The Wii U is coming to the end of its production lifespan. So allow me one final moment to kick the Gamepad whilst it’s down.
I’m sure history will judge the Wii U with more kindness than we have the past four years.
For all the supposed issues with the Wii U, the console still boasts an impressive collection of titles that no doubt will see themselves transported to the Nintendo Switch in the next year or two. From Bayonetta 2 through to Hyrule Warriors and the not terrible Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water, the console has seen not just an impressive selection of titles across an extremely broad genre range but also genre-defining content, like Bayonetta 2, Hyrule Warriors and Splatoon. For a console which has struggled to shift an additional eleven million units across four years of its life, it’s a testament to a dogged determination to prove that the Wii U was not, in fact, a conceptual mistake from the outset.
Indeed, the Nintendo Switch seems to be tailoring the base concept of the Wii U to a broader spectrum. A hybrid console, high-fidelity games on the go. There are dozens of questions that Nintendo needs to answer, most of which will likely wait until the January 21st 2017 Switch Presentation, which in a rare moment of going with accepted tradition is said to be going out live. But no-one can say Nintendo didn’t try very hard to make people like the Wii U. So why didn’t we love it more?
Well… sorry, but it’s the gamepad.
Beyond all other issues – power, storage, memory – the gamepad has remained a millstone around the neck of the Wii U. In theory, of course, the Gamepad should have allowed the Wii U to perform the same or similar feats as the Nintendo DS did, even allow for ports and cross-pollination between the two halves (something the Switch is now committed to). In theory, it should have been a great idea – to put menus, maps and other viable on-demand data on a screen you could glance at every so often. In theory, this should have been the easiest sell in history – after 155 million sales of the Nintendo DS, and 100+ million Wii sales, here was Nintendo combining the two halves into one machine. And yet, despite all of this, the Wii U will go down in infamy for being one of Nintendo’s weakest-selling machines ever.
So why blame the gamepad – or, as I often call it, the U-Pad?
Well, the problem is simple. Despite all the theory – in practice, nothing about the gamepad couldn’t have been similarly achieved with a few additional menus and some clever controller trickery. The likes of Bayonetta 2 and Hyrule Warriors were undoubtedly better with the Pro Controller – the bog-standard, traditional-looking controller. It was sharper, faster and allowed for much more fluid gameplay in the long run. Games like Xenoblade Chronicles X and Super Mario Maker made great use of the gamepad and its touch screen, but you could have done this just as well with on-screen menus or holding a trigger button down. Splatoon almost got it, with the jumping about, and I’d have probably called this the exception to the rule… except, Nintendo has shown in the Switch Reveal even they found a way of putting the map-jumping into the Switch version.
The Gamepad seems also to have created more problems than it solved. Whilst Nintendo’s internal engineers did a remarkable job with the lag-free streaming from the console hardware (no really, this was and still remains an incredible feat even nVidia seems to praise), it created the need to render two images on one piece of hardware. This cut into the potential horsepower in the Wii U, without a doubt – though games like Xenoblade Chronicles X are incredibly impressive as a result. It sent third parties fleeing to the hills, so one can argue despite Nintendo’s best efforts to reduce the lag between the Wii U and the Gamepad, third parties wanted something more than a second screen that was robbing the hardware of actual hardware performance.
Weirdly, the Wii U in that respect can sit alongside the likes of the XBox Kinect – another device that for a time was forced onto its users, robbing the main console unit of valuable resources which could and perhaps should have been better spent on in-game performance. However, where Microsoft fled from the Kinect when users and developers were expressing their doubts over it, Nintendo continued to double-down on the Gamepad; continuing to insist, despite mounting evidence, that it was still the right decision. Despite concerns that the additional hardware was too expensive and not delivering nearly enough of a feature to justify the expense – even today, the Wii U remains at around £300 whilst its competition’s price point has dropped below it.
And yet, I sit here and I can’t think of a single Wii U game which couldn’t, in some way, have been engineered for a more traditional controller setup. The insistence was always the same – and yet, not a single game could shake off those niggling doubts. Games like Mario Maker did their best, and surprised and delighted for a time – even temporarily making us stop and think about it. But then you think a little more, and discover that actually… yes, it could be done on a normal controller. And in some cases, pretty easily too. Does it need a complicated second screen set-up? Does it make it better in any tangible way?
In fairness, despite the successes, one can argue this of the DS and 3DS variants. The two-screen formula has been good for Nintendo’s handheld division, but even there it has struggled to shake off suggestions that it was an indulgence rather than a necessity. The DS can, of course, at least boast of how it began to popularise the touchscreen after years of languishing on the fringes of hardware. It can boast that it got their first – beating Apple by almost two years (an eternity in tech circles). But always it was maps, menus and options. Efforts to utilise the second screen for games proper invariably fell flat, so we’ve generally accepted the second screens position as extraneous addition and little else.
