Itís strange. Just a few years ago Nintendo had not just risen to but actually defined the apex of the console industry. The Nintendo DS -- which invited only skepticism prior to its launch -- had become the most successful handheld in history. Nintendo had, even more importantly, gotten swaths of average players to embrace its latest console system, the Wii.
Whether or not things will go the same way this time is an open question -- and one, frankly, this article isnít going to answer.
Nintendo is predictably bullish on the system: ďWeíre excited about the results that weíre seeing; the preorders have been going very, very well,Ē Nintendo of Americaís director of PR, Marc Franklin, told Gamasutra via phone as he attended the companyís New York City launch event at its flagship store tonight. ďInitial results from the launch, we feel good.Ē
So far the press and the analysts donít quite know what to make of it, though. Of course, what really matters is what consumers think. Franklin puts the sell like this: ďClearly Wii U is new and exciting for a lot of people. We think itís an unprecedented system thatís going to offer something completely unique.Ē
Before we move forward, letís look back. Itís worth considering this for a second: the Wii was anything but a sure bet. Before its launch, the only thing that gave me any faith in the Wii was the success of the DS, not any prescience about the potential of motion control to turn on mainstream audiences. That the Wii ended up world-beatingly successful was not a fait accompli from the perspective of 2006; from the vantage of 2012, it seems obvious, though.
Still and all, itís challenging to give the Wii U the benefit of the doubt. While the launch is, by all accounts, going swimmingly, things have changed drastically since 2006. Tablets and Facebook have probably siphoned away some of Nintendoís casual audience. How much? How irreplaceably? It seems hard to believe that any console will ever seem quite so essential to a mainstream consumer again.
One Ticket for Nintendo Land
A lot of the weight of ďcan the Wii U work?Ē is being squarely dumped on its flagship launch title, Nintendo Land, which is actually a very interesting, creative anthology but -- as has been pointed out here and elsewhere -- is simply not the superbly simple, focused, and tuned experience Wii Sports was. Wii Sports was the the 2006 Wiiís raison díetre; Nintendo Land is simply cool -- and geeky cool, at that.
Franklin called the game ďa great experience to learn about Wii UĒ, and thatís the problem in a nutshell: Nintendo Land simultaneously has to justify the Wii Uís very existence and teach players how to deal with the hefty GamePad, which is both a tablet and a traditional controller. For core gamers, Ubisoftís ZombiU will be put to the same test.
In this crazily competitive market, Nintendo launches a new console with a big, new idea. The funny thing is that, even after spending some time with the games, you still sort of have to take it on faith that itís a new idea.
After all, tablets are out there, and theyíre starting to play with televisions. Nintendo Land really is fun, and it does show the potential of ďasymmetrical playĒ, as Nintendo terms it -- or ďI can see stuff you canítĒ, to put it simply -- but the experience of looking back and forth between the TV and the controller can be clunky. Some apps live on both, some on one or the other, and most awkwardly, some switch seemingly at random. And some of the best games in Nintendo Land would work just as well on the 3DS.
ďAsking players to iterate between looking ahead at a TV and down at their hands requires both physiological and mental mode shifting. Making sure our designs provide a usable 'flow' between these two gameplay positions has been interesting,Ē Albert Reed, CEO and co-founder of Demiurge Studios, developers of the Wii U version of Gearbox and Segaís Aliens: Colonial Marines, told Gamasutra recently.
The Wii U is more complicated than the Wii. This means both that there is more potential there, and more difficulty for the developers who tackle it. Itís hard not to hold up Nintendo Land versus Wii Sports as somehow emblematic of that. Itís going to be an interesting road. Even Nintendo has a hard time, sometimes, building games that truly take advantage of its own quirky hardware.
Welcome to the Miiverse
Miiverse, the social network built into the Wii U, is an interesting beast. Built by Hatena, a Kyoto-based social networking and web services company, itís not inventive, but it is interesting and, importantly, does feel like an online service and not a clunky piece of software built by a game company that doesnít know what itís doing.
