Wii U Still Has an Edge This Generation

It’s been just over a year since I took the reins as Editor-in-Chief here at GenGAME. Back then, we still didn’t quite know how the Wii U launch would go, but I was incredibly optimistic, looking to Nintendo’s design philosophy with Wii and finding ways to connect it to their efforts with Wii U. I wrote an article titled “Wii U Will Not Be Behind Next Generation” that explored why I thought that, compared to other consoles, Wii U would be a haven for games that don’t fall into the “realistic” rat race, just like Wii was last generation.

Since then, we’ve seen the reveals of two other rival platforms for the upcoming hardware generation, and a number of other factors – including the disappointing Wii U launch – have changed that picture somewhat. Nintendo Land hasn’t become a phenomenon that even remotely approaches Wii Sports as an advancement of Wii U’s popularity among the mass market, and unlike the Wii installment consumers have mostly ignored New Super Mario Bros. U. Wii U’s going to have to count on a 3DS-style comeback if it wants to establish itself as a serious player in today’s console market.

However, I still believe the core message holds: Wii U’s identity as a platform is still closely aligned with games that don’t fit the “hardcore” mold.

I think a lot of people underestimate how important this is.

When the rest of the industry shifted to HD, a number of genres either transformed or were left behind entirely in the shuffle. The same thing happened with the move to 3D. Just as side-scrolling games, top-down RPGs, and a handful of other genres that were popular in classic eras became scarce on platforms that emphasized 3D graphics, 3D platformers, kart racers, and other less “mature” franchises were pushed aside as companies converted to “realistic” HD visuals.

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The industry dialogue would suggest that gaming had moved on from these genres and had bigger fish to fry – more online shooters, more open-world action games, that sort of thing. However, Nintendo saw matters differently. They recognized that “moving on” had alienated a number of would-be players, and sought to rectify this.

A lot of people chalk up Wii’s success simply to “motion controls.” It’s motion control, after all, that was touted as Wii’s big “revolution.” But motion controls were just the tip of the iceberg.

How many publishers would have dared to place an old-school 3D platformer at the center of their console’s lineup at the kickoff of this last generation? I’ll give you a hint: you already know the answer. Super Mario Galaxy is of course widely regarded as an incredibly ambitious game and one of the best 3D platformers of all time, but at the same time, it would have been quite a feat indeed to have failed to carve out an outstanding place in the market when it was basically unrivaled in the 3D platformer arena when it launched.

The closest competitor it had was Sony & Insomniac’s Ratchet & Clank Future: Tools of Destruction, which launched in October… but that wasn’t Sony’s big game that year. That title went to the first game in Naughty Dog’s new Uncharted series.

Following 2007, Sony kept up the Ratchet games, but never placed them in the spotlight. The next Ratchet & Clank title was a small scale game that released only on PSN in the Americas. Its successor, A Crack in Time, was quietly announced at the Game Developers Conference in 2009.

Interestingly enough, the Ratchet & Clank series actually introduced 4-player cooperative play – a big feature of Super Mario 3D World – in 2011 with Ratchet & Clank: All 4 One. But, like its predecessors, the game was sidelined to prioritize a new Uncharted game, and the game was mostly overlooked.

2437010-banjoIn Microsoft’s camp, we saw a new long-awaited sequel to the Banjo-Kazooie series hit in 2008: the controversial Nuts & Bolts. But it was clear that the game wasn’t a true successor to the 3D platformer legacy. The game’s director even admitted that Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts only retained about 20% platforming elements, replacing the rest of the game’s actions with vehicle-based gameplay. Since then, Microsoft has quietly bowed out of the 3D platformer market.

How was Super Mario Galaxy able to succeed where these other 3D platformers didn’t? Well, for one thing, Super Mario Galaxy was strongly in tune with the type of audience Nintendo had built up for Wii. The game didn’t revolve around motion controls, but incorporated them in a way that helped make the game approachable for new Wii players. Not only that, but it was definitely a “showcase” game for the system in a way that Ratchet & Clank couldn’t be for an HD platform where unprecedented realism was the star.

