The Wii U's dire commercial situation has become something of an industry joke these days, with some of Nintendo's harsher critics taking delight in pointing out how the Japanese firm has gone from an install base of almost 100 million with the Wii to 10 percent of that total in a single hardware generation. Despite the failure of the console to replicate the performance of its all-conquering predecessor, Wii U owners have can take solace in the fact that in purely critical terms, the platform has been a success - Nintendo's first-party output is some of the highest rated of recent years, and Mario Kart 8, Splatoon, Zelda: Wind Waker, Pikmin 3, Super Mario 3D World and Super Smash Bros. for Wii U have all more than justified the purchase of the console to millions of grateful players.
However, few would argue that the Wii U has quantity as well as quality, and the system has been starved of decent software support in the past 18 months. That inevitably means that owners are constantly looking forward to the next big Nintendo release, and for many this year, that was Star Fox Zero. Announced at E3 2014 and then confirmed for a 2015 take-off at this year's event, the game has become a focal point for Wii U owners during the past few months - players who have had very few big-name titles to shout about during 2015.
Sadly, even this dream has been crushed as it has been confirmed that Fox McCloud and company won't be arriving in time to celebrate Christmas. The game has been pushed back into the worryingly vague "Q1 2016" window, leaving Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash, Animal Crossing: amiibo Festival and (a last minute edit, sorry Xenoblade fans) Xenoblade Chronicles X as the Wii U's only real weapons this holiday season. We don't doubt that all three will be interesting games to play, but they arguably lack the mainstream brand appeal that a new Star Fox outing can offer.
It is of course telling that the man who broke the bad news was none other than Shigeru Miyamoto, who in the past has been famously quoted about the danger of releasing a bad game early just for the sake of hitting a launch date. Nintendo is to be applauded for putting quality first and as Miyamoto himself as said, people will forget about the missed release window if the final game is a classic. However, the ramifications of this delay could have serious consequences on the short-term future of the Wii U - especially during the holiday season when traditionally, the bulk of console sales happen.
Without a major title to entice new players, the Wii U's appeal is going to be drastically diminished. Those who have yet to take the plunge and upgrade their aging Wii, PS3 or Xbox 360 will walk into their local game store and be bombarded by a selection of new releases on Sony and Microsoft's next-gen platforms, but Nintendo's console will have little to offer beyond existing games - some of which boast impressive longevity but will have stopped being actively promoted by retailers - and niche propositions, such as the aforementioned Mario Tennis sequel, Xenoblade Chronicles X and the amiibo-focused Animal Crossing spin-off (which, if you're feeling particularly uncharitable, you could suggest that even hardcore Nintendo fans don't want). Of course, Nintendo will use its existing library to tempt in new customers, and games like Splatoon, Mario Kart 8 and the recently-released Super Mario Maker have the kind of universal appeal that ensures they maintain steady business months after their initial release - but it's unlikely that even these evergreen hits will be enough to put the console on the radar of enough potential customers.
Looking beyond the dismayed faces of Wii U owners as they cross Star Fox Zero off their lists for Santa this year, the delay perhaps suggests that Nintendo has all but given up on its current home console and instead is focusing all of its energies on the successor, currently known as the Nintendo NX. While there's little more than rumours and conjecture to support it, a 2016 release for the new console could well happen. The Wii U has all but run out of steam and is unlikely to be a realistic commercial proposition by the end of next year; certainly, Nintendo's E3 event earlier in 2015 seemed to suggest that - Star Fox Zero and Zelda aside - the Wii U is being put out to pasture and Nintendo's attention has shifted to future hardware. There are even suggestions that Zelda's much-publicised delay is to ensure that it can be launched alongside the NX, just as Nintendo did with Twilight Princess when that arrived on both GameCube (its intended system) and Wii (as a retooled launch title).
Nintendo will not have taken the decision to delay Star Fox Zero lightly, but in the grand scheme of things, ruining the Christmases of 10 million Wii U owners matters little when you consider that not so long ago, the company could call upon a domestic audience almost ten times that size. Like a boxer who finds themselves counting down the clock on a particularly poor round, Nintendo will be prepared to shrug off the failure of the Wii U and put all of its energies into the next round: NX. If you were fancied really sticking your neck out, it's tempting to suggest that Star Fox Zero is being held back for a dual-launch on NX as well, although the GamePad-focused control method counts against this conspiracy theory somewhat.
Of course, we should be thankful that the Wii U - while failing to capture the imagination of players in the same way the Wii did - has been blessed with a library of first-party Nintendo games which make it well worth owning. Even so, recounting the console's current predicament makes for pretty grim reading whichever way you look at it, and one has to wonder if the Wii U had launched with Super Mario Maker, could it have proven its worth to the wider public and gained a greater degree of early momentum? That is of course a question that is impossible to answer, but we should take some comfort in the knowledge that Nintendo isn't stubbornly ignoring its current situation and has, very recently, taken action to ensure that it enters 2016 in the best possible shape.
Legendary internal studios Nintendo EAD and Nintendo SPD have been fused into a single group, and new technology and business development teams have also been established. Then there's the famous alliance with Japanese mobile firm DeNA and the promise of Nintendo games on smartphones. Such news may have left a bad taste in the mouths of some Nintendo diehards, but by opening up another valuable revenue stream the company can return to healthy profits sooner rather than later, and that should hopefully benefit other parts of its core business, too.
While it may be too early to start digging a grave for the Wii U and ordering the headstone, the console is undoubtedly reaching the end of its commercial lifespan and the delay of Star Fox Zero is a massive blow to its chances of making it into a few more thousand homes this Christmas. Not that Nintendo is letting such concerns trouble it unduly - the company's gaze has passed beyond its current hardware and is fixed squarely on the future, a future in which it can hopefully return to the forefront of the games industry from both a critical and commercial perspective.