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The Wii was an unstoppable juggernaut. The underpowered console has sold over 100.9 million consoles worldwide since it was released in 2006. Nintendo didn’t just beat Sony’s PS3 and Microsoft’s Xbox 360 in lifetime sales; it destroyed them both. But the Wii was a fad. After everyone got sick of waggling around Wii Remotes in Wii Sports, the Wii started to lose steam. At the same time, HD video games and movies became the de facto and smartphones and tablets started to eat away at the casual gamers the Wii catered to.

After six years, Nintendo needed a new console, one with HD graphics, better online features, and most importantly AAA games from third party publishers.

At E3 in 2011, Nintendo of America president and chief operating officer Reggie Fils-Aimes took to the stage to reveal the Wii’s successor: the Nintendo Wii U, an HD-ready console with another revolutionary new controller. Fils-Aimes said the Wii was a console that stressed playing together with friends and family. With the Wii U, Nintendo would make “you” special with “asymmetric gameplay”, where you can use an innovative GamePad with a touchscreen while others can use Wii Remotes. The one with the GamePad would be able to look at the smaller screen while everyone else could look at the HDTV to see something different.

Uninspiring name aside, we (and everyone else) were very excited for the GamePad’s potential and the idea of playing games with Nintendo characters in glorious high definition.

We missed the boat to review the Wii U when it launched on November 18, 2012, but since Sony and Microsoft both launched new consoles, it seems like a good time to evaluate Nintendo’s latest console, now that the next-gen wars are in full swing.

Context

I’m a gamer. I’ve been playing video games my entire life. While I started out on Nintendo and considered myself a fanboy as a child, as I’ve grown older, I’ve become impartial to all game consoles and game handhelds. To truly understand video games in a greater context and to enjoy game exclusives on each platform, I knew I had to become a multi-platform gamer.

As such, I own every last-generation console (Wii/PS3/360) and every next-generation console (Wii U/PS4/Xbox One). I regularly use every device and thus, I’m very familiar with the ins and outs of each console. I’m not rich, but the luxury of owning all last-gen and next-gen consoles affords me the opportunity to analyze each one’s strengths and weaknesses in relation to one another.

What kind of gamer am I? I enjoy everything from action/adventure type games to driving sims to platformers to RPGs to first-person shooters. The only genres I really stay away from are sports (unless it’s NBA 2K series) and puzzle games. So, in general, I’m a pretty well-rounded gamer (for the most part).

Console Design (Excellent, but…)

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Even though game consoles are essentially just boxes, we still expect a certain level of “newness” to them so to differentiate them from a previous model. The Wii achieved something remarkable: it put a console inside of an extremely tiny and attractive box. There was something very Apple-y about the Wii.

The Wii U’s design, like its name, continues to confuse buyers. The Wii U console resembles a Wii laid horizontally. For the most part, the Wii U doesn’t diverge from the Wii’s looks. Instead of the Wii’s sharp sides, the Wii U employs rounder edges, giving the entire console a friendlier design.

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The front has the same slot-loading disc-drive and the flip-down flap reveals an SD card slot just like on the Wii. The only difference is that the Wii U also has two USB ports tucked inside of the flap. The power/eject buttons are now circular as opposed to rectangular and the Wii Remote sync button is outside of the plastic flap cover instead of inside of it.

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The Wii U is also a lot longer than the Wii. This isn’t a problem if you plan to place the Wii U horizontally in a media center or on a shelf, but it definitely isn’t as elegant a design as the Wii’s silver dock stand, which allowed it to sit vertically. To be fair, the Wii U can be positioned standing up if you buy a Wii U Deluxe Set which comes with two rubber “feet” that help prop the console up. But again, it’s not a pretty solution.

I’m also not a fan of the power supply brick being external. It’s not too offensive, but when Sony can figure out how to cram its power supply into its PS3 and sleek PS4, I have to wonder why other companies aren’t following suit.

