RIP Wii U: Nintendo’s glorious, quirky failure


In late January it was announced that Nintendo had ceased production of the Wii U console. The follow-up machine to the hugely successful Wii had sold fewer than 15m units worldwide since its launch in 2012. PlayStation 4 sold more in a year. Wii sold more than 100m in its lifetime.

What happened? How did Nintendo, one of the oldest and most respected companies in the video game industry, get it so wrong? And did anything good come out of the Wii U era? How will the machine be remembered, if at all?

Certainly, some believe the console was cursed from the start – right from the first announcement at the 2011 E3 video game conference in Los Angeles. Before that, Nintendo had made vague references to Project Cafe, a new piece of hardware deep in development at the company’s famed R&D labs, but the nature of the device was unclear. The E3 presentation was supposed to be the big reveal.

Then, there it was at the Nintendo press conference, in front of the whole games industry. Wii U. Reggie-Fils-Aimé, head of Nintendo America, gave an obtuse introduction and showed the unique GamePad controller, with its built-in display. After this, came a showreel of gaming moments, then nothing. The crowd whooped, but when the lights went down, a few expressed confusion: was the Wii U GamePad an extension to the original Wii? Was it an entirely new console? That evening, in an interview with the Evening Standard, the late Nintendo president Satoru Iwata stated: “Because we put so much emphasis on the controller, there appeared to be some misunderstanding.”

A masterpiece of understatement. In some ways, that misunderstanding never went away. Even when it became clear that Wii U was a whole new console, with a unique motion-sensitive screen pad, consumers were nonplussed. There had been rumours that, with its custom AMD 7 series graphics chipset and IBM multicore central processor, the machine would be more powerful than the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 – especially as it was arriving years after those machines debuted. But before the launch, developers were already whispering to news sources that this was not the case – driving the second-screen would eat up the graphics processing power and the CPU wasn’t that special. It was all academic anyway: barely a year later, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One arrived to completely change the technological landscape.

But Nintendo wasn’t competing with PlayStation and Xbox, and never really had. Instead, it needed to convert the tens of millions of Wii owners who’d rarely bought consoles before; who’d been seduced by the Wii Remote controller and the immediate, social experience it promised. Those people were now quietly migrating to other platforms: smartphones, tablets, set-top boxes … That’s who the Wii U was aimed at.

In the months following E3, it was at least picking up interest from the development community. “I had done work on the N64, Gameboy, GameCube and Wii and I still maintain they were my favourite systems to work on, so when the WiiU was announced it had me excited,” says Byron Atkinson-Jones of Xiotex Studios, “I wanted to see how far we could go in game design terms with the two screen setup. Were we going to get new game paradigms like we did with the Wii and its controllers?”

However, even before the launch, the games media was complaining about a lack of compelling first-party content. The machine would arrive with only two major Nintendo titles, the mini-game collection Nintendo Land, and New Super Mario Bros U, a decent side-scrolling platformer, but by no means a major Mario title with with little involvement from Miyamoto. There were intriguing moments: Nintendo Land has the clever asymmetrical multiplayer action of Luigi’s Ghost Mansion and the boisterous arena-battler Animal Crossing: Sweet Day. But there was also nothing as immediately compelling as Wii Sports or Wii Play – nothing that completely crystallised the idea of the GamePad.

Veteran developer Rhodri Broadbent of Dakko Dakko, once worked for Q-Games in Japan, and met Shigeru Miyamoto while making Star Fox Command. He felt there should still have been a role for the Wii Remote in the new era. “The fact that Wii U did not come bundled with a Wii Remote was really disappointing to me,” he says. “I felt that the identity of the Wii Remote was worth continuing, and that combining the jump to HD visuals with the jump to ‘HD motion control’ of the ‘Wii Remote Plus’ would have been a smart play. In terms of marketing, the Wii Remote was iconic from the get-go, whereas the GamePad sadly didn’t really get to find its identity in either software, nor marketing. There were some truly excellent, best-in-class games released for Wii U, but very few of them gave life or character to the GamePad.”

The GamePad, as a unique selling point, was also a unique curse, an albatross around the neck of the whole project. Designers struggled over its multifaceted nature: should they support it as a standalone screen, a second-screen for the TV, or as a device to allow asymmetrical multiplayer experiences (the player with the GamePad is able to have a different experiences to others using Wii Remotes). It was a tough business proposition too. Games publishers like to be able to transition their projects freely between different machines – most modern game engines are platform agnostic making this process easier. But Wii U’s controller demanded a different approach, so including the console on multiplatform projects was complicated and expensive – even if they were just going to use the GamePad as a mini-map, which many did.

