A few years from now the Wii U will have surely become 'last gen', following the Wii in having occasional Just Dance titles and being available at throwaway prices for those curious about the system. An excellent console it is too, with a retail library full of absolute gems and an eShop that's attracted a range of companies and done much to increase Nintendo's standing in the Indie scene. Its legacy will bring some interesting debate, but this writer and hopefully many others will stand up for the system - it's brought some great games and has helped Nintendo learn valuable lessons while forging strong partnerships with the likes of Tecmo Koei, PlatinumGames and Bandai Namco.
When we talk about retail treasures, though, we're mostly referencing first-party titles or others in which Nintendo's invested money or provided marketing and distribution. There are obvious tie-ins like Hyrule Warriors with Koei, and the sublime Bayonetta 2 and The Wonderful 101 with PlatinumGames, while we mentioned Bandai Namco above mainly in honour of the company's vital role in providing resources and a significant partnership with Super Smash Bros. for Wii U. Upcoming releases like Fatal Frame: The Black Haired Shrine Maiden (Koei Tecmo again) and Xenoblade Chronicles X from Monolith Soft join the list of strong experiences from outside of Nintendo that, nevertheless, exist thanks to investment and support from the big N.
When we think of third-party games, though, we go back to the earlier days of the system and find titles that were compromised by publisher decisions or sloppy port work. Some notable counters to this include ZombiU, a terrific showcase for the GamePad, while some developers showed real pride in delivering fantastic ports - let's acknowledge fine examples such as Deus Ex: Human Revolution Director's Cut and Need for Speed: Most Wanted U. Capcom did its bit with Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate, too, with cross-platform multiplayer and save data sharing between Wii U and 3DS.
Yet in the case of Deus Ex and Need for Speed noble development efforts were let down by their tardy arrivals, rocking up months after releases on other platforms. Then there are all the titles that were plonked out on Wii U on time but without much hope - Assassin's Creed III underperformed, so Assassin's Creed IV Black Flag might as well have not bothered once it emerged there'd be no DLC support on Nintendo's console. A couple of Batman ports were underwhelming in either being late or lacking DLC, while Mass Effect 3 arrived on Wii U around the same time as a Trilogy compilation arrived elsewhere. At launch and in 2013, particularly, a number of games were sent out to die by their publishers, on occasion letting down studios that had done good work on the ports. Ubisoft even had one last hurrah on this score with Watch Dogs in late 2014 by releasing it late, in a packed month and without DLC and extras. It never had a chance.
There were more painful examples such as Rayman Legends, a fabulous game delayed multiple times by Ubisoft, on the final occasion to accommodate a tied-in release of PS3 and Xbox 360 versions. That was in the early days but set the trend across various other examples; though the extra development time of the delays did apparently add content to the game, it was a sore one for eager Wii U gamers that thought a lovely early exclusive was on the way.
Ubisoft reacted to poor launch sales of the Wii U in that case, and that's where we see the often discussed circle of doom that engulfed third-party retail support on the system. Major publishers were scared by slow early Wii U sales, so backed off their support. This led to delayed or cancelled releases, only reducing the Wii U's appeal and the odds of it bouncing back to make it viable for those third parties. Add to this the fact that some Wii U ports were out of date and irrelevant to the market - we still can't fathom the logic of Mass Effect 3 - and thus destined to fail, and no-one won. Third-parties made questionable decisions, sales were lousy, so they walked away.
The prompt for these musings on third-party woes was the inevitable confirmation that Project CARS has been canned on Wii U. In some respects it's understandable, as development had shifted to more powerful hardware in the past and the Wii U had somewhat loitered behind. Yet Slightly Mad Studios should take responsibility for disappointment that comes its way; this is a company that talked up what it could achieve on Wii U, spoke of seizing a gap in the system's library and kept a line (along with publisher Bandai Namco) that the game was coming for a while after it was delayed for completion of PS4, Xbox One and PC versions. Then it went quiet, before making silly pre-E3 comments that it'd wait to see if Nintendo revealed new hardware at the show (sources assert that NX was shown to key partners away from the public eye); how that was supposed to be relevant to Wii U gamers, we're not sure.
The narrative had changed; suddenly it wasn't about pushing the Wii U, but it emerged that getting the game to run was the issue. Then a sequel was announced for other platforms, and it was clear that we were just waiting for the word of cancellation. Frankly, it's hard to know how far the Wii U version got - where did potential and early aspiration actually get in the development phase? Was the project dialled back and cancelled long before now? It'll be interesting to try and get answers, or it'll be another Aliens: Colonial Marines, a cancellation that'll be shrugged off almost as an irrelevance. To be fair to Project CARS, though, unlike the Aliens spin-off it was a game we actually wanted to arrive.
Of course, Nintendo is perhaps the most culpable here, that must be said. As the company has acknowledged, it's ultimately responsible for selling units and building an audience, and for various reasons the Wii U has been unable to do that. As we got towards late 2013 it became clear that any sales success for the system would be relative to low standards, and third-parties could not make money on the system at retail. Dissecting the reasons for Wii U's failure to truly seize the market are for another day, but as a result we've relied on Nintendo to keep games flowing. As highlighted at the top of this article, it's arguably done an admirable job in fostering a small but brilliant library of games, though it had little choice but to do just that.
It's not all bad in terms of third-party games, in any case. Fans of Skylanders, Disney Infinity and anything with LEGO in it are rather well served, with just the latter occasionally skipping DLC. Throw in family pleasing franchises like that with a wonderful range of Nintendo-developed or published exclusives, and the Wii U has some truly joyful gaming to offer. One of our few disappointments, in fact, is that it's had less intriguing non-Nintendo retail games, whereas the Wii had quite a number of interesting efforts. Perhaps Nintendo and major players such as Ubisoft, EA and more got it wrong in trying to encourage ports of existing games in the early days. What we needed were more experiences like Boom Blox and Red Steel 2 into 2013 and beyond, titles developed on lower budgets that played into the system's strengths while targeting the Nintendo audience. There were quite a few in the last generation.
The prevalence of ports was, in hindsight, on a hiding to nothing. When there were cheaper, more substantial options on rival systems, a number of these efforts didn't have enough distinguishing features to make them must-haves. Or perhaps that's over-idealistic; some of the excellent third-party retail gems on Wii didn't sell very well either - while this gen's ZombiU met our lofty aspirations but struggled to sell enough units - and the Wii U may have just been the final denouement in this area. As we've said before, Nintendo's become increasingly separate - which doesn't necessarily have to be a complete negative in the future - from the space occupied by Sony and Microsoft.
Undoubtedly, owning a Wii U has led to numerous disappointments and - in the past year or so - complete isolation from the non-Nintendo retail scene. That's not really something to celebrate, but it's a reality that can be accepted. The Wii U has, a bit like Wii, become one of two or more consoles for many - its light-hearted and diverse little range of games is arguably representative of one of Nintendo's best development and publishing spells, with HD visuals blending with new ideas and refined concepts.
Project Cars and its cancellation may have prompted inevitable groans and weary resignation, but it also reminds us of what the Wii U has become, even if this wasn't exactly Nintendo's original plan. It's a box of tricks that's all about the big N and its biggest allies; it keeps delivering memorable gaming in its own unique ways. The loss of one of the last doomed and delayed ports doesn't change that.