clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The Wii U is a symptom of a larger disease: Nintendo isn't dying, but it needs to adapt

You're going to be reading many articles about what Nintendo needs to do about the Wii U. This is one of them.

The most important thing that the company needs to realize is that it needs to do something. The strategy thus far has been to continue a bland marketing campaign, rely on the standard Nintendo franchises to drive player interest, and just kind of hope that things pick up.

It's not working.

Nintendo didn't release December sales numbers for the Wii U, but the company is expected to post its third annual loss, due to a number of factors including a price drop on the Wii U and soft hardware sales across the board.

The company is struggling to reach players in the U.S. for well-documented reasons. The Wii U name itself is confusing to players who already own, or owned, a Wii. The console is significantly underpowered compared to the Xbox One and PlayStation 4, both of which are selling in large numbers.

The list goes on. Nintendo's online strategy is weak to the point of non-existence in a world where big name, online games such as Titanfall and Destiny are blurring the boundaries of single- and multiplayer. The user interface of the Wii U is a mess, as it's both hard to understand and lethargic. The fact that software is locked to each machine and not to a single log-in across the Wii U and 3DS line of products looks downright quaint in a time when Sony and Microsoft make it simple to take your games and account to other connected systems.

All of these problems are fixable, and none of them will sink the company. Nintendo has amassed a giant war chest, around $14 billion in liquid currency, and that allows the company to think about everything in the long term. But these issues taken together paint a picture of a company that's falling behind what players expect from modern games and modern hardware.

It's not just an issue of graphics anymore; players shouldn't have to worry about losing all their games if their current system dies. Nintendo is falling behind when it comes to managing games and their customer's digital life. The company's focus on traditional gaming and social interaction has always been attractive, but sending your Wii U back to the factory because you bricked the hardware during a firmware update without a way to get your digital purchases back without going through Nintendo's RMA has lost its charm.

So what needs to happen?

The short answer: Anything. Michael Pachter, analyst for Wedbush Securities, hit it on the head this morning on Twitter. "The first step to recovery is to acknowledge the problem," he wrote. "I have not seen anything from [Nintendo president Satoru Iwata] that acknowledges that there is a problem."

The Wii U is a great piece of hardware that can provide multiple strengths the other consoles can't match. The ability to play a game on the GamePad while your family watches, or even plays, something else on the television is amazing if you have children. That's only the beginning.

I've often brought the Wii U into the bedroom and kept it plugged next to the bed, without even bothering to attach it to a television. I've whiled away more than a few evenings in Call of Duty with headphones while my wife reads next to me. Nintendo Land was filled with interesting multiplayer concepts that only worked because the player with the GamePad had information no one else could see.

You never hear about these things from Nintendo.

Some ideas? Get aggressive about releasing Nintendo's back catalog of NES, SNES, Game Boy, and Nintendo 64 games, and make sure each purchase works across all your devices. If you buy Mario 64 to play on your Wii U, you should be able to also play on your 3DS. Nintendo's collection of amazing games from the past is one of its biggest strengths, and it's rarely leveraged in a serious way.

Even better? Offer classic games in higher resolution. Emulators and hacked-together programs have allowed players to enjoy Nintendo classics with updated graphics, maybe it's time to start offering this option in a way that allows players to support the company directly. The downside is that this approach would limit the ability to make a big deal out of games like The Wind Waker HD, but these releases don't happen with any regularity.

How much would you pay for a high-resolution version of Mario Galaxy? The Wii is now a crater at retail, but the game library could still be valuable in many ways, especially if there was a turnkey solution for graphical improvement.

Here's a crazy idea: Offer a subscription that gives players access to everything on the virtual console, and have it work on every Nintendo device. Become a Netflix-like service for your own back catalog. Players who may not be willing to pay $5 for one game may be willing to pay $15 a month for every game.

Combine that with an increased rate of release for classic games, as well as possible graphical updates done in software, and you could find yourself with some motivated players.

How about finding games that use the GamePad in interesting ways? SpyParty creator Chris Hecker has long hinted about bringing the asymmetrical multiplayer game to the Wii U, and giving the television to the spy and the GamePad to the sniper would create a sort of LAN party in a box.

I played a good amount of Zombies mode in Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 with one player using the GamePad and the other using the television and a standard controller, and it's a way to play co-op that's more intimate than playing online, and it only requires one system and one copy of the game.

The lack of new games that take advantage of this capability is frustrating; the Wii U offers a number of gameplay and multiplayer innovations that even first-party software rarely taps into. ZombiU offered a number of interesting twists to the zombie / permadeath formula, but of course it died due to poor sales as the system struggled to find an audience.

The fact that no one else emulated any of the ideas found in the first batch of games is distressing, and it relegates the Wii U to simply being a weak current-gen system. The Wii U has the possibility to become one of the best systems for local multiplayer games since the Nintendo 64, and it would be interesting if Nintendo decided to move in that direction.

It's not this easy

Each of the ideas above are much harder than they sound on paper, for any number of reasons, and articles like this are often rife with sober advice about how a company can turn its fortunes around. Nintendo is likely stuck with the Wii U for at least a few more years and, while it's doubtful the system will ever turn into a major source of revenue, there is still time to make moves to try to reclaim momentum.

Possible solutions are many, and none are easy, but the company has to do something. Price cuts will only do so much, as the expected new games in familiar franchises won't do much to entice players who don't already have the system. Ignoring the system's strengths while relying on consumer hostile account systems across the company's hardware will only make this situation worse.

Nintendo has never been afraid to try new things, but it's rare that the new things have failed to this degree. The company has time to stop and think due to its impressive cash reserves, but that's not a viable long term strategy. Nintendo's next move is an open question, but what's not in debate is that Nintendo needs to move.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Patch Notes

A weekly roundup of the best things from Polygon