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How Will History Judge The Nintendo Wii U?

With the sun setting on Nintendo’s Wii U console – ScreenCritics Shaun asks how history will come to view Nintendo’s largely overlooked console.

How will history judge Nintendo’s Wii U console? Ten years from now will it be fondly remembered with the same romanticized view as the Nintendo Gamecube, a console that struggled in the face of the enormous PlayStation 2 and emergence of Xbox? Or will gaming be harsher to a console that never really got off the starting block?

History judges all and when this age of gaming is written, I’m curious what will be said about Nintendo’s soon-to-be retired flagship console. There are positives among the many issues, but it’s hard to not feel that somewhere along the line, Nintendo lost its way and found itself trapped with a console that nobody cared for and few outside of its most hardcore fan base had time for.

But let’s talk about the positives first, because those positives were glorious. The rich selection of first party games that littered the devices initial years put the efforts of Sony and Microsoft to shame. The excellent Mario Kart 8, the hugely fun Mario 3D World, the imaginative Pikmin 3. The hugely popular return of Smash Bros – and of course the introduction of Splatoon. Nintendo was a company that delivered quality time after time. relishing in the adulation of its efforts and giving fans something to crow about. Wii U was a console that screamed quality – until that quality started to wane.

The problem with Nintendo being the main source of games for its device is that eventually it can’t keep up the pace. That winning run of quality titles couldn’t last – and weren’t enough on their own to sustain Wii U’s momentum. The console began to host more debatable titles like Animal Crossing Amiibo Party and Star Fox Wii U – two titles that divided opinion heavily. Add in to this no proper entry in the Metroid series, no Animal Crossing and no major AAA titles outside of Breath of the Wild as we head into 2017 – it’s easy to see why 2016 hasn’t been a great year for Nintendo’s console.

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The reality is nobody at Nintendo thought they’d be in this state in 2016. We only have to look at the numbers Nintendo expected to shift, Wii U barely even scratched the surface. Internal expectations pinned the expected Wii U sales anywhere between 60 million units and 100 million units – as Nintendo president Tatsumi Kimishima declared during Nintendo’s Shareholder meeting;

“In an internal sales representative meeting, someone projected that we would sell close to 100 million Wii U systems worldwide… The thinking was that because Wii sold well, Wii U would follow suit.”

Turns out that by March 2016 – the console had sold just shy 13 million units. That’s barely a tenth of the amount predicted and looks awkwardly short of the Wii’s 102 million unit sales during its lifetime. The failure of the Wii U to capture gamers attention is one of the greatest follies of modern gaming and analysts will likely spend years looking over the hows and whys of Nintendo’s poor decision-making.

So where will history begin when it starts looking for something to focus the on? Will that blame fall the launch price? Many at the time said it was too high, marketed incredibly steeply in the shadow of the Wii’s modest price point. The inclusion of a tablet raised eyebrows and suggested that the unit price was being inflated by the inclusion of these devices. The console came in two flavors – Basic and Deluxe – yet the Deluxe model came in at $349(US) – a big amount to ask for a console that wasn’t all that much more impressive than the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 which it was competing.

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Should we blame the lack of third-party support? The signs where there before the console even hit the market. Rumours abound that Nintendo and EA had fallen out over the online capabilities of the device; with EA rumored to be the ones pushing Nintendo to add in more Xbox Live-like features. The breakdown of that relationship, and the subsequent refusal of EA to deal with Nintendo on any level after the game’s launch suggests that the two sides were never able to reconcile their differences.

It meant that some of the industry’s biggest titles – the Fifa’s, the Madden’s and the other big hitters from EA never arrived on Wii U. Other developers halfheartedly offered support (Ubisoft famously saying they’d stand by Wii U) until they didn’t. Exclusives like Rayman Legends were delayed and eventually arrived on all platforms alongside the Wii U – a sign that the publisher didn’t have confidence in recouping its money through Nintendo’s console. Even the much touted port of Watch Dogs arrived many months later and in a less-than-stellar state. That support from Ubisoft was nothing more than lip service being paid by a publisher that didn’t want to offend but wasn’t committed to the cause. It was a situation that came to characterize the consoles legacy – one in which it was slowly phased out of everyone but Nintendo’s plans.

You could even make the suggestion that even Nintendo has been moving on over the past 12 months. It’s increasingly large strides into the mobile phone space suggest the company is finally willing to embrace the riches that come with mainstream support. Pokemon GO managed over 60 million downloads in its first month – while the waves created by the announcement of Super Mario Run for iOS are still being felt in that space. These successes point to a company that’s focused less on holding its franchises to a home console and one that’s increasingly looking to push them in front of as many eyes as possible. It’s great for Nintendo’s long-term prospects, but only makes the lack Wii U in that discussion all the more damning.

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Can we therefore blame the fact Nintendo barely marketed the console? Consumers were confused by Nintendo Wii U, not sure if the device was an extension of the Wii console or a new entry entirely. It wasn’t helped when Reggie Fils-Aime, president of Nintendo America, said during the hardware’s announcement;

“It’s a system we will all enjoy together but also one that’s tailor-made for you… Is it unique, unifying, maybe even Utopian? The answer is also yes to all of this.” 

What kind of logic is that? Gamers want a simple name yet many couldn’t understand why Nintendo went with the bizarrely named Wii U. Iwata even admitted in 2013 that the company had dropped the ball heavily;

“Some have the misunderstanding that Wii U is just Wii with a pad for games, and others even consider Wii U GamePad as a peripheral device connectable to Wii…. We feel deeply responsible for not having tried hard enough to have consumers understand the product.”

On top of this, where was the marketing for Wii U? It seems Nintendo only rolled out the carpet when the big titles came to town, the Mario Karts and such. But when all said and done, the console seemed almost lost among the shuffle for gamers attention. During the times when games weren’t forthcoming, where was the push to sell the hugely impressive games library that the console had been building up? Where was focus on indie titles that Nintendo had been keen to champion during its Nintendo Wii days?

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What’s more frustrating in all this is that the Nintendo Wii U was incredibly versatile. Because of its tablet controller – all you needed was a power outlet and you were good to go. This meant that the console became an incredibly useful travel companion – and was arguably one of the consoles biggest under sold features. Graphically it had some gorgeous games that ran beautifully and avoided the pitfalls that befell many games launching on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. It was a gamers device – but you wouldn’t know that from the marketing brief.

Sadly I worry history will relegate the Nintendo Wii U to a footnote. It arrived too late in the last generation to really challenge Sony and Micrsoft’s ageing consoles – and was completely overshadowed by PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. Which is a shame as it appears Wii U will ultimately go on to form the bones of the upcoming Nintendo Switch console. Quality titles are one thing, and the Wii U had those by the bucketload, but Nintendo fell asleep at the wheel in every other regard. With the Nintendo Switch set to be announced sometime in October and fans eagerly waiting to see what Nintendo has in store for them next – let’s just hope history doesn’t repeat itself.

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