In the cutthroat world of video game console wars, there are always going to be some losers. Now that the dust has settled on this last holiday season, the sides are counting their casualties, and at least one thing is clear: Nintendo’s new entertainment system, the Wii U, didn’t come out on top.
Even though it got mostly positive reviews from critics when it was released last November, so far the successor to the Wii hasn’t exactly lived up to expectations.
Through Christmas and New Year’s, consumer response to the new gadget was surprisingly lukewarm, spawning article after article by publications like Forbes that have tried to pinpoint Nintendo's marketing missteps and how they could have improved consumer perceptions.
Ultimately, according to numbers released by Japan's Famitsu Magazine, the Wii U ended up selling at roughly the same pace as its half-decade-old competitors, the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3.
For a brand new console, that’s bad news, especially with the successors to Microsoft and Sony’s current-generation hardware looming on the horizon.
What’s more, this marks the second disappointing product launch in a row for Nintendo. In 2011, its big handheld device, the 3DS, received a major price cut to stoke dwindling sales.
Speaking to investors recently, Nintendo CEO Satoru Iwata shouldered much of the blame for the company’s weak performance, promising renewed efforts in both software and P.R., but also lowering the company’s sales estimates for the console from 5.5 million units through March to just 4 million.
For anyone keeping their fingers crossed that things will play out just like the 3DS, however, Iwata ruled out the possibility of any price cuts for the Wii U in the near future. At around $300 for just the basic console with a GamePad controller, the Wii U is already being sold at a loss.
With the audience for console video games gradually being syphoned off by smartphones and tablets — particularly when it comes to the casual, family-friendly games Nintendo has become known for — some industry specialists are already predicting a not-too-distant future where the console business could be split between just two companies: Microsoft dominating America and Sony dominating Japan.
But for Nintendo fans, there's still room for hope thanks to an unexpected but well-timed series of announcements that could not only offset the Wii U’s disappointing start but possibly even make it a must-have item for families and diehard gamers in 2013 and beyond.
In a recent Nintendo Direct video blog, Iwata addressed with welcome candor many of the biggest shortcomings of the Wii U, including some nagging technical issues but also, more importantly, the lack of any “killer apps.”
Although the Wii U launched with an impressive 23 games — the most ever for a Nintendo console — many of these were already available on other platforms, but updated with minor tweaks to accommodate for the unique gameplay potential of the Wii U’s input device, a hybrid controller/tablet.
There was also a lack of big first-party games — something to justify the $300 price tag for undecided consumers. Where were the “Mario 64”s or the “Donkey Kong Country”s to drive sales?
Well, they might still be a ways off, but Nintendo does have some exciting things in the pipeline.
Chief among them is a new Zelda game. Details were scarce, but longtime series producer Eiji Aonuma shared just enough to get fans salivating:
“Our mission in developing this new Zelda game for Wii U,” Aonuma said, “is quite plainly to rethink the conventions of Zelda. I’m referring to things like the expectation that the player is supposed to complete dungeons in a certain order, or that you’re supposed to play by yourself. The things that we’ve come to take for granted recently. We want to set aside these ‘conventions,’ get back to basics and create a newborn Zelda game so that the players today can best enjoy the real essence of the franchise.”
Along with a brand new Zelda game, an HD remake of 2002’s “The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker” was also announced with images of its completely revamped graphics.
Iwata also promised new entries in the Mario Kart and Super Smash Bros. franchises for the Wii U, as well as a solo game for the infamous Italian plumber and a new 2D platformer starring his capacious dinosaur pal Yoshi.
One of the biggest surprise announcements, though, was a non-Nintendo role-playing game being developed by Monolith Soft. Rumors are already buzzing about what the untitled game could be, but Iwata points to this as an example of the kind of software that fans can expect to see more of down the line: third-party titles developed in a close relationship with Nintendo in order to create platform-exclusive content.
If that turns out to be true, even non-Nintendo fans might have reason to pick up a Wii U in the coming year.
But the question remains, will Iwata's new announcements be enough to save the Wii U, or is this just a case of too little too late for the new console?
A native of Utah Valley and a devoted cinephile, Jeff is currently studying humanities and history at Brigham Young University.