Everyone is aflame with commentary about Nintendo’s recent dismal projections of Wii U sales. I won’t go into details – if you’re reading this, you probably already know that the company expects several million fewer Wii Us (that is one weird-looking plural) sold through the end of this fiscal year. 3DS projections were also lowered slightly.
The Wii U has not been a success, but why has it struggled? I tackled this question a while back, largely discounting the specs issue while giving some credence to the possibility that marketing was at fault. My hunch, though, was that the 3DS – the world’s most successful dedicated console – was cannibalizing the Wii U. Nintendo’s portable has all of the company’s important IPs represented, better third-party support, and a lower price. Basically, a 3DS provides the comprehensive Nintendo fix, and the Wii U brings nothing else to the table for Nintendo’s audience except HD graphics and a sadly underutilized controller that permits asymmetric gameplay.
The Game Pad: A sad tale
The name “Wii U” is awful, and Nintendo itself has done little to show off or exploit the unique capabilities of its own system. The Game Pad has been orphaned, and its issues are indicative of the console’s problems as a whole.
The best software tailored to the Game Pad includes the third-party The Wonderful 101, ZombiU, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, and Assassin’s Creed 3/4. In some cases, these games have gone to great lengths to show off the possibilities of a touch screen controller – The Wonderful 101 lets you draw patterns and navigate entire indoor sequences with just the Game Pad, for example. But the Game Pad has also shown great ability to trivialize painful gameplay mechanics, such as map navigation and inventory management. This is why I mentioned ZombiU (in addition to its terrific Game Pad vs Pro Controller multiplayer) and AC3/4 – the Game Pad is a natural way to get clutter off the TV and into the controller.
This is why I think arguments such as “Nintendo makes bad hardware” miss the point. The hardware is plenty capable, but its strengths aren’t in demand by demographics such as hardcore gamers (for whom online services and graphical capabilities are more important) or casuals (who do not care about hardware at all). Part of the issue is probably mobile devices, as the typical fallback argument goes – billions are being channeled into ripoffs such as Clash of Clans and Candy Crush Saga. And the XB1 and PS4 have given the hardcore exactly what they want in the form of sophisticated online gameplay and x86 processors, so Nintendo gets squeezed in a way. Nintendo has tried to cater to both markets while not having completely what either of them wants.
Game Over? Not yet
But I don’t think all is doom and gloom just yet. Nintendo’s financial position is solid, giving it the cash and time to figure out what’s next. And I think the company can turn this challenge into an advantage, if it looks at things right. Here’s what I mean: The disruption from tablets and smartphones is important but at what point do these endpoints stop being mobile devices and just become, well, devices? Many of them have processors clocked at > 2 GHz, with displays to shame any HDTV or PC, not to mention faster data connections than many PCs or consoles. I think Nintendo should look at the 3DS/Wii U with a similar attitude – the 3DS is already basically a mobile GameCube, and that’s only the case because the company ridiculously lowballed its specs. With more devotion to power, it could have been more than a mobile Wii – i.e., a mobile Wii U. What if the company just merged its consoles into one line?
Doing so would solve the cannibalization problem I highlighted. At the same time, making something that can give gamers a Nintendo fix on the go and in the home – maybe it support HDMI, along with an updated, smarter StreetPass – would fit right in with the underrated transition of mobile hardware into do-everything-hardware that is just as good on the bus or in the lobby as it is in the conference room or at the desk. Of course, the challenge would still be carving out a niche independent from the Swiss Army Knife functionality of Android/iOS devices.
Rising to the challenge
But Nintendo has shown a great knack for innovation – and I don’t use that word lightly as a synonym for “new VC-funded photo app.” They’ve innovated for the past 30 years, and many of those innovations have failed, from the Virtual Boy to the Famicom Disk System to the Wii U – failing spectacularly is often a sign of real innovation, innovation for which many consumers aren’t ready. Others have succeeded – the N64’s joystick controller, motion sensors on the Wii, dual-screen on the DS. And that’s not even mentioning StreetPass, which as a real-time, proximity-based social network was years out ahead of the “Internet of Things” or iBeacon.
