With Sony and Microsoft gearing up for the launch of thePlayStation 4 and Xbox One in less than two months, it seems that the gaming world has forgotten that Nintendo actually kicked off the next generation a little over ten months ago. The Wii U debuted in November of last year, bringing with it a reasonable enough software lineup before entering a period of almost complete darkness which saw very little of note happening for a good six months.
It's not really the ideal way to launch a new console, but it's something that does seem to happen quite regularly, particularly if you look at the PlayStation Vita. Sony's handheld device launched to plenty of hype, but struggled to maintain consumer interest for long periods after the initial buzz. It could be argued that the Vita was never really going to come into its own until the launch of the PS4, given the fact that it's a very capable addition for the console, but that doesn't excuse the barren period suffered by the console post-launch, or the relatively poor sales figures to date (the device has sold 5.72 million units globally in almost two years).
Perhaps a more relevant example would be Nintendo's own 3DS, however. Suffering a similarly unsuccessful post-launch slump, Nintendo was forced to cut the price of the device at retail in a bid to increase consumer interest. It's a move that worked incredibly well, and the console, along with its XL variant, has now sold in excess of 34 million units - a figure that was unthinkable a few months after it debuted.
Excluding the price drop, the biggest factor in this incredibly turnaround for the 3DS was undoubtedly a huge increase in the quality, and quantity, of software for the device. Nintendo's own in-house developers led the way, delivering some unmissable portable experiences, while third party developers gradually began to get to grips with the system, buoyed by the ever increasing install base, and that's something that Nintendo will very likely be looking to replicate with the Wii U, a console that has managed to sell a mere 3.51 million units in the best part of a year.
The problem for them is the fact that the Wii U is a completely different proposition to the 3DS. For starters, it exists in a hugely competitive sector of the gaming market. Already, it's competing with the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, and with their successors only around the corner, it's genuinely difficult to see any scope for immediate improvement. The Wii U is a fine machine, and we love it, but if it's struggling to compete with hardware the guts of a decade old, how is it going to fare against the next-gen juggernauts? Particularly when they're boasting embarrassingly superior technology.
Nintendo's argument, as it has always been, is that they're more concerned with the games, and not the technology. It's a stance that has some merit, after all the sales of the original Wii dictate that highly specced devices don't always mean guaranteed sales, but the first half of 2013 has seen a real drought in quality titles for the console. On top of that, we've seen developers and publishers seemingly abandoning the system to focus their attention on platforms with larger install bases, making for a real chicken and egg scenario. Who will buy the Wii U if there aren't enough great games for it, and who will make the great games if nobody is has bought the console?
As always, Nintendo has taken matters into their own hands. First party published titles like Lego City Undercover (March), New Super Luigi U (June), Pikmin 3 (August), The Wonderful 101 (September) and The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD (September on digital release and October on physical release) have led the way in building interest in the console again, while the forthcoming releases of Sonic Lost World and Wii Party U (October), Wii Fit U and Super Mario 3D World (November), Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze (December), and Mario Kart 8, Yarn Yoshi, Bayonetta 2 and Super Smash Bros. Wii U (2014), should be enough to pique most gamers' interest. At least it would be, were it not for the two looming shadows on the horizon.
The most pertinent question has now become not whether Nintendo can release enough quality games, but whether or not the masses will even notice now that they've got the next-gen hype to wade through for the next 6-12 months. Is there enough about Super Mario 3D World, for example, to sway people away from a true next-gen title like Battlefield 4, DriveClub, Knack or Dead Rising 3? Does anyone but the longest standing of Nintendo fans care about the Italian plumber's latest adventure? Sadly, it's looking increasingly like the answer to that question is no.
While there's no doubting the quality of the name-checked titles, there's a growing perception that Nintendo make games for kids. Anyone who has spent any reasonable amount of time with the company's output will know that this isn't quite the whole story, however. The fact is that Nintendo make games for everyone. That's the beauty of their output, it's timeless, it spans generations and it's got the kind of pure, undistilled gameplay that made many of us fall in love with gaming to begin with, but with a new generation of gamers who write off anything featuring a broader colour pallet than brown, grey and green, or without explosions, headshots and team deathmatch as 'games for kids', there's not much hope for those willing to try something different.
Unless there's a serious turnaround in public perception of the Wii U, it's a system that's unlikely to achieve the status may of its games deserve, and that would be a real shame. Perhaps Nintendo is doing the right thing in not focusing too heavily on the sector of the market between kids and 30-somethings, because they're clearly not interested in the wares the company has to offer. Style over substance goes a long way these days, and it's made all the more difficult when that style is actually backed with great gameplay, leaving the Wii U and its library of spellbinding titles for those who aren't concerned with pixel count, lighting effects and the latest instalment of long running kill fests.
Had we seen a bigger push to get these titles out in the first six months of the Wii U's life, things might have been different, but now it very much appears to be too little, too late, with the PS4 and Xbox One set to hammer the final nails into the Wii U's coffin in November. Our hope is that it'll get enough support from consumers to stick around for a reasonable length of time, so that those of us who have already invested in the system, and who buy into Nintendo's view of the gaming universe, have enough time to enjoy some genuinely special games before the industry brushes them aside for good.
Perhaps we'll see a new Nintendo console hitting stores in 3-4 years, and perhaps it'll have enough power to compete, but having been bitten once too many times, we wouldn't imagine too many gamers will be willing to back it with their hard cash. Thankfully, there's still the 3DS to keep things ticking over for Nintendo, and the company's dominance of the handheld market is undoubtedly a good thing for the industry.
After all, it'd be a real shame to see the old lady of video games bowing out with a whimper...