Wii U: Nintendo’s New Console Offers Hope

Among the platform holders, everyone has something to prove at E3. Of course, that’s true every year – but often, the things they have to prove are pretty much the same. We have the best games, the best hardware, the best strategy. We’ll “win” E3 and then we’ll “win” the year. Traditionally, that means going head to head with at least one competitor – think of memorable years like the one where Sony tried to usurp Nintendo’s DS presentation by revealing the PSP to the world, or the year when Microsoft and Sony went head-to-head with their next-gen hardware reveals.

This year is a little different. All three companies have a great deal to prove – but oddly, they’re trying to prove quite different things. Sony, for instance, is doing pretty well with PS3 and starting to make up the gap to Microsoft’s superb online execution – but it desperately needs to show the world how it’s going to rescue Vita, the handheld which everyone seems to like but nobody seems to own (myself included, I confess). Microsoft, on the other hand, needs to demonstrate that it’s capable of walking the tightrope between Kinect-enabled casual titles and the more traditional core games which will please the vital core gamer segment it’s won over this generation. After a year of disappointing Kinect software, especially the software aimed at the core market, too heavy a focus on its motion control hardware will see E3 labelled a damp squib for the company.

Neither of those giants, however, have quite as much to prove as Nintendo does. As ever, Nintendo is running on a radically different strategy to everyone else. It’s got a major bright spot in the form of the 3DS, a handheld console which has proved vastly more resilient than any of us had dared to hope. The easy part of Nintendo’s conference will be talking about the 3DS’ success and unveiling new software for the device; journalists will happily fill in the implied gloating at Sony’s expense later on, no doubt.

The hard part, though, is the home console. Conscious that the Wii is rapidly sliding down the slope at the end of its effective lifespan, Nintendo announced the Wii U last year – two years ahead of any likely next-gen announcement from its rivals. This year’s E3 will demand details of hardware, of software and of strategy (although pricing is likely to be off the menu for a few more months). It’s rarely wise to bet against Nintendo, but equally, the company really has an enormous amount to prove.

In a sense, that’s because Nintendo is a victim of its own success. Since the profitable but underwhelming GameCube era, we’ve all understood that Nintendo’s extraordinary library of IP and character franchises – unrivalled anywhere in the world outside Disney, and perhaps actually surpassing the House of Mouse in terms of sheer recognition value for the likes of Mario and Pikachu among the younger generation – basically gives the company a nice soft landing even when things go wrong. Dominated by the competition, the Cube sold over 20 million units regardless – a figure that seems like a reasonable estimate of the size of the core audience of Nintendo fans who’ll buy whatever the company make.

The problem is that the Cube’s successor, the Wii, has sold five times as many units. In part, it simply appealed more broadly to gamers (you might not recognise this from the bile often heaped upon the system by a vocal minority, but the PS3 and 360 owners this generation who have a Wii alongside their console far outnumber those who had a GameCube alongside their PS2s and Xboxen). More importantly from a sales point of view, it appealed to a huge audience of casual gamers – people who had never engaged with games before, or people who played games in the past and then dropped the hobby, only to return to it as a family pastime via Nintendo’s Wii (and the even more successful DS, of course).

So the question isn’t really “will the Wii U flop?”, because the Wii U will sell a baseline of 20 million units, which isn’t too bad – except that it’s going to be compared to a console with a high water mark of 100 million units. Nintendo needs, next week, to show us two things. Firstly, this being E3 and as such essentially a core gamer audience, it needs to prove that Wii U will serve that audience and earn its first 20 million sales. I have absolutely no doubt that it will accomplish that. Next, it needs to show us how it’s going to break through that barrier and put in a sales performance which, even if not matching the meteoric rise of the Wii, at least looks decent alongside it.

That bit is harder. Wii U has a huge number of factors arrayed against it. Some of them are down to the state of the market itself – the rise of alternative entertainment platforms like iOS devices, the presence of increasingly cheap consoles from Sony and Microsoft which also sport casual-friendly games in growing numbers, and so on. Others are problems of Nintendo’s own invention. The company remains absolutely obsessed with the idea that it has to capitalise on the brands it created in the last generation to an almost necrophilic degree. Hence a handheld console which, despite brand new internals, system software and a 3D display, got shoved into a case nigh-on identical to the DS Lite and branded as “3DS”, leaving plenty of consumers unsure as to whether it was a new console or simply a new iteration of existing hardware. Hence also the Wii U, a console which looks like a Wii, is branded like a Wii, and even uses existing Wii controllers alongside its tablet-style remote control.

Reusing the controllers and so on is a calculated gamble, I suspect. Nintendo knows that many consumers will go “oh, I already have a Wii” (with a decent proportion appending “…and it only gets taken out to play Wii Sports at Christmas” to the end of that thought) and that educating those consumers about the merits of the new system will be tricky and expensive. It’s betting that that will be counterbalanced by those who are won over by the ability to use existing controllers with new hardware – the basic argument being “you already have all the Wiimotes, you might as well pick up the new console”. I’m not sure I entirely buy that, but I’d definitely like to hear more of Nintendo’s thinking in regard to that audience – who were so critical to the huge initial sales of the Wii.

There are market factors which play in the favour of the Wii U too, though. Primary among them is the fact that the console is fascinatingly in-line with the present trend in home entertainment, which is seeing us move away from the idea of a single screen in the living room and towards the idea of the ubiquitous “second screen”. Right now, that position is gradually being filled by a combination of smartphones, tablets and laptops. The Wii U makes an interesting pitch for the role, pushing itself as a device that can work in concert with the TV to enhance a gaming or media experience, or independently of the TV to allow multiple people to use the media hardware for separate purposes. That’s a brave stab into iPad territory, and it might just work out, but Nintendo’s going to have to show us a lot more detail before anyone will believe that they’re ready to go head to head with Apple.

Perhaps the primary weight on Nintendo’s shoulders, though, is software. It’s easy to forget that it wasn’t really the Wii that sold tens of millions of units in its heady early days on the market – it was Wii Sports, which just so happened to come with a Wii in the box with it. The Wii U needs something equally compelling, and a re-hash won’t do the job – note that while Wii Sports Resort did well, it certainly didn’t manage to bottle the same lightning which its predecessor had done a few years previously. Wii Sports U isn’t going to sell millions of consoles. Nor, for that matter, is Nintendogs U, or Brain Training U (I’m guessing, here, that sticking “U” on the end of franchise names is going to become standard). Nintendo needs to find something new, a game which simultaneously demonstrates the capabilities of the Wii U to a wide audience while also seeming like a must-have toy for the non-gaming masses.

That’s a tall order, of course. If any company can fulfill it, it’s going to be Nintendo – but the challenge is immense. While the 3DS looks great now, the early slip-up for the console showed that the company’s market position is far from unassailable – and the Wii U, as fascinating a departure as it may be, is far from guaranteed to be a hit. All eyes will be looking out for that piece of software which can match the role of Wii Sports five years ago and give Nintendo another breakout success. No pressure, guys.