Sure, with The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild there’s one more high-profile game coming to Wii U. But Nintendo is also releasing the new Zelda for its upcoming new console, Nintendo Switch. And it’s not even promising that the game will be there for its March launch, just a vague “2017.” By the time Zelda finally ships, you may have already upgraded your console.
In fact, it’s unlikely that actual Wii U hardware will even be on shelves to purchase by the time Zelda is out. Nintendo has said it is ending the production of Wii U hardware in Japan, and that it will not ship any more Wii U consoles to U.S. retailers during this fiscal year, which ends on March 31, 2017. So if you go to your local store and you don’t see any Wii Us on shelves now, it’s very likely that you won’t ever see them again.
Thus ends a short, strange, and ultimately disappointing chapter in Nintendo’s history.
If you found Wii U’s concept—a controller with its own screen—strange when Nintendo announced it in 2011, that’s only because you hadn’t been paying attention. Nintendo has been chasing the second-screen concept since at least the late 1990s, when it first hooked up a Game Boy Color handheld to a Nintendo 64 console. It went all-in on this strategy with its GameCube console—anybody else remember playing Zelda: Four Swords and Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles with your Game Boy Advances hooked up to the GameCube?
Wii U was supposed to deliver this dual-screen gameplay without the onerous requirements of buying and assembling two machines and all the associated cablery. And it did! Only problem is, Nintendo still wasn’t quite sure what exactly it wanted to do with it. Wii U may have shared a name with its predecessor, but in many respects it was the anti-Wii; whereas the universal appeal of Wii was easily explained the moment you saw someone whack a tennis ball, Wii U was the most complicated game pitch ever: “Okay, so, I’m the ghost and I’m running around, and each of you guys has to look for me, but you can’t see me, so you have to tell everybody which color player you are and if you feel the controller vibrating that means the ghost, or me, is close, so…” and Mom has already set down the Wiimote and is now slowly backing away.
I wanted to be wowed by Wii U. (Hey, I really liked Crystal Chronicles.) I liked NintendoLand, the Wii U pack-in game that had a dozen different weird takes on dual-screen gameplay. I was all in for 5-6 years of weird-ass experimental games using two screens. Instead, it took Nintendo no time at all to abandon its initial “asymmetric gameplay” pitch and just push everything to “off-TV play,” allowing you to play games entirely on the GamePad screen, without monopolizing the TV. This turned out to be very convenient, although it meant the games weren’t any different from what you could have played with a standard controller.
Ultimately, Nintendo was blindsided by the explosion of the tablet market. Had iPad and its ilk not gotten so much traction (and gotten so damn cheap so damn fast) it’s possible that Wii U’s tablet-style approach to personalized game screens might have found a niche to fill. Instead, it just didn’t fit in anywhere, and Nintendo didn’t succeed with any consumer group that it went after. Its play to get hardcore gamers back into the Nintendo fold was a non-starter, even though it got most major third parties like Electronic Arts, Activision, Warner, and Ubisoft to port their games like Mass Effect and Batman to Wii U. But on the other side, kids and families were happy with their mobile devices. And I still can’t believe it took Nintendo three years before it had Minecraft.
In trying to please too many groups, Wii U ended up as a machine for nobody, and that’s who it sold to: at less than 14 million units, Wii U is the company’s lowest-selling game console, and it’s not even a close race (the next-highest, GameCube, sold nearly 23 million).
This is not to say that Wii U was an unmitigated disaster. There were mitigations. Yes, some of the dual-screen implementations made the games noticeably worse (sorry, Star Fox), but that’s not the case with Super Mario Maker, which simply wouldn’t have been possible without the marriage of a touchscreen and a television. And Nintendo did pull off something it hasn’t done in a long time on Wii U—introduce a brand-new game franchise that becomes very popular, namely Splatoon. Of course, Splatoon could have happened on any platform; it didn’t need the Wii U’s weirdness to be fun.
And that’s true of too many of Wii U’s titles. Who needed the GamePad for Bayonetta 2? For Mario 3D Land? Pikmin 3? Wii U leaves behind a small library of excellent Nintendo software—but what Nintendo platform hasn’t? I believe the rumors that many Wii U games will be ported to Switch, if only because not enough people have gotten to experience them, but also because the GamePad second-screen functionality is ultimately inessential to their enjoyment.
The Nintendo Switch seems to have been designed entirely to address the failings of Wii U. It has a second screen, but the machine itself is in the portable unit, meaning you can take it anywhere. It’s based on Nvidia’s well-known mobile architecture, which should make it much easier for developers to port their content to it. And dare I dream it might actually be relatively inexpensive? Only by trying what’s always worked and totally whiffing was Nintendo able to break free from its old ways and develop a radically different home system. And if the Switch is a huge success, would it all have been worth it?
But for now, it’s weird uncharted territory for Nintendo, one in which it’s barely even promoting its home game machine over a holiday season because there are no new games to talk about and they wouldn’t sell very many of them anyway. Credit to Nintendo for knowing when to jump ship and for effectively managing the decline of Wii U, and doing what it needs to do to get Switch into the marketplace fairly quickly—when Switch hits shelves, Wii U will be just a little bit past its 4th birthday. For any other platform, we might say it was gone too soon, but in Wii U’s case, I think everyone including Nintendo will be happy to bid it a swift farewell.