With the announcement of the Wii U, everyone thought Nintendo was wrong. Hell, we thought Nintendo was out of touch, foolish and doomed for producing a gaming-focused, two-screen console that wouldn't be able to compete technologically with whatever Sony and Microsoft offered in the new generation. The most vocal players wanted better graphics, bigger games and more online experiences. The Wii U offered sub-standard graphics, convoluted online policies and a lineup of classic franchises that, in theory, could eventually show up on the console. By its launch in November 2012, the Wii U was a joke and its sales suffered.
But then: Sony launched the PlayStation 4; Microsoft launched the Xbox One; and as hype for each rose and fizzled out, the Wii U began to look more promising. It had been out for a year longer, meaning it had more games. It offered local cooperative and competitive experiences, something in short supply from the online-focused PS4 and Xbox One. Most importantly, it offered fun -- and today, with a lineup of revamped classics and fresh competitive experiences, the Wii U is the most consistently joyful console of the current generation. As it turns out, Nintendo wasn't wrong. We were.
Nintendo's Wii U GamePad
Jessica Conditt, Senior Gaming Reporter
Let's be clear here: The Wii U isn't a current-generation powerhouse like the Xbox One or PS4. Its sales record remains poor and Nintendo is already preparing to divert attention (and consumer cash) to a mysterious new console code-named "NX." Details about that system won't emerge until 2016, but it says a lot that Nintendo, a traditionally secretive company, is already talking about a new console. This could be a move to sweep the Wii U under the rug alongside the Virtual Boy, Power Glove and GameCube.
But, just like the GameCube, the Wii U has wiggled its way into the hearts of many players, including myself. A lot of people have that one, Wii U-owning friend who will extol the virtues of Nintendo's latest console for hours on end (and if you don't have that friend, you might be it). The conversation usually goes something like this:
"There's no point in getting a Wii U with the Xbox One and PS4 out now."
"Wrong. The Wii U is amazing."
"But it's so weird. What's with that big controller with the screen in it?"
"No, thanks. I have to finish milking this cow before dinner."
OK, so the conversation probably doesn't end like that, but most people with a Wii U have most likely enacted variants of this dialogue. I certainly have. Sometimes it ends well: It's wonderful when a group of friends gather at my place for a night of Wii U madness -- usually Mario Kart 8 or Smash Bros. -- and everyone is down for another round. And another. And another.
"Just like the GameCube, the Wii U has wiggled its way into the hearts of many players, including myself."
-- Jessica Conditt
Nintendo excels at capturing the strange magic of video games, and the Wii U is no different. Nintendo's franchises are joyful and bright, and its hardware choices often appear to make zero sense until you actually get your hands on them. The industry needs a company like Nintendo -- it isn't heavily invested in military-style first-person shooters and it oftentimes seems to completely disregard what its competitors are up to. When Nintendo announced the Wii U, it was as if the company hadn't ever heard of 60fps or 1080p, and Microsoft and Sony were just two organizations barely on the periphery of Nintendo's marketing plan. Such an approach turned out to be a detriment to Nintendo's bottom line this time around, but sometimes it clicks and alters the industry for decades to come. Does anyone remember the Wii, the silly little console that relied on motion controls? Your little sister, older brother, mother, father and grandparents sure do. Sony, Microsoft, Oculus VR, Valve and a dozen other hardware companies do. Nintendo's weirdness is often a boon to the creativity of the industry.
In the wake of Nintendo President and CEO Satoru Iwata's death, I carry one hope for the company going forward: that it stays weird. I hope it never loses its sense of fun and its emphasis on childlike joy in video games. I hope it keeps creating odd, risky consoles like the Wii U -- but that it also has some industry-defining Wiis and DSes in the mix.
Nintendo's former CEO Satoru Iwata
Sean Buckley, Associate Editor
I knew I was going to be wrong about the Wii U the first time I saw it. It's almost a tradition: Nintendo announces a new product; I denounce it as an awful idea; and it turns out to be great. It happened to me when Nintendo created the DS (two screens? Absurd.), and again when it went all-in on motion controls (where's my dual-stick gamepad?). I even dismissed the 3DS as a gimmick until I looked through it with my own eyes. Year after year, Nintendo proved to me that my instincts were wrong. So, when the Wii U launched, I threw those instincts out. I indoctrinated myself as one of the Nintendo faithful, come hell or high water. And so far, I have no regrets.
