WiiU_MarioKart8

Despite my many protestations to the contrary, I bought a Wii U (together with Mario Kart 8) bundle on 20 May 2014. And despite all the pre-release hype surrounding the latest iteration of Nintendo’s kart racing franchise, I remained hesitant in making the necessary investment. After all, this was the latest Big Brother console by a company that had only sought to disappoint since its halcyon days of the 16 bit Super Nintendo era. Gone were the days when I would happily wait for a new hardware announcement only to be met by unabashed disappointment as the once great Nintendo faltered under the weight of its own pioneering legacy. Indeed, I don’t think I’ve ever really enjoyed a Nintendo produced console (to an unequivocal degree) since the under-performing N64 – which brought with it such classics as F-Zero X, Mario 64, Zelda: OoT and Goldeneye.

Whilst it’s true that every Nintendo console has played host to a constant stream of classic titles, every console hardware product since the much venerated SNES has only failed to live up to market expectations, with each subsequent console further alienating the mainstream player-base, and allowing competitors (Sony and Microsoft) to prize away valuable market-share. It’s no coincidence to realise therefore that the latest Nintendo Wii U console continues this trend so as to launch to a largely indifferent market, with updates to Mario’s platforming capers only really catering to the faithfully hardcore, yet having very little impact beyond the sector. 

Thanks for ScepticMatt of Neogaf for providing the graph.

Thanks to ScepticMatt of Neogaf for providing the graph.

Thanks for AstroNut325 of Neogaf for providing the graph.

Thanks to AstroNut325 of Neogaf for providing the graph.

Thanks for AstroNut325 of Neogaf for providing the graph.

Thanks to AstroNut325 of Neogaf for providing the graph.

With Mario 3D World selling a paltry 100k units in its first week, detractors were right to criticise the appeal of Nintendo’s chief mascot as having run its course. After all, the superb Rayman Legends is arguably the better 2D game, while some argue that Mario 3D World is just an unimaginative upscaled 3DS update that hardly warrants the glowing reviews it’s received from many quarters of the gaming press.

With so many of its own titles having had little effect on the market, and with the PS4 and XBOne stealing the limelight with their own stellar successes, the tail end of 2013 was certainly a trying period for Nintendo as shareholders and industry commentators both questioned the company’s business acumen by arguing for the platform holder to abandon its hardware division and become a software developing powerhouse. And maybe there is some truth to the prevailing dogma that Nintendo’s time as a hardware giant is up, and that the company should gracefully exit the industry which it had single-handedly saved, and whose contribution had brought it back from the brink of collapse.

But as the old adage goes, and to the annoying chagrin of many, one can never rule Nintendo out.

Ever since the days of the Nintendo 64 (which signalled the beginning of the end for Nintendo’s vice-like grip on the industry), gamers have been gleefully anticipating the company’s demise as it’s become increasingly obvious that fresher-faced competitors are more adamant in catering to the needs of mainstream gamers. Yet despite the market’s obsession with big budget mainstream titles (which is one of the principle reason as to why the Vita has underperformed), as this year’s E3 ‘Nintendo Direct’ presentation has shown, Nintendo always have a knack for defying expectations in the face of insurmountable odds.

With only Bayonetta 2 and Super Smash Bros destined to be released this year, it’ll be interesting to see as to how receptive the market is of their arrival. Bayonetta 2 certainly represents a welcome addition to a bare-bones release calendar – as it also includes the bonus of an updated edition of the first game – whilst it will be Super Smash Bros that will be considered as being the main draw and system seller.

Mr Iwata himself has stated that one game can make all the difference to a console’s appeal, and I would partially agree with him as it was on the very basis of Simon Parkin’s sterling Mario Kart 8 review for Eurogamer that I purchased a Wii U in the end. Indeed, in its first week of release alone, Mario Kart 8 contributed towards a whopping 666% increase in console unit sales.

