Nintendo is doomed. Haven't you heard? They're about to release a new, underpowered console with a funny name that's built around a silly gimmick. There's no way anyone will buy it.
Oh, wait. That was the Wii. And the DS. And the 3DS. All of which have turned into ridiculous successes for the folks who make Mario, despite the never-ending deluge of gamers shouting about how Nintendo was going to fail.
This should all sound quite familiar by now. With the Wii U coming out this November, the Nintendo cycle has begun anew.
Maybe you've read some of the arguments online, heard some of the naysayers in person. "The Wii U is such a joke," they might have said. "Who wants to play games on two screens at once?"
"The Wii U doesn't know what it wants to be!"
"It's such a gimmick!"
Never mind the fact that we saw these arguments in 2006, just before the Wii became the biggest console on the planet and took over living rooms worldwide. This time, things will be different, the naysayers argue. This time, Nintendo won't get the throngs of grandparents and children hooked by crazy gimmicks and easy marketing hooks. This time, nobody will care.
Meanwhile, in the real world, Nintendo is making a game console that any video game fan should be excited about. It comes with an all-in-one media center that could make it the only device your living room needs. It's got a neat social network that could supplement our gaming experiences in some interesting ways. It has a weird, crazy controller with a ton of potential.
Perhaps most importantly, the Wii U boasts one of the strongest launch lineups in Nintendo history, a slate of games more varied and interesting than anything we saw in the first few months of the Wii, 3DS, DS, or even GameCube. This is a console to be reckoned with.
Learning From Their Mistakes
When I left Nintendo's big 3DS extravaganza in January of 2011, all I could think was: "They're releasing this system too early."
When I left Nintendo's big Wii U extravaganza last week, all I could think was: "I want to play more."
The 3DS's launch, even Nintendo would tell you, was a near-catastrophic failure. The game lineup was barren. The eShop was late. And gamers just didn't care about the system's biggest selling point, glasses-free 3D.
To recover from this misstep, Nintendo had to slash down the system's price from $250 to $170 in an unprecedented (and drastic) fire sale. It took that price cut, a Black Friday, and a couple of Mario games for the system to finally start taking off.
Nintendo doesn't want that to happen again. They're not making the same mistakes with Wii U, and the system's launch lineup is proof of that.
The Wii U's launch window, as Nintendo likes to brag, will feature around 50 games. Some of those are shovelware. Others are games we've all played already. But between November and March, we'll see some really strong original titles: a new Mario, a new Pikmin, the delightfully wacky The Wonderful 101, the much-hyped ZombiU, a new Scribblenauts, and an enticing mini-game collection called Nintendo Land that might be this system's hidden gem.
Plus all the new PS3/Xbox 360 games that are finally getting simultaneous releases on a Nintendo system: Assassin's Creed III, Epic Mickey 2, and Call of Duty: Black Ops 2, among others.
To top that off, Nintendo announced last week that they're publishing a sequel to Bayonetta, a game released for the Xbox and PlayStation, as a Wii U exclusive. A hardcore game that a lot of fans would love to get their hands on, Bayonetta 2 might be Nintendo's way of saying "hey guys, we're not screwing around this time." And it's exactly what the Wii U needs.
The Power Problem
From everything we've heard and seen over the past few months, it's become clear that the Wii U will not be as powerful as the next Xbox, code-named Durango, or the next PlayStation, code-named Orbis. Consequently, many are skeptical that the Wii U will be able to run next-generation games by big developers. In three or four years, the Wii U could find itself in the same position that the Wii has been: underpowered and unable to run the games we get on Xbox and PlayStation.
I prodded Nintendo of America president Reggie Fils-Aime about this issue when I interviewed him last week. He believes that third-party developers will flock to the Wii U because it has two strengths that the Wii lacked: high-definition resolution and strong online support.
I don't know if that's going to happen, and I don't know if we'll see games like Call of Duty or Mass Effect on the Wii U in three or four years. But I don't think that power problem will be much of a problem at all. In fact, I don't think the Wii U can succeed by trying to tread water alongside the PlayStation, Xbox, and PC. The Wii U, like its predecessor, needs to do its own thing.
As Nintendo seems to have realized, the Wii U will not live or die based on whether it gets the newest Call of Duty. The Wii U won't need to play Assassin's Creed 5 or Final Fantasy 17. To appeal to everyone, from hardcore Nintendo fans to families that like to play the occasional video game in their living room, the Wii U needs to have its own robust library of unique, original titles that we can't get anywhere else.
The Wii U needs more Marios, more Zeldas, yes, but what it really needs is more Bayonetta 2s. More The Wonderful 101s. More Nintendo Lands. More small digital games and fun time-wasters and hardcore RPGs and long, in-depth, dual-screen experiences that we can only get on Nintendo's new system. We're already seeing the start of that.
When criticizing the Wii U, many people have pointed out that Nintendo doesn't seem to have one specific target audience in mind, that Nintendo doesn't know whether it wants to target hardcore gamers or hardcore grandmas. But why wouldn't they want both? Why wouldn't they want everyone? Nintendo isn't interested in being like Sony or Microsoft; Nintendo wants to be Apple. Facebook. And I think they're on the right track.
Quite a few folks have also criticized Nintendo for not talking more about their online capabilities. Many critics have suggested that Nintendo has yet to decide how its digital network will run. That they're scrambling at the last minute to get it together.
Maybe they are. That doesn't make a bit of difference. Why should we care what Nintendo is showing off now, two months before the Wii U's launch? What will matter is what the online network looks like on November 18, when we get to see it, play around with it and test it out for ourselves.
What we should be worried about, what I'm most worried about, is that developers won't master the GamePad, that they won't figure out how to use it, that they'll prematurely give up on it like many of them gave up on the Wii. Towards the end of that system's lifespan, we saw very few big, high-quality Wii games. And they all came from Nintendo. If the same thing happens to the Wii U—if Nintendo burns long-time supporters again and can't give us a steady dripfeed of high-quality content—the company may be in serious trouble.
There are still questions, of course. Will Nintendo adapt to the times and start selling value packages or discounted games like Steam does? Will the Wii U be more welcoming to indie developers than the Wii has been? Will Bayonetta 2 be an anomaly or will it usher in a new era of Nintendo-exclusive games?
But everything Nintendo has done and shown so far says to me that they know exactly what they're doing. They know our concerns. We wanted games: they're giving us games. We wanted other media: they're giving us other media. We wanted HD, online support, and other big features that all should have been around last generation: now we're getting them.
Perhaps it's time for the world to admit that maybe, just maybe, Nintendo knows what it's doing.