Although 2016 is not quite over yet, I think the time has come to conclude this journal with a Wii U console review.
In episode 2 I detailed my early impressions; the positive aspects of the machine’s build quality, the unique prospects of the Gamepad controller, as well as the criticisms concerning its weak CPU, equally slow UI, and lack of expected features. In the months following I turned my attention towards the games themselves and from Bayonetta 2 to Lego Marvel Super Heroes, the impressions have been polarizing.
During this final analysis I want to widen the scope even more and talk not just about the console and its games, but also about the events that have led to the Wii U’s current predicament and how Nintendo has gone about handling it.
Now it’s easy to forget that the Wii U kick-started the eighth generation of home consoles as we know it. Nintendo was keen to build upon the monumental success of their Wii whilst designing a new product that would recapture the “hardcore” market they had previously ceded to Sony and Microsoft. What’s curious though is just how drastically the Wii U seems to oppose itself in the pursuit of this goal. The Wii captured everyone’s attention with its intuitive motion controller and senior-orientated advertising campaign whereas the Wii U confuses its respective audience with a half-hearted sales pitch and lacklustre tech. Nintendo has also done a poor job communicating that the Wii U is a standalone product and not just some newfangled controller or hardware accessory.
Even the name is problematic. Building upon the solid foundations of the lucrative Wii brand was no doubt tempting for Nintendo, but that name also has connotations that the “core” video game market would not soon forget. The Wii was a huge success, but it did little to dispel the stigma that Nintendo is “for kids” and you can blame the abundance of shovelware party/fitness games and Brain Training knock-offs for that one.
The Wii U is plagued by this duality of purpose and not in a quirky ‘let’s root for the underdog’ sort of way, but rather the exasperating ‘what the **** were they thinking!?’ sort of way.
One of the hardware’s biggest problems is its poor CPU. Titles such as Assassin’s Creed IV, Mass Effect 3, Batman: Arkham City, Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Blacklist and Darksiders II all struggle to play well on Wii U.
The notion of gameplay before graphics has rung true many times in the past, but the idea of gameplay before performance just doesn’t work when good performance is so crucial to gameplay in the first place. Texture quality and frame rates are certainly not modern concerns either, especially if the likes of DOOM and Daytona USA have anything to say about the matter.
The Eurogamer article titled The Secret Developers: Wii U – The Inside Story is especially revealing when it comes to the Wii U’s lack of processing strength:
“[Nintendo] wanted a console that was the same size as the Wii and wouldn’t make much noise, so “mum wouldn’t mind having it in the living room”, so a basic comparison/calculation makes the Wii U look, on paper at least, significantly slower than an Xbox 360 in terms of raw CPU. This point was raised in the meeting, but the Nintendo representatives dismissed it saying that the “low power consumption was more important to the overall design goals” and that “other CPU features would improve the performance over the raw numbers”.
Nintendo claimed that third parties would help the Wii U become successful, and yet they clearly developed the console with only their games in mind. The cartooney Super Smash Bros. may look great on Wii U, but the more realistic graphics of multi-platform franchises such as The Elder Scrolls and Grand Theft Auto would simply never be achievable here, at least not without a significant reduction in presentation. The Wii U version of Project Cars was cancelled for this exact same reason and it makes you wonder how many other titles met a similar fate.
It’s true that Nintendo does great business with its own properties, but no developer can be expected to meet the tastes of an entire console market by itself. Indeed, Nintendo is often accused of being its own worst enemy, what with their bias towards first party development, but rarely has that criticism been felt as strongly as it has been here. A first party bias and anaemic software library did nothing to help SNK’s Neo Geo Pocket and it is this same bad situation that has hindered the Wii U.
Nintendo’s own meandering input has only made matters worse. The Legend of Zelda series has seen nothing but HD re-releases this generation with the tardy Breath of the Wild now confirmed for a joint release alongside the company’s next console. Titles such as Mario Tennis and Animal Crossing received a lukewarm response, Star Fox Zero seems to have disappointed many, and the launch title New Super Mario Bros. U was about as unadventurous as video games get.
Nintendo has played things far too safe and the resulting dearth of software is just a surface problem compared to the deep-rooted troubles of the GamePad. As the Wii U’s defining feature, this unique controller is a fascinating peripheral in many ways, but its economic design and untapped potential causes more problems than it solves.
