Five days from the launch of the Wii U and it finally occurred to me that I should pre-order something to play on it.
You could attribute this to my advancing years, it's not a stretch to assume the slow degeneration of my brain tissue allowed me to be caught unawares. But I think it may speak to to bigger problem. There's less than a week until Nov. 18, and I still don't know what I'll be doing with the thing. And I don't think I'm alone.
The explosive, dizzying success of the Wii is attributable to a single moment. In this moment, a non or lapsed gamer watches someone playing tennis without buttons. The Wii owner hands their friend or family member the remote and something unusual happens: They find they know how to play. Suddenly, the barriers to gaming, built layer by layer with expanding button layouts and control schemes, melt away. They're one with what's on screen without the legacy of training most gamers bring to the hobby.
It wasn't a gimmick. It was brilliant, prescient design.
Look at the Wii U, examine all its "launch window" offerings and tell me if you see the Tennis Without Buttons moment. I know I can't. The worrying thing is that I don't think Nintendo can either. Let's look at an ad for the Wii.
It's a simple ad, but so utterly confident. What these two Japanese fellows are doing isn't just showing the system off to families, they're seeding the revolution. Man in Suit 1 plays Tennis Without Buttons, Dad takes his turn and with that the families are off having fun. The ad may seem steeped in humility, but it's actually pretty brazen in asserting that this is the experience the world is going to have. It's the Called Shot of hardware launches, and they knocked it clean out of the park. Now, lets look at an ad for Wii U.
The camera careens wildly from room to room showing plenty of different Wii U experiences while failing to say why any of them would be terribly enjoyable. I'm sure Nintendo was trying to show off diversity, but (especially when viewed in light of the surefooted Wii ad) the message I get is, "We sure hope you like one of these ways of playing with the tablet, because we have absolutely no idea."
Nintendo probably isn't counting on the runaway success of a Wii; hopefully they realize that capturing the zeitgeist like that isn't so easily repeatable. But if it's not offering a completely unique, fresh experience, the only thing it can be doing is competing with the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, and that's the part that should really scare you.
Yes, Nintendo has finally caught up with its competitors hardware wise, even surpassed them in some ways. But by most estimations we're 12 to 18 months away from the launch of new consoles from Microsoft and Sony and that's going to put Nintendo right where they've spent the current generation: With wonderful Nintendo exclusives and a feast of low-rent, dumbed down third-party ports.
That didn't matter so much for the Wii. Nintendo's motion control innovation was so powerful that the graphical processing of the console itself didn't have to be. Even with sub-par graphics, the Wii was able to net 97.18 million units sold as of September of this year. As a basis for comparison, its predecessor the GameCube sold 21.74 million.
Nintendo has some of the smartest people in the world creating its games and hardware, so I'm holding out hope for the platform. Maybe Nintendo will, over the course of the Wii U's life, find its Tennis Without Buttons moment, that indelible, silent sales pitch that's more effective than any TV or radio spot. But they haven't yet, and that makes me more than a little uneasy.
Considering the launch of Nintendo's next big box just five days away, I'm not the only one who should be worried.