Talking Point: Nintendo's Wii U Lineup Makes Commercial Sense
Posted by Thomas Whitehead
Nintendo plays it safe, like everyone else
E3 presentations can be strange occasions, often prompting exaggerated reactions — either delight or dismay — immediately after the event, before a following hangover of acceptance and anticipation for the games on the way. That's the general sense within the Nintendo Life team the day after Nintendo's E3 Direct, an acceptance that the lineup given to us may not have satisfied a desire for hype-tastic surprises but, nevertheless, dishes up games that are likely to be a delight to play.
One potential issue for dedicated Nintendo fans that tuned in was that, in hindsight, Nintendo's decision to tell us in advance to expect Super Mario 3D World — though we didn't know what form it would take — Mario Kart 8 and Super Smash Bros. perhaps dented their impact. Taken in isolation and without prior knowledge, it can be argued that a less-informed gamer looking on would have been excited and impressed, as each trailer featured extensive and fun gameplay footage, without an excessive over-abundance of pointless CGI sequences.
And then we had the surprise, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze, a fabulous-looking 2D platformer that takes the successful Wii title, applies HD textures on an already gorgeous graphics engine and introduces new gameplay features along with sweeping camera angles. Fans of Donkey Kong Country Returns should also be pleased that Retro Studios is driving the project; yet this is another example where the initial online reaction among Nintendo die-hards — including the Nintendo Life team in its live reaction video — was of disappointment that a DK sequel was the Retro Studios reveal, as months of hype had led to hopes of a grand large-scale project beyond 2D platforming. Perhaps that's also in the works, as the company has expanded a great deal of late.
Much debate around these reveals, in particular the stylistic choice of Super Mario 3D World and the confirmation of Donkey Kong's return, contributed towards much negative commentary and accusations that Nintendo is perhaps running short of fresh, creative ideas. Yet with a night now having passed since the announcements, assessment of these titles shouldn't be made over how much "wow" factor they have for dedicated Nintendo veterans, but how commercially sound those choices are. It's perhaps worth considering that the Wii U is moving into a similar period to 3DS at the close of 2011 — the system has started poorly, by Nintendo's high standards, and software 'bankers' are needed not to satisfy the dedicated fans who already own the hardware, but to entice the wider public.
The priority, therefore — whether we like it or not — is to attract new console owners. The new Donkey Kong will have greater commercial clout from Retro than a new IP or another Metroid, and Satoru Iwata's reference to Super Mario 3D World as a continuation of a new 3D series style tellingly follows on from the familiar and commercially successful Super Mario 3D Land on 3DS; Nintendo couldn't simply produce yet another 2D Mario for this Holiday. It's also telling that a big-selling point emphasized in the footage was the inclusion of four-player co-op, so we can expect Holiday commercials of smiling families running and jumping through bright, fun and colourful worlds. Admittedly, on that logic, the absence of Mario Kart 8 this Holiday is surely down to development speed, as that would likely have been a sure-fire system seller.
When you add the arrival by the end of the year of Wii Party U and Wii Fit U, there's plenty of content to target the mainstream market and convince those consumers that the Wii U can be the entertainment of choice in the Festive season.
So we didn't have the epic Retro project, there were no surprises on increasingly mothballed franchises such as Star Fox and F-Zero, yet Nintendo knew its targets. Many of us in the Nintendo Life team and, we suspect, in the wider community, may say that the relatively short broadcast didn't blow our socks off, but there's little doubt that most will pick up those games revealed and, in all likelihood, they'll be immensely fun.
Accusations of a lack of risk taking and creativity in Nintendo's E3 offerings are justifiable, yet like with the 3DS Nintendo will only stretch itself to more varied franchises and experiences once the Wii U gains traction in the marketplace. It should also be pointed out that, yet again, this is an E3 where innovation and risk taking is relatively low across the board. In the increasingly strained and worried gaming console industry, we've seen a slew of racing games and FPS titles on PS4 and Xbox One, with the occasional glimpse of a fresh idea; adding social integration and increasing the grunt of online connectivity is questionable in terms of creativity, as you're ultimately still just driving very fast or aiming for headshots in many of the titles revealed.
Nintendo, in that respect, is still standing apart from its rivals, offering game styles and experiences that others simply aren't trying to replicate. These titles may not be unique or mind-blowing to dedicated Nintendo gamers, yet they're likely to still satisfy itches when they arrive later in the year or early 2014. From some perspectives outside of the committed group, however, Nintendo's lineup for Wii U from August onwards is full of diverse and potentially fantastic gaming experiences. Some of us have seen it all before and will nevertheless enjoy the latest iterations and tweaks of creativity, but for those less experienced current and potential Wii U gamers these titles perhaps represent creativity and innovation to a greater degree than we may give credit.
Nintendo's played it safe, commercially. Yet that makes business sense, which is something we should support. Like with the 3DS in late 2011, Nintendo needs to get consoles off the shelves, and is delivering franchises proven to have the best chance of achieving that goal. Greater innovation and bolder projects have to wait, and will only be possible once Nintendo's established a greater base of Wii U owners.
Mind blowing innovation in this year's Wii U games? Absolutely not. High quality titles with good odds of commercial success? Absolutely.