The State of Wii U: Rumors of its Early Death are Greatly Exaggerated

Wii U’s had a rough six months. No denying it. It’s hard to pull off a console launch, and judging by the struggles that 3DS and Vita had in 2011, it would have taken a miracle for Wii U to beat the trend. Since 2013 kicked off, the system has only seen 10 new games – three of which hit today, May 21. The platform’s current weekly sales have become something of a laughingstock among critics. None of this is good.

However, there’s a silver lining beneath all the bad: Wii U is starting to come together as a platform with a mission. And compared to other next-gen devices, it’s actually not doing too badly.

Wii U Refined

Wii U is “bigger, faster, and stronger” than it was when it first launched thanks to the big spring system update. As promised, the update seriously cuts down the loading time for software and menu screens, in some cases by up to about 40% – that’s a pretty significant difference. It also makes it quicker to boot straight to the Wii Menu to take advantage of the console’s software backward compatibility, allows for the use of non-GamePad controllers for Wii U’s core applications such as the Internet Browser and Miiverse, and can now play Virtual Console games with Wii U-enhanced features.

In many ways, the console seems as though it’s been refined to the point it ought to have reached when it first launched. And that’s a good thing.

super-metroid-vcThough the Virtual Console library is small right now, it’s steadily growing, with multiple games added each week – and almost all of those new releases including one or two noteworthy titles. Since the service began, two Mario games have hit the system, with Nintendo offering a discount for those who purchase both. Three Kirby games are coming this week. If this pace keeps up, Wii U owners should be able to steadily build up a library, as opposed to facing a painfully slow trickle like the one we’ve seen with 3DS, where games worth buying only show up every couple months.

But imagine if the service had kicked off in November. By now, we’d have about 50 retro games to pick from. And six months from now, we’d have almost 100. Unless Nintendo starts picking up the pace, that’s many months of lost time that it’s unlikely the system will offset with future releases.

The Famicom 30th anniversary discounts line has done a great job serving as an Ambassador program for early adopters, even without an imminent price cut to apologize for. By the end of the program, participants will have gotten the chance to pick up seven games for a grand total of just over $2. That’s a great deal to offer your most loyal customers. Of course, it still can’t quite make up for a several-month wait… but it’s definitely a step in the right direction.

Wii U Isn’t Alone in the Rough Road to Next-Gen

Even if Wii U is in better shape than it was when it launched, Nintendo’s still having a hard time selling the darn thing. Every week it seems like there’s a new doom and gloom story, with games getting cancelled, third-party companies badmouthing the thing, and low monthly sales reports all around.

wii-u-salesHowever, let’s look at the bigger picture. Wii U has managed to sell 3.45 million units since launch as of the end of March. That’s more than Xbox 360’s 3.2 million during the same relative timeframe in 2005-2006 and not too far behind PS3’s 3.61 million in its own first two quarters (source). And unlike Xbox 360, which only saw serious competition from PS2 when it launched in 2005, Wii U faces pressure from both Xbox and PlayStation, both of which have spectacular support going into 2013, versus Wii U’s paltry offerings in both the first-party and third-party departments.

Third-party companies have talked down Wii U’s software sales, but those aren’t doing all that badly either. Wii U’s attach rate is actually pretty comparable to Xbox 360’s launch rates as well. That’s funny, because I don’t seem to remember publishers yanking support for 360 in 2006.

And this generation has proven to be much more painful for new game platform launches than the last. PS Vita only managed to sell 790,633 units in its first seven months. 3DS started off strong but quickly dropped to a little over half the rates we’re seeing with Wii U in the U.S. in its second quarter.

All this points to Wii U falling more into the norm for hardware releases, both last gen and especially this gen, not Wii U being an especially negative exception. This generation’s transition period is going to be difficult for everyone, not just Nintendo.

Wii U’s Future is Bright

It’s worth nothing that the similarities between Wii U and 3DS in terms of their first years extend beyond just their sales momentum. During 3DS’s first year, the big sales driver titles were The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D, Super Mario 3D Land, and Mario Kart 7. Ocarina of Time went on to become Nintendo’s first million seller for the system by the end of its second quarter.

NSMBU-preview-5Wii U’s already in better shape than that, with two two million sellers (yes, you read that right) in the form of New Super Mario Bros. U and Nintendo Land. And what else does it have coming later this year? A Zelda remake in the form of Wind Waker Wii U, a new 3D Mario title, and a new Mario Kart. And on top of that, we’ve got games like Game & Wario, Pikmin 3, The Wonderful 101, and Sonic Lost Worlds all in the pipeline for 2013.

I wouldn’t anticipate Wii U to see as big a turnaround as 3DS – that’s just an exceptionally high expectation, and Wii U’s got a higher price tag with no price cut in sight – but it seems like Wii U is poised to follow a similar trajectory to the little handheld for the rest of the year. Nintendo’s setting up a similar holiday lineup for a reason. Now they just need to prove that these new games are ambitious enough to propel Wii U into the future.

Anything else, including glimpses at the next Smash Bros., at Zelda Wii U, or at Retro Studios’ secret project, is just icing on the cake.

If there’s anything I’ve learned over the years, it’s never to underestimate Nintendo. I wouldn’t worry too much about Wii U at present. Wait until Nintendo fully reveals their hand at E3. That’s when you’ll see where Wii U’s really going this year.