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Wii U Report Card 2016

Confusion, contentment, content.

Usually, we write report cards for each of the major consoles for that year. That's how report cards work. Except the Wii U gave us little to report on in 2016. Other than the enjoyable-but-forgetful Pokken Tournament, we had a middling Star Fox comeback, an average Paper Mario game, and yet another Zelda no-show. Instead, then, as the Wii U reaches the twilight of its life, we decided to write a report card on the console as a whole. Starting right at the beginning…

Initial (and Continuing) Confusion

The Wii U's reveal was a mess. So much focus was placed on the GamePad itself that many people assumed the Wii U was simply an add-on for the hugely successful Wii. The re-use of the Wii name and the fact that Nintendo was referring to the GamePad simply as the "New Controller" didn't exactly help matters. The Wii U, to the public that had snapped up the Wii so readily, was an unnecessary peripheral for a console that had long been resigned to the dusty Monopoly cupboard, retrieved only as a last resort at family dinners.

Many people assumed the Wii U was simply an add-on for the Wii

Nintendo seemed equally confused as to what it wanted the Wii U to be. The Wii brand had been built on 'casual' gaming, on simplicity, and on attracting a (much, much) wider audience of gamers. "Wii U" suggested it would continue the trend, but Nintendo's fanfare for much of the console's life was directed at a more core crowd. Gone were Wii Sports, Wii Play, and a controller that looked like a TV remote; in came a proper pad (sort of); this strange new concept called "asynchronous multiplayer;" and big third party games like Mass Effect 3, Batman: Arkham City, and a couple of Call of Dutys. As these inevitably faltered on Wii U, so did third parties' faith in the console, leading to many of them--most famously EA--dropping all Wii U development and ending support indefinitely. That was probably the final nail in the coffin for the console's hopes of true sales success--but that didn't stop the console from, eventually, finding its feet.

Picking Up Pace

Following its tricky November 2012 launch, the trickle of quality games throughout 2013 helped the Wii U gather some momentum. Lego City Undercover brought a sense of humour the console had thus far been missing, before the return of Pikmin delivered the console its first properly great game. Things continued to improve, slowly, throughout the year, with The Wonderful 101, New Super Luigi U, Rayman Legends, and a Director's Cut of Deus Ex: Human Revolution, all adding strings to the Wii U's bow. But it was still awaiting a stone cold classic, a true reason to buy in.

Step up Super Mario 3D World.

Saved by the Games

Super Mario 3D World was, and is, Nintendo at its best. Nintendo had perfected the art of platforming, of character through animation, of intuitive game design; hell, of game development itself. Super Mario 3D World was bursting with imagination; it threw ideas around with such ease--introducing them and discarding them again before the player had even realised what was happening. Most games would center themselves one or two of these mechanics--such as the doppelganger-spawning cherries, or the infamous cat suit, or the concept that birthed an entire spin-off game, the Captain Toad puzzle levels--but SM3DW plays with them, uses them in ingenious ways to thrill the player, and then does it all over again with a fresh idea in the very next level. It's breathless, and brilliant.

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Characters shone in ways they had never quite been able to before, too. Nintendo games always had sublime aesthetics, but with SM3DW the Wii U's considerable but hitherto untapped power was finally showing the publisher's gorgeous art in the best possible light. The Wii U, at long last, had a swagger.

SM3DW kicked off a period of stellar games for the Wii U. Soon came the acclaimed Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze, which had nearly as many ideas popping out its seams as 3D World. The Wii U also facilitated an indie revolution around 2014, becoming home to games like Stealth Inc. 2: A Game of Clones, Affordable Space Adventures, and Shovel Knight. The publisher even rescued Bayonetta 2 from development purgatory, much to the delight of fans and critics alike. The Wii U was truly in its golden age.

And that's all without mentioning the console's greatest game: Mario Kart 8.

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Playing Mario Kart 8 is a beautiful experience; not only in its aesthetic, but in the moments it creates. Who could forget the greatest meme of all time, the Luigi death stare?

Luigi's face getting plastered all over the internet was nothing new of course--the Year of Luigi took care of that--but the shareability was new. You could upload clips or entire races to YouTube, as well as enjoying (if that's the correct word…) the arguments mid-chase with your friends/family members/ anyone crazy enough to challenge you at a 200cc run of Rainbow Road yet again. Local multiplayer was back--and so was Nintendo.