Nintendo sells the Wii U in white (Basic Set/8GB of internal storage) and black (Deluxe Set/32GB of internal storage).

Specs / Graphics (Last-gen)

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The Wii might have beaten the PS3 and Xbox 360 in global lifetime sales, but make no mistake, it didn’t leap ahead of the last generation of consoles by competing on technical specs; the Wii Remote and Wii Sports are credited for catapulting the console to the top. Technically speaking, the Wii was more like a GameCube 1.5. The Wii didn’t support HD graphics, which meant many hit games that graced the PS3/Xbox 360 couldn’t be ported to the console.

On paper, compared to the PS3/Xbox 360, the Wii U is pretty solid:

  • 1.2GHz Tri-Core IBM PowerPC CPU
  • Custom 550MHz AMD Radeon GPU with 32MB of superfast embedded DRAM
  • 2GB of RAM (PS3 only has 256MB of regular accessible RAM, Xbox 360 only has 512MB)
  • Proprietary 25GB optical discs
  • Built-in 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi, HD video output (1080p)
  • Bluetooth 4.0
  • 4x USB ports
  • SDHC memory card slot
  • 8GB/32GB of internal storage (if you need more storage, you can easily plug in an external hard drive into one of the Wii U’s USB ports)

With the Wii U, Nintendo once again eschewed the spec race with Sony and Microsoft. Compared to the PS4 and Xbox One, the Wii U falls behind in every regard. The Wii U GamePad’s touchscreen and the types of gameplay it opens up for developers and players may constitute it as a “next-gen” experience, but the console itself is more on par with last gen’s HD consoles (PS3/Xbox 360). Spec heads will argue over how much RAM and GHz a console has, but it’s a lost cause. Developers will care about a console’s specs, but the end-user — gamers — won’t, so long as the games look and play great. All you need to really know is Mario and Princess Peach look great in HD 720p at 60 fps. It’s incredible to see Mario evolve from his 8-bit roots to HD.

GamePad Controller (Good)

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The first thing you’ll notice about the Wii U GamePad is that it’s big; really big. The second thing you’ll notice is that it has a screen. But while the Wii U GamePad is twice as large as an Xbox 360 or PS3 controller, its looks do deceive; the Wii U GamePad is very light.

Returning to a more conventional controller layout, the Wii U has two analog sticks, a D-Pad, the full ABXY face buttons and a set of L/R and ZL/ZR triggers. The front also has an NFC button (un-used right now), a 1.3-megapixel camera for video camera and a dedicated “TV” button. The latter is a universal button that can turn on TVs (toggle video input, volume, channel). The GamePad also has stereo speakers and a volume toggle and 3.5mm headset jack up top.

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But the Wii U GamePad’s main attraction is its relatively large 6.2-inch (854 x 480 resolution) display. First things first, the display is a resistive touchscreen instead of a capacitive one, which means it works better with the included stylus as opposed to fingers. It also doesn’t support multitouch gestures, which feels like a crime for any touchscreen of today.

While the resolution isn’t HD and PPI (pixels per inch) isn’t very high, playing games and viewing videos on the GamePad screen is more than acceptable. The ability to play certain Wii U games entirely on the GamePad is absolutely wonderful. It’s almost like playing a 3DS XL. The entire screen engulfs and immerses you into the game. Not only does it free up your TV for someone else to use, but it just feels so…natural.

All the buttons are responsive and have good key travel depth, the grips on the back are well-made (although I would have liked a textured material instead of just matte plastic) and the range is good up to about 20-25 feet. I just wish there was some way to use two GamePads, but at this rate, I’m not counting on that.

Of course, the GamePad’s greatest weakness is its battery life. To put it bluntly: it’s terrible. By default, the battery only lasts 2-5 hours. I only get about 2.5-3 hours of continuous use on average. You can buy a higher capacity 2550mAh battery from Nintendo that’s rated at up to 8 hours of use, but it’ll cost an extra $32. I wouldn’t knock the GamePad’s battery life as hard if I could just turn off the screen when I don’t need it, but alas, you can’t do that.

