It seemed like it happened overnight, the toppling of the Nintendo era of dominance. I don’t even know when it happened. The NES obviously dominated the 80’s and the SNES basically dominated everywhere except the US where it was neck and neck with Sega’s Genesis. Actually, the turning point may have come during that era when a little game called Mortal Kombat was released to home consoles in 1993. Mortal Kombat, as most are likely aware, was a fantastically bloody affair and something Nintendo didn’t want on its machine. Sega, on the other hand, was willing to accept the title and all its gore so long as it was blocked by a password (the incredibly easy to administer A, B, A, C, A, B, B). I know, for me, it was that game that made we want a Genesis, and after I got one, I never bought another SNES game.
It seems like ever since Nintendo has been up and down. While Sega would vanish from the console business, new competitors Sony and Microsoft were next to challenge the Nintendo empire and have been very successful at doing so. Nintendo’s next two consoles failed to lead the market, but with the release of the Wii the company came storming back. Underpowered but also underpriced when compared to its competitors, the Wii was able to gain a large market share with it’s unique motion-based controls. The party nature of the console helped it surge to a huge lead and the head of the market. Because of the hardware within, it didn’t take long for the limitations of the console to show itself and it became clear that Nintendo would have to be aggressive in releasing its next console if it wanted to maintain its share of the market. Enter the Wii U, the similarly named successor boasting a new gamepad. With a modest price point and familiar interface, it seemed Nintendo was poised to hold onto its Wii consumer base for a while longer. Not so fast.
The first stumbling block for the Wii U relied in the marketing. Which is to say, there wasn’t a whole lot. The labeling of the console, and perhaps even the look, have lead to consumer confusion as some people weren’t clear on if the Wii U was a new console or just an add-on for the outdated Wii. When a big portion of a console’s consumer base is described as casual, this is the kind of thing that happens. The next obstacle is what’s under the hood. The Wii U is a boost over the Wii but it’s not clear if the machine is more powerful than existing consoles from Microsoft and Sony. This has lead to a feeling that the Wii U isn’t really a “next generation” machine and the hardcore gaming crowd hasn’t been convinced that this is a must own console.
Perhaps the biggest contributor to the Wii U’s lukewarm reception has been the inability of Nintendo to convey how innovative the gamepad is. The jury is largely still out on if it’s a worthwhile addition to home gaming. The Wii U launch lineup was actually pretty solid, especially when compared to the lackluster launches of other recent consoles. The Wii U even had a Mario title at launch, the first Nintendo console to have such since the N64. The problem with it though is that it treats the gamepad as an afterthought. If Nintendo wanted to set the world on fire it needed to launch the system alongside a game that truly made good use of the gamepad. Nintendoland just wasn’t enough. And even though the Wii wasn’t blessed with an abundance of third party support, at least there were a few out there that seemed excited by the movement based controls. With the Wii U, a big company like EA already looks to have abandoned it and that, regardless of how you feel about EA and its games, is not a good sign.
Another, perhaps unforeseen, hurdle is the proliferation of casual gaming on tablets and cell phones. Nintendo was able to tap into this growing audience with the original Wii, but is it possible this group has already moved on to other things? The gamepad is quite similar to a tablet, or it is at least easy to perceive why someone would have that impression, and these gamers may wonder why they would ever need a Nintendo tablet. And with no major showings of games on the horizon, the more hardcore gaming community has been given little incentive to get a Wii U beyond some empty promises and HD remakes of old games.
If you’re a regular reader here, then you may know that I have been an early adopter of the Wii U. Since buying the deluxe version on launch day I’ve added one game to my collection, Scribblenauts Unlimited, a solid title but one that is also available on the 3DS. I currently have no idea what my next Wii U game will be because nothing has been announced or shown that is even remotely interesting. And with Nintendo announcing that they will not be holding a press event at E3 this year it makes me nervous that there’s very little to show. I worry that Nintendo really needed to make a splash with the Wii U, and by failing to do so, have doomed the console already.
I have been an early adopter for three recent consoles with the 3DS and Playstation Vita being the others. The 3DS struggled early before rebounding while the Vita is still a source of concern for Sony. Even so, I never regretted my 3DS purchase and I have yet to regret my Vita one but I pretty much already am regretting my Wii U purchase. I know that eventually Nintendo will get some first party software onto the Wii U that will be worthwhile, but how many such games can Nintendo reasonably release? And will any third party developers step up and release anything of note for the Wii U? Right now, those developers can still release current-gen ports to the Wii U, but once the more powerful PS4 and next Xbox arrive that may be out of the question. The console is unique enough that developers basically need to cater to it, but if sales are lagging as bad as they currently are then no developer will be willing to take that risk. Will the Wii U be the console that takes Nintendo out of the hardware business? My heart says no, but my brain is at least willing to entertain the notion.