That isn't to say my faith is blind. I've written at length about Nintendo's struggles, both as a hardware and software company. I'm a Nintendo apologist, but I'm not a moron. Nintendo messed up a lot of things with the Wii U's launch, but I can't agree with the folks who argue that the company's path to success lies on the road more traveled. I'm speaking of arguments that Nintendo needs to ditch its strange controllers, low-cost hardware and bizarre, dual-screen devices for more traditional game consoles. Making the next Nintendo console a Mario-powered Xbox won't save the company; it'll strip it of everything that makes it unique, fun and worthwhile. The Wii U has problems, but I love it because it's weird, insane and non-conventional, not in spite of those things.
Take Nintendo's latest sleeper hit, Splatoon. It's everything a team shooter isn't supposed to be: colorful, bright, quirky, childish and completely devoid of voice chat and matchmaking. It's also the most fun I've ever had with an online multiplayer shooter. I adore it -- from the motion-based control scheme (a far better replacement for PC-gaming mouse-look than the traditional dual-analog setup), to how the multiplayer's main game mode emphasizes teamwork over individual player scores. It's a Nintendo-exclusive experience -- not because it's a Nintendo exclusive game, but because it's more focused on being a fun game than a competitive by-the-numbers shooter.
"Making the next Nintendo console a Mario-powered Xbox won't save the company; it'll strip it of everything that makes it unique, fun and worthwhile."
-- Sean Buckley
It's not just the attitude, either. Nintendo's unique hardware has enabled experiences I simply can't get elsewhere. Recently, my Wii U has become my teacher, gently guiding me through the technical aspects of illustration and painting with Art Academy: Home Studio. I remember mocking the Wii U Gamepad for having an outdated resistive touchscreen, but now that I'm using it to learn to paint, its limitations are enlightening. I used to think you needed expensive tools to make art, but Nintendo's outdated technology reminded me that it's not the tool that matters; it's talent. Somehow, I don't think I would have learned the same thing from an Xbox One.
Nintendo's Iwata said it best. "Above all, video games are meant to just be one thing: Fun for everyone." This simple phrase has become one of the most widely shared quotes since the CEO passed away earlier this month, and I can't think of a better way to describe what makes Nintendo and the Wii U unique. Nintendo's brand of fun is founded in a simple joy that applies to everyone. As much as I love my PlayStation 4 and my custom gaming PC, I just can't say that for the rest of the market.
That said, I had my early doubts about the Wii U. Nintendo was using a hardware architecture completely out of step with the rest of the industry, a move that would make it hard to stay competitive. It looked grim then, but the fanboy in me argued otherwise. The Wii U's processor was also a half-step forward, living somewhere between the old console generation and the new one. Was Iwata trying to carve out a half-generation console cycle? I certainly thought so.
At the time, it made sense: The Wii U was launching a year before the rest of the next-gen consoles while being less powerful than them, but still being more so than the current generation. I was convinced Nintendo was trying to beat the Xbox 360 and PS3 at the Wii U's launch, optimize its games to keep pace with the PS4 and Xbox One later on and quietly introduce hardware that beat both of them halfway through the next generation -- when it could no longer compensate for its lower specs with optimized software. For a while I abandoned this theory, but with the NX on the horizon, I'm starting to wonder if it's still possible.
Whatever Nintendo's next console is, I know it'll be radical and unconventional. My first instinct will be to reject it, but I've learned my lesson. I already know I'm wrong and I can't wait to admit it.
Joseph Volpe, Features Editor
I get Nintendo. Whether that's because I've been there with the company since its NES beginnings (I received the console in the winter of 1985 during the New York soft launch) or the years I spent studying Japanese language and culture, Nintendo's always made sense to me. But, make no mistake, I am far from a Nintendo apologist. I've shaken my fists in frustration and cursed the company's bizarre choices (Metroid Prime: Federation Force, anyone?) and tone-deaf marketing as much as the rest of the internet haterade parade. But mine is a tough love for a gaming outfit so married to its entrenched philosophy of games as "fun," whereas the collective sentiment of the online mob seems to be: Kill! Kill! Kill! Because, well, that's what they like to do in HD.
But has anyone ever stopped to wonder why the loudest voices in gaming are lusting over Nintendo's supposed death rattle? Why are we so angrily shouting for the end days of a company that's staunchly refused to abandon its pursuit of innovation and experiences that provoke childlike wonderment? Is it because we're actively trying to murder our childhoods? Has Nintendo become the blankie we're all afraid to admit we hugged tightly before going off to sleep at night?
