The Curious Case of the Nintendo NX

Underwhelming as Nintendo’s 2015 E3 has been, read between the lines and there’s a much more interesting picture.

Nintendo’s line-up for the next six to eight months isn’t as A-List as you’d might expect from a company who seemingly needs sales desperately.

It’s far from the disaster many have painted it as – the truth of the matter is that Sony delivered some bombshell announcements that somewhat overshadowed everything else this year. From Shenmue 3 (already funded on KickStarter, to the surprise of no-one) to the Final Fantasy 7 Remake that we’ve been teased now for a decade, Sony was ruthlessly pandering to the crowd baying for fan-service. It’s line-up in the interim period towards the end of 2016 isn’t quite as rosy, of course, but it needed these reveals to drive sales and there’s no question in my mind that Sony will see their PlayStation 4 sales, which had stalled in the last few months, skyrocket as a result of these teasers. Short of revealing the NX itself, there was little Nintendo could have done in the face of this years Sony onslaught.

However, it’s what Nintendo didn’t show that actually makes me think the company is being smarter than people would otherwise assume.

The Nintendo NX is now all but confirmed as the companies new-generation console. It’s an inescapable conclusion. The Wii U, for all the good it has done – and let’s not pretend for one moment that the Wii U was a complete failure, because it has been a blessing as well as a curse (Nintendo avoided many of the third-party disasters, released some of its strongest games in years and even pushed a brand new IP in Splatoon that actually drove sales, in a genre that Nintendo is relatively new to!) – its time is done. No, the Wii U isn’t dead yet. Far from it. And there’s every chance that Nintendo will have some surprises in store in the next year to keep owners happy. But it never found its footing and it never got the support it desperately needed. To all intents and purposes, the market has snubbed the Wii U and short of a miracle, there’s likely very little Nintendo can do to salvage it. The Wii U is over, not because Nintendo want it to be so but because the market has decided it is so.

Faced with the prospect of big projects that might never reach critical mass on the Wii U, I’d be confident in saying many of the big hitters that were planned for the Wii U have, in the last year, been quietly and expediently moved towards development on the NX.

For Nintendo, there’s little point pushing a new Metroid on the Wii U. For all its charms – and the series has many – it is surprisingly not the strongest tool in Nintendo’s impressive arsenal. By which I mean sales-wise. Mario Kart Wii sold nearly forty million units. Metroid Prime 3: Corruption? 1.8 million. Metroid is NOT the bankable franchise people make it out to be. If it sells less than two million on their most successful console ever, with over a hundred million consoles sold, then what does that tell them about their potential Wii U sales of a Metroid game?

Metroid isn’t alone either. Nintendo fans rave about so many of the companies titles, but neglect to mention the majority of these are extremely niche in their appeal. This is often reflected in their sales. Xenoblade Chronicles never reached the million units sold. Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem didn’t even reach half a million on the Gamecube. To push new instalments on the Wii U would either be preaching to the already converted, or merely net additional sales according to past performance.

Nintendo themselves don’t have the confidence in the Wii U; the Metroid spin-off, Federation Force, could so easily have been a Wii U title. There was no reason it couldn’t have been. So why wasn’t it? Well… the 3DS market is… umm… bigger? Yeah. Big surprise Nintendo pitches the game towards the machine with the bigger audience. It’s the same reason that Sony had so much to show this year. The industry likes to work on successful platforms. That means the Wii U is definitely out… and the XBox One isn’t exactly in the cool kids’ clubhouse of late either.

However, having big-name fan favourites ready for the launch of a new console? That’s a different matter!

One complaint about Sony’s conference – and it’s a doozie – is that it still leaves the company with arguably many more months of questionably dry material. This has been a notable issue with this generation as a whole; we’ve had to wait a LONG time for the games that, arguably, should have been ready for the first year of the machines life. Nintendo more than anyone has learned from this, not merely with the Wii U but also the 3DS, so much so it launched two exclusively tuned games to drive sales of the New 3DS and one of those was Majora’s Mask 3D.

The NX, if it is to take root quickly, cannot afford a software drought in its first year or two. Ordinarily, Nintendo would have relied on third-party support. Indeed, looking back, this was promised unconditionally for the Wii U before its launch, only for third-parties to scurry away for whatever reason they could find. No doubt the NX will see third-party support, being a new console and all (and there’s no doubt NX development kits are already in the hands of third-parties), but Nintendo likely doesn’t want to take the chance that they’ll torpedo sales by withdrawing their support. The only solution left to them is to take some of what they were pushing for with the Wii U, and tune them up for the reveal – and launch – of the new console.

And think about it; a new console, with Metroid at the very start? How about that new Zelda, tuned up for the NX? A new fully-3D Mario and Donkey Kong? Eternal Darkness? It’s going to solidify Nintendo’s support for the machine going forward, drive sales at the beginning of its lifespan and perhaps even attract ports of games already pencilled in for 2017. Shenmue 3 and that Final Fantasy 7 remake, perhaps? It’s possible if they feel the market is there.

Getting the NX launch right is going to be a key point for Nintendo, and for that to happen, Nintendo cannot afford to be seen pushing last-gen ports. No doubt there will be a couple; I’d wager Mario Kart 8 will be ported, because the additional tracks system is already firmly in place. There is no need to rush another version out, just add in new courses and racers. I’d also wager Smash Bros. for NX will be somewhat a port too. And I wouldn’t be shocked if Splatoon were also ported over.

But these games need to be compensated by new material; getting a new game for a new console done in less than two years is a tall order, even for a company the size of Nintendo. Ergo, more projects that were going to be on the Wii U would be retooled and made graphically much nicer for the NX. The loser in all of this is, of course, the Wii U. And it will be a big loser too. It could end up the first Nintendo console to genuinely not get a big main-staple 3D Mario game (I wouldn’t count 3D World, as great as it is), Zelda and Metroid all in one fell swoop. This will of course do nothing to drive sales of the Wii U. And somehow, I suspect Nintendo doesn’t think its worth driving sales of the Wii U at this point.

With a new console so tantalisingly close now, they’ll be throwing all their resources into making sure what comes next is far more of a success than trying to salvage something which arguably may already be beyond repair. The Wii U isn’t completely dead – but it’s definitely on life support. There’s no mistaking that feeling. The moment Nintendo announced the NX earlier this year, the Wii U’s future was looking ropey. This E3 all but measured the poor machine up for its coffin.

Nintendo’s big gambit will be next year, where it shows off its new hardware. That’s where you’ll see all the things you wanted from Nintendo the last couple of years, ready to sell you a brand new games machine, likely alongside the ‘triumphant return’ of real third-party support. However, I’m also of the mind the NX isn’t going to be the hybrid once touted. The technology is too expensive and too new for a 2017 release. Nintendo will want to match – or better – what is already on the market, to ensure ports are easy, and that their new account system is up to snuff so sales are faster and easier and cheaper than they have been. Because Nintendo knows that content is king. It’s learned that the hard way. And if I were Nintendo – as much as the idea was nice, I’d also be ditching the second screen.

That’s my take on it at any rate. We’ll know more likely later this year, if not early 2016, about what the NX really entails.

And that’s what I’m looking forward to.

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