A Paean for a Sickly Console: The Wii U in 2014

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Back in September, I decided I was fed up with modern videogames. Grand Theft Auto V had blustered its way through my life. The blockbuster exhausted me, as had its many predecessors. Rather than take in another generation of cinematic blockbusters, I decided to throw my Playstation 4 fund at a Wii U.

It’s not a purchase I’ve come to regret. The console has offered a slew of interesting games, including a remake of my favorite Zelda game and the best-designed three dimensional Mario title ever. It feels novel. As a pure piece of electronic marvel, it might be one of the best I’ve used.

And yet, the Wii U hasn’t caught on. Nintendo’s on pace for one of its worst year ever. Few have been snared by its multiple screens, its tightly designed Nintendo properties. The Wii U has become part hardware nobody wants and part hardware nobody understands, a terrible combination that could keep it behind its competition for years to come.

When I tell people I love my Wii U, that I don’t regret buying it for a second, they give me quizzical looks. To them, it’s another piece of Nintendo plastic: the same games, the same problems. You wouldn’t play Call of Duty on the Wii U, or Assassin’s Creed. And if not, then what’s the point? You’ve got a big, wonky tablet controller, a console without the power to stack up with the PS4 and the Xbox One, and the same games you’ve played for decades.

nintendolandIn part, much of this comes from the failures of Nintendo Land, the original pack-in with the console. My experience with Nintendo Land has been very similar to POD’s own Mike Barrett: it’s a brilliant package that doesn’t clearly articulate the console’s potential like Wii Sports did.

I love Nintendo Land. My housemates and I have spent hours—hours upon hours—playing some of its games. The Luigi’s Mansion game—where the gamepad player controls a ghost and tries to escape slash spook four investigators with flashlights—has gotten the most press, and it’s a gem from a design standpoint. Everything’s polished and smooth in a way Wii Sports never was. While Wii Sports was a jerkfest carried by the fact that you controlled the characters by waving your arms around, Nintendo Land is a videogame that’s been playtested and designed to precision. The other games—the Metroid cooperative shooter, the Animal Crossing variation on the ghost-hunting game, the Mario chase—feel the same: they’re accurate, above all else.

But they aren’t as immediate as Wii Sports. They aren’t as visceral. It takes time to understand Nintendo Land. You have to play a tutorial. People who are better at traditional videogames will be better at Nintendo Land. And sure, the games have different roles, so that the best players can be the harder roles (the best player can be the ghost, the worse players can be hunters), but the best player will invariably be using the tablet. Everyone else will be playing a Wii game.

nintendoland_2This is a problem. It’s compounded by Nintendo’s poor marketing efforts. People misunderstand the Wii U. Nintendo put a hybrid console-handheld up for sale, and then tried to market it as a major console. The best full budget examples of using the gamepad as a novel videogame element are still Zombi U, which uses it as an inventory, and The Wonderful 101, which cannot be explained in less than a novel. Nintendo Land offers some fascinating tidbits, but millions of people don’t buy new consoles for core-targeted party games.

Nintendo’s own games haven’t helped matters. Again: the Wii U features some of Nintendo’s best work. Super Mario 3D World is brilliant, the Wind Waker remake is gorgeous, New Super Mario Brothers U is possibly the best in the series, and I’ve heard good things about Pikmin 3. These are very good games.

But they could be Wii games. Maybe not graphically, but mechanically. None of these games demand the gamepad. Playing Super Mario 3D World with two of my buddies, I used the gamepad, and I looked at the pad roughly eighty percent of the time during tense platforming segments. But that’s a fringe benefit; not having a gamepad didn’t hurt my companions any. And none of these games use the gamepad in a holistic fashion. This is why analysts keep doggedly suggesting that Nintendo become a third party company: their upcoming games, from a new Donkey Kong Country to Mario Kart 8, don’t look like they benefit from being on a console with less horsepower and a novel controller. They feel like retro games prettied up for a semi-modern consoles.

nintendo_memeThis is Nintendo’s problem, and they don’t have an easy fix. The Wii U is a dazzling system in the right place. For me, someone who lives with roommates and has frequent guests, the Wii U is a good fit. Its combination of enticing multiplayer games and handheld hybrid controller mean it can be the center of the party or entertain someone on the periphery. Its strength is in its versatility.

On the other hand, in an entertainment market where tablets have become omnipresent, the Wii U is becoming a less enticing fit in more and more homes. It gets to the question new consoles ask: how do you convince people to pay three hundred plus dollars on something they pretty much already have? One way—Sony and Microsoft’s angle—is to sell people on exclusive blockbusters. Neither the PS4 or the Xbone have those yet, but we don’t doubt them: we know the PS3 and Xbox 360 are heading to obsolescence, that one day we’ll need one of those consoles (or a PC) to play the newest hotness. Even then, though, these consoles might struggle, as some of the biggest “next gen” games (Metal Gear Solid V and Watch Dogs come to mind) are releasing on all four big box consoles, minimizing the need to upgrade. We know, though, that someday we’ll need a next-gen console. It’s inevitable.

Meanwhile, with the Wii Nintendo tried to adopt a parallel business model: to sell you novelty. You bought a Wii—and everyone and their parents did—because there were games on the Wii you couldn’t play anywhere else. It’s the “a Wii and a 360” approach. The 360 gave you the blockbusters, and the Wii gave you something new. When Sony and Microsoft tried to cannibalize this market with the Move and the Kinect, they didn’t catch on, because two unique consoles is overkill. It wasn’t the Wii’s games that sold it; it was its shape, its difference.

The Wii U attempted the same approach, and it ran into the problem Kinect and Move did, in multiple ways. For one, it tried to get a bite of the blockbuster market, except it’s quickly become obvious that the Wii U doesn’t have the horsepower to keep up into the next generation. And most people don’t need two, let alone three consoles to play big-name titles on.

For two, the Wii U’s unique element is its tablet, and I’d wager Nintendo—between when it started developing the console and its release—didn’t predict the rise of tablets. While I don’t have a smartphone or a tablet myself, a whole lot of people do. And while the idea of shifting entertainment fluidly between a big screen and a small screen is interesting, it’s not three hundred dollars interesting. The idea of using a device with a screened controller doesn’t scratch the same itch motion control did, because we’ve played games on handheld devices all our lives.

wiiu_2This could be rendered a moot point if Nintendo released a few games that really showed off how this two screen approach could work, but this brings its own host of problems. For one, a game that demands both screens pretty much stops being a handheld, removing one of the console’s selling points. For two, Nintendo doesn’t have any of those games on the horizon. Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze, Mario Kart 8, and the new Smash Brothers are games I’m hot to play, none of them feature system-selling tablet controls. They could be third party games on the Playstation 4. No: they could be better off like that. They’d have more horsepower to work with.

The Wii U is a depressing system to look at. I love the little guy, but it’s pretty surely doomed. It’s a console I enjoy immensely, and one for which I’ll probably buy a ton of games, but which has moved squarely into the category of the Playstation Move, the Kinect. It’s a neat concept, and one which a certain subset of people will immensely enjoy, but which hasn’t distinguished itself as a device enough to really grab a portion of the audience.