And if that’s bad, well, if you happen to accidentally break your Wii U GamePad, there’s no easy way to replace it. You can’t just go into a store and buy a new one or order a new one off Amazon. The only solution is to contact Nintendo and send it in for a repair or replacement. As one NeoGAF user found out, it could cost $140 to replace the GamePad. That’s one steep price, no matter how you look at it.

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For certain games, Wii Remotes and Wii U Pro Controllers can be used in conjunction with the GamePad. I’ve had no issues connecting four Wii Remotes with accompanying Nunchaku analogs to the Wii U.

Games (Great first party, average third-party)

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A game console is nothing if it doesn’t have a strong library of must-play games. The Wii U’s launch lineup was actually fairly balanced. There was Assassin’s Creed III, Call of Duty: Black Ops II, Epic Mickey 2, Mass Effect 3, Ninja Gaiden 3: Razor’s Edge, Scribblenauts Unlimited, Tekken Tag Tournament 2, ZombiU and New Super Mario Bros. U, to name a few good titles.

But as history has proven, a console can line up a strong number of titles for launch, but if it doesn’t have a steady stream of AAA games after launch, that’s when trouble starts to set in.

Despite rave reviews and some seriously good use of the Wii U GamePad, ZombiU failed to sell very well. Even New Super Mario Bros. U wasn’t enough to prop the Wii U for the first half of 2013. In the six months post console launch, there really wasn’t anything to play on the Wii U.

Pikmin 3, one of the Wii U’s most anticipated titles, was delayed until the summer of 2013. During the holiday of 2013, Nintendo did release the excellent Super Mario 3D World, The Wonderful 101 and The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD (a remake of the GameCube hit), but even those weren’t convincing enough to get new buyers to pony up for a Wii U.

Nintendo makes fantastic first-party games, but as always, third-party developers don’t seem interested in releasing their games on the Wii U. Where’s Grand Theft Auto V? Where is the Wii U’s defining FPS? Where is it’s awesome Final Fantasy? Watch Dogs could have helped boost Wii U sales, but the game was delayed and it’s rumored that Ubisoft may have canceled the Wii U version altogether.

Like Wii Sports, Nintendo Land was included to highlight the console’s unique controller and help gamers understand what “asymmetric gaming” was. However, unlike Wii Sports, which was incredibly easy for anyone (of any age) to pick up and start playing a round of tennis, golf, baseball or bowling, the Wii U’s GamePad wasn’t as natural. Don’t get me wrong, Nintendo Land is a great game that uses minigames and player Miis to really showcase the console and controller’s strengths, but it’s no Wii Sports. Nintendo seems to have realized this too. It’s now marketing Wii U bundles with copies of Super Mario and Wind Waker instead of Nintendo Land.

At this point, I’m not sure if any game can really save the Wii U. Yes, Mario Kart 8 is coming out in May and Super Smash Bros. Wii U will (hopefully) come out this year too, but if a new 3D Mario game couldn’t make the Wii U a new hit with non-diehards, what chances do those two games?

The only game I think that can help Nintendo move mountains of Wii U consoles really fast is probably Pokémon, but the game developer’s director Junichi Masuda has pretty much shot down the possibilities of a game for Wii U. (Although, anything could have changed since Masuda made that comment in October 2013).

It is worth noting the Wii U is backwards-compatible with Wii game discs, which means you can still pop in Wii Sports, or Super Mario Galaxy or The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword or any other Wii game and instantly have access to tons of games, but let’s be honest here. Anybody who wants to play Wii games probably has a Wii or can buy one for super cheap (under $100 now) and do so. Those people won’t be interested in paying $300 for a console with a weak library of new games and few exclusives.