Of the third-party games available at launch, most were quick conversions of familiar PlayStation and Xbox titles: Call of Duty, Batman, Fifa… few of these exploited the GamePad feature-set in truly innovative ways. The best was perhaps ZombiU, a fascinating survival horror title with a neat permadeath mechanic, set in a post-apocalyptic London that made inspired use of the GamePad as both an environment scanner and a cellphone. With its tense, gory action, it also brilliantly subverted expectations of a Nintendo launch title. But it wasn’t enough.

The problem is, mainstream game development is all about confidence. Console manufacturers have to be certain that third-party publishers will support the device; third-party publishers have to be sure that consumers will buy it, and draw confidence from first-party titles; and consumers won’t commit until they know there will be great titles from both first- and third-party studios. It’s a vicious circle of reliance, and it often all depends on that launch week. Nintendo just didn’t come up with the goods to inspire consumers, and because of this, the likes of Activision, Electronic Arts and Ubisoft were all backing off right from the outset.

Meanwhile, Nintendo was trying to make things easier for independent developers, noticing the huge influx of excellent indie titles on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. After the success of the 3DS eShop in attracting experimental games, the company set out to improve its digital store for the home console experience. However, its legacy was not good. On the Wii, support for smaller studios was patchy: the submissions process was, according to some studios, extremely lengthy, and there were sales thresholds that made it risky to commit to offbeat projects. Even after these problems had been addressed, Wii U had no support for the important multi-platform games engine Unity until much later in the console’s lifespan, strangling its potential with the indie community.

“[The Wii U dev kit] was clunky and far more difficult to setup than it’s predecessors,” says Atkinson-Jones. “I remember opening the box it came in and there was a warning saying it was very easy to brick the machine so getting it setup was a terrifying prospect. I’d love to say I got further than this but the reality is that even though Nintendo had signed So Hungry to appear on WiiU, Unity would not actually be ready for another year – it’s because of this my other game Blast Em! came about and thankfully that game has kept my studio running.
Once you got past all the problems of setup and getting a working build of Unity, it was just that much harder than doing any kind of cross platform work – the big difference being the two displays of course.”

So the Wii U had a lot to contend with: a poorly conceived debut, a unique selling point that was difficult to describe, and a hesitant development community unwilling to commit resources to a quirky machine. But it did provide moments of genuine brilliance. The defining first-party titles – Super Mario 3D World, Mario Kart 8, Super Smash Bros, Splatoon and Pikmin 3 – may not have been top tier Nintendo originals (there’s no Miyamoto Mario, no new Zelda), but they were excellent games, filled with interesting ideas and classic moments of design genius.

“Pikmin 3 is one of the greatest games I have ever played on any system,” says Broadbent. “Its mission mode is so tightly balanced, with so many tricks and techniques to optimise battles, find new routes and shave seconds off your time that I can and often did replay the same mission for entire days without noticing that the my weekend had disappeared. I’m a big fan of the oft-overlooked, but to my mind never bettered, New Super Mario Bros U, especially the challenge modes. And keeping with Mario, Super Mario Maker’s musical, whimsical user interface is a masterclass in hiding complexity and infusing character into menus – the way the sound effects harmonise with the background music as you place objects on the screen is endlessly charming to me”.

Gary Penn, who was producer on the original Grand Theft Auto and is now working on Crackdown 3, also enthuses over the quality of design in these titles. “Those Mario Kart 8 courses are beautiful in every way; not an ounce of fat on them,” he says. “Splatoon is a phenomenal work with outstanding original toy, play and game design in what was a stagnant genre. Super Mario 3D World has more charming innovation in a single stage than many games manage in their entirety.”

There were beautiful third-party games too, sparsely spread out though the machine’s lifespan perhaps, but certainly there. Cult Japanese studio PlatinumGames, best known for its demanding brawlers, was an unexpected hero producing two masterpieces for the machine: the extravagant Bayonetta 2, and the kookie super hero puzzler, Wonderful 101. Warner Bros brought us the excellent Armored edition of Batman Arkham City, but also the ludicrously overlooked Lego City Undercover, a hilarious Grand Theft Auto pastiche, which is now rightfully being remade for current consoles.