But the Wii U couldn’t disguise it. By the time the Wii U hit the market, it was Nintendo’s third attempt in a row at pushing the two-screen format and the cracks were starting to appear self-evident. Within no time, we were asking ourselves if this expensive block – and not even a good looking block, let’s be honest – was worth the effort. The excitement wore off in record time, and the games just seemed to drift away. We still got some great games… but there can be no doubt they’ll be just as great – if not actually better in some cases – on the Switch, which is likely where much of the Wii U’s back catalogue will find a second wind.
Thing is, whilst I sit here kicking the gamepad (rightly), it’s important as a technical and engineering milestone.
As I’ve said before; progress in tech circles is often about inventing the square peg and waiting for the square hole to be invented later. And the Gamepad, for all its issues, isn’t disappearing entirely. The Nintendo Switch is clearly evolving the concept of the gamepad, though not as an addition to the hardware but as the hardware itself. Over the last four years, and no doubt having worked closely with nVidia, Nintendo has found means and ways to condense hardware down to the handheld unit without necessitating the main home unit. The lag-free streaming will doubtless be reused and repackaged in the Switch in some form. And the Switch mobile unit – the handheld – looks to be the sort of thing that the Wii U Gamepad should always have been; an independent unit, not tethered to hardware and sharing resources.
Without the Wii U, one can argue the Switch – and the ideal of a hybrid console – would never have come to fruition. And there’s sound logic behind that. Nintendo was pitching the Wii U hardware in ways it simply wasn’t capable of achieving much in. It’s taken four additional years of research and development alongside nVidia, one of the bigger hardware producers, to really find ways of making the concept at the heart of the Wii U work. Of course, nothing could be more damning of the Wii U than that. It was too early. Conceptually flawed. Misguided in how important the second screen was. It needed longer in the oven, as it were, to truly rise to the occasion.
But at the very heart of all the Wii U’s failings is that Nintendo simply could never make the additional screen sing.
This is a company that popularised the D-Pad, introduced the controller layout we all know today, brought shoulder buttons to the market, pushed analog sticks to market and showed how to use all of these things – heck, Nintendo even showed how to do motion controls. From Super Mario Bros. and Super Mario Land, to Super Mario 64 and Wii Sports, Nintendo has always out of the gate had something that says, “This is the point. This is what we’re getting at.” It’s even more damning that Nintendo themselves have never truly been able to capture that ‘Eureka Moment’ with the Gamepad. And considerably more damning that in a three minute and thirty-six second reveal, sold the core concept of the Switch better than they’ve managed to sell the Wii U across four years.
I’ve bashed third parties a lot over abandoning the Wii U; especially when you consider EA supported the NGage to its bitter end and UbiSoft was pumping out PS3 exclusive content when the PS3 was falling far short of the competition. But consider this – if Nintendo… Nintendo, let me repeat this, the company that practically invented how you play games now – if Nintendo can’t find a way to make the Gamepad attractive… what bloody hope did third parties have? Even Zombi-U (or just Zombi now, I guess) was exposed when it found a PS3 port to be a rudimentary horror game. The gamepad made it clunky and interesting, but stripped of that, UbiSoft’s title had nothing else. It also showed how distracting the gamepad actually was. UbiSoft pretty much undermined the most interesting game they’ve made in years…
No-one could find a way to make the gamepad truly stand out. And in a sense, in doing so, it not only brought down the Wii U, but arguably the 3DS – which has seen 60 million sales worldwide, which is impressive but considering the DS sold 155 million? Suddenly, the illusion had been shattered. And we knew, over time, that the era of the double-screen was over, just as we knew the Kinect era was over long before Microsoft tried pushing it with the XBox One. Sometimes companies just cannot see the meteor overhead.
Whilst a failure on so many levels, was the Wii U a noble failure? Time will tell. It may be proven to have laid the groundwork for how we consume games in years to come – we’ll have to wait and see. A piece of hardware that needed to happen, a foundation on which bigger and better things could be built? Quite possible and plausible.
Personally, I for one will be glad to see the back of the Wii U Gamepad. And, perhaps also, glad to see the end of the Wii U itself. It’s been nice. Nintendo certainly hasn’t let me down that much on the software front. And I’m trying hard not to get suckered back into Hyrule Warriors – addiction is a horrible thing. But it’s been just a long, long-winded waiting game, patiently hoping against all hope that somehow, some day, in some way, Nintendo will drop a game and suddenly the whole point of the Gamepad would come alive, and we’d all wonder how we ever lived without it.
And in all honesty, that day does appear to be arriving on the horizon. It’s just a shame that day is likely to be when the Switch drops, and we’re all taking our games with us.
So thank you, Wii U. And you too, Wii U Gamepad.
Now, with the greatest of respect… sod off.