A Look Back at the Wii U

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The Nintendo Switch is on the horizon, releasing in seemingly just a few weeks despite only being fully shown off a couple of weeks ago. As a lifelong Nintendo fan, I’m pretty excited for it – the idea of a console/handheld hybrid system is wildly appealing – but as the owner of a Wii U, I guess I’m a little sad to see the next big thing from the Big N come along so soon.

The Wii U has become the red-headed stepchild of modern Nintendo (though I think most would agree that the Virtual Boy is probably the single worst piece of hardware the company ever made). Poor third-party support, a lack of big exclusive titles, and a confusing marketing strategy pretty much doomed this thing from the start. Which is too bad, because it’s a system I really learned to love, despite its many issues.

The Wii U was unveiled at E3 2011 and the response was immediately negative - Nintendo's stock dropped 10 percent the day after it was announced, for crying out loud. The name was derived from the company’s philosophy at the time of “we play together, but this is designed for you,” but the name “Wii U” is, admittedly, stupid. And worse, it was confusing. I was working in gaming retail at the time and I had to spend a lot of my time explaining to customers that, no, it wasn’t an addition to the existing Wii, it wouldn’t work with the old Wii, and it was an entirely new console experience. The name alone managed to alienate a ton of people – by confusing existing Nintendo customers and by turning off non-Nintendo folks who never cared for the original Wii to begin with. And nothing Nintendo did marketing-wise did really anything at all to alleviate this.

The launch of the system in 2012 was weak. It didn’t have much of a library when it first came out, with many of the early titles being just lazy ports of other games from other systems. The game supposed to be an early system seller, New Super Mario Bros. U, was good, but not revolutionary in the same way that Super Mario 64 was for the N64. The internal hard drives for the system – either 8 GB or 32 GB – were laughable in comparison to what was available from Sony and Microsoft at the time. It gave the impression that Nintendo wasn’t interested in competing for the attention of more “hardcore” gaming types.

The GamePad controller also served as somewhat of a problem. Featuring a six-inch touchscreen, it essentially mimicked the Nintendo DS handheld – where the “top screen” was the television, and the “bottom screen” was the GamePad. But the GamePad is a large, bulky, clunky thing. It’s not really an elegant piece of electronics (much as I did find it comfortable to hold, actually). And while the ability to play games exclusively on the GamePad’s screen was nice, you still had to be within range of the console itself in order for it to work. It was cool to be able to allow my roommate to play his PS4 on the television while I played a Wii U title just on the screen, but it's not like I could walk too terribly far away from the console itself and have it still work. The fact that the GamePad featured a screen also contributed to the early public misconception that the Wii U was a handheld add-on to the Wii, which wasn’t good.

The system lacked a truly great system-exclusive first-party Nintendo title, too. The Mario games were good, sure, and definitely fun to play – but again, not revolutionary for the series. The Zelda games that we got were two ports of GameCube titles and then Breath of the Wild, which is being upscaled and released as a launch title for the Switch, meaning there’s not a Wii U-exclusive Zelda game. There wasn’t a Metroid title released for the system at all. We got Donkey Kong: Tropical Freeze, which was honestly an absolute gem of a game, but didn’t sell terribly well. We also got Star Fox Zero, which after many delays finally released to disappointing critical reviews. Pikmin 3 was fine and good, but it's not as though Pikmin has a big fanbase. The two games that managed to contribute to console sales were Mario Kart 8 – which was spectacular, but is being ported as a launch window title for the Switch – and then Super Smash Bros., which also released on the 3DS.

It's interesting. A lot of the problems discussed so far echo what happened with the Sega Saturn. That was another system that suffered from a poor marketing strategy and was somewhat killed off by the lack of a system-exclusive first-party title. Sega's cancellation of Sonic X-Treme was a huge hit against the Saturn, despite other pretty good (but less popular) first-party exclusive games.

But what killed the Wii U was a complete lack of third-party support. Third party companies including EA and Ubisoft were initially on board, with the head of EA actually appearing at the initial unveiling of the Wii U, but by the summer of 2013 EA announced they were pulling support for the console. This meant that large AAA games continued to appear on Sony and Microsoft systems, but did not have Wii U versions. It meant that the “hardcore” types that Nintendo had initially said they wanted to court to the Wii U had no reason to buy the system.

With all this laid out, it’s easy to see why the Wii U floundered, selling just about 13 million units in this current console generation (compared to over 20 million and over 50 million by Microsoft and Sony, respectively). Hindsight being 20/20 and all, the series of mistakes that Nintendo made with the Wii U is clear. But all that said, I’m glad that I have one.

I didn’t buy a Wii U at launch, mostly because at the end of 2012 I was coming off of a crap-paying “internship” and I had negative dollars at that point, but also because there wasn’t a game I was interested in playing at launch. But by the time Mario Kart 8 arrived, I knew I needed it. I sunk a ton of time into racing through that game – alone and with friends – and my library quickly expanded to include other games like Super Smash Bros. Wii U, Hyrule Warriors, The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker HD, Splatoon, Mario Party 10, Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE, Pokken Tournament, and more. When my house was broken into in the spring of 2015, my Wii U was one of the first things I replaced – and if it wasn’t a system I loved and played as often as I did, I don’t think that would have been the case.

It definitely wasn’t a perfect system, but it had its moments. I enjoyed honing my Smash Bros. skills against friends. I wore out my back carrying my many various useless teams in Splatoon’s online play. I learned to love silly J-Pop idol music in Tokyo Mirage Sessions.

It looks as though the Nintendo Switch will be everything that the Wii U wanted to be. And I’m definitely glad for that! I have a Switch preordered and I honestly can’t wait for it to come out. But I’m going to be a little sad when I need to put the Wii U back in its box and put it away in order to make room for the Switch. Though it wasn’t the breakout success Nintendo hoped it would be, the Wii U was hopefully the stepping stone back into mainstream success the company needs, and the handful of really high-quality titles that I’ve played over the last few years means I’ll always look back on it fondly.