What Now For The Wii U?

Just in case it’s escaped your attention, the Wii U isn’t doing very well. Not very well at all, in fact.

It got off to an OK start, with around 3 million consoles sold worldwide between its November 2012 launch and the end of 2012. These sales weren’t quite as good as the Wii’s (3.19 million Wii consoles had been sold less than a month after launch), but they weren’t far behind. However, since then sales have trailed off alarmingly – between April and June this year, Nintendo sold just 160,000 Wii U consoles worldwide. Breaking that figure down, 90,000 Wii Us were sold in Japan, 60,000 in the USA and just 10,000 in Europe, Australia and the rest of the world. Yes, you read that right, 10,000. To give you an idea how bad that figure is, between April and June 2007,  3.43 million Wii consoles were sold worldwide: 0.95 million in Japan, 1.44 million in the USA and 1.04 million in the rest of the world.

This is what a Wii U looks like. If you live in Europe or Australia, there's a good chance you've never seen one in the flesh.
This is what a Wii U looks like. If you live in Europe or Australia, there’s a good chance you’ve never seen one in the flesh.

What went wrong?

There are a number of things that could account for these disappointing sales. First of all there’s the problem that few people I speak to even know what the Wii U is. There seemed to be very little advertising (in Europe at least) around the Wii U’s launch, and for the most part the console seems to have completely escaped the public’s consciousness. It’s a far cry from the furore around the Wii when it launched – even my gran knew about Wii Sports, perhaps helped by newspaper articles depicting smashed TVs.

And speaking of Wii Sports, the Wii U is desperately in need of a killer app. Nintendoland just doesn’t cut the mustard, and New Super Mario Bros. U frankly isn’t much different from the old New Super Mario Bros., at least in Joe Public’s eyes. So much for the launch games, and since then there’s been very little in the way of new releases: Pikmin 3 and Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate have been welcome additions, but they’re hardly console sellers. Importantly, none of the games released so far have really sold the Wii U gamepad as an essential item – not in the same way as Wii Sports sold the Wii remote as a genuinely new gameplay experience. There’s a nagging sensation that most of the games for the Wii U would work just as well without the secondary touchscreen (perhaps with the exception of the excellent ZombiU).

It was clear that Nintendo were making an attempt to lure back ‘hardcore’ gamers with the launch of the Wii U – the presence of games like Assassin’s Creed 3 and Mass Effect 3 on the day-one line up was evidence of that, along with the high-profile signing of Platinum Games. But most of these gamers already own an Xbox 360 or PS3 that’s just as powerful as a Wii U, and with the release of the Xbox One and PS4 only months away, the Wii U is going to look embarrassingly underpowered. Likewise, there’s little for casual gamers to get excited about either – a touchscreen joypad is hardly the mainstream breakthrough that motion control was back in 2006. Motion control was the Wii’s triumph, but every console offers this now, and there’s a sense that the novelty has long since worn off. And what does that touchscreen do exactly?

So is the Wii U any good?

I’ve painted a pretty bleak picture for the Wii U, but I’ll admit I’m a big fan of the console. There’s not a huge distance in graphics between it and the Xbox 360, but it’s a massive improvement over the Wii – playing Mario in glorious HD is truly a joy.

The controller is a sublime piece of engineering too – it’s surprisingly light and comfortable to hold, and I love the way you can also use it as a TV remote. It’s absolutely fantastic for Lovefilm and Netflix – I can get both of these on my Xbox 360, but I always watch films on the Wii U. The touchscreen makes it really easy to search for films you want to see, and it feels very natural to fast forward or rewind TV using your finger, plus it’s also really handy to see how long is left on a film just by looking at the gamepad. In fact, whenever I’m watching normal TV or a DVD, I find I really miss having that touchscreen.

Take a good look Microsoft, this is what an easy-to-use dashboard looks like. Spot any adverts? Me neither.
Take a good look Microsoft, this is what an easy-to-use dashboard looks like. Spot any adverts? Me neither.