Second Choice

Despite this, only the most staunch Nintendo fan would buy the Wii U over a PS4 or Xbox One at this point. The competitors' increased graphical power, superior online support, and larger selection of games meant that they were and remain the obvious choice for consumers.

But party potential and a steadily improving library helped cement the Wii U's place as the second console of choice. A couple of price cuts, allied with games that couldn't be found anywhere else--and memories that couldn't be created anywhere else--helped the Wii U sneak into homes to sit next to the PlayStation or Xbox, not instead of. A small consolation, you may think, but for a console that looked as if it would be completely doomed, that's not bad going.

Super Smash Bros. for Wii U, Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker, and Monster Hunter 3: Ultimate kept the Wii U's engine ticking over, even if they didn't quite propel it into the new dimension that Nintendo--and we--hoped they would. Splatoon, however, reinvented the shooter for a family audience by placing the focus not on blasting other people, but simply on splattering paint everywhere. Unfortunately, despite some cool in-game timed events, Splatoon was hamstrung by Nintendo's draconian, outdated attitudes toward online play.

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Still in the Dark Ages?

Nintendo had long been--and continues to be--accused of remaining in the dark ages, with boring concerns like account migration and purchase history not carrying over still lingering. For the longest time, the company didn't really do DLC updates. That changed with Mario Kart 8. Two content packs doubled the total number of tracks in the game, added new characters, and--for the first time--introduced non-Mario Kart characters like Link and Animal Crossing's Villager.

Nintendo had long been accused of remaining in the dark ages

Then there's Amiibo, the NFC-enabled figurines that could interact with the Wii U GamePad to unlock even more in-game content. In Mario Kart 8 this functionality was limited to new costumes, and in truth few games, if any, fully utilised the potential of Amiibo. That didn't stop the toys becoming a (somewhat brief, but nonetheless significant) phenomenon By February 2016, around 31 million amiibo had been shipped, with one selling for over $25,000--and that one was broken!

With sharing functionality, DLC, and Amiibo, Nintendo is showing a willingness to adapt. The changes might have come too soon to save the Wii U's sales prospects, but they bode well for what the future might hold.

Sunset for the Wii U

By 2015, the big releases had started to slow. As it became clear that, to some extent, the Wii U was a lost cause, the wait between each game grew longer, and those titles weren't quite the heavy hitters Wii U owners had hoped for. Yoshi's Woolly World was undeniably cute, but didn't deliver on its potential as the next great Nintendo platformer. Similar could be said for Kirby and the Rainbow Curse, and even though Super Mario Maker was a superb concept, its online functionality problems (those again) might mean it doesn't go down as a true classic in the way that Super Mario 3D World and Mario Kart 8 will. The sun had begun to set on the Wii U's life.

A multitude of Lego ports, Minecraft: Wii U Edition, The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess HD, and Star Fox Zero were the faint stars for Wii U owners to look to, but it was clear by this point that Nintendo's focus was elsewhere. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild was the last glimmer of sunlight disappearing over the horizon: it was initially promised as a 2015 title. Then 2016. Now 2017, with it also coming to the Wii U's successor, Nintendo Switch. Nintendo is understandably attempting to maximise profits, but Zelda going multiplatform is a kick in the teeth for players who bought a Wii U for Zelda. It almost feels like--by bringing about its next generation earlier than feels right--the publisher is attempting to sweep the Wii U under the carpet.

But to do so would be to overlook the greats the Wii U has spawned. Yes, the name was stupid. Sure, the GamePad was unwieldy and underused. And yes, although things are changing, Nintendo still doesn't understand The Internet. But the Wii U will go down as a console with an unparallelled collection of exclusive games. Third parties be damned, Nintendo didn't need you; Super Smash Bros., Bayonetta 2, Super Mario 3D World, Splatoon, Mario Kart 8, Monster Hunter 3, and a new Zelda to come. Not a bad life for a new Wii controller.

The GoodThe Bad
– Mario Kart 8, Super Mario 3D World, and more will go down as all time classics.– The name remains a mistake, even if it doesn't seem as weird any more.
– Nintendo finally began to understand the internet, and amiibo are addictively collectible.– Rapid demise of third party support.
– Indies are now welcome on Nintendo platforms.– The GamePad was underutilized, expensive, and an all-round bad controller.