There’s a famous proverb that says, “luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.”
It’s attributed to some dude named Seneca, who, if I recall correctly, was the backup quarterback for the Seattle Seahawks in the mid- to late-2000s. Apparently quite the scholar.
The reason I refer to this phrase is because I confess with all transparency: I am writing this article solely with the intention of starting my year with a pun. Calendar-based puns are particularly special, you see, because they rely entirely on timeliness. I legitimately hate myself every April 30th when I forget to share the Justin Timberlake ‘it’s gonna be May’ meme, an agony that stretches on for an entire year.
So yes, friends, I am constructing a piece about hindsight in the gaming industry, specifically and exquisitely, so that I can proclaim that I am using 2020 vision. If the rest of the article sucks, I’m not even sorry. It was that worth it.
Seneca would be proud of my patience.
The Wii U
Nintendo has been around the block so many times, the ground itself is beginning to show track marks reminiscent of Scrooge McDuck’s worry room. As such, they’re bound to have a literal embarrassment of misfires and pratfalls that they’d rather leave far, far behind them.
More often than not, however, they then apply masterstrokes, such as the humble Robotic Operating Buddy that practically saved the flagging industry in the mid-80s. So yes, we forgive them their trespasses, by and large.
The Virtual Boy was Nintendo’s silliest botch to date; a cumbersome, cruel piece of technology that didn’t really appeal to anyone. But the stakes were fairly low at the time, so its negative impact is somewhat muted. It was rushed to the market to make way for the upcoming Nintendo 64, and the continued success of the Super Nintendo and Game Boy cushioned the collapse of the shambolic red beast.
However, their biggest failure outright, clearly, remains the Wii U. Nintendo was riding on the high of the mighty Wii, a console that thrived on enticing non-gamers to pick up its intuitive remote and give it a try. Whether they ever played anything beyond the bowling game from pack-in title Wii Sports is largely inconsequential: Nintendo had done something rare, and transcended the industry to reach the masses.
The reasons why Reggie Fils-Aime’s E3 2011 presentation unveiling the Wii U went awry have been widely discussed throughout the years (our own Ed McGlone took it to task in his list of abysmal E3 announcements). The basic gist is that little was done to distinguish the Wii U as being a successor to the Wii, as opposed to a new accessory.
An unclear message is dangerous enough in this — or any — industry, but when you consider how many gaming novices were newfound Nintendo fanatics, they were practically playing with fire. The intention, no doubt, was to ride the wave of the Wii’s brand recognition, integrating existing peripherals like the Wii remote to make a smooth transition into the next stage.
But people didn’t understand, and Nintendo didn’t do enough to elucidate them. When consumers are presented with technology that confuses them, they feel estranged and bothered. Cast your mind back to the advent of the Super Nintendo, initially met with skepticism because parents couldn’t fathom why they couldn’t play these new games on their existing Nintendo console.
…Seriously, watch the video. Kent Shocknek playing F-Zero is the best thing you’ll see all week, and I earnestly hope he’ll be an unlockable character in a future release.
To say that this doomed the Wii U would be revisionist history. Initial sales of the console were not excruciatingly bad, but what followed saw Nintendo drift further and further away from critical third-party support. They were zigging where the industry was zagging, and though this usually bore fruit for them in the past, putting them ahead of their competitors, this time they had completely misjudged the desires of the market.
Gamers wanted stronger consoles with solid online capabilities, and the Wii U was trailing far behind in both aspects. Poor sales of multi-platform titles spooked developers away, and before long, Nintendo was practically keeping the system on life support with the quality of their own software. Reading this 2014 Eurogamer piece by a developer who had worked with the Wii U from the start is almost chilling, because it shows how a few critical decisions could sink the whole ship.
“…a basic comparison/calculation makes the Wii U look, on paper at least, significantly slower than an Xbox 360 in terms of raw CPU,” the anonymous developer reveals. “This point was raised in the meeting, but the Nintendo representatives dismissed it saying that the “low power consumption was more important to the overall design goals” and that “other CPU features would improve the performance over the raw numbers.”
The frustrating thing is that the Wii U, when utilized appropriately, is a lot of fun. Yes, the Gamepad can prove unwieldy when compared to a conventional controller, but the enticing potential shown off in launch title Nintendo Land gave a glimpse into how things should have been.
I legitimately love Mario Chase, don’t you?
Trying to determine how to save the Wii U, however, is like trying to course correct Nintendo itself. The GameCube was a console that treaded water because it didn’t really do much that its competitors couldn’t, while the Wii strived to be unlike anything else. Its follow-up absolutely couldn’t return to the status quo, but the application didn’t meet the ambition. No games means no sales, and no sales means no smiles.
Perhaps it’s because of the lessons learned, fundamentally and technologically, that Nintendo could strike gold with the Switch a generation later. The Wii U crawled so that it could walk, or some form of similar analogy.
When it comes down to it, this plucky little console may have been just as condemned to failure as the Virtual Boy.