As of September 30, Nintendo had shipped 3.91 million units of Wii U. In fact, the new hardware has been getting outsold by its predecessor, the now discontinued Wii, for much of the year. It is often said that the sooner a console reaches critical mass (typically pegged at 10 million units), the more likely it is to have longterm success. Nintendo are going into to their second holiday season with little hope of reaching that milestone.
While their 3DS system goes from strength to strength with a fantastic software line-up, the Wii U mirrors the first year of the company's handheld - a lack of must-buy titles and strong third-party support. Things need to change for Wii U not to become the worst selling Nintendo console of all time (Gamecube has that dubious honour for now).
Nintendo's message at E3 was that it was all about the games, and all about playing the games. But it is becoming painfully clear that Nintendo are being abandoned by third-parties at an alarming rate. That is, those third-parties who were on board to begin with. Third-party sales on Wii U have been abysmal, almost non-existant. Clearly the 4 million plus Wii U owners have bought the console in order to enjoy the latest Nintendo offerings. One of the major shortcomings of the console was the slump post-launch that saw very few games release in the subsequent six months. Delays to key Nintendo games as well as third-party offerings like Rayman Legends meant it was deathly quiet on the Wii U front for the first half of 2013. And even with a fairly strong line-up at E3 2013, Nintendo lost the shouting match to Microsoft and Sony.
The Launch and Fall
If you look at the launch it was a fairly strong one - Nintendo brought out a new 2D Mario game, and even with a bit of 2D Mario fatigue from multiple releases in recent years it did well. There was Nintendo Land, a series of mini-games highlighting features of the GamePad. Ubisoft brought out the exclusive Zombi U, which showcased how the GamePad's second screen could create unique gameplay mechanics.
In addition to this there was significant titles in major franchises such as Call of Duty: Black Ops 2, Assassin's Creed III, Mass Effect 3, Batman: Arkham City, and all the usual suspects in terms of FIFA 13, Skylanders Giants and Just Dance 4. Sure FIFA 13 may not have been a game EA Sports spent any extra time or effort on, and some other ports also proved underwhelming, but compared to many other launches this was a strong one all things considered. It sold out the initial shipment of 400,000 units in the United States, and a total of 890,000 units were sold before the end of 2013 over there.
But sales tapered off quickly. The approximate total of 57,000 units sold in the US during January was worse than any month for Wii, PS3 or Xbox 360 ever. By a wide margin.
Then came the big empty. It's hard to drum up enthusiasm for a system when absolutely no major titles appear to take up space in the media and in shops. Sure towards the end of March there was Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate and Lego City Undercover. Solid titles, but nothing to really grab our attention.
The summer months were better with Pikmin 3, New Super Luigi U and The Wonderful 101 appearing followed by Ubisoft's Splinter Cell: Blacklist and Rayman Legends. But now sales had almost completely stalled.
However, the fault cannot only be found with the lack of software. All things told, the first year of Wii U software isn't that bad. So what keeps gamers from jumping on board? Is the perception that the GamePad is nothing but a clunky piece of plastic for those who want their mini-map in their laps? Is it the fact that its predecessor Wii was dead in the water during the last couple of years prior to the Wii U launch? Has the lukewarm third-party support taken its toll (Activision, Warner and Ubisoft being the exceptions)? Perhaps the lack of interest in home consoles and heavy emphasis on handhelds in the home country of Japan had some effect on Nintendo's own output? Was the jump to HD graphics more taxing than expected on Nintendo's own dev teams?
It's clearly a combination of these factors, and some of these aren't easily fixed. Nintendo is currently battling the perception that Wii U is a dying console. Sure it may look impressive at first glance when Nintendo announce hardware sales jumped 685% during the launch week of The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD, and sales have improved following the release of the remade Gamecube classic, but any such numbers only help to illustrate just how dire sales were beforehand. When a major third party release like Splinter Cell: Blacklist simply doesn't move the needle on Wii U (sources suggest Wii U sales accounted for less than 2 percent of Blacklist sales) even with sparse competition, then what motivation is there for third parties to release even the quickest and dirtiest ports onto the system?
Is the Wii U capable of mounting a comeback? Yes, it is. The fat lady has yet to sing. Yesterday's release of Super Mario 3D World came on the back of lavish praise by critics and fans alike, and seemingly has spurred some quarters of the press to counter in the week of next-gen releases, the real victor - and only console worth considering this Christmas - is the Wii U. A huge turnaround from endless waves of, not even negative, but apathetic press in the twelve months previous.
