Purely from a sales perspective, Nintendo won the seventh console generation. Bolstered by a huge casual audience, the Wii sold gangbusters but – broadly speaking – didn’t appeal to the hardcore market.
The issue was hardware: the company’s ever-reliable first-party titles looked and played fine on its standard definition console, and subsequently claimed nine of the top ten slots on its all-time best-seller list. But the Wii wasn’t made for AAA, and you have to travel all the way down to number 50 on that aforementioned list to find a Call of Duty title, for example. For contrast: Call of Duty titles constitute six of the top 10 best-selling games of all time on Xbox 360 and reach a similar number on PlayStation 3.
Of course, none of this was a problem for Nintendo – not then, at least. But now, perhaps recognising that much of its casual market is shifting to cheaper alternatives on mobile and social gaming, Nintendo is courting hardcore players with its latest console, the Wii U. Promises of extensive third-party support are nothing new, but the Xbox-baiting Pro Controller and revamped online ecosystem are. On top of that, the system's launch title line-up is a statement of intent, featuring the likes of Mass Effect 3, Assassin's Creed III, and Black Ops II, alongside the dark and unforgiving Wii U exclusive, ZombiU.
But does the console realistically stand a chance in the hardcore market, a destination for multiplatform blockbusters?
The first problem Nintendo faces is that much like its predecessor, the Wii U appears underpowered, particularly for a console that is supposedly the first of the eighth generation. The press leading up to its release wasn’t kind, with reports everywhere claiming that it was either slower or barely on par with the aging Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.
It certainly wasn't a good sign when the best Nintendo CEO Satoru Iwata could do prior to its launch was claim that the gap between the Wii U and other eighth-generation consoles would not be as big as the chasm that separated the Wii and its seventh-gen rivals.
Leaked specs have since largely confirmed what was suspected – with a few caveats – but Nintendo of America president Reggie Fils-Aime essentially insulted the intelligence of the very market he was coveting when he claimed that compared to other systems, the Wii U was “much more graphically intensive”, with games that looked “dramatically better” than on other systems. Non-gamers might buy that but unsurprisingly, the hardcore didn't. Alongside that gaffe, Nintendo also struggled to succinctly explain what the Wii U does. The Wii was an easy sell, but the tablet controller even confused members of the tech press.
PR isn't the only problem. Looking at the specs that have been confirmed, hard drive space is a concern, with the Wii U’s Basic model boasting a mere 3GB after the system is first updated. Needless to say, that package isn't practical for serious gamers, particularly given the inevitable rise of digital distribution. Sure, the desperate can hook external hard drives and SD card readers up to the console via one of its four USB 2.0 ports to expand its memory, but the effect this will have on performance is not known, and frankly, that's a sub-par solution to a problem that shouldn't exist in the first place. Even the 32GB hard drive of the Premium model is hardly offering ample storage in this day and age. Fortunately, the reported 2GB of RAM (one for OS, one for games) is a big step up from what's inside current seventh generation consoles, but again, that's unlikely to be enough to remain competitive in the years ahead.
Elsewhere, Nintendo has said that its focus for the Wii U is gameplay, not graphics. "We do not focus on technology specs," it said in March of this year. "We understand that people like to dissect graphics and processing power, but the experience of playing will always be more important than raw numbers."
It also has a defender in EA COO Peter Moore. "From a visual standpoint, based on the performance of the Wii U, we knew the game had the capability of having much better graphics than games on PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360,” he said. “Make no mistake; from a visual standpoint, it is able to produce better graphics."
Moore was equally excited about the system’s real point of differentiation, its tablet-like the GamePad. “This is not about specs anymore," he enthused. "[As] it was with the Wii, [this is about] the controller [and] a unique way of enjoying a game experience, regardless of what the graphic fidelity is. So I don't know what Xbox and PlayStation's plans for their next platforms are, but it's not going to be hanging on graphic fidelity. I guarantee you that.”
Fils-Aime made similar noises: “In terms of what the competition’s going to do in the future: we’ll see. We know based on our own development this two screen experience really is the next innovation that consumers are gravitating to.”
Pad of difference
Certainly, the asymmetric multiplayer made possible with the GamePad holds great potential. The minigames of Nintendo Land don’t have the depth to hold the attention of gaming veterans, but they do contain some ideas that could be great if further fleshed out. Its 6.2 inch 480p screen is bright, and the whole controller is surprisingly lightweight and very comfortable to hold. Its accelerometer and gyroscope allow for accurate "nine axis" motion control that works with little-to-no calibration required, and its sticks and d-pad in particular are great.