But that’s the problem, in that there just aren’t enough releases of Mario Kart 8‘s calibre to sustain momentum, and nor is there the necessary support and diversity offered by rival systems to maintain long term sales interest. As sales for the Wii U suffered in January 2014 after its initial launch, and tailed off again after Zelda: Wind Waker HD was released, so too is the console once again facing the situation of having its sales peter off after initial demand for the console and Mario Kart 8 has subsided.

Maybe there is some credence to the argument that Nintendo consoles appeal to Nintendo loyalists only, with very few of their key franchises appealing beyond the hardcore demographic.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. 2015 heralds some of Nintendo’s biggest heavy hitters as the publisher is set to release Xenoblade Chronicles X, Mario Maker, Yoshi’s Woolly World and the fan favourite Zelda U (with Starfox U also tentatively scheduled for completion next year). And with so many high quality Nintendo titles earmarked for release, maybe there is some hope of the Wii U being saved after all.

But then one wonders if Nintendo can single-handedly salvage the Wii U’s precarious state. For even if Nintendo are finally taking steps to bolster third party exclusivity (Tomonobu Itagaki’s Valhalla developed Devil’s Third being the highest profile example), their staunchest third party publishing allies have all but deserted them.

As one of the biggest publishers in the world, Ubisoft were one of the most vocally supportive advocates of the Wii U and its Gamepad concept, and released the innovative Zombi U as an exclusive launch title. Since then, and due to the Wii U’s lacklustre performance in the marketplace, their enthusiasm for the platform has understandably cooled somewhat. Rayman Legends was initially touted as a Wii U exclusive but went multi-platform in the end, whilst Watch_Dogs was officially delayed so as to ensure that the company could concentrate on more financially lucrative platforms. Indeed, Yves Guillemot (CEO) even admitted during a recent press interview that the company is withholding the release of a title whose development has been completed six months previously. Not a potent sign of sufficient confidence from an industry powerhouse – and a telling sign of how sceptical publishers are of the Wii U’s future success and of Nintendo’s viability as a dominant platform holder.

Even staunch supporter Platinum – whose The Wonderful 101 and Bayonetta 2 games are exclusive to the Wii U – have earmarked their next software release (Scalebound) for the XBox One. Why Nintendo didn’t attempt to foster their relationship with Platinum, and buy a controlling stake in the company, so as to ensure the developer of second party status (much like Retro and Monolith Soft) is anyone’s guess. But with Nintendo continuously disrespecting Platinum’s releases (either through lack of marketing or changing the cover art), can probably be attributed towards why Hideki Kamiya’s company has decided to take its work elsewhere.

Spot the difference.

Spot the difference?

It’s such a shame that we’ll never get to see a Platinum developed Starfox, especially given Hideki Kamiya’s reverence for the franchise, as the developer would have done a great job. Ah well…  Platinum should just go ahead and make a Starfox clone anyway, and get Microsoft to publish it.  Or better yet, not get caught up in nostalgia-induced retro fests (like Retro Studios), and carry on making unique and interesting games. That don’t sell unfortunately. 

Since Platinum’s games don’t sell to a significant enough degree, it makes sense to rule out the developer’s contribution as having any meaningful impact beyond appealing to a small segment of the hardcore gaming fraternity. And if Platinum’s releases don’t sell sufficiently enough for them to be considered as system sellers, it therefore makes sense to argue that Platinum have little to no effect on Wii U sales. Therefore, Platinum cannot single-handedly save the Wii U.

But does it have to be just one game that can single-handedly determine a console’s fate, and if so, can Mario Kart 8 (or Super Smash Bros) alone be enough to resonate with a large enough audience so as to turn the tide? 

Whilst there sufficient evidence for one particular game to have an influence on consumer behaviour, one would argue that one game isn’t a sufficient enough reason for a premium priced console to gain mainstream sales traction (over a sustained period of time). For if a consumer is to look at the overall picture, consumer tests have revealed that it is often a combination of several factors that bear an influence on purchasing decisions.