Instead of simply cranking out new games and expecting to pick up fans of previous 3D Mario games, Nintendo took steps to actually grow their audience.

When it comes to side-scrolling platformers, Sony actually fired first with LittleBigPlanet in 2008. However, Sony’s vision for side-scrolling games wasn’t rooted in classic arcade-style action, but rather in user-generated content. While I wouldn’t go so far as to say that user-generated content is absolutely damning – we need only look at Minecraft for a significant exception – fans of retro-style platformers are attracted to tight, solid mechanics and exciting game universes, not sandbox-type creation elements. Frankly, LittleBigPlanet doesn’t seem to have scratched that itch.

But Super Mario Bros. could, and Nintendo – who had already realized massive success with a return to 2D Mario on DS – proved that there was still a massive hunger for side-scrolling action that only Mario could (or did) satisfy. And sure, I think a big part of New Super Mario Bros. Wii‘s success came from the fact that it was the first 2D Mario on a home platform in over 15 years… but Nintendo didn’t stop there. They followed it up with Donkey Kong Country Returns and a Super Mario All-Stars reissue in 2010, and both were pretty big successes. (Super Mario All-Stars was still selling strong when Nintendo discontinued it.)

nsmbwii-wii-in-reviewNintendo could have released New Super Mario Bros. as a smaller download title, or tried to shoehorn in user-created content as the main attraction, like they did with the Mario & Donkey Kong series. But they didn’t. They turned it into a full-scale retail title aimed at drawing in a long-ignored crowd of gamers, and the result was one of the best-selling games of all time.

Since then, we’ve seen a resurging interest in the genre. Sony’s putting out Puppeteer this year, a game that I think is fantastic, but hardly a Mario-type game. Ubisoft has rebooted their side-scrolling Rayman series. Some companies are working on retro remakes like Disney’s upcoming Castle of Illusion and DuckTales remasters or a number of indie gems like Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams. But, even considering all that, no one’s placed as much emphasis on side-scrolling platformers as Nintendo did with Wii.

All of Wii’s biggest successes tell similar stories. Was there really anything to rival Mario Kart Wii when it debuted in 2008? How about Super Smash Bros. Brawl? Wii Fit? Mario Party 8? While other platforms fight over the markets they see as the real prize – the first-person shooter, open-world action, and other “hardcore” gamers – Nintendo’s placed its emphasis in areas other companies can’t touch, with franchises that remain at the top of their class. And it doesn’t seem that that’s going to change with this new generation.

Yes, it’s true, Sony just announced a new 3D platformer – Ratchet & Clank: Into the Nexus for PlayStation 3 – that will launch this fall against Nintendo’s Super Mario 3D World. But, if you take a closer look, you’ll see that Ratchet & Clank is once again being billed as a B-tier title. (How else can you explain that $30 price tag?) Super Mario 3D World, on the other hand, is being poised as Nintendo’s big holiday star, and is working to advance the new 3D Mario style 3D Land already popularized on 3DS, only without the limitations of a handheld to contend with.

I’ll give you one guess as to which of these is better poised to capture platforming fans this holiday.

Mario Kart 8 picWii U may not be on top specs-wise, but it’s still in a pretty strong position when it comes to content that connects with 30 years worth of classic gamers. And Nintendo’s making many of the right moves to reassert that position this generation. They’ve got an exclusive set of Sonic titles set for this fall, a Donkey Kong Country sequel to bolster Wii U’s 2D platformer library, a new Mario Kart and Smash Bros. to establish a solid local & online multiplayer scene, and a growing lineup including first-party, third-party, and indie games aimed at reaching out to gamers who aren’t as represented on PlayStation and Xbox.

If Nintendo continues to pursue its strengths – that is, if they make sure the gamers they’ve pleased in generations past aren’t neglected, all the while seeking out new players by introducing new “Nintendo”-like IP – Wii U will be just fine. And that’s how it should be. No one else in the industry has made as strong an effort to give those gamers – in particular, gamers who are more interested in just having fun than in graphics, generations, or gamerscores – the first-class attention they deserve.