Nintendo Wii U (2012)
CPU: 1.24 GHz Tri-Core IBM Power PC “Espresso”
RAM: 2GB DDR3 (1GB for operating system, 1GB for games)
GPU: 550 MHz AMD Radeon based “Latte”
Price point: $299.00 (8GB internal storage system) $349.00 (32GB Internal storage)
The Wii U for all intents and purposes is Nintendo’s biggest miss in its home console lineup. With lifetime sales hovering around 13.5 million units it marked a catastrophic period for Nintendo’s hardware business. The Wii U wasn’t Nintendo’s first under-performing home console. 1996’s Nintendo’s N64 sold 32.9 million units, triumphant numbers when compared directly to the Wii U but a far cry from direct competitor 1995’s Sony PlayStation which went on to sell a record (at that time) 102.4 million units expanding the Video Game market, and taking Nintendo’s place as the living room king.
The N64 made money for Nintendo though, and technically was the most the powerful console of its generation. Nintendo made a mistake in going with Cartridges as the media format for the system in an era where everyone had moved forwards with disc based systems. Nintendo’s Game Cube (2001) continued Nintendo’s ill luck in the Hardware business, as Nintendo repeated the Media storage mistakes (Mini discs, when everyone else had moved to DVD) and oddly designed the exterior of the console as a square, purple, kiddie lunch box (which downplayed the fact that the GC was more powerful than the PS2) that seemed more at home with Barney and friends, than with the growing and aging gamer population of the time.
Nintendo made key mistakes in those two generations that lost them market share to rivals Sony and Microsoft. However, no other system in its history ( and perhaps in console history in general) has been as handicapped by baffling mistakes, creative choices and business decisions as Nintendo’s Wii U.
So let’s start this nostalgic trip into 2012 to see ‘What Went Wrong’ with Nintendo’s worst selling system; The Wii U.
Over confidence can lead people to make some truly stupid if irrational decisions. Perhaps in order to understand the reasoning behind Nintendo’s baffling Wii U, we must go further back in time to their highest triumph in the home console market; 2006’s Wii.
After losing a larger chunk of the market to Sony’s PS2, and new comer Microsoft with it’s underwhelming (21.7 million units sold) Game Cube, Nintendo decided to try a different approach for the looming 7th generation home console war.
The approach? Up clock, add some Ram, and repackage the 2001 GameCube’s innards into a smaller box with cheap motion controls as its main selling point. The Wii conceptually was destined to crash and burn; except that it didn’t. Quite the opposite in fact; it became Nintendo’s most successful home console EVER.
Lighting struck for Nintendo as the Wii against all odds went on to sell a whooping 101 million units, out selling its nearest competitor the PS3 (87.4 million units sold) by 14 million units. So how did the under powered Wii manage to recover a chunk of the gaming market after Sony’s decade long domination of it? The answer is that Nintendo didn’t. At least not completely. Nintendo expanded the market and sold Wii’s to people who didn’t typically play Video Games. Thus Wii Sports became a hit with the elderly and retirement homes. It was in some ways a stroke of genius by Nintendo.
While tremendously underpowered, the Wii launched with The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess (also on GC), a game that garnered incredible reviews and praise. Its $249.99 launch price point offered a simpler more affordable option to casual gamers than its pricier competition (Xbox 360 $399.99, PS3 $499.99), and Nintendo was the only manufacturer making the big bucks per console sold as the Wii was basically an Upclocked GameCube, which was basically outdated 2001 technology.
The lack of horse power would prove pivotal, while the motion controls and packed in game Wii Sports moved Wii units all across the world the real hardcore gamer segment of the market went with Microsoft and Sony. From 2005-2013 The Halos, The Call of Duties, Gears of War, GTA 5, Skyrim, and the Uncharted Series (amongst others) all made their historic marks. Not one of these games were able to run on the Wii ( The Wii did get a few crappy Call of Duty ports that ran worse than any First Person Shooter did in the OG Xbox).
The Wii had a pair of Zelda’s and the ground Breaking Mario Galaxy titles to show case though, and to be fair both MGs remain ranked at the top spots of the greatest games of all time lists everywhere. So Nintendo did do the their best to deliver on their front. Because of this, the Wii was a companion console in many a household, but regardless of sales, Nintendo lost some core gamers in the process and it would come back to haunt them.
The Elderly are not Loyal
Nintendo repeated many of their GameCube sins on the Wii. The Wii lacked HD capabilities, DVD/Blueray drive, competent online services, and consequently 3rd party support. However people who keep playing the lottery sometimes get lucky and Nintendo scored with the elderly, and casual masses, but lighting doesn’t strike twice in the same place.
