It's been coming for some time, and Nintendo made the odd call to initially deny it was happening, but the Wii U is in its final stretch; manufacturing of the system is due to end soon. Nintendo's decision to make a denial, only to quietly contradict it a little over a week later is - to quote our editorial director Damien McFerran - 'peak Nintendo'. The company still has a tendency, like most major corporations, to treat observers and eager fans as pests for making blindingly clear observations, choosing to dodge and evade rather than share forthright updates. Nintendo isn't the only big company that does this, but it's a reminder that it is, after all, a corporation like many others - sometimes cuddly and nice, it can also be cynical and over-secretive.
The Wii U, sadly, will go down as one of Nintendo's biggest flops. If you decide to disregard the limited release of the Virtual Boy, in fact, it may be regarded in time as the company's biggest failure in the gaming industry. After Wii shipped over 100 million units, the Wii U (the direct successor) will struggle to get to 14 million, and it will most certainly be the company's lowest selling 'main' home console - the GameCube clocked out at 21.74 million units in Nintendo's official figures. The brutal truth is that this state of affairs, with production ending, is happening as the console approaches its 4th Birthday, hardly a ripe old age for hardware. This most recent year, it must also be said, has been a bad one, with only a small number of major releases (including a few that seem to have been sales flops).
The Wii U has struggled to such a degree that its entire generation could pass with a large section of Nintendo's target consumer base barely knowing it exists. It's hardly robust evidence, but members of our team have spoken of work colleagues and friends intrigued by Switch's recent reveal, only to remark that they didn't know there'd been a 3D Mario since Super Mario Galaxy. It's still possible to mention Wii U to people and they look confused, asking whether you're talking about 'the Wii'.
In a recent 'ports vs. sequels' feature on the Switch we considered the unique predicament that Nintendo is in, as a number of excellent games on Wii U are only known by a diehard contingent of fans. Nintendo's latest figure for Wii U hardware sales is 13.36 million; Mario Kart 8 is a long way ahead of every other system game on 8 million. That's an incredible adoption rate, but also a grim 'high' point for Wii U. A number of the Wii U games seemingly teased and rumoured for Switch, whether sequels, ports or remasters, show that Nintendo will likely need to try and reboot some of these IPs and releases to hit a bigger audience (hopefully) on the next-gen system.
First of all, I want to be clear that I'm a big advocate for the qualities of the Wii U, in particular large parts of its game catalogue. Rather like evangelists for the GameCube or, in a sense, the SEGA Dreamcast, I've immersed myself in the system. Before my external hard drive copped it and I bemoaned the lousy data management options, I would look over my folders and populated windows and think, "crikey, that's a lot of good games". The list of retail games that were on my "play it again some day list" was modest but dripping with quality, and there were a lot of varied, intriguing and in some cases outstanding eShop titles, some that were system exclusives. A bit like the Wii, in fact, it offered plenty of games and experiences that my other gaming hardware (primarily New 3DS, PS4 and PC in my case) simply do not have.
Despite that the problems can be traced right back to E3 2011 reveal. The Wii U name was arguably an issue, as was the 2011 unveiling that seemed to confuse some over what it was. As we've said previously, we can bemoan the fact some got confused, but ultimately it was Nintendo's job to pitch the concept and brand clearly.
It's also easy to blame the GamePad and dual-screen concept as a problem, and I'll get to why they were contributing factors to the system's woes, but in some cases it worked beautifully. From Nintendo Land's multiplayer to simple but useful maps in other games, from co-op in Rayman Legends through to innovative Nindie efforts like Affordable Space Adventures, the concept could be made to work. Even when the extra screen wasn't needed for asynchronous features it was handy for off-TV, and I want to repeat the point that I would argue the Wii U did not fall short in terms of delivering some top-class games. Major first- and third-party franchises, given the chance on the hardware, often arrived in delightful forms. Mario Kart 8, Super Smash Bros. for Wii U, Pikmin 3, the PlatinumGames releases, there are many more. I'm also a staunch defender of the delights found in Super Mario 3D World; it's not Galaxy, but Galaxy isn't 3D World either. I thought the Wii U's 3D Mario brought a lovely spin to the series.
However, ultimately the quality of the library didn't matter, because Nintendo rather passively let the Wii U fade and die. That assertion can be countered by listing a lot of those games, but that's actually part of the point - there was excellent content, but Nintendo often seemed to just fling games out into the world and hope they would fix bigger problems with the Wii U's place in the market. After all, executives kept repeating the 'games sell systems' mantra, which is partly true, but other factors are also important. When those games failed the company seemed to shrug its shoulders, almost like it wasn't a big deal.
Perhaps the Wii U's failings weren't a cause of too many headaches in Nintendo's HQ. The success of the 3DS and clever accounting helped Nintendo produce profits despite continually declining sales revenues over the past few years. Whereas efforts to 'save' the Wii U were modest at best, Nintendo had gone all out (successfully) to salvage the 3DS in Autumn / Fall 2011. Why? Probably because the portable space is more important to Nintendo, and it thinks the battle is almost lost for its home console hopes. Look at the Switch. It's a 'home gaming system', to quote the official website, with the big selling point being that it can be played in various ways on the go. Large chunks of the reveal trailer had no TV in sight as a result, as the hybrid can evidently be considered a 'portable' by those that love Nintendo's handhelds.
