“He was a man, take him for all in all, I shall not look upon his like again.”
This is not a series about games you haven’t heard of. This is a series about games EVERYONE has heard of. Games that everyone has an opinion on, regardless of whether they’ve played them or not. Games whose actual qualities have been buried in a narrative, whether good or bad. Games that everyone always makes the exact same comments about. Games that are in desperate need of…a Second Opinion.
Last week, I put out a call for more positive requests, and I got something I honestly wasn’t expecting. YouTube user XenWarriorTheReal, who previously inspired our Symphony of the Night episode, suggested that we do a video on the Wii U and why it’s a much better console than most people give it credit for. And even though it’s a little out of our wheelhouse, I love the idea, so here it is: giving Nintendo’s “failure” of a console a topical Second Opinion.
Doom and gloom, doom and gloom! Seems like that’s all we’ve been hearing about for the past four years whenever anyone brings up Nintendo. The Wii U was a failure! Will Nintendo leave the console market forever? IS THIS THE END? Well, no, of course not. It wasn’t even a failure, really – sure, it didn’t do as well as the Wii (nothing did as well as the Wii financially) and it couldn’t compete with the other consoles in its generation, but this is Nintendo we’re talking about here. Nintendo has never tried to compete with its contemporaries, and what a lot of people here in the West talking about how badly the console failed forgot was that it actually did much better in Japan, the market Nintendo actually cares about. No, it still wasn’t Earth-shatteringly successful, but it certainly justified its own existence.
And it certainly doesn’t deserve to be remembered as a failure. A marketing failure, certainly – I still know people who think that “Wii U” was the name of the tablet, some kind of ancillary controller for the actual console. Nintendo is bad at names; I think the New Nintendo 3DS taught us that. But as a console? Well, I’ll just come out and say it – in my OPINION, the Wii U is still Nintendo’s best console, or at least one of the best, and before we totally bid it adieu, I’d like to give it some of the respect it always deserved and never received.
I mean, it’s certainly better than the Switch, at least so far. At least it wasn’t rushed out to appeal to stockholders with known issues like dead pixels and a universally laggy left JoyCon. At least its controller wasn’t a pain to use like the teeny-tiny JoyCons that are already becoming infamous for the fact that anyone with average or large fingers ends up hitting buttons they didn’t mean to push just ‘cause everything’s so crammed together. At least its pro controller didn’t feel like a necessary add-on, and at least said controller didn’t cost 110 dollars. At least it didn’t have a pay-to-play online mode that only lets you chat on a separate cell phone or tablet. At least its games didn’t cost extra, even on the eStore, because of the extra cost of making the cartridges, and at least it got rid of freaking friend codes.
“Oh, but it’s portable!” Oh, boy! Can’t wait to go play with my portable Switch! Let me just grab my console that’s way too big to fit in a pocket, my super expensive and bulky pro controller (cause Lord knows I’m not playing with the crappy JoyCons), and, if I want to play any games other than 1-2-Switch with anyone else, duplicates of both! Now I’m all set for two hours of fun before the pitiful battery dies, that is, so long as the game I want to play is actually available in portable mode, because it’s not guaranteed that they’re all going to be. Of course, as lousy as portable mode is, you’re still gonna end up using it, because games like Breath of the Wild have terrible framerate issues when you’re playing in docked mode, so essentially all portable mode is is Nintendo forcing you to play games on a smaller screen.
Sorry, positivity. Breathe in, breathe out. Say what you will about the Wii U, but at least it delivered on its promises. The tablet really was a great feature – being able to play while someone else was using the TV or while you were taking a bathroom break was surprisingly useful, and it was really great for splitscreen stuff when games actually took advantage of it. Being able to play on two separate screens while still using the same console was, and I mean this sincerely, inspired, and I’m sad that the perceived “failure” of the Wii U means we’ll probably never see that again. Now it’ll be actual splitscreen, which is annoying, or (more likely) just a move towards everything requiring multiple consoles a la the Switch.
Plus, the tablet was something Nintendo doesn’t do very often – a controller that actually just works like a controller. The analog sticks and buttons were in sane places like they would be on any other console, and it fit comfortably in your hands. Not like the wagglesticks. Or the sparsely-populated brick. Or the three-armed alien nightmare engine. Again, this is something that Nintendo seems to have decided to abandon in favor of smaller wagglesticks in a desperate attempt to capitalize on the giga-success of the Wii. And by the way, side note – who decided that motion controls were an okay thing again? Yes, the Wii U had them too, but not very often – mostly you just used the Wiimotes like controllers, and it looked like we were finally moving away from that garbage. But nope, not only are motion controls back for the Switch, but the PlayStation Move is apparently something we all have to get if we want to play the only Virtual Reality system that costs less than a small planet. The hell, games industry? Stop bringing back terrible ideas that everyone hated!
