Reggie Fils-Aime, president of Nintendo of America, is aware of all the Wii U skepticism. He's certainly aware of mine and the fact that there's a $400 PlayStation 4 bearing down on his $350 32GB Wii U this fall. Plus an Xbox. What, him worry?
The storyline told throughout the halls of E3 was that the show was about Microsoft going against Sony, about Xbox One vs. PS4. Nintendo had a bunch of fun games in their booth, but they were off to the side.
In a meeting room in that Nintendo booth, I sat down with Fils-Aime and asked him as much: Is the narrative wrong to think this is Microsoft vs. Sony this generation and Nintendo is once again this unusual company on the side? Nintendo is going to do their own thing but it's not going to be on the scale of what these other two companies are doing?
"It's a very inaccurate narrative," Fils-Aime said. "In fact, that was the narrative in 2006. That was exactly the narrative." He's referring to the eve of the launch of the Nintendo Wii, the relatively weak console that was supposedly going to get slaughtered by the mighty Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 but instead, thanks to its novel controller, surged far into the lead.
Wasn't the Wii, I asked Fils-Aime, far ahead of where the Wii U is right now? It had Wii Sports. It played an ace card right away.
"I think it's inaccurate to use the word 'far'," he said. "If you look at it from a U.S. perspective, this point in time vs. where we were with the Wii life stage, there's a difference of about 1 to 1.5 million units. Over a potential lifespan over 40 million-plus units, that's not a lot." Based on Nintendo's public sales stats, the gap is even tighter than that, with 2.37 million Wiis sold by the end of March 31, 2007 in the Americas and 1.52 million Wii Us sold by March 31 of this year, both consoles having launched in the prior November. The Wii, of course, was out of stock everywhere. The Wii U has been struggling through a soon-to-be-ending software drought.
"I would say the big difference in the Wii launch vs. the Wii U launch is that, at the [Wii] launch we had a fantastic game in Wii Sports that really helped people understand the magic of the Wii Remote, and we had Zelda. We had Zelda there at the launch to satisfy the more active [read: more hardcore; not more physically-active] player and when you look at what we had at the launch for Wii U, yes we had a Mario game—a fantastic Mario game that has a very strong attach rate to the hardware [meaning: people who bought the system bought the game]—but there wasn't as many opportunities for the more active player to really get behind the system."
I wondered when he thought the Wii U would be in a better spot.
"You know, I think by the end of this holiday, after we've launched Wind Waker, after we've launched Donkey Kong Country, after we've launched Mario 3D World, I think we're going to be in a very good position."
It's easy to dismiss Fils-Aime's comments as marketing puffery, but Nintendo conveniently affords gamers an alternate look at what it's doing by running two platforms at once. The 3DS is older than the Wii U by about a year and a half and is now very much in a groove, with major, polished releases hitting from Nintendo nearly monthly, (Fire Emblem, then Luigi's Mansion, then Animal Crossing, etc.). "Is it possible," Fils Aime said, "to do it for 3DS and Wii U at the same time? Absolutely. And that's what we're focused on. The pace of significant launches behind a platform is absolutely what we need and what we're focused on getting to."
Fils-Aime: "My bet is that there are going to be more announcements the closer we get to whatever their launch date is."
Ah, but there's that PS4 coming out by year's end for just $400. Xbox One is $500, but that PS4 price is close to the Wii U's. Pressure?
"It puts no pressure on us at all," Fils-Aime said. "Sony and Microsoft are going to do what they're going to do. My bet is that there are going to be more announcements the closer we get to whatever their launch date is.
"From my perspective, I can't focus on that. I have to focus on: How do we satisfy the needs of all of the consumers out there with Nintendo products? How do we make sure they understand our proposition? How do we make sure they're excited about the software that we offer? And from that standpoint we're going to let our competition do what they're going to do."