Talking Point: Why Skyward Sword Sales Failed to Soar

Sword blunted

The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword was one of the most anticipated Wii games ever. After years of teasing it finally launched in November 2011, and has so far racked up 3.52 million sales around the world, a decent performance over a five-month period. It's on par with Wii launch title Twilight Princess, which sold 3.27m units between December 2006 and 31st March 2007.

The obvious difference is Twilight Princess came at the start of the Wii's life, when motion control was fresh and new. Here we are, five years and 95 million consoles later, and Link's latest adventure only mustered an extra 250,000 sales. Clearly something went wrong, but what?

The biggest reason has to be that Skyward Sword just arrived too late. First hinted at back in 2009, the game was properly revealed at E3 2010 and eventually released in November 2011, five years into the Wii's life cycle. By this point, the Wii's audience had all but completely shifted across to the dance and fitness genres — arguably fulfilling a transition Nintendo started with Wii Fit — while fans of single-player adventures had to look elsewhere for their entertainment. You can count the number of quality solo-focused Wii games released in 2010 and 2011 on your fingers — maybe adding a toe depending on your feelings towards Metroid: Other M — and while Skyward Sword was pick of the bunch that's damning with faint praise (although we still love you, Xenoblade Chronicles). It's easy to understand if those who had been waiting for Zelda jumped ship to satisfy their single-player cravings, and it's impossible to tell how many of those 95m Wii consoles have been traded in, resold or simply left in cupboards, untouched.

Shigeru Miyamoto admitted Nintendo could have released an inferior Skyward Sword a year earlier, but that wouldn't have been the Nintendo way.

Wii hardware sales also played a big part in Skyward Sword's diminished impact — Twilight Princess had years of Wii hardware growth to attach to, whereas Skyward Sword has no such long-tail potential, barring an improbable second wind when Wii U comes out. By November 2011, Wii had lost practically all of its sales momentum: hardware sales fell nearly 35% against the previous year, and were more than 50% down on two years prior. The install base might have reached 95m, but falling hardware sales brings software sales down too: Wii game sales dropped from 171m to 102m year on year.

Some would point to the game's MotionPlus-exclusivity as a factor against its success, but with global Wii Sports Resort sales sitting at 30 million it's hard to argue there aren't enough MotionPlus-enabled controllers out there. Not to mention the fact every Wii sold since early 2010 came with either the add-on or Wii Remote Plus.

It's not all doom and gloom, though. Despite only launching in November, Skyward Sword was Nintendo's third biggest-selling Wii game of the past financial year, behind evergreen titles Mario Kart Wii on 5.4m and New Super Mario Bros. Wii on 4.3m. Compare this to previous years — NSMBWii sold a staggering 14.7m copies in its first financial year — and you can see the software slump affected Nintendo across the board, not just Zelda.

Shigeru Miyamoto admitted Nintendo could have released an inferior Skyward Sword a year earlier, but that wouldn't have been the Nintendo way. While the company sacrificed bigger sales to put out a better game, it wasn't prepared to do the same with 3DS, admitting it completed the big Christmas Mario games as an urgent matter to grow the 3DS userbase.

Ultimately, considering the hype and critical reaction around the game, Nintendo will likely be disappointed Skyward Sword didn't have a bigger sales impact, but Zelda has always been as much about prestige as sales — as the sixth highest-rated Wii game ever (according to Metacritic), it's unlikely Miyamoto and team are crying into their sleeves about its sales.

It's interesting that the Wii's first and arguably last Christmas both came with Zeldas: one an adapted GameCube game with passable motion controls, the other built for the console and a game arguably impossible on any other format. That the two share such similar sales perhaps suggests nothing more than Zelda games continue to sell to the same group of people, rather than any specific failure on Nintendo's part. Either way, Wii owners received two excellent Zeldas in one console generation — at the day's end, is that anything to complain about?

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