Miiverse is also brilliant – it’s far less intimidating that the online world of the Microsoft or Sony, and it has a real sense of community. It’s particularly handy if you find yourself getting stuck on a game – a quick call for help on Miiverse is all that’s needed. Then there’s the improved Nintendo eShop and Virtual Console, as well as the marvellous Wii U Street and Panorama View, which are brilliant showcases for what the console can do (Panorama View in particular left me gobsmacked when I first tried it – it’s like a 360 degree video).

All in all it’s a friendly, easy-to-use and wonderfully designed console. But…

Games drought

Let’s be frank, the Wii U is in desperate need of some games. Earlier this year, Nintendo President Satoru Iwata publicly apologised to Wii U owners for the games drought, but there’s little sign of it ending. Pikmin 3 and The Wonderful 101 were welcome summer arrivals, but there’s not a huge amount on the horizon to get excited about right now. We’ve been promised a new Mario Kart, Smash Bros. and Donkey Kong Country, but we’ve had so many of these games over the years already that I’m struggling to get excited about any of them. The new 3D Mario game looks promising, but it also doesn’t look anywhere near as enticing as Super Mario Galaxy. Wii Fit U is around the corner, but I’m doubtful that it will convince anyone to blow the dust off their balance boards. Wii Sports Club is a welcome return, but this should be free with the console, not cost £8.99 per sport. Finally, Bayonetta 2 is something I’m very much looking forward to, but at the end of the day it’s a cult game, not a console seller.

Bayonetta 2 - a new haircut isn't going to sell consoles.
Bayonetta 2 – a new haircut isn’t going to sell consoles.

The point is that all of these games should have been out by now. Nintendo should have been capitalising on its head start over the PS4 and Xbox One, but instead it’s slipping further behind its rivals. Shigeru Miyamoto said in an interview that Nintendo’s development teams had struggled to get to grips with the Wii U, and as a result most games are taking six months longer to make than anticipated – that’s a long time in the gaming world. In the meantime, third party developers have abandoned the console in droves, no doubt put off by the combination of low sales and the difficult time they had selling anything on the Wii that didn’t feature Mario or ‘Just Dance’ on the cover.

What now?

What the Wii U needs is something fresh and totally new. It needs a game that uses that touchscreen for something more interesting than a map. It needs a killer app.

I’d love to see something with a collaborative edge emerge on the Wii U – something with the creativity of Minecraft but with the charmingness of Animal Crossing and the compulsiveness of Pokémon. That controller is perfect for drawing, so what about a Pokémon-style game where you draw the characters yourself? Or a Spore-type game about raising and evolving animals you create by photographing objects with the gamepad, then swapping them online?

Approaching it from another angle, one of the best parts of ZombiU was the tension created when you were forced to divide your attention between the two screens – it was such a brilliant mechanic that I’m surprised it hasn’t cropped up again. And why is everyone in such a hurry to use every single button on the gamepad? The DS showed that games can be played solely with a stylus, and games like Ace Attorney would be perfectly suited to the Wii U. And what about the Wii remote? Imagine a tense action game in which you had to solve a puzzle on the gamepad using the stylus while defending yourself from attacking aliens on the TV by shooting at them with the Wii remote.

Miyamoto-san has hinted that there’s new Nintendo IP in development, but judging by the delays the company has faced so far it’s likely to be a long way off… and there’s always the chance it could be a disappointment, like Wii Music. But a single, well-timed, ‘must-have’ game could turn the console’s fortunes around.

At least we can be assured that Nintendo won’t be going under anytime soon – sales of the 3DS are going from strength to strength, and as IGN puts it, the company has ‘warehouses of cash‘ to spare. But in all likelihood the Wii U isn’t going to add significant amounts to those cash warehouses, bar the release of some phenomenal, console-selling killer app.

A photo of Nintendo's headquarters in Kyoto.
A photo of Nintendo’s headquarters in Kyoto.

It seems that the Wii U is going the way of the GameCube – sales will remain steady, but it will lag significantly behind its rivals, and receive very little third party support. The hardcore Nintendo lovers will stay true, but the masses will stay away. Without a doubt though, it will be home to some truly amazing games… even if they’re few and far between.