Ceasing production of the console just four years after its launch in November of 2012, Nintendo has closed the book on Wii U. The breakout success that was the Wii naturally gave Nintendo high hopes for its successor, but Wii U sales failed to come anywhere close to the 100 million-unit benchmark surpassed by its predecessor. (The new console barely broke 13 million as of September 2016.) How could Nintendo go from dominating the console landscape, with Wiis filling nursing homes, college dorms, and parents’ living rooms, to producing the Wii U – the company’s biggest console flop since Virtual Boy? Some may argue it was the branding, the unclear marketing, or the tablet-inspired GamePad concept that was the console’s undoing. Truth be told, it wasn’t any one of these issues in isolation but rather a combination of missteps – all of which Nintendo aims to correct as it gears up for the launch of its next platform, Nintendo Switch.
Wii U was unveiled at E3 2011, nearly a year and a half before it eventually hit store shelves. With the GamePad being its main distinguishing feature, Nintendo prominently featured the tablet-like controller during the presentation and kept the console itself hidden from view. Naturally, this caused many to question whether Wii U was actually a new console or just a controller add-on for Wii. After all, the company already released a number of Wii-branded peripherals, with Wii Fit being the big breakout success. The Wii U name didn’t do much to convey that this was an entirely new machine either. Simply calling the device Wii 2 or Wii HD would have at least given the impression that this was indeed Nintendo’s successor to Wii and not just a tablet-inspired peripheral. Suffice it to say, Wii U had an identity problem – an issue that won’t likely be a factor for Switch.
While interesting in concept, Nintendo was never able to justify the value of Wii U’s core gimmick: the GamePad. Sure, the additional screen allowed for a handful of novel gameplay concepts (like inventory management or displaying a mini-map) as well as off-TV play, but the only truly remarkable use of the tablet controller was Super Mario Maker – a game released far too late in the console’s life cycle. Couple that with the GamePad’s remote limitations, becoming entirely useless when taken any significant distance away from the console, and it becomes abundantly clear why Wii U didn't fly off store shelves. Nintendo is clearly cognisant of this issue and seeks to remedy the situation with Switch, where the guts of the system are confined within the tablet itself and therefore allow untethered, off-TV play that can presumably be enjoyed anywhere. Despite being essentially an evolution of the tablet concept, it’s also clear Nintendo has gone to great lengths to do away with the Wii branding. The blue, white and gray color scheme has been ditched in favor of a return to the classic red and white. This will no doubt send a warm wave of nostalgia down the spine of anyone with fond memories of the original Nintendo Entertainment System (NES).
Then there’s the matter of software. While, yes, Wii U is home to some truly great games, it lacked an original Zelda title. Instead, the platform got HD remasters of Wind Waker and Twilight Princess as well as a Dynasty Warriors-like spinoff (Hyrule Warriors). While Breath of the Wild is on the horizon, it is also headed to Switch, which, by all accounts, will be the optimal place to play that game. Meanwhile, Mario fans never got a true, exploration-based Mario game in the vein of Super Mario 64, Sunshine, or Galaxy. Fortunately, it looks like Nintendo heard the cries from fans who wanted more than 3D World and New Super Mario Bros. U; the Switch reveal teased a more open and expansive Mario game rumored to be ready to launch alongside the console in March.
Fast-forward to October 20, 2016: Nintendo announces its next home console will release in March of the following year. Despite being less than six months out from launch, Nintendo waited until that very day to pull back the curtain. Instead of unveiling Switch and trying to maintain public excitement for the console for a year and a half in the leadup to its release, Nintendo took an Apple-inspired approach with a much shorter lead time between reveal and release. Additionally, instead of having a long, drawn-out presentation like the Wii U reveal, the company posted a three-minute, carefully edited reveal video that clearly communicated the primary function of Switch. The video delivered a simple message, which concisely conveyed the handheld/console hybrid concept, included plenty of close up shots of both the TV dock and detachable tablet, and hammered home the fact that Switch was a fresh start for Nintendo.
There’s still a lot we don’t know about Switch, so it’s a bit premature to say the handheld/console hybrid is certain to right the wrongs of its predecessor. There’s the matter of third-party support, which was meager at best for Wii U, and don’t even get me started on Nintendo’s antiquated approach to online play. Switch needs a robust online ecosystem that not only allows players to seamlessly connect to and play with their friends but one that also features an account system that tracks digital purchases and populates a digital library that is forever tied to the user. Valve nailed this with Steam years ago, and Microsoft and Sony are now following suit. It’s time Nintendo joins the party. Given the company’s incredibly protective stance against the sharing of its content, this may be a bit much to ask. But having a simple, user-friendly way to stream and share gameplay via Twitch and/or YouTube would be a nice addition that other platforms have already made standard.
Price will also be a major factor of Switch's success. Launch prices of $299 and $349 made Wii U the highest-priced console Nintendo has ever released, and that certainly didn’t work in its favor. The added expense of the GamePad resulted in the premium price tag despite modest hardware specs and laughably small internal storage. The console also never received a significant price cut, with only one minor discount bringing the 32GB model down to $299 over its four-year run. If Nintendo’s use of NVIDIA’s Tegra mobile chip means Switch can launch at $250, the console stands a far better chance reaching mass market appeal on day one.
I’ve really only scratched the surface of Wii U’s shortcomings and Nintendo’s opportunities to course correct with Switch, but it won’t be much longer before we learn more about the future of Nintendo’s next gaming platform. The company has a Switch presentation scheduled for January 12, during which we’ll finally get a specific release date, price, and glimpse at its lineup of launch titles. Judging by the three-minute reveal and several rumors, the console’s launch lineup may feature a healthy dose of enhanced Wii U ports. This would give its software library a second life that will almost assuredly reach a larger audience. While Wii U will likely go down in history as one of Nintendo’s missteps, at the very least it helped pave the way for what will hopefully be a promising new chapter Nintendo’s greater story as a console maker.