As we learned this morning, the Wii U will launch on November 18, 2012—almost six years, to the day, after the Wii launched—and it will come in two versions, costing $299.99 and $349.99.
Many of us had running bets or civil disagreements over our best guesses for the Wii U's launch date and price. It's a good thing I didn't place any bets, because I was certain we'd see $249.99 or $279.99. Clearly, I was very wrong.
And yet, it seemed like a reasonable guess, based on Nintendo's history. So how does the Wii U stack up against the launch prices of its predecessors in the current console generation—or what they cost now? First, let's take a quick look at the consoles.
Launched: November 19, 2006
Launch Price: $249.99
First Price Drop: September 2009 (2 years 10 months), to $199.99
Current Price: Wii bundles range from $149 to $199
Launched: Noevmber 22, 2005
Launch Price: $299.99 for "core," $399.99 for "premium"
First Price Drop: August 2007 (1 year 10 months), to $249.99 / $349.99
Current Price: A 250 GB model costs $299.99; the 4 GB version, $199.99
Launched: November 17, 2006
Launch Price: $499.99 for the 20 GB version; $599.99 for the 60 GB
First Price Drop: July 2007 (8 months), to $499.99 for the 60 GB version
Current Price: A 160 GB model costs $249.99
Perhaps the most noticeable trend across all three current-generation consoles is that as prices have decreased, integrated storage space has increased dramatically, showing off just how important hard drive installations, downloadable content, and digitally-distributed games have become.
Of course, the past seven years have also seen a great deal of change in the handheld market, as mobile devices have become dominant and portable gaming systems have tried to catch up with their set-top brethren. So what of the others? Straight comparisons are more difficult, because handheld device generations are much shorter than set-top console generations. Still, there are numbers to look at.
Launched: March 27, 2011
Launch Price: $249.99
First Price Drop: August, 2011 (5 months), to $169.99
Current Price: $169.99 (with the XL version now available for $199.99)
Launched: February 22, 2012
Launch Price: $249.99 for WiFi-only version; $299.99 for 3G model
First Price Drop: None yet (8 months)
Current Price: $249.99 / $299.99
Launched: June 29, 2007
Launch Price: $599
First Price Drop: September, 2007 (3 months), to $399
Current Price: The iPhone 5 launches this month with $199, $299, and $399 versions. The previous generation (the 4S) is dropping to $99—but iPhone prices tend to include cell provider contract-signing subsidies.
In 2012, it seems like the $300 price point has become the magic number for electronics to settle on. Almost everything has landed in that sweet spot between $200 and $300, tabletop and handheld alike. The Wii U finds itself solidly in the middle of the pack. It may cost more than a PlayStation 3, but it's cheaper than an iPhone and not any pricier than an Xbox 360.
The question is, will buyers judge it against its current competition from Sony and Microsoft—or against other, historically cheaper, Nintendo products? Other Nintendo consoles have cost $200-$250 at launch. It's all well and good that the Wii U is competitively priced with the consoles that are now, technically, a generation behind it, but that may or may not still help Nintendo when higher-powered Sony and Microsoft consoles inevitably arrive in a year or two.
In context, all modern consoles, Nintendo's included, are as inexpensive as they've ever been. Gamasutra has a nifty chart adjusting console prices for inflation, and every Nintendo console since the Nintendo 64 fits well into the lower end of it—but so, too, do the PlayStation 2 and both Xbox generations. And adjusted for inflation, the humble NES ($200 at launch) would cost $426 in today's money.
Perhaps where today's price announcement surprised so many was that the Wii U has now crossed a line into the realm that, until now, Nintendo seemed to have been avoiding: releasing different versions of the product with different price points. While the Wii, after six years, now comes in an array of different colors, the hardware in each is still the same. Likewise, while each version of the Nintendo DS (the original, the DS Lite, the DSi, and the 3DS) has come in an array of different colors, each has been the same machine.
As for those hoping to wait out the launch price and score a deal on a Wii U, well, we might have quite a wait. The Wii made it almost three years before cutting consumers a break. Best to start saving those pennies now.