Two years ago today — on 18th November 2012 — the Wii U was launched in North America. It was the first of this current generation of hardware to arrive in stores and generated a decent amount of hype, followed up by subsequent releases in Europe (30th November) and Japan (8th December). After a decent start the New Year in 2013 brought a crash in momentum, however, and we now approach the second anniversary of Nintendo's console with the company continuing its efforts to boost the system's fortunes. This Holiday season sees major releases accompanied by amiibo, a new venture in NFC figures.
As it is the two year anniversary, and ahead of another critical period for the console, we thought we'd assess the current status of the system and its future prospects; we'll warn you in advance, despite some positives it's not all sunshine and rainbows.
To be blunt, sales have been very poor for the Wii U. As of 30th September this year the Wii U had sold just 7.29 million units, which means it's behind PS4 and likely in a similar ball park to the Xbox One, despite having a one year head start. 2013 was particularly bad for the system with the Holiday season providing a bump that was dwarfed by the launches of those rival consoles.
There has been some improvement in 2014, with Nintendo keen to emphasize an increase in momentum driven by Mario Kart 8, in particular, which is certainly positive. The cold reality, however, is that only 1.12 million units were sold in the six months from 1st April to 30th September this year; to give an idea of how bad 2013 was, the equivalent period last year yielded just 460,000 sales. Even with that improvement Nintendo's target for the current financial year is to sell 3.6 million units, which if accurate means it still won't have hit 10 million lifetime sales after 2.5 years on sale, when results are returned up to 31st March 2015.
Nintendo's Holiday performance will be critical — particularly this year — and our optimistic hope is that the combination of Super Smash Bros. for Wii U, amiibo and the impressive game library will exceed expectations and push the system past a tipping point towards sustained success.
In summary, though, there's no escaping the fact that the Wii U's sales have been unacceptable, and at this stage Nintendo will likely simply target a return to profitability and modest success — improvement will be need to even reach GameCube levels, however.
To begin with the biggest positive, the available line-up of current exclusive Wii U retail games — let's include Smash Bros. and Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker as nearby arrivals — is rather impressive. Over the last two years Nintendo has, despite some barren patches, released or published a range of excellent titles. When considering core franchises and a small but hardy number of third-party exclusives — often published by Nintendo — there's a pleasing range of unique and high-quality experiences.
In terms of major third-party games the story is far less positive. In its first 12 months the Wii U had a series of reasonable ports from major players such as Ubisoft, Activision and more (EA's contributions were very limited) yet, as sales for Wii U showed no signs of progress, these companies largely left the platform. There are still titles in franchises such as Skylanders, Disney Infinity and LEGO, though brands such as Assassin's Creed and Call of Duty have disappeared, while a host of titles on PS3 / PS4 / Xbox 360 / Xbox One skip the Wii U as a routine practice. We're also now at the point where the overlap of last- and current-gen ports has ended, and the loss of support is biting harder.
Nintendo, to its credit, is lining up what promises to be a diverse and relatively full line-up to cover large parts of 2015. It's largely on its own, though does have positive relationships and partnerships with companies such as Bandai Namco and Sega, in addition to studios such as Retro Games and Next Level Games (the latter aren't owned by Nintendo) that are yet to announce their latest projects. We're looking at a mostly first-party and exclusive line-up in 2015 and — quite likely — beyond.
Wii U eShop
Following that previous point on Nintendo's limited support in the retail sector, the eShop becomes increasingly important. After a relatively quiet first half of 2013 the store began to gain momentum, a process that's certainly continued into 2014. There have been a few major exclusive titles, such as Scram Kitty and the recent Stealth Inc 2, but the core of the release schedule has been multi-platform releases. There have been some high-quality titles, undoubtedly, with Nintendo's support for Unity — even offering a free license on Wii U — opening the door to a number of developers that may have otherwise refused to take the risk.
The current eShop scene is exciting from an overall perspective, we'd argue, though it's not without its issues. In North America the store has seen a high number of releases through the Nintendo Web Framework service, which allows games developed in code such as HTML5. There are some respectable efforts, though we've also been critical of a number of games that, frankly, lack the level of professionalism and polish expected of a home console download game. There are debates to be had on whether developers essentially learning on the job with Wii U is a positive or not, but if the eShop becomes over-populated with sub-par games that could be a problem. It's telling that this is far less of an issue in Europe; few of these sorts of games arrive in the region, possibly due to costs of localisation and ratings which, arguably, separate established, experienced developers from those that are releasing their début games, for better or worse, on Wii U.
