The Wii U is now just over four years old, passing the milestone most recently on 8th December (for the Japanese release). This is the point when it should be contemplating a steady step back, still accumulating quality games while the 'next generation' starts to loom. That would be the norm, but the gaming industry - like the broader world of technology - seems to be in flux and rushing forwards too quickly for its own good. For those used to a console generation lasting between 5-7 years, it's been a rude awakening in 2016. The PS4 Pro is out, the Xbox 'Scorpio' is coming in late 2017, and the world of home consoles is getting shaken up.
From a Nintendo perspective change is also imminent - its next 'home gaming system', the Switch, is coming in March 2017. The big N has adopted an interesting approach to revealing the system, shrinking the typical reveal-to-release window, attracting a ridiculous number of leaks in the process. It's also a home system where the primary console is effectively a tablet form with detachable controllers, with a TV dock perhaps boosting the experience a little for home play. The idea isn't completely new, but it is fresh in the previously stuffy and traditional home console industry.
The Wii U, ultimately, has been left behind in all of this. It's tempting to argue that, in the big picture, the system has been in the margins for at least a year, drifting towards a rather sad end. Dedicated fans still enjoy aspects of the console, and some plan to play The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild on it in 2017, but in the broader world the Wii U has little true relevance. It's been a swift decline.
In this feature, then, we want to pick up on three key phases for the Wii U - its launch and early moments of excellence, its premature failure, and the final stage of indifference.
A Launch Full of Promise, But Not Good Results
Going back a little further, the Wii U had a rather poor unveiling at E3 2011. Nintendo's concept trailer seemed very clear in this writer's eyes, but misconceptions and confusion spread online. Is the Wii U an expansion to Wii? That question went around a lot, and casual observers no doubt weren't sure of what was being shown. Nintendo tried to remedy the situation, but when a first pitch misfires you've already lost an important early battle (a lesson arguably learnt with the rather successful Switch teaser trailer).
In 2012, the actual launch year, Nintendo was clearer in its messaging. Its E3 presentation still had a few issues, but in general it ticked boxes - launch games were shown, third-parties talked it up, all was clearer. There was then a September 'event' in New York that included a few more reveals, launch dates and pricing. It wasn't all strategically sound - Nintendo of America in particular tried to use the early inclusion of IPs such as Call of Duty and FIFA to claim that the system was 'hardcore'. It was a daft set of claims, as the system's concept, pricing and the Nintendo brand didn't back up such brash remarks. There were some eye-catching wins though - Bayonetta 2 was confirmed pre-launch as a future exclusive, and initially it seemed that Rayman Legends would be another high-profile exclusive; Ubisoft was being cautious with its wording, for reasons that would become clear.
In any case, Nintendo approached it like any other launch, and following on from the incredible success of Wii would have expected solid results. At launch the Wii U had a decent line-up: New Super Mario Bros. U joined 'Deluxe' / 'Premium' pack-in Nintendo Land as a key first-party game, while Ubisoft's ZombiU (at that time an exclusive) was a tempting 'mature' offering. Early headlines were reasonable, too - the Wii U wasn't selling out and going viral like the Wii before it, but between its launch and 31st December 2012 just over three million units were sold worldwide.
It was in 2013 where much went wrong, and the lack of major releases was a significant factor. Between 1st January and 31st March 2013 sales momentum went off a cliff, with just 390,000 units sold globally in that period. It was disastrous, to be blunt, and it wasn't particularly hard to identify issues - the system was pricey (with the GamePad blamed by some), and its game library had a number of disappointing ports that were either sub-par or rather late. That latter point was a big shame, as some quality efforts in 2013 such as Need for Speed: Most Wanted U and Deus Ex: Human Revolution Director's Cut deserved better sales and attention. On top of this, Nintendo was taking too long with its own games, in what was eventually acknowledged as a talent gap problem. The company has terrific game makers, but there were growing pains in the technical transition to HD gaming that meant longer-than-expected development times.
2013 was also a year when Ubisoft angered plenty of Nintendo fans, delaying Rayman Legends in order to also bring it to other platforms; the developers took the opportunity to add more content, but the delay caused a notable stink online. Nintendo's releases, meanwhile, not only took too long but struggled to excite a broad audience. Pikmin 3 is a lovely game, but its Summer 2013 arrival wasn't the blockbuster that Wii U needed; likewise The Wonderful 101, a PlatinumGames exclusive. The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD was a big Summer / Fall arrival, but let's think about this - it was a remaster of a Zelda title from Nintendo's lowest-selling console (before the Wii U). Again, the appeal beyond dedicated fans was limited.
As we headed towards the end of 2013 Nintendo had a big problem. Sales momentum was still poor, and the release of PS4 and Xbox One dominated headlines and public attention. Sonic Lost World wasn't the answer, though Super Mario 3D World was a major release. The problem? Pokémon X & Y hogged more headlines for 3DS (and Nintendo's marketing budget, we'd suggest), and alongside fresh new consoles from Microsoft and Sony the coast was not clear for Mario's adventure. We know from chatting to Nintendo marketing staff at the time that they'd have lopped off an ear in exchange for having Mario Kart 8 to sell during Christmas 2013; development was slow though (again, that transition to HD), and it wouldn't arrive until May 2014. In the Holiday season of 2013 the Wii U was swamped; overall system sales for the 2013/2014 financial year were just 2.72 million globally, a terrible figure.
