A Missed Opportunity, or Why the Wii U is a Flop

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The prevailing opinion among industry pundits is that the Wii U's depressing sales are mostly due to the console's spare launch library. Specifically, Nintendo's lack of third-party support has been notable, if predictable, but especially so because of how lacking the Wii U is in first-party titles; the first few months of 2013 were remarkably barren, a potentially-fatal mistake for a console released in November. There have been more slow months than strong ones. 

Nintendo president Satoru Iwata wants to remind us that, while a derth of first-party titles certainly hasn't helped, the biggest problem with the Wii U has been the "great challenge" of marketing the console's unique features. Iwata went so far as to claim that some consumers believe the Wii U is simply a Wii with a new peripheral (the Gamepad), and, conversely, that the Gamepad is merely a Wii peripheral. While I find this claim somewhat dubious, it isn't out of line with what most Gamespot forum-goers have been saying since the Wii U was released. There's no question that the Wii U bears a resemblance to the original Wii, but it doesn't look so alike that casual owners (moms and dads, mostly) who already own the Wii would mistake this for a suped-up version of the original console. And in a culture of cookie-cutter consumer electronics released yearly with barely-perceptible changes, the Wii U could look exactly like the Wii and still be recognizable as a new system. 

So, I guess the problem really is the near-total lack of popular titles for the console six months after its launch. Or is it? 

In 2009, the Nintendo Wii was smashing the pants off the competition. The finished the year with more than 9 million units sold, compared to less than four and half for the PS3, and just under five million for the 360. Despite Sony and Microsoft's superior hardware and tremendous third-party support (not to mention first-party exclusives from Bungie and Naughty Dog, among others) Nintendo was king. The Wii was owned by frat boys, grandmas, and 8-year-olds everywhere. It appealed not just to casual gamers, but to everyone. Its motion controller made it unattractive for developers, but a must-buy for people who love techy gimmicks--which is just about everyone. 

The rise of Sony and Microsoft in the console market--namely, their willingness to lose money in it--marked the end of Nintendo as a maker of "regular" consoles. As a piece of technology, no Nintendo console will ever measure of up to its competition again. Now that these huge companies are looking to use their gaming division as a loss leader for their other divisions and prodcuts, Nintendo has to play by different rules. They learned that lesson with the GameCube--a powerful console that couldn't match Sony's library or featureset. Enter the Wii. 

As we approach the halfway mark of 2013, gamers want new technology. They want markedly better graphics, they want bigger harddrives, improved online functionality. They want their console to look like it was developed seven years after the last generation, rather than an incremental upgrade. This is why the Wii U is striking out. The Wii U is essentially a current-gen system. It is about as powerful as the PS3, give or take, at a time when hte PS3 is starting to show its age, so what's the draw? 

Ah, the Gamepad. A standard-defintion, single-touch screen in an era of HD tablet gaming. Hell, even the 360 has tablet functionality (such as it is). The PS4 will be remotely playable through the Vita, with Sony hinting at tablet (and perhaps smartphone) functionality as well. Doubtless the new XBox will allow for something similar, if it doesn't include a tablet controller of its own. (And if it does, it will be far superior to the Gamepad) So, again, what's the draw?

There isn't one. The Wii U as yet has no must-own titles, and virtually all of the new titles it just announced are more of the same--Zelda, Mario, Blah, Rinse, Repeat. Its Gamepad would have been great in 2010, but looks cheap in 2013. This is why I say the Wii U--or something like it--should have been released three years ago. Riding the wave of popularity from its launch through 2009, Nintendo could have released an old turkey sandwhich as the Wii 2 and it would have outsold Sony and Microsoft for a month before people caught on. And when they did catch on, they'd chalk it up to the eccentric geniuses at Nintendo and start an online campaign for Turkey Sandwhich 2. 

And no, I'm not talking about the Wii HD, which so many armchair quarterbacks are now saying Nintendo should have made instead of the Wii U. I'm talking about a legitimate successor to the Wii. Sure, it would have been difficult to turn a profit for a while if the Wii U hardware were released three years ago, but they'd have had so much momentum behind the launch, I have no doubt it would have been a rousing success. Instead, Nintendo waited until exactly the wrong moment, and gave consumers a dated console when they were clamoring for future-tech. 

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