For a number of months now we've reported on sales success stories for the 3DS and often had an accompanying Wii U line saying something like "X had a quiet debut week, hardware sales still struggling". Another common refrain, this time instigated by Nintendo itself, has been "the games are coming, the fightback will happen in the second half of the year". The first part is undeniably true, and by the close of 2013 we should have gone from wondering what new games we're supposed to be playing as the weeks pass, to picking and choosing which ones to buy with our limited budgets.
But what about the second part, that fightback that will drag the Wii U back from the precipice, 3DS-style and into the promised land of millions of sales and critical acclaim? That's what we won't know for at least a year, perhaps even 18 months, which is the time it took from the shoots of a 3DS recovery post-price drop to its current status as a darling defying the odds against the flashy (but struggling) Vita and those omnipresent smartphones. Nintendo seems to have achieved a bit of magic with the portable, entering a market where many like to buy games for pennies and cents on their phone — and the userbase for smartphones is mind-boggling in size — yet somehow persuading over 30 million people that, actually, you also want this hardware and to buy retail games. Gamers are familiar with paying for the privilege of gaming, and the 3DS numbers won't match those of the DS family, but in the current market it's an achievement to salute.
For the Wii U its challenge is similar, in that it's plotting a recovery from a painful initial spell of sales, but different in that it's tackling the home console market — which has its own quirks. Some of its issues can legitimately be tied to almost any new system launch, in that new and expensive hardware can have a tough time persuading consumers to part with a lot of cash for a limited launch library, while cheaper alternatives with stacks of games are on the next shelf along. The hardcore fanbase jumps in, yes, but after the inevitable "pre-orders sold out" and "system flies off the shelves at launch" headlines — oh yes, those things happened for the Wii U in various countries — there's a drop off. If you're a less-enthused or 'casual' gamer — apologies for the term — then you're perhaps unlikely to pay more for a Wii U over a Wii or, more likely, a PS3 or Xbox 360.
Those were inevitable challenges that would have probably affected Nintendo regardless, but it's had its own self-inflicted problems. The most commonly recognised is that compelling, must-have software simply hasn't been on offer, and the odd port or mini-game collection (no matter how good) is unlikely to draw in many new gamers. Messaging has been a problem, even if we don't agree with the arguments or roll our eyes out of their sockets at some of the confusion — Wii U is expensive but graphically modest, it's a Wii expansion, there are no games, third-parties have bailed, upgrading isn't worth the cost, for next-gen there's PS4/Xbox One, there are no games (again). Some of these are inaccurate, one is partly true for the time being, while others can be argued for and against until the end of time, but they're just some of the opinions flying around the system that have contributed to it stalling in the market place.
The thing is, some of those viewpoints are unlikely to ever be fully quashed, and there will always be dissenters against Nintendo's console. That's normal, and that's fine, as the same will be the case for the Xbox One and PS4 to varying degrees, and the fact is that the Wii was victim to much mockery and cynicism, yet enjoyed 3-4 years of outstanding success. As with the 3DS, Nintendo has gone to the ultimate emergency plan — first-party games, again and again, and the audience will come. That begins with Pikmin 3, and after its launch weekend in Japan we finally had a positive Wii U sales headline — the game was number one, and the hardware sales had a welcome boost.
For those unfamiliar with the term "shoots of recovery" that we've referenced in the headline, it's worth pointing out that it refers to early signs of economical growth; we've heard plenty of it as the world economy has gone through a mincer in recent years. The results from Japan give us our first positives in so long, but we'll be looking with interest to see how the game and system fare once Pikmin 3 has been on shelves for a full week. The 3DS had its moment where its momentum was such that its sales have been strong for over a year, and monitoring how the Wii U progresses in those stakes will be interesting and vital for the system's future. That time isn't here yet, we should add — again, we may be waiting a year or more to see how sustainable the Wii U becomes — but we finally have a high-profile release and a positive start to watch.
It's a starting gun of Nintendo's stated recovery plan, then, with the race continuing over plenty of months ahead, with new high profile releases — most notably exclusives — coming every remaining month of 2013. Momentum will be key, which is obvious, especially against the onslaught not only of the PS4 and Xbox One, but also the PS3 and Xbox 360 platforms that have arguably made life even more tough for the Wii U in recent months. If you want to be picky, you can also highlight the continually popular PC market and some Android-based systems attempting to steal a slice of the pie.
Pikmin 3 is not only the first blast from Nintendo then, but is indicative of the content required to convince consumers to spend out on the Wii U above all of these competitors. Yes, third-party support matters, and the success or otherwise of promising games like Watch_Dogs have a role to play; yet it's exclusives with recognisable concepts or brands that are most persuasive, those experiences only on Wii U. For a reminder, some of these coming in 2013 are below in rough order of appearance.
- The Wonderful 101
- Pokémon Rumble U
- Wii Party U
- The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD
- Sonic Lost World
- Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze
- Super Mario 3D World
- Wii Fit U
Nintendo has teased more unannounced titles, but with some multi-platform titles included it's a promising lineup for this year alone; it's arguably more than what prompted the initial turnaround of the 3DS, though the Wii U doesn't have an official price cut or Mario Kart 8 for the Holiday season, so there are trade-offs. Pikmin 3 is merely the beginning, and not even (arguably) a blockbuster name alongside some of those other titles; it'll certainly be intriguing to see how it performs in European and North American charts when the appropriate results come through, and how it impacts on the system in its role as phase one of Nintendo's recovery operation.
Today brought concerned Wii U fans some sales results to at least smile about, and there's a lot to come to cause optimism. It's only the beginning, however, and green shoots do not represent a complete recovery, far from it. First comes a bump in interest, which is vital, but next has to come sustained momentum throughout 2013 and beyond.