With the announcement of the Nintendo Switch and the unsure statements about the future of the Wii U, it is unsure where the future of the second-screen system will go. There are no more first party titles aside from Zelda coming from here on out, Nintendo is just beginning to ramp up its advertising campaign, and the company also is beginning to focus on the mobile market. The Wii U still has a future, but it will only dwindle after this year.
The Wii U did not thrive during the last half decade despite its great games, and different hardware decisions. It created confusion, and frustration with all audiences while attempting to try out new ideas. Our writers Aaron DiManna and Chloe Sollars sat down and gave their thoughts on why they believed the Wii U struggled throughout its lifespan.
Aaron: The Wii U has not had what you would call an easy life. From its public conception, it struggled in almost every way a console could. Sales were slow, third party support was inconsistent at best, big first party games were infrequent and the public largely viewed the system as something of a joke or an afterthought. So what brought about all of these problems? To me, the answer is as simple as that they tried to please everybody, and ended up pleasing nobody.
Chloe: The Wii U seems to be going out like one of those fancy light dimmers rather than a flame in the wind. Goin’ in with a sigh and out with a murmur, it seems. And well, I’m not the first to cover that bit of skin with a shirt that reads: “Microsoft do what Nintendon’t,” (even though I don’t own an Xbox One). But I’m here to ruminate over the Wii U’s general perceived weirdness. Why did parents think it was just a Wii? What has the Wii U accomplished aside from causing mass confusion amongst every parent, every grandma, every wholly misinformed adult who thinks in terms of “a Nintendo and the tiny, pocket-able Nintendo Boy?”
Aaron: Nintendo has a long history of focusing on unique spins in both its games and its hardware. The vast majority of the time this approach pays off extraordinarily well. The Nintendo 64 has that strange three-handed controller and it’s beloved by millions. The DS has those two funky screens, and it’s sold over 154 million units, making it the second best selling console of all time. Even the Wii, with all of its fiddly motion controls, sold fast enough to become a cultural phenomenon and force both Microsoft and Sony to implement some kind of motion control into their systems. After all of this, a large, tablet-esque controller seems pretty much par for the course. Even so, the Wii U has not been a commercial success for Nintendo. And as tragic as it is to say, that is largely the Wii’s fault.
The Wii U was a direct response to the design choices that caused the Wii’s late-life issues. In particular, Nintendo tried to address the controller problem. The very same controller that made the Wii so distinct and appealing to consumers also made it extremely unappealing to developers.
I distinctly remember leafing through an edition of Game Informer around the time Assassin’s Creed II was coming out. My fourteen year old mind was simultaneously blown that such a game could exist, and crushed that I would never get to play it on the only current gen console I owned. It’s safe to say that I wasn’t the only person who felt this way, because the Wii’s sales plummeted later in that console cycle. None of the big games AAA games being released at that time were coming to the Wii, save for gems like Call of Duty Modern Warfare: Reflex Edition, but it’s probably better for all of us to just forget about that one.
The control scheme of the Wii just wasn’t designed with these games in mind. Instead Nintendo gambled that developers would either adapt their games to fit the Wii, or better yet design entirely new and exciting games for their system that would drive consumers in herds to the nearest store. In theory it was a pretty good plan. The reality was far less shiny.
Chloe: The Wii was a huge, big, weird thing that was heralding new innovations and a new era of family-based gaming. I like to think it’s the last core Nintendo console: a piece of Nintendo hardware every household has and continually utilizes for its younger members (who were born after the Wii’s release) despite years of use. I still play Wii Sports with the kid I babysit, prior to converting him to The Wind Waker and desperately trying to break him of swinging the controller around like a horsetail on a hot summer day.
Aaron: After the Wii, it was exceptionally important for Nintendo to perfectly thread the needle if they were going to stay relevant as a hardware developer. They would need to retain the creativity that made them distinct while making enough concessions to the mainstream market that third party developers would want bring their games. Instead Nintendo made a number of questionable design choices that resulted in the system being more or less lost in the shuffle.