More importantly however, there were indie developers who truly embraced the idiosyncracies of the system and its development environment. “We enjoy letting the quirks of specific hardware inspire new ideas and features here, so from a design point of view, Wii U was a lot of fun,” says Broadbent. “Gyros, a camera, a touch screen … there was a lot there to use. For Scram Kitty, I had the idea of making the titular cat appear as a sort of ‘sports commentator’ on the TV while the player focused on the GamePad action, and although in the end that element didn’t turn out to be an essential feature of the game, it was a great source of personality for the game, and one which kept throwing up new ideas throughout development.”

Highlights included DrinkBox Studios’ crazed platformer Guacamelee!: Super Turbo Championship Edition, the lovely retro platformer Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse, and the intriguing puzzler Art of Balance. Most were multiplatform, but lots used the Wii U capabilities in interesting ways. A key example was the engrossing Affordable Space Adventures from Danish developer KnapNok Games. In this interstellar puzzle game, the GamePad was used to monitor and interact with your craft’s primary systems, including engines, anti-gravity controls and scanner, providing a great Star Trek bridge experience.

There were also thoughtful conversions of iOS titles, including Dakko Dakko’s translation of the spooky narrative adventure Year Walk. “We took a much more ‘all-in’ approach to the machine’s feature set, combining the gyros, touch screen, separate displays, and even subtly altering the audio between the gamepad and the TV, to create very satisfying controls and puzzles,” says Broadbent. “The end result feels uniquely suited to Wii U.”

It’s also worth remembering Nintendo’s unique attempts to create friendly online communities around the Wii U. The Miiverse is a family-friendly social network in which players can chat about what they’re playing, draw and share pictures, and seek gaming advice, all within a safe, charming environment populated with customised Mii characters. It was a much more warm, human approach to networked play than Xbox Live or PlayStation Network and, as Jennifer Schneidereit, co-creator of luscious historical adventure Tengami discovered, it allowed unique relationships between developers and players:

“It was possible to post to Tengami’s Miiverse from within the game, to show level progress or ask other players for help,” she says. “As a developer I was able to interact with people in Tengami’s Miiverse and help with puzzles, answer their questions and listen to their feedback. Because Miiverse posts are not only textual, players can also hand draw and incorporate stamps, it was a real delight to watch players using our stamps to create artwork of their own.”

Wii U had a difficult start, with a difficult idea in a difficult era. The E3 presentation blurred what the machine actually was, and the GamePad was never an easy proposition to market – unlike the Wii Remote that people could see was fun, just from the adverts. Meanwhile, with Xbox and PlayStation continuing their graphics arms race, and competition coming in from smartphones and tablets, the gaming audience seemed to be stratifying into two groups: the sorts of players who bought consoles and high-end PCs, and the sorts who’d quite as happily play Candy Crush Saga for free on their phones. The idea of a console as the central focus of a party or family event, which had peaked between 2005 and 2010 with both the Wii and the rise of music games like Guitar Hero, had drifted out of favour.

Now here comes the Nintendo Switch, a regeneration of the Wii U concept where the GamePad effectively becomes the console, with its own built-in controllers. If anything, it is a more flagrant attempt to seduce casual players away from their phones, while tapping into the family living-room appeal of the original Wii. Broadbent sees Switch as a reconnection with that machine: “I’m very happy that the joy-cons have so many little tricks in them, and encouraged to see games like ARMS push forward higher-fidelity motion controls right out the gate. But I’m mostly happy that Switch’s identity as a home console that’s not tied to your TV is being communicated so clearly.”

Communication, it seems, is key. The Wii did its own communicating: you just watched people playing Tennis or Bowling and you knew it was fun. Nothing Nintendo has done with its hardware since then has been quite so alluring. But to write off Wii U as a creative failure would be a gross disservice. The GamePad actualised a lot of vague entertainment industry hype about ‘the second screen’, and lots of games truly illustrated the magic of the concept. And lets not forget that Wii U also saw Nintendo’s entry into the ‘toys to life’ market with its Amiibo characters – little figurines that could be placed on the screen to interact with games. They sold over 40m of those.

In years to come, people will pick up the console second-hand, with a few games – Super Mario 3D World, Bayonetta 2, Mario Kart 8 – and they’ll realise what it was that Nintendo had in mind, they’ll understand the appeal of the hardware. Much too late, of course.

About the author

Olivia Wilson
By Olivia Wilson


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