Nintendo Wii U: An Obituary.

The Nintendo Wii U has been the worst selling home console by the consumer electronics company in its 128 year history, a confusing unit that suffered with an identity crisis, never quite reaching its potential, but never really knowing what its full potential was, in the five years since its release it only managed to sell a paltry 13 million units, a fraction of the 100 million units shifted by its predecessor, the Wii, so what went wrong?

Up until 2005 Nintendo were seeing a gradual decline in sales of each generation of new hardware, the company were now facing its stiffest competition in the Xbox 360 and PS3, and though the Gamecube did boast a 600-strong library of games and proved itself more technically capable than the PS2, it was still unable to get close to the same levels of popularity and sales.

Then at E3 that year, Nintendo revealed the Wii, a home console that introduced motion controls as standard, the Wii Remote, the system’s primary controller that would recognise movement and gestures, and Wii Sports, to be bundled with the console, this game included 5 sports simulations playable with multiple players, and seemingly very easy to just pick up and play.

It released in December of 2006 and broke sales records worldwide, there were stock shortages throughout 2007, and it was even outselling the PS3 and Xbox 360 combined, everyone was buying the Wii, with its ease of use and family friendly selection of party games, it continued to sell massive numbers for years until starting to drop off in 2011, having reached nearly 100 million sold and being Nintendo’s best-selling home console ever.

Whilst riding high on that success, Nintendo announced in April 2011 that they had been working on the Wii’s successor, and in June they unveiled the Wii U, the successor to the Wii, an HD console which whilst able to play all previous Wii games, was also able to show off titles comparable to the already established Xbox and Playstation systems, but with the benefit of a 6.2inch touchscreen built into the controller, motion controls, and much more.

Being the avid Nintendo fanboy I am, I remember sitting down and watching this very press conference, drinking in the new ideas Nintendo were bringing with this new system and its unique ‘Gamepad’ controller, this was to be Nintendo keeping the casual-gamer appeal whilst also catering to the hard-core crowd who were all feeling a little left out after the Wii had been so mass market.

However, what came across was that the Wii U was an add-on, a new controller that enhanced your Wii with off-TV play, touchscreen capabilities and enhanced motion controls, I even remember having a conversation with a friend of mine, trying to explain that it’s an entirely new system and not just a fancy peripheral, and if I was having this conversation then others would likely be doing the same, not ideal when the previous message had been so simple and done so well for it.

The Wii U launched in the November 2012, I had pre-ordered mine and went to a midnight opening to collect it, securing myself the Premium 32GB model with the bundled copy of ZombiU, whilst also picking up New Super Mario Bros. U, and Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed just because, I waited until the next day to set everything up in order to look upon it all with fresh eyes, and I was genuinely impressed.

ZombiU was an unforgiving game, utilising the touchscreen and motion controls of the new Gamepad, it immersed you into a dystopian London, where if you weren’t completely aware of your surroundings at all times you died, Super Mario looked nice, as did Sonic Racing, but made little use of the Wii U’s unique facilities, this didn’t bother me though, I had a shiny new Nintendo system and there were games on the horizon once I was done with what I had.

It was seven months before anything else came out that I was interested in, Pikmin 3, I had been eagerly awaiting the release of Rayman Legends but constant delays by Ubisoft meant there was no stopgap in-between, and by its final release in August I was playing Pikmin and couldn’t be bothered with it, plus The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD was 2 months away and I wasn’t going to miss out on that.

Pikmin 3 and Wind Waker HD were great games, but apart from enabling easy map access and navigation via the Gamepad screen, and some small first person elements in Wind Waker, that was it, the touchscreen meant commands could be inputted whilst monitoring what was happening on the other side of the levels via the TV, handy but not massively groundbreaking.

I had plenty to be getting on with for the moment, and getting close to the holiday season there was a selection of multiplatform games I was choosing to add to my Christmas list, apart from system exclusive Super Mario 3D World, everything else was being chosen for PS3, why? Because trophies, as much as I wanted to support the Wii U, I still yearned for that familiar sound upon completion of a level or defeat of a boss.

After the holidays were over though Super Mario 3D World got a whole lot of attention, I still rate it as one of the most enjoyable games I’ve played in recent years, there’s something so pure and beautiful about it, it’s like a love letter to everything that has come before it, still to this day I’m trying to get 100% completed but my patience is not what it was, and failing at the same section over and over just to try and get a stage’s last remaining green star has me raging at times.