The Elderly, and the Parents of tots who bought Wiis galore completely ignored the Wii U’s unceremonious launch. At the end of the day the Wii’s audience wasn’t made up of core gamers. 171 million units had been sold between the 360 and the PS3. Those numbers combined showed a bigger core audience of gamers than Wii’s impressive 101 million mark which was composed mainly of casual gamers (If the elderly could be called that). The Wii U would prove disastrous for Nintendo, because apart from being underpowered, the system had not much else in common with the Wii. And so it failed to attract the casual segment of the market that had bought Wiis.
The name “Wii” wasn’t exactly hardcore by any means especially when it replaced the system’s code name “Revolution” back in the mid 00’s. The name provoked jokes from both the media, and the hardcore community. In the midst of it all Nintendo held firm onto the name believing that it was short, catchy, simple, and easy to remember. Turns out they were right, and they laughed all the way to the bank.
Considering how some baffling decisions had turned into big successes for the company, none of us were surprised when Nintendo’s next system was named “Wii U” by the company. None of us hardcore heads were, but the elderly and the tots never really understood what the U, after the Wii stood for, causing confusion, and indifference on the segment of the market that had made the Wii such a success. Was the Wii U an expensive peripheral for the Wii? Was it a new system? Nintendo didn’t really explain the difference to the casual market that they so desperately catered to in those days, and it bit then in the rear end.
No Man’s Land
Nintendo created an expensive, and complicated machine that actually seemed more at home with a core audience than it did with the casuals, but the machine was too under-powered, and had no blistering Zelda or Mario savior at launch. You could find 360’s at $99.99 and PS3’s at $149.99, the latter with the ability to play Blue Ray’s in 2012, and both with nearly the same horsepower ( and a bigger library of games) as the $349.99 Wii U.
More importantly Sony and Microsoft had already announced their next gen stallions to be launched in 2013.
The Wii U found itself in the proverbial “No man’s land”. It didn’t appeal to the casual masses that supported the Wii, and it was a non factor in the minds of core gamers that had moved on from Nintendo in the previous two gens.
The Console No One Asked For
In 2012 at the end of a long hard fought generational battle between the 360 and PS3 the gaming world was ready for the next generational leap. Nintendo was smart coming out of the gates a year early (This had worked wonders for Microsoft with the 360), Nintendo was also incredibly dumb launching a Machine that tech wise belonged somewhere in 2006-07.
It was problematic that the Wii U was some what only a bit more powerful than the 360 and PS3. A bigger problem was that in some ways such as the system’s CPU, it was actually worse off. This made for some lackluster 3AAA ports, and had some developers even scoffing at its mediocre ‘Expresso’ CPU.
I will assume Nintendo saw the Wii U as an extension of the Wii. You know “The Wii crowd will finally get an HD console upgrade and everything will run smoothly.” Line of thinking. It is the only plausible explanation for the Wii U’s existence. The problem was that very few people would pay the $349.99 price tag for a system whose future was compromised by meager hardware.
Nintendo had been in the hardware business for far too long however to purposely design such a pedestrian system that late into a console cycle. The astronomical price point for hardware that should have sold for no more than $149.99, had to be justified somewhere …..
The Tablet Controller Blunder
Let’s be honest no one had really asked for motion controls either, and the Wii proved that a market for such a thing existed. However a tablet controller with a meager 480p resolution, and limited touch functionality, seemed like a bad a idea when it was first announced, and it remained a bad idea all the way through the Wii U’s troubled life span.
The issues with the controller were many, but for starters let’s summarize some them:
- It drove the system’s price to astronomically high levels.
- It kept the system’s price at an astronomically high level even when it was finally replaced by the Switch.
- The controller was big and clunky, thus forcing gamers into playing with Wii Motes, and Wii U Pro controllers.
- No game ever really took advantage, or more importantly utilized the touch screen controller in a revolutionary way that justified its over priced existence.
- The one important use that I would have wanted from the touch pad controller would have been for FPS in multiplayer mode where every player had his/her own screen thus eliminating the “peeking” tactics often used in the 90s and early 00s. However such an option for greatness was never even explored as the system could theoretically only hold 2 touch gamepads at once.
- Move 15 feet away from the console and the portability feature of the controller…dies.
- That ridiculous price!
The tablet controller was Nintendo’s way of trying to justify a Wii like move of delivering inferior hardware with a gimmick controller as the selling point for a premium price. Needless to say it didn’t work.
Star Fox Zero was pressured into existence from persistent Nintendo’s insistence that at least one game had to do something with the useless hunk of chunk that was the touch screen controller pad.
And so under the guidance of the infallible Miyamoto the project took off. The game launched to deserving bad reviews for its poor controls and mediocre graphics. With a 69 Metacritic rating (Star Fox 64 has an 88) it is safe to say that not even one of the greatest minds that human kind has ever produced in Shigeru Miyamoto was able to save the Wii U from crashing and burning.
Nintendo completely proved with that release that they never really had any concrete idea of what to do with that over priced mandatory second screen in the controller pad.
