There are lots of things that many people assume will never happen to them, just to 'others'. You don't think you'll be the victim of a crime, or get stranded overnight when a flight gets cancelled, or perhaps get addicted to amiibo collecting. These are all problems that other people have to deal with.
I'd always blithely assumed I'd never have a hard drive die on me. In 20 or so years of using PCs, external hard drives on consoles and so on, I'd never had one fail and therefore thought nothing of it. Well, my Wii U's external hard drive has now failed, sort of, and it's reminded me of how poor data management is on the system.
Here's an assumption I'd made for nearly four years (assumptions are a bad idea, evidently) - my Wii U was automatically downloading game data to my external hard drive, but I thought it'd be doing the sensible thing and putting important stuff like save data on the internal memory, maybe using some of that 5GB it nicked with the console's day one launch update. That's the common-sense solution, anyway, as save data should be small enough to fit into the teeny-weeny 32GB of my Premium model. Of course now I've found the official support page stating that save data goes to USB storage by default - like I said, assumptions are a bad idea.
In any case, my hard drive had been acting temperamentally for a while - occasionally causing error messages - and yesterday it stopped playing ball; the Wii U couldn't find it, and all of my 'windows' were empty. Dozens (maybe even 100+ counting all the eShop copies) of games were gone, and no matter which USB port I used or how many restarts I did that data had disappeared. I looked up the error code; it wasn't mentioned at all on the European Nintendo support site, and the North American equivalent said (and I paraphrase slightly) "call us". So that was helpful. Ultimately a handful of forum posts summarised the issue as "your hard drive is doomed, sucks to be you".
I should clarify, too, that this hard drive was one of the models specifically recommended by Nintendo when the system launched, a Western Digital My Book. After looking online I found that these WD drives actually seem to have a slightly sketchy record, but ultimately it was on the list of suitable drives for Wii U back in 2012, and runs off its own power supply.
Although the Wii U formats hard drives in a peculiar and bespoke way, it was nevertheless being acknowledged when plugged into a PC, but the PC couldn't read it. I even plugged an empty 2GB USB memory stick into the Wii U to check it wasn't a problem with the console; that drive was picked up fine, formatted etc, so the logical conclusion was that, ultimately, the hard drive had failed.
I didn't sweat it at this point, because I knew I could re-download games I wanted onto a new drive, but then I looked at what is actually stored on the Wii U memory. There was practically nothing - no save data, not even update data. I put in my disc copy of Super Mario Maker, it updated and started to create a new save as if I'd never played it before. That was a disc game! It was like I'd done a factory reset-lite on the console; it was an empty husk that only had Deus Ex: Human Revolution Director's Cut on it, because that's a game that runs horribly off an external drive, but is 15GB and hogs over half of the available space. It then dawned on me that nearly four years of game data and saves were gone - I decided to find it funny, because what other choice is there?
Then I had a thought - the hard drive had sprung back to life, like a spluttering Lazarus after sitting idle for hours and hours plugged into a PC. Figuring I had nothing to lose I plugged it back into the Wii U the next morning, and there was all my content. Huzzah! Break out the bunting!
Naturally at this point I decided to transfer my save / update data to the Wii U memory. Should be easy, right? Well, no. When I look at the data that I can copy and move from the hard drive, it's all or nothing. Data for games I have on disc naturally is small-ish, only consisting of saves and updates. That's not an option for downloads, though, as you can't simply select a game and say you want to move its save data and nothing else. You move the whole game or nothing. Hundreds of gigabytes of download games - a number of retail games and loads of download-only games - won't fit on the Wii U, of course.
Here's the kicker, when you select a game in Data Management you can see a breakdown of the core game files, save data and update data; when you select save data the only option is to 'delete' - marvellous!
Now all I can do is try and move the external hard drive's contents to another before it packs it in completely; it's making strange noises when plugged into the Wii U. It's inconsistent, too. Since that initial success getting it to register and show its content like normal, it's now dead again; it's in the lap of the Gods whether it will come back.
Assuming it works again, transferring everything to a new drive (one option Nintendo does allow) means I'll need to buy another hard drive, as I don't have spares hanging around. And you know what? I'm not going to bother, as I don't feel like spending £50-60 backing up data for a system that is currently the least played out of my gaming hardware. After all, the release slate has been a bit quiet recently. My plan - unless anyone in my family suddenly has a spare hard drive going - is to simply write-off my save data and 'manage the fridge' with the system's internal memory. Just like the Wii days.
It's an absurd situation though, and shows how little attention Nintendo has paid to optimising the Wii U. After all, we can backup save data on the 3DS, which is neat; the Wii U just needs an equivalent feature, but we can safely bet it'll never happen. I can only assume this setup was a security measure back in 2012, but that doesn't make it acceptable.
My hope is that the NX, a console that'll be released in 2017, let's not forget, will use the cloud for save data backups. I play a lot of games on Steam and PS4, and they both do this. My phone does it, in fact all modern systems do it, frankly. I've written before that the Wii U's account system is antiquated, and now I appreciate how 20th Century the data storage is too. Hopefully with the introduction this year of the Nintendo Account infrastructure - and lessons learned from DeNA's experience in networks - the NX won't have any of these problems.
I love my Wii U, and have spent thousands of happy hours playing it. That said, I was cursing it out this week.