Virtual Console (Poor)

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One of the best things about the Wii was that you could download classic games from a bunch of classic consoles via the Virtual Console. NES, SNES and Nintendo 64 games were added on a weekly basis. The Virtual Console wasn’t limited to Nintendo consoles either; it played Sega Master System, Sega Genesis, TurboGrafx-16 and Neo Geo games. Japan also had MSX games. The retro games were pretty cheap too: usually around $5 or less.

Naturally, you’d expect Nintendo to just add onto those old Virtual Consoles for the Wii U, right? Wrong. Instead of adding to the Virtual Console’s library, the Virtual Console on Wii U started from scratch.

Currently, there are only NES and SNES games on the Wii U’s Virtual Console. NES games cost $5-6 ($1 if you already downloaded them on Wii) and SNES games cost $8-9 ($1.50 if you bought on Wii). Even with a discount for people who bought them on Wii, demanding $1 to re-download them for Wii U is insulting.

In April 2013, Nintendo promised it would be adding Game Boy Advance and N64 games to the Wii U’s Virtual Console. A little over nine months later and a single game from those two classic platforms has yet to appear on the Wii U’s Virtual Console.

To say the Wii U’s Virtual Console is next to non-existent and moving at turtle’s pace isn’t an understatement. For its part, Nintendo has acknowledged the Virtual Console’s slow games release and plans to step it up this year.

Most recently, Nintendo announced it will bring DS games to the Wii U this year. Details are scant on which DS games will work on the Wii U’s GamePad (will it only be Touch Generations games?), but it’s certainly something to look forward to, especially if you’ve been pining for this.

Online Experience (Average)

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Traditionally, Nintendo has shied away from pushing online gaming and online connectivity. Where Sony and Microsoft have fought head-on with PlayStation Network and Xbox Live, Nintendo has lagged behind. As any Super Smash Bros. Brawl or Mario Kart Wii player can attest, the Wii’s “Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection” online service paled in comparison to its competitor’s online services. Playing games online via NWFC was usually laggy as hell.

The Wii U ditches NWFC in favor of the Nintendo Network, a cross-platform online service that works with the Nintendo 3DS. It’s by no means as full-featured and robust as PSN or Xbox Live, but it is a huge improvement over NWFC.

Similar to Xbox Live and PSN, there are several different parts to the Nintendo Network. There’s an eShop, where digital copies of games, patches and DLC can be downloaded. Then there’s Miiverse, a social network where players can share comments and drawings with other Miis. Miiverse is also a budding community where players can get tips and spoilers on certain levels and games. I find Miiverse an interesting place to visit when I’m stuck on a level. SpotPass is another online feature that lets users the console download games and app updates in the background.

Overall, Nintendo’s stepped up its online experience, but without any hardcore game to put the network to extreme tests, it’s hard to tell if Nintendo Network will be hold up or buckle under all the simultaneous connections. Nintendo Network’s real test will come when Mario Kart 8 and Super Smash Bros. Wii U are released later this year.

Software / Operating System (Slow)

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The Wii U’s OS is a nice evolution of the Wii’s “channels” user interface. Instead of using Wii Remotes to point at things, everything is controlled via the GamePad’s touchscreen (or buttons if you prefer that). You get several homescreens to install games and rearranging items is as easy as holding down and item and moving it to where you want it. It’s a freeing UI and has allowed me to organize my games and content onto different homescreens so I can find something quickly.

The main complaint with the Wii U’s OS right now is that it’s slow. Booting up your Wii U takes about 23-25 seconds to boot from standby. Depending on how patient you are, that could either feel quick or long. For what it’s worth, the Xbox One takes about 17 seconds to start up from standby and the PS4 takes about 25 seconds to boot from standby.

Several firmware updates over the last year have sped up the entire OS, but hopping in and out of menus and settings still takes on average around 8-10 seconds. That might not seem like a lot, but over time those wasted seconds add up.

Last year, Nintendo promised more firmware updates that would further speed up the UI and startup time, but we haven’t gotten anything yet. There is good news though, Nintendo is planning an update for the Wii U this summer that will allow you to boot into a “quick start menu” to get right into gaming. Nintendo says the new quick start menu will shave 50% of the startup time, which should mean about 12 seconds from standby to gaming.

