The Problem with the Wii U
September is finally here and we are approaching the suspected announcement of Nintendo's next console, the NX. After the most recent Eurogamer report, speculation about what the NX might be has run rampant, with most outlets suggesting that the console will be some sort of handheld hybrid that will finally merge the 3DS with the home console. Amidst all of this talk, the Wii U remains sitting on the shelf collecting dust. There are several reasons why the Wii U was unsuccessful, ranging from poor hardware to even poorer marketing, however, each time I fire up the Wii U, which has been frequently as of late, I always wonder about what could have been. So, let's tiptoe down coulda been memory lane and examine what we could have, and should seen on the Wii U.
As I stated, I've been spending a lot of time with my Wii U recently. Some might justifiably ask why and my answer would be Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE. This game, which I will be reviewing when I finish it, has been an absolute delight. It is Persona meets Fire Emblem meets The Voice plus Japan times Awesome. During my thorough enjoyment of the game, what has surprised me is how much I have enjoyed playing my Wii U. The Wii U Controller is, no doubt, clunky. It's too wide and button placement is awkward, at best. However, the second screen shines in this title, offering an additional layer to the gameplay that I wasn't expecting. The second screen is ingrained in the gameplay like no other title I have played, operating not only as the map but also as a bestiary, a sidequest navigator, and a messenger app that you use to communicate with NPC's. It is executed quite elegantly. As I am using these features, I start to wonder how this system wasn't a phenomenon, using the home console second screen as a way to break certain gaming barriers in ways that were previously impossible. While I don't have concrete answers to these questions, I can suppose that the answer is simply Nintendo.
As Nintendo moves forward as a company and into the NX era, I have to wonder what type of closed door conversations are being had. What was wrong with the Wii U? What will we need to do moving forward? The first answer, in my mind, is an efficient and interesting use of Nintendo's intellectual property. Nintendo has some of the most impressive and successful IP in videogame history, with immortal names like Mario, Zelda, and Metroid topping the list. When it comes time to discuss Nintendo's IP, there are an embarrassment of riches. The problem with the Wii U was the absolute lack of a solid amount of IP on this system. Let's start with the success, Super Mario 3D World. There is not a critical outlet in the world that didn't like that game. It was fun 3D platforming, set to a familiar world map layout. It was challenging and yet also accessible. A great game. Now, name another great IP Wii U Game...I'll wait over here.
What did you come up with? I came up with Mario Kart 8, Super Mario Maker, and Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker. Notice the common theme among those games? All Mario, all the time. Aside from these titles, there were not any standout IP titles released for the Wii U. Instead, what we got was Yoshi's Woolly World, Kirby and the Rainbow Curse, Mario Tennis, Mario Party 47, etc. While none of these titles were absolutely terrible, none of them were terribly good either. These were all filler titles that we have become used to from Nintendo, fluff to appease young audiences with enough nostalgia tacked on to attract the adult gamer. What we didn't see was an attempt to use their IP in interesting ways; an Animal Crossing with gamepad support to plan your village, a proper sequel to Metroid Prime 3, any type of Zelda game that wasn't a remaster or a reskinned Dynasty Warriors. The only type of interesting IP that came took the form of either remastered classics or Xenoblade and Tokyo Mirage Sessions, two games that were developed by companies not named Nintendo. These interesting IP's were something that the Wii had all throughout it's life, despite being ignored in it's last year of development. No one will want to play a system that doesn't have interesting games to play. What the Wii U needed was a stock of expected, reliable Nintendo Titles. Say what you will about franchises like Assassin's Creed, I will never need to worry about whether or not I will get to play another one.
That Damn GamePad
Man...what a wasted opportunity. That thing is too clunky and weird to work, right? 3 Words: Super Mario Maker. Super Mario Maker is joy in a box. My 10 year old brain would have exploded if you had told me that, eventually, I would get to create and play my own Super Mario levels. Through brilliant game design and ingenious hardware, that dream came true. Without the gamepad, this would not have been possible. The opportunity for unique uses of the gamepad were squandered by the very company that created it. Early on in the Wii U's very short lifespan, games were already abandoning the idea of using the screen in interesting ways. Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze did not even attempt to use the gamepad, instead only offering the option to play on TV or on the gamepad. Aside from the obvious inventory/map uses that the gamepad screams for, it also should have been used in puzzle solving, QTE's, creation tools, etc. Remember how fun Okami was on the Wii? Imagine it on Wii U, using the gamepad to draw the Kanji-like characters in the sky. There was potential there, but it was largely abandoned. At least the Vita, Sony's comparable red headed stepchild of hardware, is still utilized by the required remote play feature on all PS4 titles. The Wii U couldn't even accomplish that. The gamepad is a unique piece of hardware that was misused and abused by its own creators.
There Ain't No Party Like a Good 3rd Party
Assassin's Creed 3, Call of Duty: Black Ops 2, Arkham City, Darksiders II. What do all of these titles have in common? They were all Wii U launch titles. Launch titles.....LAUNCH TITLES! The Wii U accomplished something at it's outset that hadn't been accomplished by Nintendo in it's history; successful 3rd party support. 3rd party support is a necessity these days in order to remain relevant as a console. The PC gaming market is too vast and accessible to have a gaming system that is only supported by your own IP. However, after it's initial launch, 3rd party support disappeared from the Wii U. Why? Well, it has been widely discussed that the hardware simply couldn't keep up with the ambition of modern game designers, and that making modern games on the Wii U required too many concessions made by developers that would taint the final product. The reality is that, as modern gamers, we demand that we have a console that allows us to play a majority of major release titles. Sure, ever once in while we can't play the new Tomb Raider or Gears of War, or God of War and No Man's sky because we own only one of the major consoles. However, with those concessions comes the knowledge that we will be able to play most of the big games on every console. Nintendo does the exact opposite. It seems that recently, if you own the Nintendo home console, you are pigeon holed into playing only their games, and if their games are sub par, you aren't going to buy it.
So, what's NX?
Moving forward, Nintendo has a lot of critics, including this one, to answer to. Can the NX save the Nintendo home console? Will it be the perfect mix of console and handheld? Can the new Zelda be supported by an array of complementary titles? Will 3rd party developers support it? In this writer's opinion, it will take more than just new games and sufficient hardware to fix. It will take a shift in focus. I'm not saying that Nintendo has to cater to the testosterone fueled masses and have Call of Duty and Madden on its console. I'm not saying it has to abandon making family friendly, youth centered products. I'm saying it has to consider both. If Nintendo doesn't generate a winner with the NX, I'm not sure they will get another shot at a Nintendo console in every home. If the hardware is what Eurogamer suggests, Nintendo needs to embrace it and fully commit. If they create games that are well received and innovative, the fan base will come back. They need to back their own horse. Personally, I hope they knock it out of the park because picturing a videogame future without Nintendo consoles is depressing. However, if they continue to ignore the demands of their fans, the fans will go somewhere else.
Also, add achievements. Everyone likes those.