Each game for the system has its own Miiverse community, where players can post about it -- or from it, in some cases. When I beat a castle without getting hurt in New Super Mario Bros. U, I was invited to write a challenge to series antagonist Bowser, which then was automatically posted to the NSMBU community inside Miiverse.
You can load the Miiverse app itself, read posts and look at drawings, and follow posters who you find interesting -- including Nintendo developers -- Twitter-style. Thereís a news feed, which works a lot like the classic Facebook wall; you can send friend requests to people whose posts you like, meaning that the system has an organic discovery engine for friending, which is a first for a console.
The Miis you friend even walk around your system, spouting off their posts in speech bubbles, pulling you back into the Miiverse service, which along with the game integration, should keep things turning over -- itís clever.
Guest starring 1UP editor in chief Jeremy Parish
Franklin called it ďa network communication system thatís uniquely tailored for gamingĒ, and he may not be exaggerating. That is cool. Itís a big step towards true social networking integration on consoles, even if it is also a completely walled garden. For now, it has no hooks into existing services and (as yet) no way to access it outside of the Wii U bubble (Nintendo has plans.)
Nintendo clearly has faith in it. Franklin told me that itíll be a driver for the systemís growth in the future: ďConsumers will be talking to other consumers, and we think that in itself is very powerful, especially when you add in the factor of Miiverse.Ē
ďI think Miiverse will help people become friends and battle each other wirelessly, and bring more diversity to gaming... I hope that Miiverse will permeate video game life,Ē Nintendoís Hideto Yuzawa recently said, in an interview with Nintendo president Satoru Iwata.
ďIt would be nice if it becomes a kind of cloud game diary,Ē Iwata said.
That actually is a nice idea, isnít it?
The Sticky Situation
Miiverse, though, faces the same challenge the GamePad and the Wii U itself do: itís a promising idea with plenty of potential but itís hard to say whether itíll catch on, because itís just so damn quirky, so damn itself.
And thatís the thing about the Wii U. Analysts are all talking about how it might head off a cliff in the spring because the Nintendo fans will all have them by then -- and the systemís software output, or whether mainstream consumers will embrace it anything like they embraced the Wii, are open questions. Just because, as Franklin told me, it got on the Today show this week, or in the New York Times, doesnít prove anything in the long run.
I have faith in Nintendo -- at least to produce quality games. The last time I was disappointed by one of its systems was the Nintendo 64, and things have come on a lot since then. The company is more ambitious now, and more aware of the possibilities of both success and failure. But I mostly have faith in Nintendo because itís obvious that the company has a developer-driven culture. But thatís not to say that it doesnít have a major uphill battle ahead of it.
ďThereís no question that the Wii was a phenomenon,Ē Franklin told me. ďIt sold faster than any other console... We have a similar goal with Wii U, but ultimately it is going to be up to the consumer to decide.Ē Is that pessimism or optimism?
ďThis a proposition that goes well beyond the initial time frame into a mass market situation,Ē said Franklin, later. Optimism, then.
Prognostication is for Suckers
Maybe itís because we in the U.S. just came out of a viciously unpleasant election cycle, but I donít feel like participating in the spin -- damning or praising the Wii U, forecasting its failure or success. It is a system with a lot of potential. It is a system that faces a lot of challenges and requires new ways of thinking on the part of both consumers and developers. And there is so much competition -- now and next year. Next year is going to be crazy.
The only measure of success, as far as the press is concerned, would have been an unequivocally incredible launch with a game that defined the systemís potental. Nintendo Land is a bit irregular for that. And as far as the market goes, if it doesnít match or crush the Wii, the company just isnít executing like it has to, despite the vastly different environment itís launching into.
Iím left wondering, then, if the Wii U is less or more half-baked than I expected. On one hand, the company got all of the third parties into line, pumped out some cool games, and actually managed to build a first-of-its-kind social networking service, all alongside a system that was, despite its status quo horsepower, a technical challenge to pull off. (Read that interview, by the way -- it goes a long way toward explaining how Nintendo really thinks about product design.)
On the other... well, I like it. Is that enough? The problem is that we seem to want everything to just leap out of its box and sing to us now. In that light, the Wii U is really just into the beginning of its overture. The opera has not begun.