Statistically that makes sense, as Nintendo's portables out-sell their home consoles, they always have, so in a tough market that prompted the company to merge its hardware and software teams it makes sense to maintain that angle.
Despite all of that, however, I've frequently been frustrated by Nintendo's inactivity in trying to revive the Wii U over the years. Early messaging and strategy was a mess - I remember Reggie Fils-Aime making daft pitches to 'hardcore gamers' that love Call of Duty prior to launch. The launch price, driven by Nintendo's refusal to take a loss on units and the rumoured cost of the GamePad, was too high and tossed away the budget fun strategy that had helped Wii - the last-gen system also went viral thanks to its concept, of course. In fact, some will always argue that an affordable and simple Wii HD successor (minus the GamePad) would have had better odds of continuing Nintendo's good run. It's debatable, but not an argument entirely without merit.
I recall the Holiday season of 2013, one year after launch, when Nintendo (in the UK, at least) threw a lot of money at advertising Pokémon X & Y, a game that practically sells itself, and put hardly any comparative effort behind the release of Super Mario 3D World. It was a pity that MK8 missed that vital window for the system's second festive period, but it was still baffling that marketing was phoned in for a Mario game. I recall walking around the biggest shopping centre in Scotland and seeing Pokémon ads everywhere (after it had been in stores a while), but none for 3D World. I don't recall many impressive marketing efforts beyond a few neat TV trailers, when in reality Nintendo needed to go all in to sell that game and the Wii U. Instead we're sure some expensive marketing and PR staff pointed to X & Y sales and said "look what we achieved", when in reality the Pokémon brand on a popular system could likely do the job mostly on its own.
Nintendo continued to finish off and release quality games that were no doubt long planned, but did little to actually promote and sell hardware. It hummed and hawed over a price drop, and then only dropped it $50 after a long wait, by which point PS4 and Xbox One offered terrific value as they were already duking it out with each other. Nintendo had some interesting plans, including a project to 'save' the GamePad with fascinating releases, but they seemed half-hearted. Early on a high-profile game - Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze - had even effectively ignored the controller's concept, and that just set the tone. The Wii U became a pricey system that lacked a coherent vision. Sequels to Wii blockbusters even suffered, with Wii Sports Club and Wii Fit U arriving with a low-profile whimper on the eShop, with extremely limited retail stock. Franchises that defined the Wii dropped out on the Wii U without much buzz.
Nintendo's wider approaches helped to scupper it too. Draconian YouTube policies that ignored online trends meant that not many 'influencers' bothered even looking at a Wii U. All part of a vicious cycle - no matter how good the games over the years it was still expensive considering its capabilities, pushed into corners in stores and ignored by many. As a product it offered plenty to enjoy for loyal owners, but to those on the outside there was a lack of a hook, a message to draw them in and persuade them to buy it. With its dwindling high street presence and half-hearted marketing it became, I don't think it's harsh to say, a butt of jokes in some gaming communities.
None of this reflects on Nintendo's development teams, who made some amazing games, arguably still some of the best experiences in this generation. In the key releases Nintendo's quality control and admirable focus to deliver 60fps in some games was a delight, shining a light on how game development should work. Yet on the business side Nintendo failed to turn it around. To this day a lot of people barely know what the Wii U is, or the terrific games it has to offer.
Hopefully Nintendo has learnt from these failures, and one early sign is positive for the Switch - the 'reveal trailer' did its job, was widely viewed and got a lot of media coverage. A number of potential consumers already know what the Nintendo Switch is, and that's with a lot of marketing still to come. Confirmation of global hands-on demos for consumers to try the system in early 2017 also bode well.
As for the Wii U, though, it'll pass by millions that either didn't know it was there, or were scared away by pricing, muddled marketing or the fact that it just didn't excite them on a conceptual level. Some of that isn't Nintendo's fault - the GamePad may have seemed like a strong idea when prototyping began, but the impact was arguably lost by launch in November 2012. Even considering factors that shouldn't lead to outright blame, I still think Nintendo nevertheless lacked the appetite to 'save' the Wii U, even to drag it up to GameCube levels. Perhaps wearied after the effort of reviving 3DS, perhaps unsure of the right moves, the Wii U's failure is obviously Nintendo's failure, especially in those disastrous first 12-18 months on the market - in that period a number of third-parties and retailers backed away, as sales numbers were simply too low.
I think that's a shame, and the system deserved a better fate. There's consolation to be had, perhaps, with the prospect of some of the Wii U's finest titles potentially being given renewed life on the Nintendo Switch. If IPs such as Splatoon can align with a successful new system, perhaps along with some other remasters and ports, there's still the possibility that a larger audience will experience the best Wii U titles in some form.
That, hopefully, will give us a positive angle for the Wii U's legacy.