The first of which was the decision to continue using underpowered hardware. This was most likely an attempt to keep the cost of the system lower than those of the competing hardware. However, it did result in the first mark against the Wii U in terms of getting third party support. The second was the decision to not entirely re-brand the Wii U as a new system altogether. This one kind of makes sense, given that it still plays Wii games and requires/allows you to use Wii Remotes for local multiplayer. As before, even though this decision was made with the best of intentions, there was a perception was that the system was some kind of peripheral system to the Wii, or at best a middling hardware upgrade. It did little to sweeten the bad taste that the Wii’s shortcomings had left in some people’s mouths.
Chloe: Let’s begin with another question: Why is the derivate name “Wii U” such a lamented convention when it’s been what every game console manufacturer (bar Sega) has always done?
Many detractors insist the Wii U’s sales (or lack thereof) lie in a lack of games, powerful hardware and other technical things that can be justified empirically. I think Nintendo weaning off the superlatives (a “super” Nintendo or Famicom or a Game Boy “Advance”) might have had a subconscious effect on the consumer base. The Wii U isn’t new like the GameCube or the Wii or the DS—it’s arguably a hybrid of those three—but “U” is hardly evocative of a previous console –something you might’ve loved in the past—done better. This isn’t the heart of the Wii U’s lack of success, of course, but I think the console riding the coattails of the Wii’s (now popularly obsolete) legacy was not a good marketing decision.
Aaron: And now we arrive at the controller. This was Nintendo’s stamp of creativity for the Wii U, and it was decidedly unique, but its execution was lacking. The first issue with the GamePad was that the battery life. It was short, only three to five hours. And bafflingly, the controller charger requires its own outlet; you cannot plug it into the console itself to charge. Furthermore, you can’t connect more than one GamePad to the system at once, meaning that for any local multiplayer (something for which Nintendo is not only known, but renowned) you were back to your old friend the Wii Remote.
When you look at the Wii U GamePad, you can see what Nintendo was trying to do. The controls themselves are basically identical to what you would find on any other controller. The Nintendo splash of creativity comes with the inclusion of a fairly large, tablet-like screen right in the center. Nintendo was hoping that the more conventional controls would allow for all of the big AAA games the Wii was missing to come back and fill the void. They were also hoping that the screen would drive developers to create interesting dual screen mechanics for their games, much like they did with the DS. Unfortunately, the screen was most often just used to display the in-game map or inventory. It was functional, but far from inspired. Far worse, a number of titles forced you look at The GamePad in order to draw on it with a stylus, meaning that you were entirely playing the game on the tiny screen in your lap rather than the large HD TV in your living room.
What we’re left with is an underpowered, slightly confusing and thoroughly unsupported console with one interesting feature that is rarely used effectively. Nintendo played it extraordinarily safe with the Wii U, and it showed. Say what you will about the Wii, but it was innovative, exciting, original, and gave us all some pretty great games (I’m looking at you Mario Galaxy). Nintendo knows better than to try to out-gun Sony or Microsoft at this point, so their only course of action is to do what they’ve always been the best at: making weird shit that’s so fun it just works. That’s what was missing from the Wii U. Hopefully when the Nintendo Switch launches next year it will be a return to form for Nintendo, and they’ll bring the fun back in the way that only they can.
Chloe: When it comes down to it, I’m easy to please and I genuinely love Nintendo and all its affiliated products. I love my Wii U. I love Mario Kart 8 and Smash 4. I love seeing Nintendo games in HD. I enjoyed playing Earthbound legally for the first time. Although as a (privileged) consumer I do dislike buying Nintendo’s growing pains, I like to think the Wii U was overall a step in the right direction. Maybe the Switch will take considerations that came up in the Wii U’s cycle. Maybe the console after that will be called the Super Switch, which is a pretty neat name if I do say so myself. I’ll buy it because it has “super” in the name.
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