This article is an opinion piece written by Giancarlo Bellotto and does not necessarily reflect the thoughts of the entire Nintendo Enthusiast staff.
It’s no secret that the Wii U’s market performance did not go as planned by Nintendo. The system has and is going to have some fantastic games and no Nintendo fan has any reason to regret their purchase, but it’s pretty clear at this point that the system will be the worst selling of its generation and third party support is probably not going to improve. Coming off their best selling home console of all time and seeming to have great third party support before release, it is clear that many things went wrong with the Wii U. When what went wrong is discussed, the phrase “no one to blame but themselves” is guaranteed to be flung at Nintendo. While Nintendo is certainly the only one who can fix these things when they try again with NX, the fact is that Nintendo is not the only one to blame for Wii U’s underperformance. I’m certainly not going to claim that none of it was Nintendo’s fault, but there are factors that worked against Wii U that came from irresponsibility and incompetence on behalf of entities other than Nintendo.
There are two major areas where I think Nintendo was treated unfairly in ways that are not their fault, and the first is third party support. I understand that there are longstanding issues with the success of third party games on Nintendo consoles that make publishers reluctant to commit to them, but there are two major third party publishers that I feel hurt the Wii U quite a bit in ways that Nintendo can not be blamed for. The first one I’m going to cover is Ubisoft. With most of their late 2012 and 2013 multi-platform games on Wii U and two big exclusives announced for it at E3 2012, Ubisoft initially appeared to be one of the system’s biggest supporters. There is a single decision by Ubisoft that ruined this and made them a target for this article, and I think most of you know what it is.
Rayman Legends, one of the Wii U exclusive games from Ubisoft, was delayed for seven months just weeks from its planned release on Wii U, for the purpose of ensuring that the newly announced versions for other consoles were released at the same time. This was a huge slap in the face to Wii U owners, and made Wii U’s drought in the first half of 2013 much worse. Ubisoft made this decision because their other Wii U exclusive, Zombi U, did not sell as well as they hoped when it was released at the system’s launch. While this is often presented as evidence that Nintendo fans refuse to buy third party games (which is usually then blamed on Nintendo for not advertising them enough), there are factors this simplistic explanation overlooks.
First of all, Zombi U did not get great reviews, sitting in the 70s at Metacritic. Ubisoft also had the stigma of the original Red Steel working against them, another first person adult targeted Nintendo console launch game that was poorly received for reasons that only Ubisoft can be blamed for (releasing absurdly enhanced screenshots before the Wii’s graphical level was understood and promising a level of control precision that the original Wii Remote was incapable of). Rayman Legends was a better received and more anticipated game that still sold well on the Wii U when it was finally released, if it had been the only big Wii U game of quarter one 2013, both the game and system would likely have benefited quite a bit. Nintendo did not cause Zombi U’s problems (and in fact gave it quite a bit of attention at E3 2012), and certainly did not make the decision to delay Rayman Legends.
As for the other third party that greatly hurt Wii U, I think everyone knows who it is. Electronic Arts was listed as a major third party partner at the Wii U’s unveiling at E3 2011, and at some time between then and the system’s launch something behind the scenes clearly went disastrously wrong. It is impossible to prove what exactly happened between Nintendo and EA, but the fact is that EA acted in an unprofessionally vicious and spiteful manner towards the Wii U, to an extent that can only be described as sabotage. The two main games that demonstrate this are Mass Effect 3 and Crysis 3. Mass Effect 3: Special Edition was a launch game for the Wii U, a full-priced port of the early 2012 game with some of the DLC included. This would have been a solid release in other circumstances, but EA decided to release Mass Effect Trilogy for every other platform technically capable of running the game just weeks after (and announced well before) the Wii U version of Mass Effect 3. For $40. So Wii U was left with a more expensive version of one game compared to a three game compilation. It is difficult to view the timing of this as anything but spite.
Crysis 3 was never officially confirmed for Wii U, but its developer confirmed that a Wii U version was up and running in Spring 2012, when EA abruptly announced that they would not publish it. This is significant because the decision was made before Wii U was released or even had its proper unveiling at E3 2012, it shows that EA had turned on the system before the public had. Combined with their lackluster effort on the few Wii U games they released and needlessly inflammatory negative statements towards the system (saying that Wii U was not truly part of “Gen 4”, which seems to erase EA’s own history in the real third and fourth generations just to spite Nintendo by starting their generation count when Playstation was introduced), I don’t think it can reasonably be denied that EA wanted the system to fail.
The second area where I think the Wii U was treated unfairly is in media coverage, or to be more specific, double standards in how Wii U was treated compared to the other eighth generation consoles. This is going to be more difficult to give hard evidence for than the third party section, but I think there are some areas where it is pretty clear from observation that the Wii U was not treated fairly.
The first issue I’m going to address is a negative one, the post-launch drought. Wii U had a severe drought of games during the first half of 2013, and in many ways it never recovered from the stigma that was attached to it during the time period. I won’t deny that that was a bad time for the Wii U, but I feel the negative attention given to it was disproportionate compared to how the Playstation 4 and Xbox One were treated during arguably much worse post-launch droughts. While comparing exclusives would be unfair since Nintendo relies far more heavily on first party games, the drought of quality games that were not also on seventh generation systems for the PS4 and X1 is arguably just now showing signs of ending, more than a year and a half after their launches. The attitude towards Wii U was that Nintendo should be ashamed of themselves for the first half of 2013 and their HD development growing pains, yet when almost every publisher ran into the same issue making “true” eighth generation games it was brushed under the table.
Wii U’s problems weren’t the only area where double standards turned up. Remember E3 2013, when Sony announced that the Playstation 4 would be able to play used games without the DRM hurdles that Microsoft was planning for the Xbox One at the time, and was applauded? Or E3 2015, still fresh on everyone’s mind, when Microsoft was praised for announcing limited backwards compatibility that will be available nearly two years after their console was released? Well, Wii U launched with no anti-used game DRM and nearly perfect backwards compatibility with its predecessor. Seems kind of unfair that it got so little attention for having those things during the backlash against other systems not having them, doesn’t it? I’m not saying this was a malevolent act on behalf of the gaming media and community, when Wii U launched in 2012 no one knew that the other eighth gen consoles would lack backwards compatibility and one would try to limit used games. Malicious intent or not, however, the timing of these issues is something Nintendo had no control over that hurt the Wii U.
In conclusion, I would like to reiterate that I am not saying that every problem Wii U faced was the fault of a media or cosmic conspiracy. There are things Nintendo could and should have done differently, and with the possible exception of EA’s actions I don’t think the things I described in this article were done just to spite Nintendo. However, “no one to blame but themselves” is just as narrow and naïve a viewpoint as an anti-Nintendo conspiracy would be. A successful plan for NX to recover market share is going to require Nintendo to both fix their mistakes, and understand which things weren’t their fault and plan around them instead of assuming doing their best will automatically solve every problem. Nintendo can’t permanently secure first place just by listening to your demands (the desire to believe they can may be a factor in why some fans are so determined to think everything is Nintendo’s fault), but they and we can also hope for brighter circumstances next time, and the time after that if need be. As long as Nintendo’s developers make great games, there will always be a chance for heaven’s hands to deal better luck.