This week Nintendo didn't so much surprise us with a Nintendo Direct, but left it outside the door unannounced and ran away giggling. Again apparently relying on the rapid influence of word of mouth, or perhaps acknowledging that much of the target audience aren't Nintendo Direct regulars, the company took the chance to initially lift the lid on its Wii Fit U promotion and Wii Sports Club, an online HD version of the iconic Wii title. Both are arriving in early November, and I'd be stunned if they're not at the core of some heavy marketing in October, particularly.
I think that Wednesday’s Wii Sports Club and Wii Fit U announcements have the potential to be rather important for the Wii U’s Holiday sales performance. Both products will need to be given a strong marketing message and, in the case of Wii Sports Club, some form of presence in retail ads (online and in-stores). Despite Wii Sports Club being an eShop title, and the Wii Fit U free trial being the same, they could be pivotal in targeting the Wii ‘upgrade’ crowd.
We often talk about franchise power with Nintendo, in terms of the clout offered by Mario, The Legend of Zelda et al. That still applies, but we should be aware that Wii Sports, particularly the free bundled original, is ingrained in the minds of tens of millions of Wii owners that, potentially, may not have bought the system without what was — at the time — a revolutionary product. Motion mini-game collections are everywhere now, but when the Wii launched it was a defining experience for a new range of gamers and, also, to some of those used to d-pads, sticks and buttons for every activity. I suspect the vast majority of the Nintendo Life community have one or two Wii Sports 'moments' that they recall with fondness.
Sometimes when I speak about the Wii U to my parents — who do plan to buy one this Holiday — I find myself going off into relatively convoluted explanations of why it’s worth an investment; I often bang on about a variety of titles coming to the eShop, and how the GamePad can shake up gaming experiences. Wii Sports Club makes it easy, as they both remember well the fun that was had with bowling, golf and tennis in particular, where everyone in the family was on an equal footing. When I said “Nintendo’s doing Wii Sports in HD, and we’ll probably be able to play each other online”, that was it — especially with the option to just buy the sports they enjoy and not a full retail package. The brand was familiar, the idea was appealing, and the purchase became that much more desirable.
Likewise with Wii Fit U, but this time with my mother. Keen on the original — not least because of its balance exercises recommended by her doctor, no less — when I explained all about the Wii Fit Meter, the free download and permanent copy once the meter’s purchased for, ultimately, a thoroughly reasonable price, it was another no-brainer. The Balance Board and legacy of the Wii were there again, making the upgrade all the more worthwhile.
Some will say Nintendo can’t strike lightning — at least not with the same power — twice with these products and, actually, I half agree. I’ve said repeatedly that I don’t think the Wii U will hit 100 million sales (like the Wii) during its lifespan. That’s obvious, I believe, but I’ve also argued that if Nintendo scraps to 30-40 million sales it’ll take that as a qualified success, as it can come again with more hardware ideas as it has in the past.
That’s why the pricing and incentives behind these games make sense. We’ve got lots of games coming, but Wii Sports Club and Wii Fit U are potentially inexpensive extras for new adopters ready to put their Wii controllers and peripherals to use once again. I suspect everyone has one or two Wii Sports games they can live without, so just buy the ones you actually enjoy. As for Wii Fit U, that’s a great deal for veterans of the Wii titles.
Of course, some acknowledgement is needed for the elephant in the room — neither of these titles define the Wii U and its GamePad as new experiences. Wii Fit U may have some GamePad usage, but Wii Sports Club will be all about the Remotes and improved controls with MotionPlus; beyond quickly using the touch screen for Miiverse posts, it's unlikely the new controller will be particularly important in that release. Some will say "look, the GamePad's a gimmick that's being abandoned", to which I'll say "don't be silly". Not every Wii game used the pointer, not every Wii game used motion controls. Frankly, whatever tempts people to upgrade to the Wii U works for me, whether it's a relatively quick and dirty upgrade of a Wii game or not.
What Wii Sports Club shows, in addition, is that a good old naming convention of Wii HD or Wii 2 may have been better suited to the market. I say this not to raise a point that can't be changed, but to highlight that despite the name choice of Wii U, Nintendo shouldn't be afraid to simply dish up more of what made the Wii a smash hit. The GamePad is important — and I still maintain is a controller full of potential — but keeping it simple and satisfying Wii fans is also vital. Providing exciting new versions of Wii-style experiences isn't the worst idea, with upcoming titles like Donkey Kong: Tropical Freeze and, particularly, Mario Kart 8 examples that contribute to that recent nostalgia. When we went hands on with Mario Kart 8 the functionality of the GamePad was very modest, but it was exciting and fantastic to play because of its terrific track design and visuals on an entirely new level from its Wii predecessor. Anyone who loved the last-gen kart racer has good odds of looking at it and being excited simply due to it being a spruced-up and enhanced version of an experience they loved on Wii.
There will be games that make excellent use of the GamePad, and apps such as Art Academy: SketchPad and even Miiverse itself that are only so intuitive and enjoyable because of the controller. But obsession over selling that concept shouldn't override the basic need to cater for the crowd that made Nintendo's last system the top-seller of its era. Nintendo can't survive with dedicated fans alone, nor with less experienced gamers alone, and these moves with Wii Sports Club and Wii Fit U perhaps show that it understands that fact; titles like Mario Kart 8 and Super Mario 3D World can shoot for the sweet spot that pleases almost everyone. The Wii U is lining up all of the weapons needed to begin a major fightback, so Nintendo just needs to tell the world all about them.
The Wii's ‘casual’, ‘newcomer’ or whatever you want to call the Wii Sports audience is smaller than it was before, but it’ll still exist to some degree. These budget opportunities to move up with Wii Fit U and Wii Sports Club are clever little temptations, and some may bite. Unfortunately not everyone will find out about these from a son that writes for a Nintendo site, so that’s up to the big N to get the message out there in the most simplistic, clear way possible. The Wii U is just like the Wii in some respects, but with so much more to offer besides.