When the Wii U ended production last month to make way for the Switch, it marked one of the shortest runs for a Nintendo console.
With an Australian release date of 30 November 2012, the Wii U debuted with great expectations. Nintendo’s prior console, the Wii, used motion controls to shatter sales records, becoming the fastest selling console in Australian history. The Wii U, however, would struggle to meet this success, with Nintendo repeatedly downgrading its projections for the console’s sales. The Wii U has sold 13.56 million units to date, compared to its predecessor’s 101.63 million. Whether or not the system deserved to do better than this remains contentious, and there are a number of things to weigh up in assessing the console’s legacy.
A Break With Tradition
In terms of what Nintendo did right, the Wii U’s software marked a slight departure from the safe territory that the Big N often treads. This can mostly be seen with the willingness to develop new IP and to be open to that of other companies. When Sega pulled back from publishing the already-underway sequel to the cult classic Bayonetta, Nintendo stepped into the breach, announcing that they would publish it as a Wii U exclusive. With its tongue in cheek sexuality and deliberately OTT approach to violence, Bayonetta 2 was the antithesis of the Big N’s traditionally family friendly approach. With a main character whose clothes partially come off as she attacks, a camera intent on checking her out, and a convoluted storyline involving heaven, hell, and purgatory, Bayonetta 2 is the kind of title Nintendo may have previously lectured Sega for publishing. Nintendo did not criticise these aspects of the undeniably excellent Bayonetta, however, nor did they marginalise the game or its protagonist. When Nintendo gave fans the chance to vote on what characters should appear as DLC for the Wii U version of Smash Bros, they overwhelmingly voiced support for the Umbra witch. The company heeded their wishes. In keeping with the theme, Smash Bros’ Bayonetta was controversial. Considered overpowered, many in the game’s community shunned her use, and the character was recently nerfed in response. The publication, however, of an adult-oriented IP, and the importing of that same IP into one of their own key franchises was a risky move on Nintendo’s part the likes of which had not been seen since they embraced Conker’s Bad Fur Day in 2001. It was emblematic of a company that was willing to try new things.
Another example of this was Nintendo’s cultivation of a new IP in Splatoon. While in keeping with Nintendo’s more traditional, family-friendly eschewing of violence, Splatoon is nonetheless an online multiplayer shooter, albeit one that revolves around paintball. Given Nintendo’s past aversion to online multiplayer and having never made a shooter before, the game worked well enough that its characters will now appear in other titles, including a fully fledged sequel on the Switch. For a company known for its mining of Mario, the move into a new genre with new faces was partiuclarly noteworthy.
Held Back By Errors
Of course, mistakes were made that prevented the Wii U from being more successful.
Among these was its odd placement in the console cycle. Too early to really be ‘next gen’ and only moderately more powerful than the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, the Wii U was derided for being underpowered. As Hyper wrote shortly before release, “this is not really next gen. It’s this gen and a bit.” More importantly, the machine was not embraced by a number of third-party games producers, and the Wii U missed out on a long list of games that continued to make their way to its technically obsolete competitors, then later to the more powerful PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.
The “Wii U is underpowered” argument came with some more specific complaints about its architecture. Nintendo admitted recently that it was an error that the machine was not really compatible with the Unreal 4 engine, an omission that the Kyoto-based gaming giant has already rectified with the Switch. The company also appears to have listened to gamers’ complaints about the Wii U’s region locking, an unpopular feature that will not be part of the Switch’s design.
The above errors combined with challenges in marketing the Wii U that Nintendo really overcame. Returning to the Wii brand undoubtedly had its benefits (the Wii U was fully backwards compatible with Wii games and accessories) but it also held the new venture back. When Nintendo unveiled the new console, its campaign focused largely on the benefits of its touch screen controller. As such, it was unclear to casual consumers that the Wii U was a new console rather than a new accessory. This confusion was evident in the JB Hi Fi signs that reminded customers that Wii U games would not work on the older console (which the new machine somewhat resembled). By rebranding their new product, and focusing its marketing efforts on its new features, Nintendo clearly aims to avoid this mistake with the Switch.
Looking at the Wii U near the end of its lifespan, its existence seems paradoxical: its successes stemming from a Nintendo willing to do something different, its failure to do better from those aspects of Nintendo that critics frequently deride. And yet, much like the GameCube before it, it is likely to be remembered fondly as a financially underperforming system that nonetheless gave us exactly what Nintendo wanted it to. When pulled out and dusted off, the likes of Bayonetta 2 and Splatoon will hold up as classics. The Wii U will be remembered for giving us classic games such as these. Nothing more. Nothing less.
Top 10 Nintendo Wii U Games
- The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker HD
- Bayonetta 2
- Mario Kart 8
- Smash Bros for Wii U
- Batman; Arkham City
- Super Mario 3D World
- New Super Mario Bros U
- The Mighty 101
- Zombi U