The touchscreen doesn't support multitouch, but the larger problem is with touch detection during frantic passages of play. Nintendo opted for a resistive rather than a more sensitive and expensive but less durable capacitive screen (the kind found on iPads, for example), and light touches don't register as a result. That's a small problem. A larger one is that the GamePad only lasts about 2.5 hours before needing a charge, although a very lightweight and lengthy cable shows that Nintendo were at least aware of this.
Most welcome are games that support play on the GamePad only, allowing a screen each during local multiplayer on titles such as Black Ops II. For now, however, the minor additions the GamePad makes to the singleplayer modes of most multiplatform games we've seen so far don’t justify the purchase of a Wii U if other consoles are available.
The best use of the second screen in singleplayer so far is in ZombiU, where it functions as a map and Aliens-style radar. Unfortunately, the vast majority of ports to the system simply use the GamePad’s screen as an inventory or as a stage for hacking minigames and the like, and perhaps that’s the problem: that developers working on a multiplatform title won’t want to invest too much time and effort into developing unique mechanics that will only feature on a single system.
In that regard, Microsoft’s Smartglass may actually end up benefiting Nintendo’s system, should developers look to work it into games the way Xbox hopes they will. The GamePad would have several advantages in such a scenario: it may not be multitouch, but it’s more comfortable to hold than a tablet or a phone, and the player doesn’t need to juggle between input devices. The Vita is the GamePad’s equal on that point, and Sony has claimed that the Wii U isn't doing anything a Vita coupled with a PlayStation 3 can't, but the Vita is uncomfortable by comparison and its install base is perhaps too small to warrant such experiments.
Given its aim of capturing a piece of the hardcore market, some curious design decisions have been made by Nintendo on the Wii U. The most baffling is the chat. There is no system-wide standard in place, with the onus instead on developers to include it within their games. On top of this, the Pro Controller lacks a headset input, forcing those wishing to communicate with teammates to run a headset from the GamePad. The Pro Controller has an outstanding d-pad though, and is exceedingly comfortable, although it does lack analogue triggers.
The Wii U’s other social features are also a mixed bag. While the console’s friend system and crisp new eShop already put it head and shoulders above what Nintendo has offered in the past, there is no Facebook or Twitter integration, so any sharing can only be done with existing Wii U owners via the Miiverse. That odd omission aside, the Miiverse provides message boards for each game, along with the ability to follow others’ posts. It’s hardly the killer app promised by Fils-Aime, but its newsfeed-style communities, however inessential, do provide a unique online experience.
As mentioned earlier, the Wii U offers a great launch line-up of third-party games, but they don't provide those with other consoles with a compelling reason to switch. There are other hopeful signs: Ubisoft has always been a strong supporter of Nintendo and proved it again at the Wii U launch, and now even Rockstar has reversed its position on the console by publicly considering GTA V for the system. However, Grand Theft Auto V will also be out on everything. What Nintendo really needs is a strong stable of third-party exclusives to give the hardcore a reason to abandon their other consoles. ZombiU, alongside upcoming titles Rayman Legends, Bayonetta 2, and Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate are a decent start, and The Wonderful 101 and Lego City: Undercover will sit nicely alongside Nintendo properties such as Pikmin 3, Super Smash Bros, Game & Wario, and the inevitable Zelda and Metroid titles. But for those that have an Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3, it’s obviously hard to recommend the system for its third-party titles alone.
Nintendo must know it has fewer than 12 months to establish a big enough install base to make third-party exclusives a financially plausible possibility before Microsoft and perhaps even Sony release what are expected to be much more powerful systems. Its needs to get a Zelda, Metroid, Pokemon, and 3D Mario title out, stat. But even then, and with a handful more games the calibre of ZombiU in its arsenal, it’s unlikely that third party games will ever be big sellers on its system, because system parity will likely be out of its reach.
All of that said, there is no doubt that playing Nintendo’s consistently great first-party titles in high definition for the first time is very welcome, and the Wii U will likely succeed on the strength of those alone, along with the promise of titles like Red Steel 3 and Mario Galaxy 3. Nintendo's commitment to couch co-op is also to be applauded, although $90 for a Wiimote is baffling. That means the Wii U is far from a transitional platform, but it’s also not really a direct competitor to Xbox and PlayStation. Unless the cost of AAA games takes grunt out of the equation, Nintendo will exist as it always does: for its own immaculate games, the odd spectacular third party exclusive, and mountains of kid-friendly shovelware.
As the saying goes: stick with what you know.