Kirby and the Rainbow Curse
This is a company that saved gaming from Atari's notorious blunders, kicked off a home entertainment revolution, cemented a multibillion-dollar industry and carved out a reputation for itself as gaming's preeminent content maker. This is a company we all invariably have some fond memory of -- be it your first experience with whatever reinvention of Mario or Zelda or Pikmin or Metroid or Kirby or Donkey Kong or Mario Kart or Super Smash Bros. This is a company that bucked the trend of high-octane, "It only does everything" silicon horsepower for decidedly underpowered, meek and quirky hardware at a lower cost (and kicked off yet another gameplay revolution). This is the company that got your grandparents to "bowl" in their living rooms. This is a company that used Muppets in its recent E3 digital presentation. MUPPETS.
If that's a long list of sins against gaming, then I guess we have different interpretations of wrongdoing. Locking down a console that's not connected to the internet or telling prospective gamers to pick up a second job to finance a console seem like more egregious corporate infractions. But, hey, that's just me. You vote with your dollars and the message has been made abundantly clear: Nintendo must die.
"Has anyone ever stopped to wonder why the loudest voices in gaming are lusting over Nintendo's supposed death rattle?"
-- Joseph Volpe
In a sense, that mission's been nearly accomplished. Nintendo is now reluctantly embracing mobile; a new console is on its way; and the Wii U, by all accounts, is dead. It's not dead in my living room, but in the narrative that's been concretely spun in the press and on countless internet forums and social channels. I don't think anyone would argue that Nintendo didn't massively bungle the Wii U's launch -- that's a fairy tale for the most extreme of fanboys. But if there's ever been a more compelling case for a second act, it's the massive turnaround Nintendo's pulled off in the Wii U's stellar lineup of first-party games. I own all three current-generation consoles, but the Wii U is the only one I actually use to play games. Shocking, I know. And to think, back when it launched, we mocked Nintendo for creating a console so laser-focused on the gaming experience. What fools, right?
The Wonderful 101
I won't list out all of the must-buy AAA games I've amassed for the sure-to-be-collectible console, but I will share this quick anecdote. Back in the fall of 2013, Nintendo published The Wonderful 101, a tremendously overlooked exclusive from Platinum Games that suffered from one dire fault: Its control scheme wasn't well-explained. I'd picked up the game at release and then promptly abandoned it after 30 minutes of playtime. It wasn't until one weekend night months later -- around February or so -- that I'd read up on forum posts and watched some YouTube tutorials that laid out the combat mechanics, which involved using the stylus, or a thumb to squiggle sigils on the GamePad's screen. Eight hours later, and I was still balancing on the exercise ball in front of my TV, furiously scrawling sigil after sigil on the GamePad's screen, mashing out combos and happily playing through each of the game's missions. I can't remember ever having that much nonstop fun on any other company's system. It made me look upon the DualShock 4 and Xbox One controller with pity. With the GamePad, Nintendo had done something different and it was joyous.
And that's because the company's never been afraid to take risks. Sure, we can all bleat on about wanting a Nintendo console "that's as powerful as the PS4 or Xbox One," but have you seen the art direction in any of Nintendo's Wii U games?! For a console that's essentially three GameCubes stacked together (or so they say on GAF), it does a fine job at delivering HD eye candy (see: the very "fresh" Splatoon) that rivals its more able console brethren. Besides, Nintendo answered that community cry for a powerhouse console once before. It was called the GameCube and it didn't sell. I think the commonly held explanation for that commercial disappointment was that it failed to let us kill things in HD. And, oh how we love to snipe in high resolutions.
Super Mario Maker
Alas, no matter how many times Nintendo's products fly in the face of criticism and contradict the assault of naysayers (e.g., Nintendo Wii; online multiplayer in Splatoon), it's doomed to live in a Groundhog's Day of its own devising. See, Nintendo has a brilliant message, but for whatever reason, the company can't seem to translate it properly. Iwata, Nintendo's beloved and recently deceased CEO, knew this and was trying to overcome it. I just hope the rest of Nintendo can continue to ignore the haters and carry on his legacy.
[Images: Bloomberg via Getty Images (top image; Satoru Iwata); Nintendo (Wii U; Splatoon; Art Academy: Home Studio; Kirby and the Rainbow Curse; The Wonderful 101; Super Mario Maker)]