There's one thing clear after watching this morning's Nintendo Direct stream and attending its pre-E3 press gathering at the Los Angeles convention center. The company is putting its faith in its games -- and its established IP.
This morning, my Twitter feed was split between people who complained of the lack of innovation on show in Nintendo's E3 lineup -- it showed off the latest Smash Bros. title, alongside announcing Mario Kart 8, a new Donkey Kong Country, and Super Mario 3D World -- and people who were ultimately satisfied with what the company showed, thanks to its general commitment to quality alongside repetition.
But many of them -- fans and haters alike -- wondered aloud about the Wii U's fate all the same. It's far from settled, and E3 does not seem likely to change things drastically.
At its closed-door press showing, 3D World producer Yoshiaki Koizumi promised that the team has "poured our best ideas from years of making 3D Mario games" into the title, while Nintendo's design god, Shigeru Miyamoto, even directly acknowledged the lack of new franchises, but said that when it comes to the latest iterations of its existing IP, "with each and every one of them we've tried to do something new."
If you play its games, you can see this. It was clear from his demo that Pikmin 3 has grown considerably during its 9-year absence, but even the two 2D Mario games that were released last year had each had an indentifiably different design ethos.
But is it enough?
This strategy, of resolutely launching new games in old franchises, worked really well for the 3DS, launching it from doldrums to a must-buy console for many -- but in concert with a price drop, which was not in evidence for the Wii U at E3 despite rumors in the runup to the show.
There was an aloofness about Nintendo's participation in E3. Doing its announcements via a pre-recorded Nintendo Direct video is both an extension of its current PR strategy and utterly different from how E3 usually goes, and despite the logic of doing it this way, it also feels weird compared to the circus that the occasion demands.
But the company seems completely content to appeal directly to its fans from now on, and gradually announce new projects throughout the year instead of saving up blockbusters till June. Another Nintendo Direct, with a new game or two, is quite possibly right around the corner.
But I also picked up on a sense that maybe Nintendo is simply content to let Microsoft and Sony duke it out this E3. Could the company take a totally different tack and go way big next year again? It seems reasonable. With no price drop and no big surprises, maybe "sitting this one out" and relying on its fan base to carry it through another year makes some sense.
In the end, unlike most of the games released into the packaged goods market, Nintendo's are generally perennial sellers, and it may be building up a head of steam for a real mainstream push down the road once it's got some stocked up hits to back up the real game-changing surprises.
Or maybe not.
The company may never have a Wii-level success again. Perhaps tablets have eaten away at the core consumer that bought into motion controls. Perhaps the Wii U's GamePad is less Wii Remote and more like the Nintendo 64's controller: idiosyncratic, deeply useful for developing great games in the Nintendo style, but not intrinsically interesting enough to lure in a broader audience.
The Wii was an unprecedented success for the company. "Unprecedented." Words have meanings. It may be impossible to re-attain it, in fact.
So its E3 presence was understated, despite the fact that it has an embarrassment of polished and promising exclusive second and first-party games (The Wonderful 101, Bayonetta 2, New Super Luigi U...) That's because Nintendo puts itself in a box by (mostly) relying on its existing IP.
Will Wii Fit U bring in the expanded audiences who bought the original? Maybe not. You never heard much about the new Brain Age game. Nintendogs didn't lure in casual consumers at the 3DS launch.
Only Nintendo could be accused of being in a holding pattern as it executes on a cascade of new software. But without big news, the company actually may have carved out a comfortable niche for itself amongst the hullabaloo -- as it has with the 3DS and may yet do with the Wii U, even if it never ends up being a true successor to the Wii in the eyes of casual consumers, publishers, or the market.