Nintendo's Wii U launched at retail just over six months ago to a lukewarm reception from critics. An even more tepid response from consumers followed, with week-one sales trailing behind those of its predecessor. A massive day-one patch, missing functionality (Nintendo TVii, anyone?) and an ever-expanding launch window for games, some of which still aren't available (Pikmin 3, anyone?) are just a few of the many issues that overwhelmed the discussion last November. Company head Satoru Iwata even publicly apologized.
In the past six months, things have only gotten worse, with slumping sales, next-gen competition and a lack of Wii U-centric games on the horizon.
As E3 2013 nears -- where Nintendo usually has a big press conference and won't this year -- we're revisiting the Wii U for an update, six months out. We're not delving back into how the hardware works (surprise, it's identical to last year!) so much as looking at the console's early promise in contrast with its current predicament. Join us after the break.
The promise and the predicament
Nintendo's Wii U remains an intriguing game console. The second-screen concept, while a novelty, opened the door to some of 2012's most unique gaming experiences. Ubisoft's ZombiU utilized the Wii U's controller in thrilling ways, forcing players to stare down at the gamepad to rummage for supplies while the undead citizens of London approached from all sides on the big screen. And Nintendo, of course, had first-party games to exemplify the content it wanted developers to create, with Nintendo Land and New Super Mario Bros. U acting as sterling examples.
Outside of those early titles and a scant few since (Madden, Lego City Undercover, Batman: Arkham City, etc.), the gamepad has fallen into what Food Network's Alton Brown would call a "unitasker" -- a device with one use, which in this case is to play games as a controller. Many games allow off-screen play on the gamepad, but that's the extent to which its unique aspects are exploited; a notable plus for sure, but less interesting by a long shot than the promise of gameplay-specific uses like the aforementioned ZombiU scenario.
So, where are those experiences? And why aren't developers making them?
The shipping game
Sales of the Wii U are well below expectations at just 3.45 million units shipped as of March 31, and monthly sales aren't expected to improve until this fall as customers head into stores ahead of the holidays. Just one month before the Wii U's launch, Nintendo expected the console to have moved 5.5 million units by that March date; the company re-adjusted that expectation to 4 million units later, and then fell short of that goal as well. Those numbers have dire implications for the console's third-party development support -- the EAs and Activisions of the world are less likely to invest in Wii U versions of their multiplatform games if there aren't enough people with Wii U's buying them.
Ahead of E3, few major third-party exclusives loom in the distance. Bayonetta 2 and The Wonderful 101, both from Platinum Games, are on the way, as is a new Sonic game from Sega. Ubisoft is continuing support with versions of Rayman Legends, Assassin's Creed IV Black Flag, Splinter Cell: Blacklist and Watch Dogs heading to Wii U. Disney has Disney Infinity and Warner Bros. has Scribblenauts Unmasked and Batman: Arkham Origins. That's 10 games in total -- not too shabby! -- but only three of those 10 are exclusive to the Wii U.
Consoles do have fewer third-party exclusives these days. But in the case of the Wii U, the development focus that comes with exclusivity really matters. Few multiplatform third-party games make use of the Wii U's gamepad in any way beyond acting as a mirrored second screen, reflecting direct ports of Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 versions. Last year's Assassin's Creed III used the Wii U gamepad as an in-game map (as well as a second screen for playing the game), which set a precedent we expect to be repeated: little-to-no utilization of the Wii U's unique controller in multiplatform third-party games. At least nothing beyond nominal additions.
That's to say nothing of technical chops -- games like Assassin's Creed IV and Watch Dogs straddle the current console generation and the next, with many considering the next-gen versions the best option based on looks alone. As Microsoft's and Sony's next boxes are still unreleased, developers are creating 360 and PS3 versions (making a Wii U version relatively easy to produce given its similar capabilities). By the 2014 holiday season, however, fewer and fewer game developers will have the incentive to keep spending resources on lower-res, less-capable versions of next-gen games. What will multiplatform third-party support -- not to mention exclusive third-party support -- look like for the Wii U when gamers move en masse to the next generation? The same minigame-laden hellscape gamers experienced with the Wii?
'What's a Wii U?'
Of course, Nintendo's no stranger to being the odd man out. The Nintendo Wii and DS were less powerful than their competition and employed unique methods for player interaction. But where the DS found its audience with kids and the Wii attracted non-gamers with accessibility, the mainstream folks who initially embraced its predecessor thought the Wii U was little more than another accessory. This was such an issue, in fact, that Nintendo issued a message to Wii users explaining the difference in grueling detail:
"Wii U is the all-new home console from Nintendo. It's not just an upgrade -- it's an entirely new system that will change the way you and your family experience games and entertainment. The second screen on the included Wii U GamePad controller enables never-before-seen ways to play games and enjoy TV. And for the first time ever, you can see Mario and your favorite Nintendo franchises in glorious HD."
The Wii U's gamepad is about as far from the Wii's basic controller as Nintendo could go, and with that complexity comes inaccessibility. In so many words, Wii Sports is immediately understood by anyone watching. That same statement can't be applied to Nintendo Land, or even the latest Mario game. Gone are the days of charming Japanese men invading American homes, Wiimote in-hand, easily explaining their intent through gameplay.
The "hardcore" folks who've been following the Wii U story -- from Project Cafe, to the console's big unveiling at E3 2011, to its launch last holiday season -- understand the controller, and they understand the console. They're the ones buying Virtual Console games for $0.30 during Nintendo's "Trial Campaign" promotion and the ones watching Nintendo Direct. They're the ones who dropped $350 for the Deluxe version of the console and the ones to whom Nintendo claims it's catering. And they're the ones who have little to look forward to in the Wii U's future.
A good argument is hard to find
When we reviewed the Wii U last November, we suggested readers not buy the console "just yet," due to a variety of "major missteps and half-baked ideas." Those statements, sadly, remain true today. Despite one firmware update aimed at fixing the console's speed, switching between applications (even one as simple as System Settings) is a time-consuming chore. As we stated last year in our review, the Friends List / Miiverse confusion regarding friend requests is still... confusing. There is still no standard for games and other software utilizing the console's gamepad for off-screen play. But worst of all, third-party software support has all but disappeared, which means early adopters have little to look forward to outside of first-party Nintendo games.
With Microsoft's Xbox One and Sony's PlayStation 4 arriving this holiday -- both of which offer far more powerful hardware and many of the multiplatform games found on Wii U -- the argument for Nintendo's console is less powerful than ever.
We'll be at E3 2013 next week to find out how Nintendo plans to deliver on the promise of Wii U and get out of this unfortunate predicament.