3D World had small elements that made use of the Gamepad’s extra functions, only really becoming apparent in the Captain Toad mini-games, spinning the level and camera with the motion controls to achieve the best view of the stage was surprisingly refreshing, receiving such good feedback to even become its own spin-off on the Wii U a year later.

In the post-festive financial drought Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze, or Arctic Monkeys as I liked to refer to it, passed me by, but then somehow I ended up buying a PS4, some young lad in need of a new dirt bike, shifting his Christmas present to raise the cash meant I didn’t have to part with too much from my savings, and it was much less than I’d have had to shell out from a store, needless to say, the Wii U started to gather dust.

Finally in May the obligatory new console version of Mario Kart came out, hugely fun, and stunning to look at, every chance I got I played it, but as good as Mario Kart 8 is, somehow the motion controls weren’t a patch on previous title Mario Kart Wii, that just didn’t make any sense to me, and the implementation of the Gamepad just seemed frivolous, with a slightly larger overview of the racetrack, and optional touchscreen button to beep your horn, a weird choice, but a good laugh nonetheless, and luckily I had also received the higher capacity Gamepad battery for Christmas so I no longer had to worry about being plugged in whilst playing or my play sessions coming to an abrupt halt because of the familiar flashing red battery indicator.

The following month I bought One Piece: Unlimited World Red for both PS3 and Wii U, mainly because the PS3 had a special edition and I wanted the goodies, but I also wanted a new game for my Nintendo, the problem was, the PS3 copy had trophies so I found myself favouring that version, I am a self-confessed trophy whore, and even though Mario Kart 8 had stamps that could be collected for achieving certain things, it just didn’t quite have the same level of satisfaction to it.

We were seeing new releases from classic Nintendo IP’s and still nothing that makes the Wii U shout “Look what I can do”, yes most of them featured some form of touchscreen functionality but that was it, on numerous occasions I desperately wanted to just use my Pro Controller, pick it up, turn on the console and play whatever, but no, regardless of what I was playing, I had to use the Gamepad, I don’t think an accessory has ever gone so unused as the Pro, well perhaps my Playstation Move controllers, but even then it’s close.

The run up to Christmas of 2014 had Hyrule Warriors, Bayonetta 2, and Smash Bros, the 1st two of which I loved, but without the inclusion of a Subspace Emissary-style single player mode I got kinda bored of Smash Bros, the reasons for this omission were because a portion of the cutscenes were leaked to the internet and Nintendo felt “if players saw the cutscenes outside of the game, they would no longer serve as rewards for playing the game”, really Nintendo? Really?

It was beginning to look like full Gamepad utilisation was never going to appear, I picked up Watch Dogs on Wii U in the New Year sales and really tried to like it but that wasn’t the Wii U’s fault, I bought Mario Party 10, didn’t play it, then the new Kirby game, beautiful graphics but it forces you to look at the gamepad’s 480p screen in order to play, making it better suited to watch someone else play than actually taking part yourself.

Then despite not enjoying the demo at EGX I purchased Splatoon, wow! Splatoon was the game we’d be waiting for, amazing fun, and took advantage of everything the system could offer, move with the control sticks, aim by moving the gamepad, the matchmaking was fast and I could play quick blasts whilst my wife was putting our son to bed, perfect for the man-child on the go.

I grabbed Yoshi’s Woolly World too to scratch my platformer itch, the same for Super Mario Maker, but soon gave up on the latter after discovering the levels I was making were crap, and I wasn’t able to beat the better ones others were making, but if ever another game was best suited for the Wii U, this was it, the touchscreen was ideal for the drag and drop stage creation, make it on the small screen, play it on the big screen.

The next month I picked up Fatal Frame, played the intro, got scared, haven’t played it since, I only bought it because it had a limited edition, but finally this was another title that used the motion controls and gamepad for a fuller immersion, we were now up to four or five games in two years that you could genuinely say provided a definitive Wii U experience, but this was the last of the ailing system’s problems.

