There's a strange dichotomy at work right now with Nintendo, Wii U and its games. We endured an undeniable retail software drought, with game retailers probably weary of trying to sell the same old launch titles week after week. We then had two diverse, high profile games arrive near each other to fill the yawning gap in the release schedule, and Nintendo has been either publisher or responsible for marketing and distribution. While debates about marketing are one thing, we want to consider the scenario of stock shortages for both LEGO City: Undercover and Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate in North America and Europe.
In basic terms, it's problematic and peculiar, in that we wouldn't expect to see a shortage of copies of a new Halo or God of War title on other systems; if comparing those first-party games is unfair, then let's say we'd find shortages of BioShock Infinite on either PS3 or Xbox 360 surprising. In the case of both LEGO City and MH3U, it's also worth being clear that Nintendo published the former worldwide, and has been responsible for marketing and distribution of the latter in Europe. To start with LEGO City, it had a number of midnight launches cancelled in North America, with various reports on the Twittersphere that retailers either didn't have enough copies or were receiving stock days after the official launch date. It hit a day before Capcom's monster-slaying epic, and was being held up as a potential family friendly boost to the system. Sales in the UK have been modest, and only the upcoming NPD results will enlighten us on the equivalent results in the U.S.
Yet still, plenty of gamers told us that they'd found copies hard to find on the high street, with our own staff making cracks about it in our regular "what games are you playing this weekend" article. And then we have Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate; as stated before, it's a Capcom game but Nintendo of Europe is responsible for distributing the game in this region. Yet we've had problems, with anecdotal evidence pointing to various retailers or areas with limited stock, with our own Mike Mason telling us that he was in one store that only fulfilled pre-orders, seeing multiple other disappointed customers turned away. Confirmation that it was a notable problem came via an apology from Nintendo of Europe President, Satoru Shibata.
Problems with game availability aren't new or limited to Wii U; Nintendo's recent ails with distribution also affected Fire Emblem: Awakening in North America, once again with limited availability at retailers. If you go back far enough there are other more famous examples, one of which being The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. One of our staff members worked at a video game store when that launched — we'll preserve his anonymity to protect his age — and recalls that there were 200 preorders but only six copies that arrived for launch day. In the days of cartridge manufacturing that was perhaps more understandable, though not exactly pleasing for the 194 frustrated pre-order customers in that case.
Of course, times are different and we're now in a world of discs, and though stock of these Wii U games may be pretty decent around online retailers, their struggling presence in stores is a problem for keen gamers and for the Wii U's image. Frustratingly, it's Nintendo dropping the ball in these examples, so we can't play the "third-parties not trying hard enough" card. If Wii U was in the midst of a packed release schedule and competing for limited shelf space for multiple new titles, perhaps we'd understand, but these stock issues arriving after such a retail drought give little confidence to the retail market. It's not as if demand isn't there, at least in the case of Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate, as the messages we've received and Shibata-san's own tweets testify.
Wii U needs to sell games, and to do so those games need to be readily available in various high-street stores. We've written before about the importance of retailers in the context of a Wii U price war, and Nintendo has made noises about re-assuring these companies and keeping them on board. Achieving sales against a backdrop of a slow release calendar is one thing, but the many tales of limited stock of these two titles is truly disappointing. A lack of copies for stores to sell should have been the last problem that retailers faced. Perhaps some retailers haven't bought huge numbers of Nintendo games as stock in previous times, but the story this time around seems to have been about availability, not the market's enthusiasm.
Of course, we're reminded that these games are always available on the eShop. We've covered the issue of retail downloads a lot, and for many it's not a viable replacement. Maybe a number of consumers don't want to pay top-dollar for a download tied to hardware, perhaps they don't fancy buying a hard-drive in order to have space, or perhaps it's just a preference to have a disc in possession forever more. If someone wants a physical copy from the high street and has trouble finding one — perhaps they're not buying online as they prefer to use cash in hand — then saying "it's also on the eShop" isn't a solution in itself. We hope that by the time the next wave of major Wii U releases comes around, we won't be writing about how gamers keen to spend money on their Wii U are finding it difficult and inconvenient to do so.