Who loves the Wii U?
David Crookes looks at the launch of the newest Nintendo console and assesses the state of the machine
When Nintendo unveiled its wildly different new console at the E3 2011 press conference, it was to a captivated audience relieved that at least one of the big three gaming manufacturers had fired a salvo in the next-gen war.
However, it seems to be the case nowadays that the hype machine gets into full motion, people eagerly await a new piece of hardware and then, kaboom, the backlash begins, and forums buzz with chatter about problems and Twitter is ablaze with negativity.
It can happen to the best of them (and it certainly happens to the worst). Nintendo definitely falls into the former camp, but despite the Wii U having been announced to the world more than 18 months ago, it seems the vast amount of time that has since elapsed has not been enough to ensure complete plain sailing for the Japanese giant.
The Wii U console arrived on American shores on 18th November (UK buyers got their hands on it on 30th November) and it was meant to herald a new frontier for living room entertainment. And it does. There’s no getting around the fact that the Wii U is an impressive machine and full of promise, taking everything that was great about the popular debut console, a machine that grandmas and hardcore gamers loved in near-equal measure, and adding an innovative handheld screen to marry portable and console gaming.
When you’re following up something so well-loved by the general population, though, then you would think Nintendo would get the issue of stock right. Apple seems to suffer this same level of surprise, leading many to speculate that it’s part of some merry marketing dance, but when there are mere weeks to go before Christmas, the issue becomes ever more stark.
Not only does it lead to machines turning up on eBay for silly prices, it becomes especially frustrating when alarm bells should have been ringing as soon as big retailers said they were selling out of pre-order hardware, leaving few for impulsive buys on the day itself.
This would not usually be a major issue (after all, it is to be expected), but when it comes on top of other grumbles, this particular mole hill becomes more of a mountain. You can almost feel the gnashing of American teeth as gamers realised the machine had to be given a whopping firmware update from the moment the console was turned on.
This was a process that took around two hours and much longer on some connections, given the download was as large as 2GB. There were reports on Twitter that anyone unplugging their console during this anxious wait to get down and play would risk destroying their machine with a half-downloaded update. A small problem, perhaps, but one that increases when you think that a lot of people will be buying an 8GB machine and that the update will be taking up more than a little chunk of that.
And there’s more. Some users say the HDMI output failed and they had problems with wi-fi. There’s also annoyance that the TVii video-on-demand channel is unavailable until December. Of less concern is that NeoGAF user Trike finding that he could gain admin access to the Wii Miiverse system, through which he could take a photo of a game list revealing as yet unannounced titles, which proved rather embarrassing for Nintendo.
All of this points to the Wii U launch being an utter disaster. Or does it? Well, no. Nintendo has created the first next-gen console, leaving Sony and Microsoft to catch up with their next PlayStation and Xbox consoles possibly next year or maybe in 2014. It has created a machine that is HD, more than matches the output of its two main rivals, has a wealth of attractive games from ZombiU to another great Super Mario Bros game and it does more, as we have touched upon, than merely updating the innards. In creating a brand new controller, it has produced a different way to play. Innovation of this sort is what keeps gaming fresh and interesting.
Let us look, then, at what the Wii U is all about. Rather than go the way of Kinect and offer a non-controller interface, Nintendo has brought a new controller to the table and the most obvious thing about it is that it has a screen. It’s an idea that Microsoft has aped with its SmartGlass technology, but the fact is that Nintendo’s GamePad is produced as a standard unit tailored solely for the playing of games. While the premise of the GamePad and SmartGlass are the same - extra information can be placed on the GamePad screen such as maps or control methods, for example - the Nintendo version differs in that the game being played on the large screen can switch to the pad if someone else wants to use the television.
This keeps the gaming experience rather fluid. The fact that all of this is standard right out of the box helps enormously too, because it means that gamers get to grips with it immediately and it becomes an object of curiosity. With the Xbox SmartGlass app on an iPhone, for example, the requirement is for the gamer to know it exists and then get used to tying the two together. Nintendo can get its experience in the hands of players straight away.
And there’s more to this, as Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto explained when unveiling the final Wii U at E3 in June this year, a year after the console was first teased to the public. He said the GamePad was more than just an interactive tool for the playing of the games and that he wanted it to be the first thing people picked up when they walked into the living room and the tool that becomes the centre of the entire Wii U system.
By producing such a curious handheld device at a time when a lot of people are more than familiar with tablet computers, Nintendo’s move has more than a shine of genius about it. Like the Wiimote before it, which played into the hands of people who were used to a television remote, this new device is less alien than it perhaps would have been a few years back. It’s like a larger smartphone or a tablet with some extra buttons around it. Something about it screams ‘pick me up’.
And this was an important step forward. Nintendo had to produce something eye-catching to persuade those who bought the first Wii to have a fresh look. Had it just produced a slicker, high-definition gaming machine that otherwise worked the same way as before, then it would not be enough for many of the 100 million purchasers of the original to reinvest. The GamePad shows progress and it should spark curiosity.
