One year ago today, I got my hands on my Wii U. It was the first launch-day console purchase I ever made. It will almost certainly be the last as well.
A lot has been written over the past year about what Nintendo did wrong with the Wii U, from its awful name to its underpowered hardware to its interesting but underutilized GamePad controller to its dearth of post-launch games to its abysmal lack of third-party support.
Unsurprisingly, scarcely a word has been written on the day of its first anniversary, as the gaming press remains fixated on the launches of PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, last week and this Friday, respectively.
This Friday also brings what may become the first true must-own title for Wii U, Super Mario 3D Land. But that too will fall to the wayside in the gaming media, thanks to Nintendo's troubling decision to launch both SM3DW and The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds on the same day as a new competing console.
With that in mind, I offer a brief look back at the year that was for Wii U, and more importantly, where I think it is headed in the months and years to come.
Year One: U Were Not Interested
When the final word on Wii U is written, the narrative surrounding its appallingly weak launch and first year will focus on the slowest of slow starts. Things could not have gone much worse for Nintendo in terms of both hardware and software sales. As of this writing, fewer than 4 million Wii U consoles have been sold worldwide; PlayStation 4 looks poised to surpass that number in as little as three months, and Xbox One will likely do the same. Games industry analyst Michael Pachter, among Nintendo's most-vocal critics, suggests the console will do no better than 30 million units lifetime.
I think Pachter is wrong. I have serious doubts the Wii U will sell even that many.
Name issues aside, the Wii U is competing for more than just shelf space at GameStop and Walmart. It must battle consumer apathy toward the Wii brand and console gaming in general, created in no small part by the explosion of mobile gaming. It also faces competition from within, namely 3DS, which in many ways offers similar experiences to those that can be had on Wii U.
You'll notice I didn't mention Sony and Microsoft as competition. That's because, frankly, they aren't. (Heck, even Nintendo seems to subtly acknowledge this.) There is absolutely no way Wii U can ever compete with those consoles; you either want a Wii U, or you don't. You want a PlayStation 4, an Xbox One, or neither. Few and far between will be the shoppers this holiday season who are trying to decide among a Wii U, PS4 and Xbox; and any parent who purchases a Wii U in lieu of a sold-out next-gen console will have a very disappointed kid on Christmas morning. I look forward to the first clever YouTube user uploading a side-by-side comparison video of a kid unwrapping a "PLAYSTATION FOUUUUURRRRRR!!!" ...only to realize "it's a ....Wii U?"
And therein lies the problem. Nintendo found audiences for its previous consoles, particularly Wii, when it struck gold with motion control and casual gaming. Most of those consumers have moved on to their iPads and iPhones and whatnot. Hardcore gamers generally never wanted a Wii unless it was a second console so they could play Super Mario Galaxy and The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword.
So who is the audience for Wii U?
Right now, it's dedicated Nintendo fans, such as myself, and most of us have already bought one if we're going to at all. The biggest potential market may have already reached its saturation point, and that is very bad news for Nintendo.
You've read the headlines here on Kotaku and elsewhere: third-party developers have fled from the Wii U like it's got the plague. Criterion is bitter about poor sales of Need for Speed: Most Wanted U. EA is clearly done. Take-Two has moved on. Bethesda said "no thanks". Even Ubisoft, the biggest third-party supporter from the get-go, has admitted sales have fallen below expectations and given us reason to believe it's not keen on doing Nintendo any more favors.
Nintendo and its supporters have said the third-party support will return once sales pick up. Of course, we all know sales won't pick up unless there are games, and the vicious circle grows ever wider. Nintendo now faces a looming crisis which could very well spell the premature death of Wii U: the end of third-party retail support entirely.
Let's assume in a best-case scenario, Nintendo meets its fiscal year goals of moving 9 million units lifetime by April 2014. That *might* be enough to convince third-party publishers to start cranking out titles again. But there's a problem: if, as seems likely, most or all third-party development has ceased as of the current quarter, that means no new third-party Wii U games are in the pipeline. I am not a developer, so I'm speculating here, but I believe there's no way EA could have a new Madden game ready for August 2014 if development isn't already ongoing (which I believe it's safe to assume it isn't). Supposing a typical retail game takes at least 18 months to develop and publish, would third-party publishers really be willing to take on the risk of creating new games for a floundering console whose future remains uncertain?