For me, and what determined my decision to a buy a Wii U was on the basis of Tesco offering the Mario Kart 8 bundle for less than £200. Together with the free game offer (culled from a list of highly regarded titles that were unlikely to significantly drop in value), the Wii U’s equivalent price could be ascribed as being £130 – a fair value in my eyes (given the quality of software), and a likely contributing factor in making an impulse purchase. Not only that, but the feature of the Wii U being backwardly compatible with my existing extensive Wii game collection (and upscaling them to HD) clinched the deal.

At present, I own the following games for my Wii U:
Mario Kart 8 (bundled with my Wii U)
Zelda: Wind Waker HD (as part of the free game offer)
New Super Mario Bros U (arguably the best Mario platformer since Super Mario World)
Rayman Legends (the best version of the game and arguably the superior platformer in comparison to NSMBU)
Zombi U (it’s no looker but only cost me £6)

Considering that the Wii U is backwardly compatible with existing Wii titles, and given that the Wii U utilises the same underlying architecture as the Gamecube, I was really hoping for Nintendo to announce a digital re-release strategy for their existing Gamecube catalogue. After all, the company has already announced a Gamecube Controller compatible accessory, and (rather bizarrely) taken steps to emulate DS games on the machine. Does it not make sense for Nintendo to therefore make strides in further enriching the Wii U user experience by offering a more extensive back-catalogue, thereby increasing the console’s retro consumerist appeal? In short, surely the prospect of adding Gamecube releases to the Wii U’s eShop catalogue would have bolstered the machine’s value proposition, and helped mitigate accusations of the machine not having many games.

Gamecube controller

If this year’s E3 showing proved anything, is that Nintendo are very much concerned with appeasing the faithful. And true to Iwata’s promise, Nintendo have indeed taken steps to ensure that current owners will be well looked after (and satisfied) with their purchase – as evidenced by the plethora of games gearing up to be released in 2015.

But the pitfalls associated with operating outside conventional industry norms has certainly brought them repercussive effects that even Nintendo aren’t equipped to deal with. As the company steadfastly clings on to its brazen philosophy of offering outdated technology and software at prices which are at odds with consumer and industry expectations, the correlating sales figures speak for themselves. And with the Wii U gently sliding into further obscurity and irrelevance, Nintendo are once again reminded of what consumers want: unparalleled power matched with ample third party support at a price that is considered to be fair. No wonder no-one is buying the Wii U apart from Nintendo fanboys.

Which is a shame really. Nintendo bravely eschewed all the trappings of this year’s E3 to bring to gaming audiences attention the kind of pioneering games that the company is internationally renowned for. Titles like Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker are wonderfully delightful, whilst new IP Splatoon looks set to deliver the kind of colourful multiplayer mayhem that the company excels at.

Certainly, the double-punch delivered by Nintendo with its Mario Kart 8 and E3 showing redeemed the company in the eyes of the faithful. But even with the knowledge of having given current owners enough to be happy with, is there a sufficient reason to entice prospective owners to the platform?

With Ubisoft recently admitting that the publisher won’t be releasing its completed game until sales improve, Nintendo has the monumental task of convincing consumers that the Wii U is a console worthy of serious interest and attention. And with the iron still hot, the company absolutely needs to nail down its mast by marketing the console better and lowering the price. 

None of which will make much of a difference in the short term, as the unparalleled high offered by Mario Kart 8 and E3 is only set to be replaced by an equally commiserative low, as hardly anything of note is due to be released in the coming months. Bayonetta 2 isn’t out until October, and Super Smash Bros is likely to be released just before Christmas. All of which begs the question: where are the games?

Nintendo have certainly shown ample evidence that the company is treating its Wii U hardware seriously. And with a plethora of software releases pencilled in for 2015, the games are indeed coming. But even then, and given the Wii U’s precarious situation, as well as the relative successes of market competitors, the question arises as to whether the Wii U can hold out long enough for Nintendo’s software plans to reach fruition.