The right stuff
Nintendo has to get this right, of that there is no doubt. When the Wii was released at the tail-end of 2006, it turned heads and persuaded those who would never have classified themselves as gamers to venture into a shop and buy a console. The Wii, as we stated, has sold close to 100 million units in the six years since launch, but the problem is what happened next with so many of those machines.
Lots of those Wiis soon sat around gathering dust, the Wii Sports DVD having been played to death and now abandoned. Too many of those who bought a Wii did not bother getting many more games. They had their Wii parties and the fad passed. Nintendo therefore has to revitalise interest among three groups: the non-gamers who became gamers and then slipped back to non-gaming, those who became fascinated by the casual nature of the broader scope of the Wii’s titles and, the most difficult to please of all, the hardcore, many of whom have already hopped, skipped and jumped to the Xbox and PlayStation. And it also needs to do much to turn around the record loss of $926 million it made for the initial six months of its 2011-12 fiscal year.
With the Wii U, the stock shortages will actually be rather welcomed since it shows an appetite for this new system, and that will please Nintendo’s bosses. Nintendo has also been looking at ways of keeping people engaged so that it’s not just about a single title but about an entire experience.
This time, Nintendo has invested in a form of social networking that attempts to make games the core of what the Wii U does and also turns the console into a friendly hub of chat. The Miiverse is integral to the package and is where gamers can be social. Your Mii avatar is encouraged to hang around and communicate.
Messages can be left, drawings can be produced and you can indicate how happy you are. Miis represent your real-life friends and family and they can show you what they are playing. You can choose to jump in and join them if you own the same game. And since the Miiverse is browser-based, it will be rolled out onto all Nintendo platforms eventually and it will also be available on smartphones, PCs, Macs, tablets and more.
Indeed, if there’s anything innovative about the Wii U - and believe us, there is - then the Miiverse has to be up there with them all. It puts the user at the centre and provides the content with which they can surround their lives while ensuring its new console is the focal point. This is a bold move by a company that usually likes to operate a closed shop.
There is a sense that Nintendo has been ticking boxes, however. It wants to please everyone and it seems to succeed. Want a traditional gamepad? Tick. Want to use your old Wii peripherals? Tick. In fact, the Wii U’s reliance on the Wii Remote, Nunchuck and Balance Board will be not be undone by the arrival of the GamePad, so you can drag those peripherals back out of the cupboard. This makes upgrading a less painful experience than it could have been, and it also makes for what Nintendo calls asymmetrical gameplay, which allows one gamer to exert greater control over what is happening on screen while the others compete against him, so it could be laying down obstacles for the others to beat or helping them to achieve a better route through a game. That is, one gamer can use the GamePad and the other a Wii Remote and play harmoniously.
The human nature of all of this is great and Nintendo seems to have learned much from the Wii. It gets that the reason the Wii was successful was because it encouraged human interaction and got everyone involved. By emphasising the social aspects, by producing a friendly looking screen and by drawing on the peripherals that a lot of people will be familiar with from the days of Wii parties, it will ensure that the enthusiasm is sparked again.
The Wii U is trying hard not to alienate the hardcore - hence ZombiU which grandmas certainly wouldn’t fancy, we’d guess - and that too is crucial if these consoles are not to be shut away in dusty cupboards. This should also ensure developers continue to innovate with their games and produce them for a longer period of time (Nintendo Gamer magazine, in its final issue, had just a handful of reviews). Something tells us, however, that the Wii U is going to have a more positive longer-running life, even if - as a non pre-orderer - you may have to wait a while to get your hands on one.
Where Nintendo could put things right
Rely less on Mario and Luigi
Hate is a strong word, so let us actually go on record here to say we do actually adore Mario and Luigi. But we would like to see Nintendo rely less on its existing franchises and carve out fresh IPs. We’ve seen what it can do with hardware and now we would like some bold and daring games that don’t include familiar names.
Reduce the costs
There’s a tendency to pitch up with a full price game and have it cost that amount for an absolute age. We would like to see more games end up on Nintendo’s Selects label, expanding upon the paltry 11 which currently exist. Cheaper games will lead to greater enthusiasm for game-buying, so we want to see more cuts.
It’s vital that Nintendo builds great relationships with third-party developers. It excels with first-party support, as you would expect, but while we are encouraged at seeing Batman appear on Wii U from the start, we want more games like Resident Evil 6 smashing down the doors. Nintendo needs to do all it can to get them on board right away.
Remember when Nintendo gamers wanted to be able to save their WiiWare games direct to a SD card and then be able to load them straight from those cards later and the Japanese company just stuck its fingers in its ears? Nintendo has to listen to what people want and react. Eventually Nintendo did act, but it took its time.
And translate more
It is not that difficult to import games from Japan nowadays and we don’t have a problem with it, but we do wish Nintendo would treat the hardcore better and translate games such as Fatal Frame IV so that they can be played by a much wider audience that would certainly lap them up. It tends to leave too many hardcore games out of European and US hands.
Reduce that tiresome music
Yes, we know we can just turn it down, but do we have to have the boring childish chiming music which appears to accompany much of what Nintendo does from the menus to Iwata Ask interviews even. It’s a silly gripe, for sure, and we know the music is part of the identity, but let’s change the tune.