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Was the Nintendo Switch’s predecessor a good console? – A look back at the Wii U

The release of a new console has historically been a tremendous moment in gaming; whether it offers incredible leaps in graphics technology or a new approach to how we think of “games.” When the Wii U was first demonstrated at E3 2012 it represented the vanguard of the newest console generation yet its seemingly underpowered technical specs and awkward, yet strangely exciting controller design left a lot of people wondering just what Nintendo had up their sleeve for their next step. Almost five years later and we are again on the brink of a new Nintendo console, the Switch. Now we have the time and perspective to look back and ask the question: Was the Wii U a good console?

Sales

chart
Chart courtesy of statpedia

Let’s get this out of the way: the Wii U was not very successful. Blame whatever you want: poor marketing, underpowered hardware, inconsistent software releases; one of the few certainties about the Wii U is the tremendous difficulty Nintendo had moving units ever since its launch. Even with massive, system-selling titles like Super Smash Bros., Mario Kart 8, and Super Mario 3D World, the Wii U was only ever to achieve slight boosts in its sales figures.

Despite releasing a year before Microsoft’s Xbox One and Sony’s PlayStation 4, the Wii U has trailed behind the other two consoles almost immediately since their release. According to statistics from July 2016, the Wii U had sold a little more than 13 million units while the PlayStation 4 had already crossed the 40 million mark and the Xbox One was reaching over 20 million. This problem was so bad, in fact, that Nintendo halted manufacturing of the Wii U late last year. I can’t remember a console that ceased production in the lead up to its successor’s release.

The Games

Sales figures are good statistics to determine success but when you really want to judge a console’s quality you have to look at the games. On this front the Wii U delivered…sort of. The Wii U featured new entries in most of Nintendo’s classic series and many of these were excellent iterations. Super Mario 3D World brought multiplayer to 3D Mario games, the new Smash was a smooth game that catered to both hardcore and casual fans, and Mario Kart 8 is, in my opinion, the best in that legendary series to date.

Breath of the Wild
Breath of the Wild feels more like a game for the Switch than the Wii U at this point

Yet there are some glaring cases that are missing from this stable. HD remasters aside, for every Donkey Kong or Pikmin we got there was a Zelda or Metroid missing. Granted, Breath of the Wild looks incredible but that is also coming to the new Switch, the console it will likely be most associated with just as Twilight Princess is associated with the Wii and not the GameCube. Nintendo has trouble with third party support (more on that later) so they rely on these games to be available to players. Having even a few absent hurts the console significantly.

There were other critical and commercial successes on the console. Super Mario Maker, Splatoon, and Bayonetta 2 come to mind first, but these kinds of games never came out at a consistent rate. When a good/great game feels like an anomaly in a console’s lifetime that is a massive problem.

Third Party Support

One of the biggest things missing from the Wii U was the absence of support from third party developers. Anyone else feel a major Deja Vu vibe? This is perhaps the biggest complaint of Nintendo consoles for the past two decades. The Wii U started out fairly strong in this regard actually with games like Assassin’s Creed 3, Mass Effect 3, and Batman Arkham City all making their way onto the new hardware in 2012.

Wii U third party support
Many games had already been released on other platforms by the time they came to the Wii U

Yet this apparent support almost entirely vanished once the Xbox One and PS4 were released. Since then entries in some of the biggest franchises like Assassin’s Creed, Call of Duty, and Batman have completely skipped Nintendo’s console as well as landmark multiplatform games like Final Fantasy XV and Overwatch.

Purists may say, “Nintendo doesn’t need or want these types of games. They’ve got their own way of doing things.” This argument feels like it is as old as time at this point and it only gets harder and harder to defend as time goes on. The fact of the matter is that if the Wii U was the only console you owned in the last four years then you missed out on not just a niche group of exclusives, but an entire wave of gaming. That should never be an acceptable state for a console.

The GamePad

This is the big one. Nintendo effectively banked its faith in the Wii U on the unique gameplay experiences that its dual screen set-up could provide. On paper it seemed like a great idea. Take the success of the Nintendo DS and blow it up to living-room scale proportions. Unfortunately the Gamepad wound up being a hit-and-miss feature.

Animal Crossing Nintendo Land
Stealing candy in the Animal Crossing mini game

One of the big things Nintendo pushed with the gamepad at launch was the concept of asymmetrical multiplayer. Exemplified in Nintendo Land, the gamepad’s separate screen allowed for one person to go up against four other players or, alternatively, assist them in various games. These experiences were a lot of fun but never really caught on. In fact Nintendoland is one of few examples of a good and successful Wii U game in which this gameplay element was a key feature. There were games that emphasized this type of play but it never became a focus for Nintendo’s core pillar of games (Mario, Smash, Bayonetta, etc.) which made it feel like a sidetrack for the system and never part of its identity. The asymmetrical multiplayer afforded by the gamepad just never caught on and quietly fell by the wayside.

Nintendo Switch Dual Screen
Off-TV play is sticking around for the Switch!

That being said, arguably the Wii U’s best feature was the off-TV play the gamepad offered with its small built-in touch screen. The ability to use the gamepad’s built-in screen meant that a roommate or family member could enjoy their own form of entertainment while you could play in privacy without disrupting each other. This feature offered a convenience that none of the other consoles could and, although it may not seem like a selling point at first, it became something that was tough to give up when moving on to other consoles. Even Nintendo seems to be acknowledging this as the system’s best feature since they are keeping it with the new Switch.

And yet I would argue that the Wii U’s gamepad, despite being somewhat hit-and-miss, was a failure because it was ultimately unnecessary. Almost all of the games listed in the prior section either barely used the gamepad’s features except for second-screen play. Sure you could use the touch screen in Wind Waker HD to avoid having to pause the game in order to change items but this doesn’t really change the game’s flow all that much and even conflicts with the off-TV play that most people like to tout the Wii U for featuring (if you’re playing on the gamepad as a primary screen then you don’t have a second screen to use as your item bag). It feels like Nintendo didn’t really know what to do with the Wii U. They had trouble marketing it and also found difficulty in developing experiences that were truly unique to it. It feels like a test concept, something that does not know what it is or wants to be. It lacks identity.

That is where my opinion on the matter ends up. The Wii U is the gamepad. Its inconsistency is reflective of the console as a whole. There are some truly excellent experiences to be offered by this console but the fact that it didn’t distinguish itself from competitors and never established a cohesive vision makes it feel like a half-step forward. I’ve had fun with my Wii U over the years but I am not particularly sad to be saying goodbye to it.

Evan graduated from Chapman University in 2017 with a BFA in creative writing and a minor in leadership studies. A love of storytelling propels his interest in video games, though he is equally comfortable on the battlefields of multiplayer games as in the middle of an RPG grind. When not gaming he can be found producing music, writing stories, or pondering the big questions in life.

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