Moreover, Nintendo usually has its pulse on the future, but its insularity often means that it arrives at jarring conclusions, some of which it can’t explain or market to would-be customers. At other times, the sheer novelty of their creations sells itself, as was the case with Wii Sports. Still, I think that a company that has already dabbled in something as cool as StreetPass and two-screen gameplay can find some niche in the Increasing Complex Hyper-Connected World (TM) or whatever “the world” is being called now. There are more gaming endpoints available than ever before, but as they are iterated with better specs they’ll probably merge with the functionality and form factor many of our existing devices and stop being a discrete category. Rather than despair at this likely state of affairs, Nintendo should take heart and create something that bridges gaming needs on-the-go and in the home.
3 things Nintendo could do to get started
In the meantime, I think there are a lot of areas Nintendo could work on to lay the groundwork for its future. My wish list:
- Stop tying downloads to hardware
- Create a comprehensive account system, while keeping online services free (one of the Wii U’s underrated advantages over its competitors
- Continue ignoring PSN/Xbox Live – imitating competitors won’t help Nintendo get rolling again, no more than Mac OS licensing helped Apple keep up with PCs in the 1990s
Nintendo isn’t destined for failure, no more than Microsoft was after the first-gen Xbox struggled mightily to get traction. But they’ll need to do a lot of things smarter in the short and long terms.
Reading articles about the “demise” of Nintendo is a good way to stumble over some terrible reasoning and misinformation. MG Siegler et al are all too willing to liken Nintendo to BlackBerry, despite the company’s excellent financial position (especially in light of its small workforce – Nintendo is not a gigantic operation like would-be competitor Microsoft, or like BlackBerry is/was) and its exceptional success with the Wii and DS over the past decade.
The angle of comparing Nintendo devices to “mobile” (an increasingly meaningless word applied to gigantic phones and laptop-grade tablets) is overplayed – certainly, there is some competition between devices for casual gamers who are now into Candy Crush but might have been into Nintendogs in a past era. But Nintendo isn’t really making “mobile” devices in any sense: the tablet controller of the Wii U is slightly awkward as a standalone device, and even the (3)DS is mostly a device for gamers at home, not on the go. It isn’t trying to make a play for the “mobile” audience – maybe that’s a bad move, maybe it isn’t. Twenty years ago, it looked like a mistake for Nintendo not to make full-fledged PC games, but it’s still around.
If Nintendo has competitors (I’m not sure if does – like Apple, they don’t give a shit about any other companies), they’re the home consoles – the Xbox and PlayStation lines. And it’s competing against them with not only the Wii U, but the (3)DS, too (more on this later). Sure, the console makers may be losing their asymmetric battle with “mobile,” but if they are, it’s hard to tell, in light of record-breaking opening day sales for both the Xbox One and PS4. Maybe there’s enough attention out there to sustain both consoles and “mobile.”
But then we come to the Wii U, the poster-child for both Nintendo’s assumed doom and the decline of the console business due to “mobile” and disruption and blah blah blah. The Wii U may finally cross the 4 million units sold threshold at the end of this year, making it a huge disappointment compared to any of Nintendo’s previous offerings, save the Virtual Boy. Sales could turn around; just look at the 3DS, which IGN hilariously declared doomed in 2011 but is now the most popular console in the world. However, I think it’s more useful to understand why it has struggled than to prognosticate on its future. That said, here are my three theories for why it has had such a rocky start.
Theory #1: It isn’t powerful enough
The argument: The Wii U has a PowerPC processor – that sort of says it all, what with almost every PC in the world now running x86 of some sort an everything else – mostly “mobile” – running ARM. Its technology is from a different era. It can output HD content, but not with the extra-fancy shading and high frame rates of the Xbox One or PS4. Developers won’t make anything for it because it doesn’t have the AMD chips found in its competitors and lacks the muscle to power yet another dystopian shooter.
My take: Developers are fickle. Many ended up scaling down their games for the standard-definition Wii last generation, then abandoned it near the end of its lifecycle (which didn’t matter – the console still received plenty of first-rate games, mostly from Nintendo itself). Maybe a system-selling title like Super Mario 3D world could cause a change of heart.
But all of that is secondary. Specs are mostly irrelevant – sure, there are Internet goons who only care about graphics and the newest batch of corporatized FPS crap, but if one looks back at the history of consoles – or even consumer electronics as a whole – being on the bleeding edge hasn’t always translated into “winning” the battle. The Wii outsold both the Xbox 360 and the PS3. The iPhone has outsold every single 1080p quad-core Android device.