Sigh. It’s hard not to compare the two when that’s all the rest of the Internet is doing, but I swear this isn’t an article about the Switch. Let me tell you what I really liked about the Wii U: it was the perfect balance of Nintendo innovation and mainstream console ideology. The tablet was the perfect example of that – innovative, different, exciting, but without abandoning the fact that there’s pretty much only one way to make a controller that actually works with human fingers.
But it extended beyond that. Even though I said that Nintendo doesn’t try to compete with other console manufacturers, the Wii U kinda did, with a focus on graphical and technical fidelity that is very rare in Nintendo hardware. Sure, the PS4 and the Xbox One were both technically better, but the Wii U was able to hold its own in terms of looking good much better than the squishy blobs making up every Wii game. And as the Wii proved, graphics don’t really matter to most gamers – the Wii U was as graphically complex as any console in the last generation needed to be, without the bells and whistles that nobody but the most obsessive hardcore fans notice anyway (a moot point, since those obsessive graphics fans are all on PCs.) The vast majority of its library even ran in 60 FPS, something the PS4 is still trying to convince us isn’t important (it totally is.)
The Wii U, as I said, was a balancing act. Its online system was actually good, free, and didn’t require you to type in a 700-digit code to interact with other people online, but it also had the Miiverse – a brilliant social-media-like app that inspired an incredible amount of surreal and often beautiful artwork; the sort of weird, creativity-inspiring idea you wouldn’t see anywhere else (and won’t see ever again, apparently.) And if you didn’t like the Miiverse, great! You never had to use it.
And if a console’s only as good as its games, well. As many other people have already pointed out, the Wii U’s lack of mainstream popularity meant that the studios developing games for it (mostly Nintendo themselves) decided to focus less on making games that had widespread appeal and more on games that made a small group of people very happy – cult classics, stuff that appealed to Nintendo’s core fanbase, etc. So we got things like Hyrule Warriors, the best Dynasty Warriors game ever made. We got Splatoon, a competitive multiplayer shooter so unique, so original, and so easy to understand that it even got my girlfriend to look away from World of Warcraft for, I dunno, a month or so. We got stuff like Bayonetta 2 and the gorgeous Xenoblade Chronicles X and The Wonderful 101 and Pikmin 3 and that LEGO game that’s both a super fun GTA clone and a hilarious parody of GTA clones, which you should all get this time now that they’re remaking it for modern consoles. Not to mention the always-welcome return of Nintendo series staples like Smash 4 and New Super Mario Brothers U and Mario Kart 8 and oh, the greatness, the majesty that was Super Mario 3D World. And maybe you didn’t like all those games, but that’s the point – there was almost certainly something for you, and whatever that something was, it was polished until it shined.
That polish is something that’s becoming increasingly rare. I’m a game reviewer. It’s what I do. And I can tell you that based on my experience, unfinished games are becoming the norm. Technical issues, framerate problems – heck, Final Fantasy XV is even going to have patches that will drastically change the story, and that’s before games get cut up and sold piecemeal in DLC, Season Passes, pre-order bonuses, et al. The Wii U was the last console we’re gonna get that avoided most of that greediness – its games just worked, right out of the box, no having to download or install extra stuff from the online store. Few if any major releases had the sort of framerate issues and necessary patches that now plague even Breath of the Wild (which also had not only a lousy Season Pass but the gall to demand extra money for a difficulty setting.) Not to mention that it was the only console to have full backwards compatibility from day one.
Now? Now there’s no backwards compatibility, not even with the eShop or Virtual Console stuff. Oh, but if you pay to sign up for the Switch’s online service, you get…a single Virtual Console game. To rent. For a month.
Yes, all this stuff is standard practice now, and for some people it will be hard to fault Nintendo for doing the same things every other publisher is doing. But that’s why the Wii U stood above. It was the last bastion of classic console design in the modern age, blending Nintendo’s love of weird and “out there” ideas with good hardware, solid controller design, and features that just plain worked without any hassle or unnecessary expenditure. It had a game library that, sure, didn’t include every single third party brown military shooter or open world survival sandbox crafting simulator with zombies, but was full of diverse, idiosyncratic, genuinely great games that focused on appealing to core fans or specific groups of people rather than trying for homogenized widespread appeal. It stood with one foot in the past and one foot in the future and gave us the best of both worlds, and what did we give it in return? A million thinkpieces about how Nintendo was gonna become a mobile developer. And if there’s one thing we’ve learned in the past year, it’s that Nintendo should not become a mobile developer.
And yes, of course I’m getting a Switch. We’re all getting a Switch, because for all its problems it’s the only way we’ll be able to play the new Smash Bros. or Mario or whatever your favorite Nintendo franchise is. But that doesn’t mean I have to like it.