A Slide Towards Failure
As we move into 2014, we hit a point where the Wii U served up more excellent gaming experiences, with some arguably being generation standouts across all platforms. Let's consider 2014 alone in terms of games high in quality that also generated some buzz - releases included Mario Kart 8, Bayonetta 2, Hyrule Warriors and Super Smash Bros. for Wii U; the latter earned significant attention. There were other quality games such as Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker, and the amiibo range launched alongside Smash Bros. and created a frenzy. Nintendo's shoddy mis-handling of demand with amiibo led to negative headlines, however.
When you add the continual growth of the Wii U eShop to releases like these, enthusiasts of the console had a pretty good year; the 'Nindie' scene was really gaining steam. The problem, though, was that the wider world saw a painfully limited release slate, a system perhaps overpriced when considered alongside current-gen rivals, and in the Holiday period social media was full of angry posts about amiibo being rarer than a Unicorn's droppings. This was a particularly frustrating year with little action from Nintendo, too, as it resisted the urge to attempt a 3DS-style rescue plan with a significant price drop; $50 was eventually taken off the list price in the US, but it was a gesture with little impact.
In a year with Bayonetta 2 as an exclusive, and iconic IPs like Mario Kart and Smash Bros., the system still struggled. Its sales technically improved in the 2014/2015 financial year, but they were still grim; just 3.38 million units were shipped.
As 2014 drew to a close it seemed that the system's narrative was essentially fixed in place - a handful of top-draw exclusives, an enjoyable eShop library, and little public appetite. Nintendo didn't fail any rescue attempt, because we'd argue it barely undertook the endeavour. The company banked on those aforementioned hit games to do a job, but their releases were too infrequent and lacked the necessary backup. Many third-parties had already ditched the system by this point, with a handful of franchises such as LEGO and Skylanders being exceptions, and the PS4 was generating significant sales; Microsoft was lagging behind with Xbox One but, notably, undertook a rescue mission that has proven relatively successful.
As 2014 drew to an end, it became clear that big releases to 'save' the Wii U weren't going to be enough, and no doubt Nintendo saw this too. Projects already in the works seemed to mostly carry on, but Nintendo seemed to play for time somewhat; then, in a surprising move, company President Satoru Iwata announced the development of the 'Nintendo NX' - that was in the March 2015 event to outline a corporate partnership with DeNA to produce smart device apps. The Wii U's struggles meant that, despite being just 2.5 years old when 'NX' was first mentioned, it was already being sidelined as fans demanded to know more about what was next.
Interestingly, 2015 was a corker in terms of exclusives on the Wii U; these included the likes of Yoshi's Woolly World, Splatoon, Super Mario Maker, Xenoblade Chronicles X and some others. There were disappointments, with poor reactions to the likes of Animal Crossing: amiibo Festival and Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash. Nevertheless, with some quality titles, more amiibo and so on, it wasn't a terrible year for Wii U owners.
Not that it mattered in terms of sales; only 3.26 million Wii U units were shipped in the 2015 / 2016 financial year.
2016 - The Year of Indifference
As we consider 2016 for Wii U, its fate had long since been established. No matter what games came out, the revival wasn't coming, and this was a year in which the clamour for information on the Switch reached near-ludicrous levels. There've been a handful of enticing releases such as The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess HD, Pokkén Tournament, Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE and Paper Mario: Color Splash; it must be said that Star Fox Zero was divisive. Breath of the Wild fell back to 2017, and confirmation that it would also come to Switch was another reason for the gaming world to move on from the Wii U. Nintendo focused on the Wii U version of this title at E3, but likely only as a result of not being ready to unveil the Switch (still NX) at that stage.
It's not been a complete bust for existing users, and the eShop has still served up some gems, yet it's the bigger picture we're considering here. Nintendo's projection of just 800,000 unit sales this financial year is all the indication we need that the system is already largely forgotten, along with the news that manufacturing is ending. Having only recently turned four years old the Wii U is yesterday's news; the sad thing is that it's been that way for some time already. The wider world stopped considering the Wii U as a major player in the console space a while before now.
Nintendo is ultimately responsible; to be fair to the company, it's admitted as much in the past. The big N knows that third-parties weren't obliged to support the system, and the world likewise had no obligation to embrace the Wii successor. The company failed to make the case for the system, it failed to deliver the right strategy or games when it really mattered, and the Wii U as a result has only sold 13.36 million units at the last official count. This has been disappointing to observe, especially when compared to how effectively Nintendo salvaged a similarly poor start endured by 3DS in 2011. It's the worst-selling mainstream home console in Nintendo's history.
Perhaps like the SEGA Dreamcast the Wii U will be fondly remembered in the future, as we'll look at its batch of quality games and consider its misfortune. Maybe time will gloss over Nintendo's errors and missteps, especially if it returns to blockbuster sales form with the Nintendo Switch.
We'll see in good time. One thing is for sure, Nintendo needs to avoid repeating the mistakes that hobbled the Wii U and consigned it to the bargain bin of gaming history.