Multimedia/Apps (Decent)

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Unlike Sony and Microsoft’s PlayStation and Xbox consoles, Nintendo consoles are usually weak media players. Once again, the Wii U does not support DVDs or Blu-rays movie discs. It’s ridiculous that in 2014, Nintendo still hasn’t gotten with the program. At this point, I’m going to forgive Nintendo for the lack of a DVD/Blu-ray movie support since there’s a good chance anyone who wants to play DVD/Blu-ray movies already has another machine to do so. Also annoying is that you can’t run media off a flash drive or external hard drive.

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On the flip side, the Wii U is an excellent Internet video streaming machine. While Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Video are available on competing consoles, I actually reach for the Wii U more than any other console to watch streaming movies.

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Browsing videos on Netflix using the GamePad’s touchscreen is far more intuitive and convenient than with a traditional game controller. The same applies for inputting text when you want to search for a specific movie. Even more appealing is the fact you can view Netflix exclusively on the GamePad’s screen, freeing up the TV for someone else.

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While watching a movie on Netflix app or a viral video on the YouTube app is a cinch, the Wii U’s attempt at being a TV guide for all of your programming with the “Nintendo TVii” feature is a complete disaster. TVii was an ambitious idea: to provide summary info from broadcast to Internet streaming video to cable shows. In reality, it failed to do anything.

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The TVii touchscreen remote is a clunky cluster. Nintendo crammed so many buttons onto the touchscreen that it feels crowded. If you have large fingers, it becomes frustrating when you hit the wrong buttons. You can use the analogs or D-pad to navigate around the TVii remote UI and the face buttons to trigger actions, but that’s when you start to see actual slowdown.

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The closest thing we have to standalone apps is the Wii U Chat and Internet Browser. The Wii U Chat app lets you video chat with registered friends. It’s a gimmicky feature that also lets you draw on the screens in real-time, but it only works with other Wii U owners. You’ll probably never use it after the first demo. I know I didn’t. Worse, you’d think the built-in microphone on the GamePad would be usable for in-game voice chat, but nope, you need to buy a separate headset with mic on it. It’s almost as if Nintendo didn’t think this all the way through.

Surprisingly, the Wii U’s Internet Browser is significantly better than the Wii’s slow, low-res browser. Web page rendering is both faster and scrolling is smoother thanks to the NetFront Browser NX v.2.1. It’s not quite as advanced as the browsers you’ll find on iOS or Android smartphones and tablets, but it gets the trick done when you need to surf the web or Google something.

Conclusion (Good Value)

If we only look at sales, then yes the Wii U has been a flop so far. Nintendo has only managed to ship 5.86 million Wii U consoles worldwide. Just how bad is that? Well, Sony managed to sell over 4 million PS4 consoles in a month and a half since it launched and Microsoft says it shipped 3.9 million Xbox One consoles since its end of November 2013 launch.

The Wii U may ultimately end up selling very poorly, but that does not necessarily mean the console is terrible or that Nintendo is doomed.

Is the Wii U worth $300 now? Frankly, I believe Nintendo consoles always come with value. I know what I’m getting. It comes with the full-backing of Nintendo’s creative game developers, regardless of how many units it sells. I see Wii U bundles with two games (Mario and Luigi games) going for $300 on Amazon. Personally, I think that’s a great deal, especially since it’s still $100 less than a PS4 without a game and $200 less than an Xbox One without a game. You also don’t need to pay any subscription fees to play multiplayer games online or to access Internet streaming video.

