Talking Point: Nintendo Direct Pointed to Another Wii U Retail Drought

The eShop should tide current owners over

In the past week Nintendo delivered its first Nintendo Direct broadcasts of 2014, a little later than was perhaps expected. The truth was that January was not a good time for the company, as it revealed and then dealt with the fallout of drastically lowered sales and financial projections. It was a difficult period, but now that we're into February we can, for a spell at least, focus on what games are coming up, which is why we really follow the occasionally enigmatic big N.

In some respects the Nintendo Direct videos delivered the goods, and did relatively little to go beyond conservative predictions. There were some new download games revealed, with the "available to download after the presentation" trick making another welcome return, as well as some fun reveals and the occasional release dates. It seemed to lose momentum a little — and we don't mean when the European stream was repeatedly failing — after some initial excitement with Little Mac being confirmed for Super Smash Bros.; that reveal trailer was, we thought, fantastic, and showed just how nicely Sakurai-san's project is shaping up. We were willing the end to confirm a release window of Summer or Fall but, nope, it simply said 2014.

That's fine, and as the presentations wore on there was certainly a feeling that these were solid, at points delightful, efforts from Nintendo. There were details and release dates for pleasing 3DS retail games such as Kirby: Triple Deluxe and Mario Golf: World Tour, and the aforementioned new games revealed were largely download experiences for the portable, taking in sports, puzzle and very slow Submarine FPS genres. For 3DS owners in particular there was plenty with which to be pleased.

And yet, when compiling our standard Big Nintendo Direct summary we noticed one thing — the 3DS section was a good deal longer than its Wii U equivalent (discounting Smash Bros. which covers both platforms). Our 3DS-only story list had ten articles, 11 if you count some fun speculation regarding Peppy's appearance in Steel Diver: Sub Wars. The Wii U topped out at five, which included a very minor update on Child of Light, while we admittedly didn't opt to give the Bayonetta 2 trailer an article of its own as it was bundled with others. Frustratingly the PlatinumGames exclusive, like Smash Bros. before it, simply had 2014 as its date, though the Japanese broadcast did at least specify "Summer" for that region; we can only hope that localisation will be a quick process. As for Monolith Soft's X promising footage was accompanied, again, by a '2014' window.

Of the Wii U reveals that did arrive, we had Game Boy Advance Virtual Console games starting in April, NES Remix 2 on 25th April, and — the big one — a May release of Mario Kart 8 confirmed for the 30th of that month. As we hope is obvious, that leaves a bit of a gap. Donkey Kong: Tropical Freeze is right around the corner and arrives on 21st February, and we look forward to sharing our views on it; then, there's a wait.

It's not been helped by the Wii U delay of Watch_Dogs, but it's becoming increasingly clear why Satoru Iwata — in his various January briefings — was talking about mid-term plans and returning to the good times in the next financial year (after 31st March). Nintendo is overseeing an opening period to 2014 that is awfully familiar, perhaps even quieter than the equivalent of 2013. Once the Tropical Freeze buzz is over we are, unless Nintendo shocks us with a rapid release of one of the major upcoming titles — looking at over three months before the next truly high-profile retail arrival. This despite what Reggie Fils-Aime told Spike TV late last year:

The way we're going to be different is... we're certainly going to have a steadier pace of games, both for Wii U and for 3DS. The marketing activity is going to be constant throughout the entire year; you teased me a little bit about "boy, the first half was a little quiet" and, you know what? You look back and it was. We're not going to be making that same mistake in 2014, so the pace, the ongoing activity, touching the consumer and messaging what we're all about, that's going to be a big difference next year.

The 3DS is a little more filled out, and if you combine the systems then, yes, there's no major retail drought to speak of; yet this seems to be a disappointing state of affairs for Wii U owners. In hindsight it's for the best that Tropical Freeze fell into February after originally targeting December, and those that suggested it was bumped to pad out the schedule will feel some vindication. What's perhaps most disappointing is that, of the major first-party games that have been down for 2014 all along, only Mario Kart 8 is currently firmly down for the first half of the year, and even that has fallen back from its April target mooted in 2013. The idea of Tropical Freeze in February, MK8 in April and then others to follow seemed relatively tolerable last year, but the latest update from Nintendo has expanded the no-man's-land between.

From Nintendo's perspective, this isn't necessarily a disaster. This financial year is a write-off, and with Mario Kart 8 and E3 coming close together the company is going to have a busy period where the Wii U will likely get some heavy — and hopefully positive — press coverage. The summer months will be huge for the Wii U, and these games we've listed before — and various others in development that haven't had a status update for a while — will come into sharper focus. It's quite possible that from the Summer onwards we'll see a steady flow of Nintendo blockbusters, and we'll look back on the this time as the drought that simply preceded a spell of exciting, big-name games.

This is all, in addition, seemingly a continuation of Nintendo's growing pains in adjusting to an increasing loss of notable third-party retail support — which could return to some degree with better Wii U sales — and longer, more complex development phases. In interviews we'll publish in the coming weeks, we've spoken to developers that were among the very biggest names in development throughout the '90s and early noughties, who worked on games that are legendary in the eyes of retro Nintendo gamers. What's been extraordinary in these conversations are the tales of how quickly some of the world's most iconic titles were put together. No matter how technologically advanced at the time, teams of less than 20 would produce a triple-A game in under 12 months, sometimes well under that time. It was a whole other world of development resources, and as Nintendo's policies and attitudes to innovation have accentuated, it's perhaps found out the hard way that those days are long gone. A blockbuster, it's clear, simply can't be produced by a dozen talented individuals in a number of months; so release gaps widen like they wouldn't necessarily do so in past generations.

There is a silver-lining for Wii U fans, however, with the increasing line-up of Wii U eShop games coming in the next few months. Some are exclusives and others are across multiple platforms, but there are a number of titles due in the remainder of February, March and April. It's here that only positive things can be said about Nintendo's planning for filling out release windows; its backing of download developers, support with free Unity licenses and the Nintendo Web Framework, are really paying off. We have titles from experienced developers and publishers, as well as others from those releasing their first games. With the Wii U eShop the games are certainly coming, and the importance of the Indie scene — as we've covered in various ways before — shouldn't be underestimated. While a diverse download line-up will struggle to sell systems on its own, it's a useful additional weapon that — most importantly — serves as a source of regular rewards for existing owners. Once more download games flow in the coming weeks and months, Wii U owners will likely always be able to find something new and interesting to play.

As it stands, we're dealing with a gap in major retail releases for the Wii U. This coming week brings the continuation of a huge franchise from Retro Studios, and that's exciting, but once that buzz fades we have a wait on our hands. The Wii U eShop may be our saviour, but Nintendo's mid-term focus will leave some Wii U owners yearning for more in the short-term.

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