That leaves only two main sources of games for the console: independent developers and Nintendo itself. Can the Wii U truly survive as a Nintendo exclusive and indie download-only machine? To put it another way, would you pay $300 for a device that only plays major titles from one publisher, along with a handful of indie games available on PC or iOS / Android and a few vintage games, and does virtually nothing else?
Out of Context
Nintendo apologists have been quick to bring up the 3DS, which sold poorly at launch but gained momentum after a price cut and a surge of great game releases. Critics like to compare Wii U to the GameCube or the failed SEGA Dreamcast. Others point out the lamentably poor start PlayStation 3 saw at launch.
I believe all such comparisons are irrelevant. The Wii U was released under completely unprecedented circumstances, never before seen in the history of gaming. PC is huge; mobile is by far the dominant platform; most consumers expect to pay only a few dollars or nothing for simple time-killer games; and rival consoles offer substantially greater bang for the buck.
What about other past consoles?
- The GameCube and Dreamcast launched as online gaming was in its infancy, and first-person shooters were just starting to surge in popularity (along with PC gaming in general).
- The GameCube followed Nintendo's modestly disappointing Nintendo 64, and continued a downward trend in hardware sales that followed the once-in-a-lifetime success of the NES / Famicom.
- The Dreamcast was by most accounts a superb console, but consumers had lost all faith and confidence in SEGA after a string of overpriced, under-supported peripherals and consoles (SEGA CD / Mega CD, 32X and Saturn).
- Both Dreamcast and GameCube had to compete with the PlayStation 2, which with its vast library, tremendous third-party support and built-in DVD player functionality, went on to become the most successful home console in history.
- The 3DS is a handheld console that competes primarily with the now ubiquitous mobile gaming platform and, to a lesser extent, the PlayStation Vita.
So where, exactly, does the Wii U fit in to all of this? It occurs to me that the Wii U is actually a great console — in a vacuum. With no other alternatives, the Wii U is an outstanding machine with an interesting control scheme, a huge legacy library thanks to Wii backwards-compatibility, lots of peripherals (also thanks to Wii compatibility), good HD visuals and decent online capability.
The problem, of course, is that the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One do so much more and so much better, for only a $100 to $200 greater price point. Mobile offers far more games that appeal to a much broader audience at a fraction of the cost. PC does almost everything the other guys can do, and better in most respects.
Whither Wii U?
The Next Steps
I have no clue what's next for Wii U. At best, it can perhaps become a decently-supported niche console with a library of very good to great Nintendo-published games and indie titles. If Nintendo really wants to up the ante in terms of value, I have a modest proposal:
Turn on the Virtual Console like a fire hose.
Nintendo has one opportunity to save the Wii U to some degree, I think, and it's not with stupid commercials like this. They need to say to gamers, "Hey, remember the NES and Super NES? Remember the Nintendo 64 and GameCube? Or never owned one, but you always wanted to? Well, we're going to put all of them into one package for you." Nintendo should create an entire division devoted exclusively to porting legacy platform games to Wii U, with as much speed as possible. Right now, there are 56 titles on Wii U Virtual Console, all of them either NES or Super NES. That's it. Fifty-six titles in 52 weeks on the market — you do the math. Compare that to the number of Wii Virtual Console titles in Japan — 658. This is ABSURD. There is a vast, untapped market to be had here! Nintendo should IMMEDIATELY bring all of its existing Virtual Console (and, while they're at it, WiiWare) titles to Wii U, including Japan exclusives. Get them localized. Market the system that way: "Here are 700+ games you can download RIGHT NOW, and ONLY on Wii U — not available (legally, anyway) for any other platform. Period."
The success of The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD should have proved to Nintendo how important this audience is when it comes to GameCube as well. There's no reason the entire first-party library of GameCube titles can't be brought to Wii U. If the emulation ability doesn't exist, MAKE IT HAPPEN. Then, sell this machine through targeted marketing to gamers and former gamers, ages 25+, and win them over through nostalgia.
My modest proposal may or may not reverse the fortunes of Wii U. But it will never happen.
Nintendo is, unfortunately, in a curious position of being both a leading innovator and stubbornly stuck in its ways. As much as I like him personally, the man in charge — Satoru Iwata — has got to go. (The incomparable Emily Rogers has an outstanding critique of Iwata here.) Under his leadership, the company has done almost everything wrong with Wii U, and I have no confidence that he will make the bold changes necessary to save what could very well be Nintendo's last home console. His answer to everything seems to be an earnest "Please understand" and "Thank you for your patience".
One year after my Wii U purchase, this Nintendo fanboy's patience has run out.