The Wii U was always in trouble.
The press learned this fact as we sat up with our review hardware before the official launch, waiting for Nintendo to release the firmware that would enable anything more than just playing games. Many of us who knew how clumsy Nintendo could be with nongaming applications joked that the Wii U would never be better than the day when you could just put in a game and play without wrestling with a confusing interface.
It’s hard to remember now that the Wii U is all but dead, but those early days were pretty great.
Luigi’s Ghost Mansion on the Nintendo Land compilation disc showed us the possibilities of being able to give information to one player while keeping it from everyone else. Hunting down friends as the ghost on the GamePad while they wondered where you were was a great time, and it continued Nintendo’s long-standing ability to make games that looked like they were designed for kids but were the best when played inebriated.
ZombiU also made enjoyable, tense use of the second screen as a combination menu and window into the virtual world. And I remember spending way too much time playing Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 on the Wii U as a kind of portable LAN party; one player would get the TV and a standard controller, and the second would play the GamePad’s screen and use those built-in controls. It was one of the most convenient co-op setups ever created.
Nintendo — not to mention third parties — ran out of those ideas quickly.
The Wii U turned into a “standard” console that felt underpowered compared to the Xbox One and PlayStation 4, but the ability to play most games on the GamePad without using an external display at all was a godsend to families with many children and not enough televisions.
Playing Mario Kart 8 on the spacious screen of the GamePad was more attractive to my children than almost any game on their phones, and it remains so to this day.
It was fun to see people playing Wii U games on flights that had power, the Wii U console tucked into the seat back in front of them and the GamePad held in their lap. It was a funky system, but it was home to Nintendo’s first-party games and it didn’t always have to take up a television. That was a pretty great thing, even if the system’s sales never reached the surreal heights of the original Wii. Nintendo may have struggled to explain just what the damned thing was to many potential customers, but those of us who understood it, loved it.
The 3D was being phased out of the 3DS as well, despite many of Nintendo’s early games on the console attempting to use the technology in a novel way. The 2DS removed the ability to see the games in 3D entirely, and became the console Polygon described as “surprisingly not the worst thing ever.” Nintendo, it seemed, was out of uses for its own gimmicks.
If you have to steal, steal from yourself
The Switch, we know now, is a single-screen experience. There will be no menus on one display while we play on another. No co-op or competitive gaming on one console. It’s the portable that’s also a tethered console. It’s not a gimmick as much as it’s a form factor, and it doesn’t require developers to do anything new when it comes to the play itself. It’s just a console you can take on the road, as long as the batteries hold out.
We’ll see how it all shakes out in the end, and how the Switch fits in a post-Wii U world that includes Super Mario Run. But the Wii U was a wonderful system, with ideas that were never given the room they deserved before Nintendo’s own software design became more conservative. The company wisely saw what many of us saw in the system — the love of a console that was oddly portable, while offering deeper experiences — and punched it up for the Switch.
The Wii U has been all but forgotten this holiday season, but it was a fun system that was a great fit for larger families. Nintendo was right to use its best feature as the basis of the Switch.
Wii U, we’ll miss you, but apparently we’ll see your big brother very soon.