As of last week, the original Wii is no longer in production. The absolute madness of the system’s launch – and the holiday seasons for five years afterward – has become part of gaming history, even amongst waves of criticism that the system was a “gimmick,” its overall dismissal by “hardcore” gamers, and Nintendo’s famous inability to attract third-party development. Now Nintendo’s entire home gaming hope rests on the Wii U, a system that has failed to deliver sales within its first year, due to a combination of the same issues as before, and a price point that many see as grossly inflated. At this juncture, I thought it might be worthwhile to briefly examine the difficulties facing “The Company Mario Built” and discuss possible solutions.
Nintendo has a first-party line up that would make any other company envious. Mario, Zelda, Metroid, and Pokémon are franchises embedded not just in gaming consciousness, but in global popular culture. I personally know people who have purchased Nintendo consoles – and handhelds – specifically because an exclusive was coming out. Nintendo isn’t clueless on this front, either. When I worked at GameStop, our Nintendo rep was great, but Miyamoto save you if the Wii demo unit wasn’t playing the most recent first-party title. The company also has a habit of keeping the prices on those titles high, new and used, months and years after their launch.
As lucrative as that cap-wearing plumber and his pals are, though, they can only fill so much space on a calendar. That would be fine, except that Nintendo has a notoriously awful history with third-party titles. This creates massive gaps in the line-up for any customers looking to make a Nintendo console their primary system. I rarely played my PlayStation 3 outside of exclusives; Resistance, Uncharted, Infamous, and Ratchet & Clank populate my shelf. That was a personal choice, however, made because I prefer my 360. There were other games, great and small, available during regular release windows.
That’s simply wasn’t the case with the Wii, and things actually appear to be worse for the Wii U, if such a thing is possible. When Nintendo’s “HD” console launched last year, there were a plethora of third-party titles that jumped on board, some with exclusive content: Arkham City, Assassin’s Creed 3, Mass Effect 3, etc. Yet only a year down the road on the system, Arkham Origins won’t support multiplayer, Assassin’s Creed IV won’t get any new content, and EA has been back and forth on whether they even have any current titles in development for the Wii U. Battlefield 4 didn’t see a Wii U release, for example.
I can’t really blame any of those companies, because those initial launch games didn’t see a huge return on investment, and supporting a console so far removed in hardware from its contemporaries can’t be easy. Probably the biggest third-party success so far has been Zombie U, which I would love to play, but only on my 360 or PC. Probably my PC. Zombie U is a great example of another of Nintendo’s tactics, which is to almost force developers to utilize whatever their latest gimmick is.
Now, let me quickly differentiate a “mechanic” from a “gimmick.” In Zombie U, you check your inventory by looking into you backpack via the Gamepad while the game continues to run on the main screen. It creates a sense of urgency, as you can easily be ambushed while rifling through you belongings. The system of keeping the game running while the inventory is open is a mechanic, and one that games have utilized to effect before. The gimmick is having the inventory appear on the Gamepad screen, something which only the Wii U currently has, although Microsoft is apparently looking to marry the Surface tablets to the Xbox One in a similar way.
While I have heard that this gimmick adds a bit of style to the game, the truth is most developers do not seek out this functionality. Nintendo certainly isn’t alone in this field; Sony and Microsoft have both been known to require inclusion of functionality for the Move, Sixaxis, Kinect, or what-have-you. The Wii is certainly the worst offender in recent years, though, and companies like EA were quite vocal about discontinuing support for that system based on Nintendo’s insistence that every game include some amount of arm-waving.
Nintendo also loves to shove their own creations in everyone’s face, at the expense of other titles that they supposedly wanted on their console. Going back to my ‘Stop days and our Nintendo rep, the closest I’ve ever seen him to upset was when we had Tatsunoko vs. Capcom: Ultimate All-Stars in the demo system instead of a first-party title. According to him, the whole reason Nintendo provided demo units was to showcase their own games, and failure to do so could result in us losing our Wii. The game at that time was supposed to be New Super Mario Bros. Wii, which had been out for months, and had already come down from its holiday sales.
Our Wii had a tendency to freak out and lock on the title screen of a game if it had been in too long, and our copy of Mario literally wouldn’t boot without freezing. We tried to explain that showcasing the fighting game – a Wii exclusive, to this day – had led to increased sales of the game, accessories, and even a few systems. Most people didn’t seem to have any idea the title existed, and watching others play it seemed to draw customers to that corner of the store. Apparently that didn’t matter, though, and our rep was all smiles as he bought a new copy of Mario with his company card, opened it, and popped it back into the system.
In the months since launch, the flagging Wii U has not been able to rake in the sales of its predecessor, let alone keep up with the competition. Many have pointed to the system’s retail price as the issue; the Wii U can run anywhere from $300-$400 dollars, depending on what bundles are on offer. There has also been confusion about what exactly constitutes a “Wii U.” My friends still in retail report almost daily instances of customers thinking all they need is the Gamepad accessory, and that linking it to their existing Wii will do the trick. People also seem to be having a harder time than usual differentiating between titles for the new console and the old one, leading to lots of frustrated returns.
The end result this year is a console with limited promise, selling at a high price point, up against two brand-new systems, in a market where the potential buyers aren’t even sure what they are buying. I feel like the executives at Nintendo got together and said “Ok, folks, the Wii was a bit too successful and accessible; we need to get back to being the scrappy under-dogs with controllers designed by modern art majors.” That may sound a bit harsh, and to a point, it’s almost the exact opposite of what I think is really going on.
Here’s my two cents: Nintendo is currently struggling precisely because of the success of the Wii and their focus on first-party titles.
