.)

The ironic bit is you can actually pair out of region GamePads with a modded Wii U, but to mod the Wii U…you need the GamePad. Kind of a big catch-22.

Thankfully, that was the last major roadblock, and the system has been mostly trouble free since. The only problem I had is random crashes while Haxchi was loaded, but thankfully reapplying it fixed the problem. Better yet, a new method of modding the Wii U has since released that feels much more stable, and since reapplying the mod with the new fixins I’ve not had a single issue.

Very, very happy with how this all worked out, and the Wii U has quickly become my most played console as I work through some old retro games I never got a chance to finish or play.