The games indeed. The Wii U lacked defining games apart from Smash Bros and Mario Kart. In truth the Wii U never had a game that graphically rivaled 360 games like the Gears of War series or Halo Reach. Much less games that rivaled Uncharted 2-3 and the amazing audio/visual display of the Last of Us.
The lack of show case games made the decision to launch in 2012 an even more mind boggling one. Nintendo had nothing to show, except a Remake/Remaster of the The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. Zelda’s artistic, yet cartoony iteration did little to prove that the Wii U was any sort of leap over its 7 and 6 year old rivals.
So what went wrong? I assume (speculation on my part) that Nintendo just wasn’t ready to jump in with one of its big guns (Zelda or a proper ambitious Mario) because for far too long they had been stuck working on GameCube tech. It is no surprise that the only game that finally showcased some of the Wii Us technical strengths (in relation to the 360 and PS3) Breath of the Wild took a whooping 5 years to make and was released in 2017 as the last big game for the system; effectively burying the Wii U, and kick-starting the superior Switch into success as a proper AAA launch title.
Technically speaking, regardless of the “terrible” CPU, the Wii U should have been able to run anything that the PS3/360 could. Some ports actually looked better on the Wii U. Frame rates would be compromised at times, the CPU could take the blame for this issue, but in a likelier scenario was poor optimization by third parties.
The Wii U’s low installed base made up of Nintendo Hardcore heads would likely produce pedestrian 3rd party game sales. That fact prompted 3rd parties to produce serviceable, but far from optimal ports and most of these companies simply avoided the system all together.
The Wii U in 2012 was in an unenviable position of being caught in the cross fire between two generations. It didn’t have the power, games and features to make people forget about the 360 and the PS3. Therefore the Wii U failed to gain any sizable head start over Microsoft and Sony’s next gen systems. Lastly it didn’t have the power, games and features to make people consider the system as a viable option to the Xbox One and the PS4.
Quite simply put none of the AAA big hitters could be ported to the system (not that 3rd parties were making the Herculean effort either) leaving it as a very unattractive option for Nintendo first party software which coincidentally was in one of its weaker slumps in recent memory.
Games like the Witcher 3, GTAV the Remaster, Skyrim, MGS5 were defining that generation and they were not getting ported to the Wii U. If we add to that Sony’s superb first party offerings, it was clear that Nintendo was in an unfavorable situation. Super Mario 3D World, and Xenoblade weren’t convincing anyone (but the most fervent Nintendo fans) to invest on the Wii U when the PS4 offered Uncharted 4, The Last of Us and the promise of mind-blowing game like Horizon Zero Dawn, God of War, and the Last of Us 2 in its future.
Wii motion controllers worked with the system helping Wii owners make a smooth transition into the Wii U from the get go. This was especially important in Multiplayer games.
Installments in the Mario Kart, Super Smash Bros., And Xeno Series were welcomed and critically well received. For the Nintendo hardcore HD versions of Wind Waker and Twilight princess sweetened the painful times, and Super Mario 3D World while not the greatest Mario effort (at least in my view) was a fun game while it lasted.
Great and innovating games like ZombieU ….eh nostalgia is clouding my judgement here so scratch that.
In the end Wii U’s greatest game ended up being the killer app for Nintendo’s Switch, however Wii U owners at least didn’t feel cheated as they were able to play the masterpiece that is Breath of the Wild on their doomed system.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. The game that launched the Switch into massive world wide success and sold over 10 million copies in the process was in truth a Wii U game through and through. The game featured an advanced physics system, modern rendering and lighting techniques, a dynamic weather system among other things that made it the liveliest open world game around until RDR2 arrived.
That a game like that could run on the Wii U showed that the system was capable of some fantastic stuff (that perhaps wasn’t possible on the 360/PS3) but it came too late. Breath of the Wild was the launch or at least the 2013 game that the Wii U needed.
Wii U’s failure might be responsible for Nintendo consolidating their home and portable markets into one system called the Switch.
We all know that the Switch turned out to be a massive hit commercially, many will say that the Wii U was its prototype, and I disagree with that take. The Wii U was a standard console with a second screen on a controller. It had more in common with the 3DS, DS concepts than it does with the Switch.
The ability to play games on the tablet like gamepad while someone else watched TV would have been revolutionary …in the 1990’s. By 2012 most households has 2-3 LCD TVs making that particular feature an afterthought unless you had to go to the bathroom, or wanted to play without getting up from your bed.
Regardless it is safe to say that if the Wii U would have succeeded we wouldn’t have the Switch in our hands today…so thank you for failing Wii U!
Poor marketing, outdated tech, the tablet controller, a lack of killer apps, the strange release date, and the ridiculously high price killed the Wii U.
The Wii U can rest easy, it was a failure of a console commercially but it wasn’t the Virtual Boy. The Nintendo faithful had great times with the system, and BotW was more than proper send off into its early grave.