Everyone bought a Wii. Seriously. I bet you’d be hard-pressed to find many people within the available markets who haven’t spent at least a few hours waving their arms about in front of that little sensor bar. Nintendo seized upon this, and ran very successful ad campaigns featuring grandparents and toddlers alike. Careful management of production led to a feeding frenzy on the console every holiday for five years running. People with no real interest in gaming as a whole were seized with the need for this little box and its wavy-arm sticks.
The inclusion of Wii Sports was a gold mine, as were Wii Fit and Wii Sports Resort; anecdotal evidence suggests that many households purchased a system, four Wii remotes and nunchuks, a Wii Fit kit, and almost nothing else. When I say “nothing else,” I am genuinely talking about Wii owners who didn’t even purchase a Mario title, because they were not gamers in any true sense. The Wii provided them with entertainment in a raw form generally only found in arcades.
These were Nintendo’s prime targets for the Wii, and while they kept the company in the black for years, this strategy began to alienate the core fans. People who wanted to play more expansive games – first-party and third-party alike – had to either deal with motion controls, or shell out more money for traditional controllers. In the case of The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, the GameCube version was actually considered the better choice because of these issues. In addition, the third-party situation wasn’t any better than before; the titles consisted of either older games re-worked with motion controls, or newer ones forced to deal with the motion controls and limited processor capabilities.
Over the course of this generation, the industry also became hooked on the idea of “HD” re-launches of classic titles, and just releasing older games as downloads at a reduced price point. Nintendo didn’t miss their chance, with quite a few HD remakes and the creation of the Wii Virtual Console and Nintendo Store. Hell, people had been accusing them of just releasing the same five games on a cycle for years anyway. This allowed them to enjoy the success of every Mario and Zelda game ad-infinitum.
Now, fast-forward to late 2012. Nintendo has been trying since E3 to get people interested in the Wii U. It’s got everything the Wii had, but now it also has the Gamepad, which has a touch screen, and lets you play games on it instead of you TV. It can still play Wii games, still has the Virtual Console, and uses other controllers and accessories that are essentially identical to the ones for the Wii.
That was confusing to get through, and I’m the one writing this shit.
The bottom line is that millions of consumers who already own a Wii – or, to be more precise, owned a Wii at some point – looked at the Wii U and collectively shrugged. Nintendo then turned to their fans, but for once in two decades looked at the promise of new adventures with Samus and Link didn’t do the trick. The first-party titles had been rarer than usual as the Wii wound down, and it didn’t look like that trend was changing anytime soon. Even an HD remake of LoZ: Windwaker couldn’t hide the fact that the Wii U’s schedule was a barren place, with only hints of promise months, even years down the line. With the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One launching alongside existing franchises and big exclusives within the next six months, things certainly look grim.
Oddly enough, none of these issues seems to affect the company’s handheld market, which has seen one massive success after another. The most recent hiccough was the 3DS launch, but Nintendo fixed that quickly: They dropped the price. Quite a bit. I’m not going to lie, I may pick up a 2DS; stupid name aside, the price point is appealing, and I care not a lick for the 3D function. I’m interested in buying one because – gasp! – the system offers titles I’m interested in, both from Nintendo and third-parties. Even more than that, titles like Resident Evil: Revelations have proven so lucrative that they have been ported to home consoles with positive results.
And therein, for my money, lies the best shot Nintendo has outside of the handheld market. Brace yourselves, because this will sound a little crazy: For the living room crowd, Nintendo needs to consider opening up their exclusives to the other companies. Especially with regards to some of their “classic” titles, this could mean massive sales via Xbox Live Arcade and the PlayStation Store.
I want you to close your eyes and imagine that you have sixty dollars. Now, imagine that you log into you system of choice to see that Super Mario 64, Goldeneye 64, and LoZ: Ocarina of Time are available for $20. As you open your eyes, can you honestly say that you would still have all $60? Because I’d be down to $20 and triple-jumping Mario’s happy ass all over my 360 while I stuffed my face with pizza and pretended Star Wars: Episode I could still turn out to be good. The N64 is hardly the limit, either, as the current consoles could handle everything Nintendo has ever released or currently has in development.
The Wii U isn’t a failure yet, but without a price drop and some genuinely compelling titles – or even the ok titles that fill out other systems – Nintendo will be shutting down production of the console by the end of 2016 at the latest. By that point, I cannot honestly say whether or not mobile gaming will have finally eliminated the desire for a dedicated handheld, as has been the prediction for several years running now. That could have Nintendo going the way of Sega, only without the rapport that Sega had built up within the industry over the years. They can either come to grips with that now, and try and shift their focus, or it will hit them in the face within the next five years.
I love Nintendo. My grandparents on one side had a NES with Mario and Duck Hunt for all of us to play; my first consoles, ever, were a Game Boy and then a Super NES; I experienced the renaissance of the N64 in full joy; I even defended the GameCube, though my love for it was born of mature, third-party titles like Eternal Darkness, MGS: The Twin Snakes, and Resident Evil 4. My family owned a Wii like everyone else, though I can honestly say we never had more than five games for it, and I have never beaten a game to completion by waving my arms around.
Beth and I have talked more than once about splitting the cost of a Wii U, but the end result is always that the total cost of the system could easily pay for six or more titles on consoles we already own. We’ve both got Xbox Ones pre-ordered, and then announcement of a potentially solid release date for Metal Gear Solid V means I’ll own a PlayStation 4 by my birthday in July at the latest. I finally created a next-gen list on Amazon, and it hit a dozen games through 2014 without me even trying.
I’m sorry, Mario, but my interest is in another castle.
Leave a Reply