Christmas 2015 was dreadful, apart from Xenoblade Chronicles X, there was nothing, the new Mario Tennis held no interest for me, and everything else was eShop indie bits, the F-Zero-like Fast Racing Neo being the most attractive of those and luckily I ended up being able to review it for our website, sales did see an increase over the festive season owing to the excellent releases from earlier in the year, but still only shifting barely 2 million compared to the 8 million of the PS4 and the 5 million that Xbox One had managed

2 months passed, and we were given The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess HD, possibly the dullest of the Zelda series in my opinion, and the unfortunately shallow Pokkén Tournament, then came April, and Star Fox Zero, hmmm, yes, Star Fox Zero, a last ditch attempt to marry a beloved Nintendo IP with the capabilities of the gamepad, now truthfully I quite like Star Fox Zero for all its faults, the controls though are a hideous mess and almost virtually break you trying to get the hang of them, but personally I feel the game could’ve been saved if Nintendo patched in a classic control scheme, but no, it’s us that are wrong, not Nintendo.

I ended up buying Xenoblade Chronicles X in the January sales, definitely not a title you can play in short spells, but I’m still playing it now and have clocked up over 70 hours, it’s a very niche game, but suits the Gamepad really well in its subtle use of the touchscreen, it just works perfectly for this game, though off-TV play is rendered near impossible due to the amount of text you have to read and the terrible resolution of the gamepad.

A couple of titles crossed my path to review on Wii U over the next couple of months, Lego Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and Poncho, both excellent games but not Wii U centric, and then Paper Mario: Color Splash hit retail, full of charm and new ideas like each incarnation of the Paper Mario series, this time using the touchscreen to paint your weapon cards, as well as cutting out sections of scenery to reach new platforms and areas, cute and often very funny, but it wasn’t going to set the world on fire.

That brings us to now, March 2017, I’ve not bought a game since Paper Mario, most new releases appearing are eShop indie titles, and production of the Wii U ended in November, one last hurrah for the system is the hotly anticipated The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, originally due as a console exclusive to launch in 2015, this latest in the series was delayed into 2016, and then Nintendo announced their new console, The Switch, and the new Zelda was to become a launch title for that, and a final farewell to the Wii U.

So many things could be blamed for the system’s failure, the mixed message about what it was from the beginning, a lack of support from big third-party developers, or the launch of Xbox One and PS4 a mere year after Wii U’s release? All factors that definitely didn’t help, but perhaps the biggest of all being, did Nintendo know what the Wii U wanted to be in the first place?

It launched with a good selection of games, a couple which actually showed off what the new Gamepad and touchscreen could do, but most were ports of games that were available on other systems with just a few tweaks here and there, and the trend really continued from there, even Nintendo struggled to find a good use for everything its system could do.

Of the top ten selling games on the system, just Nintendo Land and Splatoon truly made the most of everything available, attempts at motion controlled first person views, and extra-screen map or menu navigation being generally all we got, and the least said about Star Fox Zero the better, innovation for innovation’s sake, did the Wii U try too hard? Or did it not try hard enough?

I personally enjoyed my time with the Wii U, and there are still plenty of games I own that I’m determined to finish before it gets retired, but these last few years have found me getting increasingly more frustrated with Nintendo, this company I once held in such high regard, sticking to their guns and traditional values regarding how they think games should be, yes we all want to go back to the halcyon days when gaming was at its purest, but sadly it isn’t going to happen.

The big problem was the Wii U immediately fell into a grey area between console generations, it had the specs to stand up to the PS3 and Xbox 360 in areas, but was released 6 years later, right at the end of the seventh generation cycle, this was a machine out of place and out of time, most of the core gamers were off with Sony and Microsoft, having already seen Nintendo largely ignore them in focusing on the casual gamers with the Wii, the Wii U was set to try to change that but the focus was still split between the two, so neither side got the attention they needed and found themselves sufficiently catered for elsewhere.

Luckily it looks like the Wii U has been a major learning curve for Nintendo, but has it been enough? Though the Switch may not be quite as powerful as the PS4 & Xbox One, it is completely portable, and in this age of mobile gaming being at its most popular, Nintendo may have just hit the nail on the head, with a good range of media streaming services, better implementation of the Virtual Console, and a steadier supply of third-party titles being released for the system, there just might be room still left in the market for the Switch and Nintendo itself, I for one certainly hope so.

by @HighStefanition 01/03/17