Thought Bubble: The Wii U and the Trouble with Triple-A

Wii U Hardware shot black

The Wii U has finally arrived. Now that the first reviews are trickling in, we want to explore what the first crop of games tell us about the Wii U’s potential as a hardcore and mainstream gaming platform.

Let’s start with the basics.

If we’re talking pure performance, the Wii U is graphically and mechanically a worthy rival to the competition. The console is capable of modern triple-A gaming and titles designed for the PS3 or Xbox 360 should be functional as ports on the Wii U. For Nintendo fans, that concession to diversity is long overdue. Despite its early (and overwhelming) success, the Wii has essentially been relegated to also-ran status as “that box that plays Zelda games.”

Unfortunately, what the Wii U can do isn’t nearly as intriguing as what Wii U will do. Despite the stellar pre-sales, I find myself dwelling on the Dreamcast. Sega’s swan song of a console was one of the most powerful gaming machines of its era, but it still would up on the historical scrapheap because it never fully resonated with any particular audience.


I hate to say it, but I fear Nintendo may be headed for a similar fate. Two decades ago, other studios were lining up to develop exclusive titles for the SNES and the N64. The past few years, meanwhile, have coincided with an almost shocking dearth of outside support for the Wii. Hardcore developers – here, very loosely defined as makers of shooters, Skyrim, and Madden – don’t believe they can sell shooters, Skyrim, and Madden to the Wii’s existing base, so they’ve abandoned the console to families and Wii Sports, perpetuating a ‘casual’ stigma that drives triple-A development farther away.

Nintendo is looking to break that cycle, positioning the Wii U as a destination platform for hardcore gamers, the sort of system you simply have to have if you want to play all of the best games.

To that end, it’s assembled a launch lineup that includes the likes of ZombiU and Bayonetta 2, enticing early offerings that mark a radical break from the family-friendliness of the Wii. Will Nintendo’s recommitment to M-rated content help it recapture the imaginations of everyone lining up for Halo 4 and Black Ops 2?

Personally, I have my doubts.


I say that after playing through the E3 demo of ZombiU, the Ubisoft game that began life as Killer Freaks from Outer Space. In the wake of the Wii Fit era, Nintendo could hardly ask for a better triple-A showcase. There are zombies, decapitations, blood splatters, and guns, all wrapped up in a refreshingly ordinary first-person package. Throw in a few genuine “Holy crap” moments – as in, scares that literally made me jump and say “Holy crap!” – and there’s a lot to like.


What’s interesting is that ZombiU – as currently designed – could only exist on the Wii U, primarily because so many of the gameplay features rely on the unique hardware features of the console. Your inventory, for instance, is mapped to the touchscreen embedded in the controller, forcing you to engage with a physical storage object in order to access items in a virtual backpack. It’s not as cumbersome as a real backpack in a real survival situation, but it’s as close as you’re likely to get unless you’re willing to strap on a virtual reality helmet and 50 pounds of ammunition.

That’s a point in the Wii U’s favor. Like the DS, the Wii U introduces mechanics that have the potential to improve triple-A gaming in ways that would be palatable to hardcore gamers. ZombiU is undeniably creative in its use of hardware, amplifying the survival horror tension without resorting to overly cheap gimmicks or lazy design. I would expect other studios to be equally creative. You don’t have to be Shigeru Miyamoto come up with sensible mechanics that utilize the technology.

The problem is that your standard FPS still plays better on an Xbox. And yes, that’s kind of a big deal.


If Nintendo is serious about winning back the triple-A gamer, it’s not enough to be competent. It has to be better than the competition. Based on first impressions, the Wii U represents a massive improvement over the Wii that still falls short of current standards. Cool touchscreen aside, the controller is clunky and cumbersome, awkward to hold and difficult to navigate with opposable thumbs. Given the choice, I’d much rather play games with a more traditional Xbox or PlayStation controller than something resembling last year’s iPad.

That’s why the Wii U’s limitations nonetheless position Nintendo as ‘the other system.’ The best Wii U games – like ZombiU – have been (and will be) designed exclusively for the hardware. Developers will consequently have to choose whether to build primarily for the Xbox 360/PS3 combo or the Wii U, and if that sounds familiar, it’s exactly the situation we’re in now. Studios like Rockstar and Activision commission Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty for a Microsoft and Sony audience, and if Nintendo does get its own edition, it’s usually an inferior port put together after the preliminary work has been done.