With Nintendo having made an operating loss of $457 million for 2013, the company’s main concern should be to “focus on efforts that seek to stimulate the platform”. And given the paltry number of must-have titles scheduled for release this year, Nintendo absolutely needs to make more of a concerted effort in offering up exclusive titles via third party software acquisitions, getting the support of the indie community, and making necessary steps to rapidly increase the number of titles (and supported formats – such as the Gamecube) to its Virtual Console software lineup. In short, do whatever it takes to maintain consumer interest in the machine until the big guns arrive in 2015.

Earlier this year, Martin Robinson opined for the Wii U to be considered as this generation’s Dreamcast. While it’s still a little too early to be convinced of his argument, his overzealous remarks certainly hold credence in light of Nintendo’s recent announcements. 

Is the Wii U this generation's Dreamcast?

Is the Wii U this generation’s Dreamcast?

But that’s the problem as well. In the two years that the Dreamcast was in production, Sega released an enormous amount of titles that were both highly unique and incredibly original. The Dreamcast also had a reasonable amount of third party support, with many third parties still opting to release games for the platform even after Sega had announced its retirement from the hardware arena.

The Wii U offers no such comparison. To this day, the console is being single-handedly propped up by its parent company alone, with stalwart allies leaving for greener pastures, as it buckles under the strains of market indifference and apathy. And with only half the sales of the Dreamcast in the same period, together with just a small fraction of the kind of third party support that Sega’s final hardware enjoyed, the Wii U is simply too niche in its appeal to truly wrestle the title for this generation’s equivalent of Sega’s great white elephant

For the Wii U to come close to capturing the Dreamcast’s legacy, Nintendo needs to go the distance, and ensure that more games of a high enough quality are released for the system. The platform holder also needs to ensure that the company fosters new IP, and that games like Splatoon don’t become a curious anomaly. Finally, it needs to work with third parties in ensuring that more exclusive content (like Bayonetta 2 and Devil’s Third) is released for the system.

To conclude, Mario Kart 8 will not save the Wii U anymore than Shenmue saved the Dreamcast. For if that were the case, then Nintendo would very much have rested on their laurels, and not have announced any more titles past Super Smash Bros. That the company would defy expectations, and announce a whole bevy of new titles (for the Wii U) shows as to how committed the company is to the platform, how keen the company is to regain consumer and industry trust, and how far the Wii U still has to go in order to become a success.

In what can be described as a truly 180 degree turn, Mario Kart 8 has done a lot to reverse the Wii U’s fortunes. But Nintendo aren’t out of the woods just yet, and the company still has a lot of work ahead of it if it hopes to change the console’s perception. However, with 2015 lining up to be one of Nintendo’s strongest year’s in recent memory, maybe it’s too early to write off the underdog just yet. 

Even if the Wii U goes down in history as an unmitigated flop, as surely as it is at present, its place in the pantheon of great consoles will almost certainly be assured if Nintendo continue to support the machine and not quit. And like the N64 before, which also looked to be a commercial disaster before Zelda: Ocarina of Time saved it from commercial oblivion, the Wii U needs more games of Mario Kart 8‘s calibre if the console is to become a success.

In the event that Nintendo deliver on their E3 promise, and if Zelda U proves to be the swansong title for the Wii U in late 2015, then Nintendo would have absolutely succeeded in accomplishing their objective. For whilst the machine was borne out of a complacent desire to follow mainstream trends, its latter years saw Nintendo absolutely nail home a determined drive to fulfil an old promise – to release a console unashamedly targeted towards hardcore gamers.

That many gamers (including myself) actively resisted and chose not to believe Nintendo’s Wii U vision is akin to what Mahatma Gandhi once stated. And to paraphrase the great man: first they ignored Nintendo, then they laughed at Nintendo, then they fought Nintendo, then Nintendo won.

Game on!

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