Wii U or Won’t you? Nintendo’s current-gen woes.

With the Wii, Nintendo instigated a revolution. The gaming landscape was already shifting. Long gone were the days of twin dominance by Nintendo and SEGA, and in their place were Microsoft and Sony, who were releasing franchises that reforged the market in a more ‘adult’ mould. They had begun bridging the gap between consoles and PC’s. To this state of affairs the Wii flipped the proverbial bird, having every gamer and their grandma crowded around a TV on Christmas morning, eager for another bash at Tennis. Contrary to the irritations of the hardcore faithful concerning shovelware and a worse label still, the ‘casual gamer’, the Wii has innumerable ambitious, artistically driven and downright fun gaming experiences tucked away in its arsenal for the orthodox, and these releases frequently made it to all territories. Fragile Dreams, Muramasa, Sakura Wars, the Metal Slug Anthology, Madworld and a tonne of others were all showcases of unusual or classic game design that would have pleased the hardcore no-end if they could have stopped complaining about Wii Fit for five seconds. That’s not to mention the obvious first party classics that enjoyed commercially and critically successful outings on the machine. Still, there was a belief that in diversifying the market, and opening untold financial doorways to competition on a landscape they would otherwise have struggled to live with, Nintendo was on the cusp of losing something about itself.

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The Wii gave Nintendo a foothold in a marketplace that otherwise threatened to outpace it…

Ironically, this myth evaporated. It doesn’t even figure in their current woes. The Wii U has a share of such family-friendly games to be sure, but not so many they could ever determine the legacy of the system. Part of this is because the market tapped with the Wii has stayed with the Wii. It’s not difficult to see why. Wii Sports Tennis is just fine the way it is for the people who play it, and yes, there are people who play nothing else on a home console. £250 for a new console isn’t really warranted unless it’s offering new experiences of the variety such people would be interested in. There are sports games on the Wii U, there are fitness games on the Wii U, but they never outstrip the intuitive pick up and play perfection of that free disc of mini-games bundled with Wii machines back in 2006. This is true in the same way that fans of Hoopla or Pick-up Sticks don’t rush to pick up new and augmented versions of it. Nintendo created a new (or rather old) kind of success that was inherently sterile. It wasn’t enough to release the Wii again, and to their credit, they didn’t. They released a machine that boasted greater power than its rivals at the time, a promise of a steady stream of first and third-party exclusives, backwards compatibility to provide value for money, and a dual way to play: via tablet or TV screen.

That’s where the problems started.

I work in a videogames store, and I’m going to outline what I see as Nintendo’s current generation problems by relaying just a few the questions I encounter on a daily a basis from the customer, questions to which I can frequently provide no satisfactory answer.

1. “Is it a handheld?” “Where’s the controller?” “Where’s the Wii U?” “Can I take it outside?” “Why not?”

... but the Wii U has frequently baffled both casual and hardcore alike.

… but the Wii U has frequently baffled both casual and hardcore alike.

It is frankly impossible for me to overstate just how reliant Nintendo were upon people such as myself explaining the concept of their latest home console. When the explanation came, it never quite seemed to sink in. It was as though people had decided what the Wii U was, or ought to be, and a description of what it actually was left them inconsolably disappointed. “Oh, so I can’t take the tablet to my friend’s house? Why can’t I just put the games in there?” Then I would inform them of backwards compatibility, distinguishing it from its rivals. “Oh well I’ll just keep my Wii.” It’s difficult to argue with that considering by last year they were worth roughly £10 to trade-in. Second-hand Wii’s are still everywhere, and for a time I was selling far more of them than Wii U’s. The first four questions can be answered, however unsatisfactorily. What can’t be answered by me is “Why?” Why design a console with the appearance of a detachable handheld component that could function as a device in itself, only to reduce the device to an elaborate controller? It gets more complicated when trying to establish whether or not a game can be played simply using the device in the same room. I trumpet the *idea* of different ways to play on Nintendo’s behalf, but frequently both the TV and tablet screens are actually required to play a game. On a related subject, why deny people the obvious ability to purchase a new one in the event they break it? This is personal. A few days ago I was sorting through boxes on my bed. A tiny piece of cardboard fell off, and the corner impacted the tablet screen. The screen is now damaged, and the touchpad functionality is dead. There’s always customer services, but the convenience of simply purchasing a new one rather than paying an equivalent amount to have it mended would be nice. I don’t blame anyone for my mistake, but is too much to ask that I’m able to rectify it out of my own pocket? Clearly not if you’re Japanese, as Nintendo has just made them available for purchase in Japan. Perhaps this means Europe can expect them in stores sometime around the announcement of the successor to the NX?

2. “When’s this game coming out?”