The question is, can Nintendo and others put the Wii U’s particular strengths to good use, like they did with the Wii’s motion-sensor technology or the N64’s thumbstick. I think that the potential is there – just look at ZombiU or The Wonderful 101 – but more needs to be done to exploit the GamePad. On the HD side, Nintendo has already shown how even something as mundane as 1080p resolution can be reimagined with its subtle use of shadow and translucency in Super Mario 3D world. There needs to be more of this.
Theory #2: It hasn’t been marketed well
The argument (by way of anecdote): I was at a Target in downtown Chicago on Black Friday. A woman was trying to buy Just Dance 2014 for the Wii, but noticed that there was a Wii U version, too. She asked the sales associate what this “symbol next to the Wii” was – that symbol being the “U.” The associate had to explain to her that the Wii U was a totally different console. Customers don’t get the distinction.
The Wii U’s name is stupid. It should have been called the Super Wii for clearer differentiation. Similarly, the Wii U has all the capabilities of the Wii – the motion-sensing, Wii Remote compatibility, and the ability to play SD Wii games -, but most people probably wouldn’t even know this, despite the name similarity. It doesn’t ship with a Wii Remote, despite some of the bundled titles (like Nintendoland) requiring one for certain sequences. It wants to be a brand new console but also compatible with everything from the Wii, yet marketing has succeeded at making it seem like neither.
My take: Sure, the name maybe was an uninspired choice. But similar problems don’t seem to have affected names as bad as “Xbox One,” which is not the first Xbox, or the previous “Xbox 360” (compared to “Xbox”). Calling it the Super Wii and bundling a Wii Remote and something like Wii Party U could help, but it’s not the Panacea (dumb ZombiU reference).
Theory #3: It’s being cannibalized (by the 3DS)
The argument: Before you start worrying about parallels to Robinson Crusoe, think about this: Nintendo’s console business is unique. Since 1989, it has been supporting at least two consoles at one time, a portable one and a TV one. These two lines ran parallel for decades, with little overlap except for the IPs that made their way onto both platforms. The Game Boy was very different than, say, the SNES, and getting one system did not give one the same experience as the other. Ditto for the DS and the Wii.
But this has changed in recent years, largely because (I think) the 3DS was so underestimated during its first few years of existence. Even Nintendo seemed to struggle to wrap its head around what the 3DS should be early on – it wasn’t until Super Mario 3D Land and the much-needed 3DS XL redesign that the console began finding its footing. Prior to those two events, it was mostly a DS lookalike with some cool 3D graphics. But the run of first-rate software titles and a larger screen (the importance of the latter can’t be overstated) showed that the 3DS was something very different, something that realized the promise of the DSi and integrated console-level amenities like high-quality soundtracks and animations. I’ve argued that Nintendo is essentially a software company that dabbles in hardware, and the 3DS bears me out – it took good software to start moving hardware.
The perhaps unintended consequence of the 3DS’ maturity, however, is that it is cannibalizing Wii U sales. Cannibalization occurs when one of a company’s lower-priced products drives down sales for its more expensive ones, since they are targeting the same audience. The 3DS XL is nearly a Wii U GamePad on its own (and in Japan at least, the 3DS XL is way more popular than the standard-sized 3DS) and its software provides what could be called a “Nintendo fix” – Mario, Pokemon, Zelda, the full lot. Users get their fix from the 3DS and don’t need to get it from the Wii U, which doesn’t have a Pokemon or Zelda title and only recently got a truly new Mario title.
My take: Companies like Apple have long been conscious of cannibalization – in Apple’s case, of Mac sales by the iPad, or high-end iPhone sales by low-end iPhone sales. It’s a difficult issue to sort out, but in a way, it can be a good problem to have – at least something is selling, albeit perhaps not at the price point/profit one would hope.