With its standard definition screen, the GamePad display looks fuzzy and archaic when compared to that of a tablet computer from the same era. The lightweight feel of its attractive plastic makes a good first impression, but games streamed in off-TV mode often look poor and the tiny text (just about) seen in games like Xenoblade Chronicles X can be extremely difficult to read.
In terms of video games specifically, having a second display on your main controller is an idea that dates back to Sega’s Dreamcast, but like the VMU, the GamePad is a kernel of an idea that was never fully realized. Even in standout cases such as ZombiU and Affordable Space Adventures – video games that do make a reasonable case for its integration – the GamePad is still a novelty at its best and a severe detriment at its worst.
Aside from its low resolution screen, short battery life, and its tendency to divert your attention away from what’s happening on the main screen, my biggest problem with the GamePad is that it upsets the notion of having one standardized controller for all of your games.
As innovative as it is, the GamePad’s unique design does not lend itself well to every type of video game out there which is a huge problem because that additional Wii U Pro Controller you purchased to play twitch-based action games like Bayonetta 2 will be useless for the likes of Nintendoland, Arkham City, Deus Ex, and other titles that don’t support it. Between the GamePad, Pro Controller, Classic Controller, and Wii Remote, the Wii U has far too many primary inputs and this overproduction leads to no end of confusion and frustration for the end user.
Take New Super Mario Bros. as an example: this Nintendo-made title has a multiplayer mode where the Gamepad player can act as an overseer and manipulate in-game objects to help (or hinder) the other human players. However, in multiplayer the Gamepad can only be used in this fashion so if you simply want to play as Mario and enjoy a spot of traditional platforming fun with your friends, then you can’t unless you buy yet another controller that’s different from the one that actually comes with the console. This is despite the fact that the Gamepad can be freely used in the traditional way during the single player mode!
It’s absolutely ridiculous that Nintendo should be making such basic mistakes and it’s a similar situation with Nintendoland. This premium pack-in title is designed as a multiplayer showcase for the GamePad’s capabilities, and yet it doesn’t support the Pro Controller. It seems to be Nintendo’s conceit that you already own, or wouldn’t mind purchasing multiple (not to mention expensive) controllers for use with the Wii U; controllers that may not even be supported by other games you might wish to buy in the future.
The situation isn’t much better when going online either. Nintendo’s Miiverse portal is intriguing in that gives users quick access to game-specific communities, but the tools for actually socializing in this space are extremely limited and the UI is once again painfully slow to use.
The Secret Developers article is also quite enlightening on this point:
“There were apparently issues with setting up a large networking infrastructure to rival Sony and Microsoft that [Nintendo] hadn’t envisaged. This was surprising to hear, as we would have thought that they had plenty of time to work on these features as it had been announced months before, so we probed a little deeper and asked how certain scenarios might work with the Mii friends and networking, all the time referencing how Xbox Live and PSN achieve the same thing. At some point in this conversation we were informed that it was no good referencing Live and PSN as nobody in their development teams used those systems (!) so could we provide more detailed explanations for them?”
Some people have made allusions to the Dreamcast when discussing the Wii U’s fortunes and it’s true that Nintendo has made many of the same mistakes that Sega did. But whereas Sega ultimately succeeded in pleasing their fan-base with a memorable send-off, it’s hard to imagine the Wii U having anywhere near the same cultural impact ten years from now. If anything, the Wii U shares more in common with the Sega Saturn; two overproduced works of sheer hubris that squandered their respective release periods whilst lacking the necessary purpose and video games needed to sustain themselves.
If you wanted to be charitable you could simply say that Nintendo is out of touch, but the hard truth here is that the Wii U system is one of the most curiously archaic pieces of widely-available consumer technology that the video game industry has yet seen and it certainly isn’t worth considering over an Xbox One or PS4 unless you really must play every game that Nintendo releases.
The Wii U may not be completely bereft of passion like the Saturn was, but much like the Virtual Boy, it’s time for Nintendo to put this embarrassing episode behind them and look at making their upcoming NX the best home console in the company’s history, because it really needs to be at this point.