Written on the DNA of many a gamer, especially those who are now married and with families of their own, is a bright red logo: Nintendo. Regardless of the Atari's place in the world at the time, it was the original Nintendo Entertainment System that truly made gaming a viable industry and home hobby. Fast forward 30 years, after countless Super Mario Bros. adventures, and Hyrule dungeons, and you arrive to the modern age of gaming.
The post-2000s have been somewhat rocky for the Big N. The Gamecube was a mild success at best, and the Wii remains something of an anomaly; a gaming system that was embraced by everyone, including those who’d never played a game in their life. Even now I recall stories about retirement homes purchasing Wiis to entertain their residents. The popularity of the DS and the 3DS may have indeed helped Nintendo quite a bit, but the fact remains that a lot is riding on the Wii U.
For all its sales figures, the failures of the Wii were many. A victim of its own hype, many saw the motion controls as a clear sign of innovation, and the next 'big thing' in gaming. But it took the eventual release of an additional peripheral – the Wii Motion Plus - to get the system to where many all thought it would be right out of the gate. And by then the gaming community had largely moved on, and looked to industry giants Sony and Microsoft for fresh takes on motion controls.
Now, no launch is perfect; there are the expected rushed titles and ports that are hardly able to drive sales forward. But amidst its lackluster start, there are signs that Nintendo has indeed learned from past mistakes.
For starters, the Nintendo Wii U has met our expectations in terms of what it can do. Admittedly the secondary screen in the controller is less of a gamble than motion controls, but Nintendo is attempting just as much of a paradigm shift in what to expect from a gameplay experience. Personally, I’m looking forward to some of the bizarre mini-games that will be featured in the inevitable Mario Party game. Having one or two separate, private screens will allow them to leverage unusual control schemes and asynchronous setups that are fairly uncommon in modern gaming. Some of the ports show what can be added to more traditional styles of games; incorporating various hot keys, mini maps and menu options to the lower screen, allowing for a less cluttered HUD and more screen space for the actual gameplay. Some games are trying to use it to add tension; Zombie U doesn’t pause gameplay while you’re rummaging through your inventory on the game pad, simulating the real-life experience of digging through a bag while danger looms all around you. The upcoming Wii U version of Aliens: Colonial Marines will do a similar thing, turning the second screen into the iconic motion tracker.
A big concern with consoles from the buyer’s perspective is always “what can I play?” Wii owners were confronted with relatively slim pickings. A few ports of older games weren’t enough to pull the ‘hardcore’ crowd in and the few new games weren’t advertised or marketed well enough to take off. This time marketing went in strong from the start; if nothing else, Zombie U was heavily advertised. Backed up by some of the strongest titles to release this year they’re putting a lot out for gamers to play while they wait for the next round of quality titles.
Ultimately, the smartest decision Nintendo made with the Wii U was to scale back a little on their ambitions. Innovation is undoubtedly a key to success as most industries show, but you need the right innovation at the right time. The success of the Wii is down to timing rather than the quality of the technology. If it wasn’t for the console becoming a highly desired item amongst the masses, it may have been a serious blow to Nintendo. While gamers were extremely excited, the system was left to gather dust on shelves with the exception of first party titles. Much of this comes down to just how much they hoped to accomplish with the motion controls. Even with the addition of the nunchuck, there were an extremely limited number of control schemes.
To be fair, even on a standard dual-analog controller there are only so many possible interface setups, but a single analog stick and six buttons sharply limited their possibilities. Nintendo has remedied this with the gamepad and the pro controller; double analog sticks along with multiple buttons and the endless customizability of the touch screen interface make it a console that can handle any type of game. There is of course the question of processing power; it may be that simple ports may not be possible once the next generation of Microsoft and Sony consoles are released, but with those releases being a year off or more, there’s plenty of time for the Wii U to start amassing its own fanbase.
If there are significant missteps, the Wii U could turn out to be another albatross, but so far Nintendo has taken some solid steps in both design and execution. It may come down at this point to the self-identifying ‘hardcore gamer’ crowd and whether or not they’re willing to give the system an honest try, rather than assuming it’s going to be more of the same.