I don’t know, and if I did, I’d be too terrified to tell you. Many games suffer delays across the main home formats, but only one such format lacks the consistent flow of retail games to offset the disappointment. As a fan of Nintendo from the 16 bit-era, my ears always prick up at the announcement of a new Starfox game. From the early trailers I could anticipate it was nothing radical. Certain environments are copied wholesale from the N64 game, apparently continuing a somewhat lazy tradition that also saw an outing in the ironically entitled ‘Yoshi’s NEW Island’ (it isn’t). Still, I was hyped for it. It was designated as the big Christmas game… and then it was delayed. The reason? In the words of Miyamoto himself: ‘Polish’. Unfortunately this may have been an understatement bordering on a lie, as it has now been suggested by Nintendo Life’s Liam Robertson (www.nintendolife.com) that there is a more fundamental friction within the QA department regarding the implementation of motion controls, which were previously accused of being overly complicated and contrived. This may even result in further delay. Contrary to my initial speculations StarFox may prove to be very radical indeed, and not necessarily in a good way. Whatever the reason, the delay of Starfox left Nintendo with the niche JRPG Xenoblade Chronicles X and Super Mario Maker, a game released months earlier, as their ‘Christmas’ games. I’m not going to run through the gamut of what I was selling on PS4 and Xbox One by the truckload at the same time. Of course, if I’d had the games to sell it would have been less of an issue…

StarFox Zero was a big-hitting delay for Ninty's Christmas schedule.

StarFox Zero was a big-hitting delay for Ninty’s Christmas schedule.

3. “Seriously, you don’t have that in stock?’

Despite the profession of Super Mario Maker as a ‘big Christmas game’ being farcical, the game was undeniably in demand over the Christmas period. Unfortunately (and nonsensically given the stated anticipation) demand was not met by supply. I stopped referring customers to the online ordering service when online ran out of stock, and I stopped redirecting them to other retailers when they would return the next day on the way to work on the off-chance we had any delivered. We did receive a few, in dribs and drabs, at the same time we were receiving 40 copies of Black Ops 3 per format in every delivery. This contributes to my impression that Nintendo now thinks of itself as a smaller player, at least for the moment and outside the handheld market. A less generous way of stating this is that it has already begun to write off the Wii U. A parallel would be the Vita, which despite a wealth of online content and niche games still being released at retail, is effectively written off by Sony in every press conference where it is pushed to the fringes by announcements on PS4 content. The difference is that Nintendo is still announcing for the Wii U, even as speculation that announced content will in fact be delayed for the NX (Zelda) continues to mount…

4. “There’s not many games is there?”

Well there’s… no, you’re right, there isn’t. To me this is the most significant point. The Wii U simply doesn’t have the strength in depth enjoyed by its competitors. The bulk of the big franchises don’t make it there, or make it there in a diminished form several months after initial release (Re: Call of Duty). Add to this delays in first party releases, the total absence of certain key franchises in this generation (*cough* Metroid *cough*), the commercial failure and critical panning of new IP’s (Devil’s Third), the cancellation of overdue ports (Project Cars), a sparser digital realm than PSN and Xbox Live… and you’re left relying on the likes of Mario Kart and Splatoon to sell the game as a family-friendly local multiplayer machine. Don’t mistake what I’m saying, I struggle to think of two better games to rely on, but they sadly don’t multiply as a result of their quality. And on the subject of quality, Even Nintendo’s mascot must be called in to answer some questions. In every successive console generation, Mario has redefined itself and raised the bar not just for the platforming genre, but frequently videogames as a whole. Compared to the vastness and groundbreaking structure of Super Mario World, or the gravity-defying interstellar joy of the Super Mario Galaxy games, Super Mario 3D World feels decidedly grounded. It’s a good game yes, but it does nothing to move even the series, let alone the genre forward. Then there’s the 2D games. Yoshi’s Woolly World was stylised and inventive, a worthy successor to a SNES classic, but it also draws attention to the big brother. How many times can Nintendo put the word ‘New’ in front of the same Super Mario Brothers game? Of course it’s quality, but it’s rehashed quality from a company we expect better from.

Super Mario Maker was marketed as a Christmas game despite being months old and suffered from crippling stock shortages at UK retail.

Super Mario Maker was marketed as a Christmas game despite being months old and suffered from crippling stock shortages at UK retail.

5. “Right now, would you recommend a Wii U?”

Would I recommend a machine that boasts first-party exclusives such as Mario, Zelda, Splatoon and Yoshi? You bet. Can I recommend it to the tune of £50 less than a more successful and technologically advanced console with a greater variety of games made by a vast array of developers that are largely not accounted for on the Wii U? No, I can’t. It’s simple mathematics. Rayman may not be Mario, but it’s still a good game. By contrast, what would I recommend on the Wii U to compensate for the lack of Black Ops 3, Minecraft, Fifa 16 (unavailable on the Wii U or 3DS after 15 sold so poorly), GTA and all the other games little Johnny is rightly or wrongly expected by little Jamie in the playground to be familiar with? You will find great games on the Wii U, and reliable franchises. You will also find perhaps the last bastion of local multiplayer in high-profile games, as other consoles foreground an online experience. You will find the most reliable hardware on the market (assuming you don’t drop things on it), with a build quality that stands head and shoulders above the competition. Unfortunately what you won’t find is what you would have found with every previous generation of Nintendo console: a constant and dependable stream of quality and exclusive software that breaks new ground industry-wide.

It’s not the first time Nintendo have been playing catch-up in the videogame industry, and I hope they’ll surprise us all again. Backwards compatibility for the NX would be a great first step, but if the Wii U has taught us anything it’s that there has to be more. The Wii succeeded because it did something radically new. The Wii U has underperformed because it’s done nothing new that is perceived as vital. It hasn’t even done enough of the old. It has frequently proven incomprehensible to developers and consumers alike. One can only hope Nintendo is frank about this before laying it to rest in the immediate future and looking to new horizons.