That won’t change unless third-party developers are willing to commit the resources necessary to take primary advantage of the Wii U. The ports will get better, but Call of Duty fans will still play Black Ops 2 on their Xbox 360s or PS3s, and as long as triple-A gamers buy triple-A games for other consoles first, the Wii U remains relegated to “that box that plays Zelda games.”

Despite my earlier invocation of the spectre of the Dreamcast, I don’t think Nintendo is headed for anything so cataclysmic. The Wii U introduces more practical innovations than its predecessor and Nintendo has had an additional 15 years to cultivate an even more fanatical and devoted audience.


Wii U Tablet on Mario Bros U

Even so, it’s worth remembering that developers won’t support you just because you’re there. Gamers will ultimately go wherever the good games are, so if Nintendo can bolster the Wii U with a steady stream of exclusive quality titles (i.e., more than two), it’ll have little trouble winning over even the most ardent hardcore fanboys. However, if the Wii U doesn’t deliver a reliable triple-A audience, don’t be surprised if major studios abandon the platform in search of greener hardcore pastures.

So what about the rest of the Wii U’s target ‘everyone’ demographic?

If you’ll recall, the Wii achieved such massive success because Nintendo managed to sell consoles to people who otherwise never purchased consoles (i.e. your grandparents), and it’d obviously like to hold onto that casual market moving forward. That’s why Nintendo’s early advertising is selling an all-in-one home entertainment hub, with features like TVii and touchscreen gaming that position the Wii U as a console for everyone. Is the Wii U destined to become as big an international phenomenon as the Wii?

You’re not going to believe this, but I’m rather pessimistic.


I honestly don’t mean to be. Like many adult gamers, I grew up with Nintendo and count many of their games – including several recent ones – amongst my all-time favorites. But my opinion is that the Wii U won’t catch on with casual audiences (or at least, it won’t catch on to the same extent as the Wii).

See, the original Wii was transcendent because it took a complex idea and make it universally appealing with a breathtakingly simple application of technology. If you watched one commercial, you immediately knew what differentiated the Wii from the competition. Even people who knew nothing about traditional home consoles could grasp the concept of motion controls. Non-gamers didn’t have to get processors or graphics cards or any of the other gaming nonsense that so often deters the uninitiated.


It was also completely novel, a sci-fi gizmo that would not have seemed out of place in Back to the Future. From a marketing perspective, that’s essential. It’s how Apple sells millions of smartphones and tablets and that’s what Nintendo is going for with the Wii U. They want people to see New Super Mario Bros. U on the touchscreen in a controller and get the sense that we’re living in the future.

Sorry, I don’t see that strategy working twice. Nintendo isn’t trying to convince people to buy a new console — it’s trying to convince people to buy a second console.

Let’s face it. Your grandparents haven’t become hardcore gamers. Not everyone who bought a Wii is going to buy a Wii U, and I don’t think the new stuff is sexy enough to win over the casual mainstream.

Near as I can tell, TVii is basically a social media platform for television, but anyone with a smartphone during an episode of Game of Thrones knows we’ve already fused television and Twitter. Throw in the program tracking features that come standard with DVR and Netflix, and the TVii improvements are incremental at best.

The first crop of games is similarly uninspiring. The party games make use of the same Wii Motion Pluses that Nintendo has been peddling for years, and while there are some effective uses of the touchscreen, Nintendo Land isn’t as splashy as Wii Sports was at the Wii’s initial launch. Consumers will have to get under the hood to appreciate the things the Wii U does well (and differently) from its predecessor, and the more research people have to do the less likely a product is to capture a fickle collective consciousness.

I’m not all doom and gloom. The ability to split the television screen without actually splitting the television screen is a genuinely brilliant innovation. Diverting the action from the TV to a touchscreen would have settled a lot of sibling arguments when I was growing up and parents are going to justifiably love the feature.

Then again, no one has ever doubted Nintendo’s pedigree as a purveyor of children’s entertainment. The Wii was always the most family-friendly of the major consoles and there’s no reason to suspect that will change as long as Mario is around.

In a way, that’s kind of the problem. The Wii U’s best feature will help entrench Nintendo as the primary choice for its existing audience, but it won’t necessarily help the Wii U branch out to audiences that might need convincing.

Which isn’t to say I’m predicting a Wii U flop. Far from it. Nintendo loyalists will always be there and you can sell a hell of a lot of consoles when you’re the box that plays Zelda (and Mario and Metroid) games. That alone should be enough to carry the Wii U to profitability.

I just don’t think the Wii U has the ‘it’ factor that made the Wii so seductive. If that’s the case, the Wii U will be a moderate hit instead of a smash, a platform that reestablishes Nintendo’s presence without overwhelming the broader public.