Since Nintendo branched out from making Hanafuda cards, the secret to the success of their hardware products has been taking affordable, established technology and applying it to their products in a novel way. The Wii U is precisely that.
Minus the “novel” part.
Don’t get me wrong here. I’m not saying the Wii U is a bad system. Far from it. I firmly believe that Nintendo’s vision of the future of living room entertainment, as embodied by the Wii U, is a brilliant experience that will eventually be in every home in America. Unfortunately for Nintendo, I’ve been living with that experience for weeks now, and haven’t used a single Nintendo-branded product in the process.
I have a game console that can use a gamepad-sized touchscreen as an auxiliary display and input device. It’s called the Xbox 360 with SmartGlass. My iPad can show its content on my TV screen thanks to technologies like DLNA, Apple’s AirPlay, and account-based position-syncing on Netflix and Hulu. If I want to play games somewhere other than in front of the TV, my tablets and smartphones can do exactly that — or my gaming laptop, if I’m so inclined. If I have house guests, they can all watch their choice of content on their own tablets and smartphones. I can even control my TV, DVR, and cable box from my smartphone or tablet.
All of this is fantastic. And, admittedly, I’ve spent far more than $299 on the devices that let me replicate the Wii U’s functionality in an inelegant, piecemeal way. But none of these features are why I bought those devices. They’re perks. Nice little quality-of-life improvements, not selling points. The selling points of those devices include things like “more than three hours of battery life,” “a modern touchscreen that uses capacitance rather than resistivity to detect input” and “the ability to use them further than 25 feet from my television.”
People love saying “Xbox: Next Episode” when they’re done with an episode of The West Wing on Netflix, but few people bought a Kinect for that experience. Minor quality-of-life improvements and a cohesive experience aren’t selling points without Apple levels of polish, and while Nintendo recognizes that’s what they need to be doing, things like multi-hour day-one firmware updates show that they’re still far from reaching that goal. Without that polish, and without a gee-whiz, crowd-pleasing demo experience, the Wii U is missing two of the key ways consumer electronics devices can appeal to consumers. But what about the way that only game consoles can appeal to consumers — the games?
Viewed in isolation, the Wii U has one of the best launch lineups in the history of videogames. If you’d told me three years ago that the new Nintendo console was going to launch with Arkham City, Mass Effect 3, Call of Duty: Black Ops II, Assassin’s Creed III, and Ninja Gaiden 3, not to mention a brand-new 2D Mario game, I’d have been uncontrollably salivating. In 2012, the reality is less appealing. Half of those games came out years ago on contemporary consoles, and the other half are coming out simultaneously to — and indistinguishable from — versions on other platforms, with the obvious exception of Mario.
The Wii U is comparable to the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 from a performance standpoint. Favorably comparable, but still comparable. Unfortunately, with gamers expecting new Xbox and PlayStation consoles to be announced within months, “comparable” isn’t enough.
Nintendo gambled that performance favorably comparable to the PS2/Xbox would be sufficient for the Wii, and that gamble turned out to be a failure: despite being the fastest-selling piece of set-top gaming hardware in history, the Wii’s software tie ratio lagged well behind its contemporaries because third-parties focused their development efforts on the better-performing Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. Nintendo is making that same gamble again, and without the Wii’s instant appeal, it’s primed to backfire disastrously.
I’m sure that I’ll own a Wii U eventually. There’s no other place to play Zelda and Mario, and that alone will guarantee a purchase by the end of the system’s lifespan. The Steam-like policy for pricing and patching offered to independent developers plus the capabilities of the GamePad could produce some fantastic indie titles as well. But today, at launch, I simply cannot justify spending several hundred dollars for experiences I’m already getting elsewhere.