The idea that Nintendo is cannibalizing its Wii U sales with 3DS sales probably doesn’t occur to many observers, since none of Nintendo’s competitors have a similar console business. Microsoft doesn’t do dedicated portable gaming machines, and Sony’s Vita is a failure compared even to the Wii U. Maybe Nintendo really isn’t competing with Sony or Microsoft – it’s not in a specs race, or a race for the best Assassin’s Creed 4 graphics, but simply trying to selling as many Nintendo devices – 3DS, Wii U, or otherwise – as it can. Given Nintendo’s history and resilience, that makes much more sense than arguments about the Wii U’s power or marketing
The Wii U may finally be coming into its own, an odd turn of events that one might not have predicted several months ago when it had very little interesting software and faced looming competition from the Xbox One and PS4. Game selection has greatly improved, with stellar first-party titles and some creative offerings from third-party devs.
While I understand that most buyers will probably opt for a PS4/XB1 this season, if you have any interest in the Wii U (because it’s cheaper, has flash memory, is family-friendly, and already has many of the overhyped TV integration features of the XB1), here’s a quick primer to the platform’s top games. All of these are exclusive to the platform, though it may be worth your time to look at some ports like Assassin’s Creed 3/4 and Deus Ex Human Revolution Director’s Cut.
- Super Mario 3D World – this is an obvious choice. In much the same way that Super Mario 3D Land illuminated the possibilities of the 3DS, its successor does the same for the Wii U. 3D World carries over the best features of its 3DS predecessor, such as the fascinating use of perspective and lighting, while adding a welcome dose of HD graphics, new power-ups, and excellent co-op play. The cat costume (inexplicably obtained by absorbing a bell…but I’m long past trying to make sense of the Mario universe’s logic) is the funnest power-up since the flying tail/ears from Super Mario Bros. 3 (remember The Wizard?). Levels throw the player for a loop with tricky changes in perspective, sublime usage of shadow, and certain areas/items that require the use of the new cherry power-up, which produces two identical Marios/Luigis/Toads/Peaches. This game was built for co-op play, with its differently optimized characters.
- The Wonderful 101 – I flirted with the idea of putting this at number one, but it’s too weird for some gamers, especially the kids who constitute much of the Wii U’s target audience. The Wonderful 101 is a superhero game in which an expandable group of heroes – each with his/her own distinctive powers – try to ward off an alien invasion of earth. It sounds like a ho-hum premise, but the execution make all the difference. No Wii U game, not even Nintendo’s offerings, make better use of the Game Pad, which is used here for drawing attack patterns, navigating through buildings, and tracking items on radar. No level is like the previous one, and the boss battles are endlessly creative. I compared this game to Battletoads, and I think the comparison still fits – it’s varied, cutting-edge, and often quite difficult. The multiplayer mode is fun and mercifully must less sadistic than Battletoads’ impossible co-op mode.
- ZombiU – it feels like every console gets the obligatory first-person shooter title early in its lifespan, which range from the great (GoldenEye for the N64) to the not so great (Perfect Dark Zero for the Xbox 360). ZombiU is far from a run-of-the-mill launch FPS, however. It blends elements of FPS and horror/survival, resulting in a rugged survivalist game in which the player has to fight off undead hordes with not much more than a cricket bat and the occasional firearm. Ammo is precious in ZombiU, as is life – dying forces you to become an entirely new, totally reset character who is likely to encounter his/her predecessor’s zombified form. Like The Wonderful 101, ZombiU stretches the Game Pad to its limits, using it to open doors, acquire vaccines, scan areas, and much more. Too bad that Ubisoft axed the sequel.
- Pikmin 3 – This game arguably began the console’s turnaround. It’s a bit on the short side, but the graphics, attention to detail, and gameplay show how versatile the Wii U is. The controls are a little wonky since the Nunchuk is more accurate but less informative than the Game Pad. Otherwise, this is a strong and breezy play-through.
- Nintendo Land – Nintendo has always done pack-in titles very well, and Nintendo Land is no exception. It doesn’t really have a story, but it works on several levels. It’s a great primer on the Wii U’s capabilities – each mini game does something a bit different, from co-op play with Game Pad and Wiimote in the Zelda game to Game Pad-controlled steering in the F-Zero game. It’s also a fun game in its own right, with challenging sequences like the ninja gallery shooter game.
In the summer of 2008, in between spells of supervising future Wall St bankers at Brown’s summer camp, I wasted countless afternoon hours playing Battletoads on an NES emulator. For someone who came of age during the twilight of 16-bit gaming, the 3D wonkiness of N64/GameCube era, and the advent of FMV movie-games, the sheer difficulty and variety of Battletoads was like a kick to the teeth.