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If you are a Nintendo fan, a Wii U is a no-brainer. You can always count on Nintendo to bring its own “A” games to its consoles. Super Mario 3D World, Pikmin 3, New Super Mario Bros. U, New Super Luigi U, Wind Waker HD are all system must-haves worth playing. Super Smash Bros. Wii U and Mario Kart 8 are on the horizon. At the end of the day, I (and most people) buy a Nintendo console to play Nintendo’s games. If you’ve grown up or have no interest in games other than Call of Duty, Metal Gear and Grand Theft Auto, then of course the Wii U isn’t for you. If you like entertainment that is wholesome for gamers of all ages, then Nintendo doesn’t disappoint with the Wii U.

Nintendo Outlook

For the record, the Wii U is a very capable machine, but it’s innovations have been poorly communicated to consumers, and thus developers are reluctant to support it. Nintendo’s own strong first-party games have already proven that it still knows how to develop high-quality games. It hasn’t lost its touch.

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Wii U sales have suffered for one very simple reason: marketing. Just as HTC realized with its excellent HTC One Android smartphone, great hardware is nothing without clear marketing. For Nintendo, the Wii U name is a big problem. It is too similar to the Wii. Many consumers think the Wii U GamePad is an accessory for the Wii. It’s not surprising, since the Wii had an abundance of accessories throughout its lifespan. Laid side by side, uninformed parents and buyers will be hard pressed to tell the difference. I’ve seen more than a few brick and mortar circulars that have incorrectly labeled the Wii U as a Wii. Clearly, there is branding confusion for shoppers.

Nintendo has already acknowledged that marketing the Wii U has been tough. The GamePad is the face of the console, much like the Wii Remote was for the Wii, but conveying how the touchscreen can be used for off-TV use and asymmetric gameplay has been tricky. But recall, Nintendo had the same problem marketing the DS’s touchscreens back in 2004 and again with the 3DS’s glasses-free 3D in 2011. In both cases, Nintendo figured things out and both devices went on to become record-sellers. Nintendo needs to figure out how to market the Wii U with effective campaigns that play to its strengths — namely, its GamePad.

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There are a lot of critics slamming Nintendo for completely missing the mark with the Wii U. Analysts and journalists from the left and right are saying Nintendo can’t recover. You may have heard some of the arguments that Nintendo should pull a Sega and put Mario on rival consoles. Or maybe Nintendo should give up on hardware altogether and put Mario and friends on iOS and Android.

As a longtime Nintendo fan and obsessor over gaming’s history, I can say both of those would be the wrong strategy for Nintendo. (And I’m not the only one.) As Nintendo’s CEO and president Satoru Iwata recently told investors, it’s not as simple as putting Mario on mobile devices. Mobile platforms are a different beast. The reason Nintendo games are so entertaining is because hardware and software are developed in tandem. Thus, Nintendo experiences are uniquely Nintendo. Nintendo works very much like Apple in that controls both hardware and software. A Nintendo that develops for other platforms would not be Nintendo; it would be at the whim of innovations from other companies, and that’s just not in its DNA.

Leaving the hardware business or slashing Wii U prices significantly would be an extremely short-sighted and short term fix. Nintendo has a history of hits and misses with its consoles. It’s endured every poor-performing console — Virtual Boy, N64 and Gamecube — only to come back with something completely revolutionary (Game Boy Color, DS, Wii, 3DS).

Iwata has firmly stated in a recent investor Q&A: “Entertainment flourishes when consumers are faced with something that they did not know that they wanted, so it is my view that the entertainment industry is slightly different from others in the sense that the more resources we have in order to surprise people, the more competitive we are.”

Nintendo is in the business of creating entertainment experiences that surprise people. The only way to do that is to follow the route less traveled and experiment with new forms of gameplay and hardware that push the envelope for software experiences. Even if the Wii U flounders in sales, Nintendo has about $14 billion in its war chest to keep the console afloat until it can succeed it with something else. It may very well be the case that the Wii U will have a short lifespan if Nintendo doesn’t resolve its marketing problems and convince third-parties to pledge support with exclusives. But right now, it’s the only place to get an HD Nintendo experience with Mario and Link; that itself is an excellent value any day.

Overall product rating: 8/10
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