Wii U Memories - Our pre-launch thoughts on Nintendo's charming misstep

Wii U Memories – Our pre-launch thoughts on Nintendo’s charming misstep

Image: Zion Grassl / Nintendo Life

It’s the 10th anniversary of the Wii U’s launch in North America, and to mark the occasion, we invited then-Nintendo Life editor and all-around nice guy Thomas Whitehead to reminisce about the machine, the time he first picked it up in the and the hot he had pre-launch…

The Wii U is now 10 years old, which may come as a surprise. It’s been off the market long enough that it feels like the system should be in its teens by now. But as most people reading these pages know, it was a huge commercial failure for Nintendo. In fact, if you ignore the Virtual Boy, it’s Nintendo’s worst selling “mainline” console. Yes, it’s very boring, let’s all take a moment…

Of course, some of us – including this humble printer – still have the charming if flawed system plugged in. After all, it’s actually pretty cool, and it is backwards compatible with Wii games. Nevertheless, I was asked to think back to the launch of the system, and in particular the pre-launch. At the time, I was the Features Editor on these pages and all-in on the day-to-day Nintendo life. And you know what? The Wii U was—whisper it— exciting.

When the first question in most interviews was “erm, is that a peripheral for the Wii?”, then we were in trouble

Well, despite Nintendo’s best efforts. I’m not sure who was ultimately responsible for the E3 2011 presentation of the system, but it was a miscalculation. When the first question in most interviews that summer was “erm, is that peripheral for Wii?”, then there was trouble ahead. Some fault can be found with the press conference and related videos, or with the actual branding, or even the shiny plastic shell of the GamePad, but even years after the damn thing was released, some less focused consumers still – understandably – thought it was a unnecessary Wii add-on.

Still, despite the signs of doom triggered by that revelation, a number of us were intrigued and really anticipated the scheme. What was clear was that the same philosophy that powered the Wii was actually behind the Wii U. The goal of the Wii was to provide intuitive gameplay to attract a “blue ocean” of gamers. With his successor, Satoru Iwata and his team had observed the rise of smartphones and their impact on family units, or indeed groups of friends. An image of four people in a room, all focused on separate screens, was posed as the challenge, with the Wii U aiming to replace that dynamic with a gaming system that made multiple screens a shared experience for everyone.

Asymmetrical gameplay would replace motion controls, and there’s no doubt that excited some developers early on. We were invited to a press preview at Nintendo of Europe in the months leading up to launch and were able to see how the vision for the system took shape. Yes, there were third-party ports with optional GamePad games, but early on Nintendo Land and ZombiU set the stage for how the dual-screen setup could shine.

Nintendo Land is underrated to this day; at its best it can be incredibly fun

ZombiU is still a game of simple but excellent execution, and it was an early stage setter. It was harder to get excited about ports like Mass Effect 3, though, as it was well known that a year later the “next-gen” systems from Sony and Microsoft would once again leave Nintendo’s systems behind in terms of power. Thus, like all Nintendo systems, it would live or die on its concept and exclusive features.

If you really wanted to, then, you could find reasons for optimism. In addition to Nintendo Land and ZombiU, we still had Rayman Legends as an upcoming exclusive, again with a second screen in some fun ways. Nintendo was also working on a second screen for more standard gaming experiences at the time, and further down the line – too far to save the system – we’d see good use of the touchscreen in the likes of Super Mario Maker, and neat use of the controller in Splatoon. As a Nintendo-centric site, we were naturally inclined to look for the positives ahead of launch. And yet lingering worries were never far away.

We also went hands-on as a group at Eurogamer Expo (now EGX) just a couple of months before release. Again, there was early potential and fun to be found. However, nagging suspicions and fears entered.

Nintendo Land is underrated to this day; at its best it can be unbelievable funny Still, the nature of asynchronous gaming is that it’s not always immediately intuitive and easy. Instead of just waving a remote, the controls and concepts can become surprisingly complex, taking some of the collection’s games beyond the reach of less skilled players. ZombiU was excellent, meanwhile, but not a system seller. A great idea doesn’t always make for a killer hook, and it felt like it lacked momentum.

What happened at launch is well known. Pricing, branding and the critical absence of a system-selling concept or game doomed the Wii U to a slow start. Momentum was as bad after only a couple of months as stores were returning inventory, and Ubisoft rescued and made Rayman Legends multiplatform. Nintendo itself didn’t fully commit to the vision, or perhaps couldn’t because it lacked the simple brilliance of the Wii. First-party games arrived that basically ignored the GamePad — looking at you, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze — or treated it as an alternative control option that nobody wanted.

We’re also in a weird time now, where some are looking for a redemption arc for the Wii U, suggesting it went so the Switch could fly. It is rather revisionist in my opinion, although I once signed that angle.

The Switch doesn’t have much in common with the Wii U, with all those predecessor ports doing away with no or limited dual-screen functionality from the original. Sure, the GamePad could do “remote play” to free up the TV, but the range was so chronic I could barely leave the living room before the signal dropped. The Switch is basically a tablet that can be connected to a TV via an HDMI dock, and with clever custom controller rails for the Joy-Cons; that simplicity, as with the Wii, is actually its brilliance. Conceptually, it has little in common with sight of the Wii U, but rather it was the result of Iwata-san and his team assessing the market, realizing that the Switch concept could become popular, and succeeding.

Nintendo, especially with consoles, is often boom and bust. The GameCube struggled, the Wii prevailed, the Wii U then struggled, before the company got it right again with the Switch. The Wii U wasn’t a merger of handheld and console like the Switch, it was a curiosity on a TV console that delivered some fascinating ideas. Regardless of all its problems actually selling units, it deserves praise and nostalgic praise for what it is did bring unique experiences.

Wii U
Image: Gavin Lane/Nintendo Life

Back in 2012, before it hit the shelves amid ominously silent midnight launches, most of us probably knew – deep down – that it would never escape the shadow of the Wii. Yet, 10 years later, it still deserves a place under our (and your) TV. A box of tricks with Wii backwards compatibility, it can still raise a smile and a cheer a decade later.

Happy birthday, Wii U.

#Wii #Memories #prelaunch #thoughts #Nintendos #charming #misstep

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