The game ferried me breathlessly from a Double Dragon-style beat ’em up to a boss battle (from the boss’ perspective!) to perhaps the most unforgiving biking racing sequence ever. More impressively, the game’s difficulty wasn’t a gimmick; it wasn’t hard for its own sake (or because it was poorly executed), but for the sake of making the player hone her abilities, reflexes, and strategy. Each level was a world unto itself, and it’s impossible to imagine some kid sitting down in 1991 and just beating it straight-through on an unenhanced NES.
Battletoads was a unique mix of challenge and variety, sprinkled with just the right amount of humor – the game’s premise of superhero amphibians is almost surely a parody of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle rage sweeping the world in the late 1980s/early 1990s. It was also a trailblazer, with its gorgeous graphics and faux-3D level design foreshadowing not only the upcoming Genesis/SNES generation but the PSX/Saturn/N64 one after that. It pushed the NES for all it was worth. Since that time, though, no game has really followed its exact blueprint, even if Battletoads’ influence can be seen in platformers like Donkey Kong Country.
Battletoads’ spiritual successor on the Wii U
Until now, anyway. The Wonderful 101, a Wii U exclusive released back in August 2013, is a fantastic genre-defying superhero game with a steep learning curve, unpredictable level design, and beautiful HD graphics. The player controls a massive group of heroes, called The Wonderful 100 (the 101st member is the player) and must collate their powers to fight off earth-invading aliens. To do this, you have to use the Wii U GamePad to draw attack patterns and movement trails (drawing with the R stick on the GamePad/Pro Controller is a bit more cumbersome, I found).
The GamePad is utilized to its fullest here, in a way that hasn’t been seen since the excellent ZombiU launch title. While inside some buildings, the GamePad’s gyroscope (one of its many tricked-out hardware features) is used for navigation, and many scenes perform the patented “look at your GamePad!” move that any player of Nintendoland is likely to be familiar with.
It’s odd how perhaps the two most quintessential Wii U games – ZombiU and The Wonderful 101 – are incredibly difficult. ZombiU’s bleak survivalist ethos – few weapons, power-ups, and health dot the landscape – means that making it through and dying only once is a superhuman feat. The Wonderful 101 is difficult in a different way – while it has plenty of items to restore health or unlock new features, it requires a great amount of coordination to use your team, as well as a certain physical preciseness in timing unite morphs (the giant fist morph may even be a reference to Battletoads’s combat animations).
The learning curve is sharp – The Wonderful 101 unfortunately provides little guidance, forcing players to learn its unique machinations largely on their own. And multiplayer mode requires a pricey Wii U Controller for each additional player. But The Wonderful 101 nevertheless stands as a good indication of what developers can do with the Wii U’s unique hardware and input methods. I hope that the recent sales boost from Wind Waker HD will drive more consumer and developer interest in the platform.
Lukas Mathis nails it down:
“If the «post-PC era» truly had such a devastating effect on the console market that the Wii’s sales just deflated after 2008, it’s unlikely that the same effect would not also be seen in the PS3’s and Xbox 360’s sales. But Asymco’s huge 2008 peak mainly exists because the Wii peaked in 2008, and because back then, it outsold its competitors by large margin.
In other words, many consoles show Wii-like sales curves – but not the Wii’s direct competitors, the PS3 and the Xbox 360. If the Wii’s sales peak in 2008 was indeed mainly caused by the «post-PC era», you’d expect the Wii’s direct competitors to be similarly affected. They’re not.”
I remember thinking in 1998, with Age of Empires, that I would abandon consoles for immersive PC-only gaming, but here I am clinging to a 3DS and a Wii U. My PC became a distraction conduit for email, ICQ, AIM…well let’s just stop there.
But I think my anecdote shows why dedicated consoles can still work, at least for the tasteful gamer. For the dedicated gaming market to truly feel the pain, smartphones would need much better battery life than they currently have. Their very strengths – being Swiss Army knives with tons of radios – also means that they cannot muster the battery life (or rather, the singularity of vision and focus) to support the longer-form gaming experiences unique to consoles, especially the DS line.