A note on the Virtual Console, too. There have been some great new arrivals, including EarthBound, while the Game Boy Advance library may seem to belong on 3DS but, in actual fact, works well on the GamePad. Beyond those positives it's been far slower and less varied than the Wii Virtual Console, with less platforms and many re-released NES and SNES titles; some we could have done without. Despite the re-treads we're yet to see the promised N64 titles, while dreams of GameCube releases seem destined to be unfulfilled — oddly, we may yet get a range of DS games.
Overall, there's clearly an appetite among developers of all sizes to support the Wii U eShop, with an impressive line-up of games confirmed — some, again, are exclusive — for the end of this year and into early 2015. We certainly rate the eShop, two years in, to be one of the Wii U's strongest areas.
To kick off with apps, the Wii U has a solid range of entertainment options away from gaming, though lags behind the breadth of apps available on PS4 and Xbox One. Essentials such as Netflix, Amazon and YouTube are present and correct, along with a decent web browser. As stated, the Wii U can't match the variety on rival systems, but with TVii also considered (in North America, anyway) the system does deliver the minimum required content.
Beyond those apps, the system has come a long way through firmware updates over the last two years. A Wii U of today can now sort games by folders, has settings to manage data in the upcoming amiibo range, has an improved UI and is moving towards pre-download options on retail games — kicking off with Smash Bros. The system is also relatively quick following updates, while the GamePad quick-start menu allows you to jump into a game without waiting for the full system menu to boot up.
Then, of course, there's Miiverse, Nintendo's bespoke social network. Nintendo has improved this a great deal over the past two years, and developer communities add official messages alongside separate areas for most released games. Nintendo has also dabbled with video embeds for developers, while Mario Kart 8's TV menu allows users to upload videos to YouTube from within the game.
Online gaming has also taken a step-up with the Wii U, creeping towards modern trends with some voice chat options in some games, and online tournaments in Mario Kart 8 and, eventually, Super Smash Bros. for Wii U. The Wii U does feel, all considered, like a relatively modern piece of hardware. Our biggest bug-bear remains, inevitably, the absence of full support for Nintendo Network IDs and their content to be 'in the cloud'; they are from Nintendo's perspective, but for the consumer they're still effectively tied to hardware, while NNID's can be too limiting in transferring or using a different system.
Holiday Sales Prospects
There have been positive noises from Reggie-Fils Aime (Nintendo of America President) in recent days regarding the Wii U's prospects this Holiday season, focusing on value and unique content as the core selling points for the system. In various regions the Wii U, Smash Bros. and amiibo appear to have been the focus of marketing campaigns with the 3DS and Pokemon Omega Ruby & Alpha Sapphire generally secondary. The company is keenly aware, as it's made clear throughout 2014 and no doubt behind the scenes when facing investors, that at the very least the Wii U needs to improve enough to stop being a drain on finances.
Will this effort pay-off? We'll know for sure in the December and January NPD results — the former will incorporate Black Friday sales. As mentioned above Nintendo's core sales goals are rather modest so the odds of hitting those targets aren't outrageous given a strong Holiday period. It's a crowded release schedule across all systems — as it always is — and without many of the multi-platform ports Nintendo will reply on that unique content (including the seemingly sketchy Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric) to carry the day. In terms of amiibo, too, there are demo units and signs of promise that the toy range could have decent shelf space in US retailers, which is a vital market.
With low targets Nintendo has a chance to meet expectations, and much rests on winning over that most fickle but lucrative of audiences; families.
The Wii U's Future
In terms of exciting games that'll invigorate dedicated Nintendo fans, the company has a number of highly promising retail exclusives on the way, while the eShop could provide a continuing run of solid titles. The company is also continually improving functionality on the system, with the recent pre-loading as an example. In the coming year we can also expect the amiibo range to grow, with its success likely to be an important part of the system's financial fortunes.
Long term, it's hard to see significant third-party retail support returning to the console barring a boost in sales well-beyond expectations, especially with the modern trends of expansive games that are limiting some PS4 and Xbox One releases to 30 FPS performance at best, sometimes below 1080p. Persuading publishers to go beyond occasional Skylanders and Just Dance games — as examples — will be difficult.
The aspiration for Wii U, we would suggest, is simply to bring some profitability to stop the drain on Nintendo's finances. At this stage the company may simply be happy to reach GameCube levels and go again with a fresh generation in 2-3 years, whatever that will bring.
Those are some of our thoughts on the progress of Wii U, then, as it hits two years on the market. It's all about contrast — as gamers we're delighted with many of the games available and enjoy our systems, but the cold reality is that it's still struggling badly to sell significant numbers and be a viable and profitable machine for Nintendo. That is why it's a C- at this stage — our feelings about the console and its experiences may be more like a B+, but woeful performance in the marketplace is a major concern. The potential is in place for a major reversal of fortunes — but that's all it is right now, potential.
We truly hope that this time next year we'll be considering a much improved situation on that score.
So there you have it, let us know what you think in the comments below.