But even one game cannot save a console. The Wii U needs more than a couple of things. It needs to reposition itself to compete with PS3 and Xbox 360 as a cheap (and more family oriented) alternative to the pricey next-gen consoles. It needs a couple of break-out hits that will attract a hardcore crowd willing to part with a couple of hundred quid for just a game or two they simply have to play (Super Smash Bros. 4 and Bayonetta 2 could be candidates). It also needs an X factor, something from left field. Something akin to Wii Sports, Wii Fit or Brain Training. Something new that will make a wider audience take notice. Surely what we've seen so far can't be the full extent of Nintendo's ideas for the GamePad. It also needs a Metroid, one of few Nintendo brands with a more mature appeal. Super Mario 3D World is a great start, and it needs to be followed up with quality.
12 Wii U titles in 12 months:
Business is one thing, but regardless of sales what ultimately decides the reputation of a console in the eyes of history is its line up of games - particularly exclusives. Here's our pick for the 12 most noteworthy Wii U releases in year one.
Nov 30, 2012: Nintendoland
The showcase game for the GamePad ranked as the most sold Wii U game as of September 30 (largely due to the fact that it was bundled in with consoles).
New Super Mario Bros. U
The New Super Mario Bros. series has been very successful for Nintendo. Adding co-operative play to the 2D formula was a stroke of genius. A very strong launch title.
Ubisoft's survival zombie title was one of the most talked about launch titles, but critically it fell a little short of the mark (77 on Metacritic). One of few more mature themed exclusives on the platforms it also makes good use of the unique GamePad.
March 22, 2013: Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate
Released both on Wii U and Nintendo 3DS, Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate did some good numbers in Japan, and with several delays it was one of few high profile releases on Wii U during the first quarter of 2013. Mediocre graphics and its relatively unknown status in Europe meant it never really took off over here.
March 28, 2013: Lego City Undercover
An exclusive from TT Games, this certainly lives up to the high standards of previous Lego titles, but perhaps Lego's own City license isn't as strong as Star Wars, Batman or Marvel. Nevertheless this is a game you should look into if you've got a Wii U.
July 26, 2013: Pikmin 3
Finally! One of the most eagerly awaited Wii U titles ultimately came out in July. Shigeru Miyamoto's garden inspired strategy game may never have been poised as a blockbuster, but it's certainly a game the hardcore had been waiting for.
August 23: The Wonderful 101
Platinum Games strange super hero title certainly has the makings of a cult classic. Unfortunately it's one of those games that could have done well with a larger install base as it may not have the impact required to drive hardware sales on its own.
August 30: Rayman Legends
Rayman Legends is a perfect illustration of the heartbreaking year Wii U has endured. Lacklustre hardware sales and horrendous third-party sales forced Ubisoft to delay a finished Wii U version of Rayman Legends to have its release coincide with other versions. Sure, Wii U owners got some added content and a couple of demos, but clearly Wii U could have used Rayman Legends in February.
October 4:The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD
Updated graphics and some tweaks to the original GameCube version meant that Wii U owners could enjoy a Zelda title within the first 12 months of the launch. It will have to do until the first proper Wii U Legend of Zelda title sees the light of day.
October 25: Deus Ex: Human Revolution Director's Cut
Originally announced just on Wii U, the Director's Cut of Deus Ex: Human Revolution also came out on other systems. It's a title that adds something different to Wii U's line up and is therefore appreciated, but Nintendo were cheated out of exclusively having the "definitive version" of the game.
November 1, 2013: Wii Fit U
One of the most important releases on Wii was Wii Fit. Adding the Balance Board and arriving at just the right time this game proved the perfect Trojan Horse with which to enter the family living room space. It's difficult to judge whether Wii Fit U is capable of something similar (likely not), but nonetheless it's a good addition to the line up.
November 29: Super Mario 3D World
It's hard to imagine a better way to celebrate one year of Wii U than with Super Mario 3D World. Simply a great and very innovative 3D title that builds on the concept in Super Mario 3D Land on Nintendo 3DS, but adds tons of new features and ideas including co-op for the first time in a 3D Mario.
What to look for in 2014:
Next year looks like a potential breakthrough year for the Wii U if software is the decider. Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze hits in February, with the Super Smash Bros. 4, Mario Kart 8 and Bayonetta 2 also in the pipeline. We wouldn't rule out the new Legend of Zelda towards the end of the year. Nintendo have also been making some intelligent moves in the indie space and e-Shop is starting to build a decent catalogue.
The big question is whether the third-parties will continue to drop off. So far Activision, Warner Bros and Ubisoft have been very supportive, but slow sales paired with an eagerness to jump on PS4 and Xbox One may spell problems for Nintendo. The fact that Warner Bros. announced their Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor LOTR tie-in for all formats, apart from Wii U, is an indication that they may also be moving away from the platform expect for games specifically targeted at a younger demographic.
It is often said that the sophomore year is the most difficult one, and Nintendo certainly has their work cut out for them. Strong holiday sales paired with a lowered price and continued limited supplies of PS4 and Xbox One would potentially open up an opportunity to get to that all important 10 million unit milestone ahead of Microsoft and Sony. That could be key to the longevity of the Wii U.