By Sayem Ahmed
Communication problems during its announcement, low sales and poor third-party support did for the Wii U: after initially denying the rumours that production was ending, Nintendo last week confirmed it. This was a cruel end for a console that, despite its problems, had real magic - much of it thanks to the oft-maligned gamepad and Nintendo’s excellent firstparty support. Original is a word thrown around too easily these days but, if it means things we’d never seen before, then Wii U earns it.
Take Miiverse, a strange quasi-social network that brings players together and flavours the console’s OS. Simply a space where people can chat about games they’re playing, Miiverse quickly took on the form of a kid-friendly social network - a safe space to talk about favourites and swap tips, without resorting going to the depths of the internet. Certain communities like Funky Barn developed notoriety for their random posts, while others are strange niches full of detailed art, life stories, and tributes to odd gaming behaviour. Take a peek into any popular game on Miiverse, and you’ll see it from many new angles.
Big Wii U exclusives like Super Mario Maker and Super Smash Bros. have Miiverse integration built-in. Super Mario Maker’s comments almost evoke the asynchronous messaging systems that we see in other games, where you can warn other players of oncoming danger or just leave messages of frustration that can be read gleefully by the level’s creator. Super Smash Bros integrates Miiverse within a stage, which people often use as a platform for sharing artwork that they’ve created. Miiverse isn’t just about socialisation, but became an outlet for creativity and in some cases came to feel like a core part of the game.
The whole point with Miiverse, though, is that it permeates everything: after turning Wii U on, you’re greeted by the Mii Plaza, which puts up Miiverse posts from friends on the homescreen. This type of social integration from the moment you turn on is a great touch and, while Miis might not be unique to Wii U, the small cartoon caricatures felt more at home here than ever before: games like Mario Kart 8 integrated them seamlessly, meaning your friends’ Miis will appear in-game with no fanfare.
Sometimes it has unusual impact. Following the death of a close family member earlier in the year, switching on Mario Kart 8 to entertain the kids ended up being more surprising than anyone expected - as our loved one’s Mii appeared on-screen with a gleeful smile, ready to race. This fleeting moment was oddly comforting. No matter how silly it seems, there was his Mii able-bodied and delighted to play. Memories are one thing, but making a Mario Kart rivalry eternal is quite another feeling.
The Gamepad is Wii U’s unique feature. Something of an heir to the DS and 3DS, Nintendo’s second screen experience helped inspire games you don’t see anywhere else, across first-party, third-party and even independent titles.
Affordable Space adventures has you carefully monitoring your ship as you navigate through an alien world. Through the gamepad you have to maintain temperatures, configure your landing gear and exhausts - all the while navigating your ship through space. In Super Mario 3D World the Gamepad is used to raise blocks, asks the player to blow into the mic to shift platforms, and is used to look around levels for those elusive green stars.
Even simple uses could benefit from the nature of a dual-screen setup. Launch title ZombiU put the player’s backpack inventory on the gamepad, meaning that to use items you had to take your eye off the screen for a moment - a scary prospect when surrounded by brain-hungry zombies. Xenoblade Chronicles X has you linking up and placing different mining platforms across the map, with the gamepad’s display easing the resource-searching, while doubling up as a handheld ‘guidebook’ to that massive world. Even the most minor feature, like the mic, helped cross-platform titles like Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate feel more ‘complete’ because you were able to party up and chat to friends hassle-free, one of the few things that felt missing in MH4U and MHG.
met a muted reaction as Wii U’s standard pack-in title, but with hindsight demonstrates all of the console’s key features - and often excels while doing so. Essentially it’s a minigame compilation where each is dedicated to using the gamepad in a fresh way. In Mario Chase, player-controlled Toads chase a Mii dressed up as Mario. Taking its cue from Shigeru Miyamoto’s Pac-Man Vs. for Gamecube, the Toads chase Mario in splitscreen on the TV screen, each one having vision only of what they can see, while Mario is controlled on the gamepad and has a more complete picture of the arena. The elements of this hide-and-seek game seem simple but, through using the gamepad to limit the Toads’ information, is transformed into an endlessly replayable multiplayer mode.
Miiverse and Gamepad distinguished Wii U and, while the first will survive in some form, it feels like the second screen’s possibilities will remain one of the industry’s unexplored paths. That’s no criticism of Wii U’s games library, which while small has a remarkably high hit rate - owners could rightly complain that there wasn’t all that much to buy for it, especially in the last year or so, but we could hardly grumble about the quality of what was there.
Wii U was, in the end, a humbling experience for Nintendo. Perhaps it could never have set the world alight, inasmuch as the concept wasn’t fully fleshed-out: if the gamepad had been a little more independent of the console, a little more powerful, then who knows. As Wii U production ends, of course, we anticipate Switch: another console with an unusual form factor, another adherent to the idea of unusual play experiences rather than business as usual.
Switch would do well to learn from what Wii U got right. From interacting with communities through Miiverse, the convenience of playing games while the TV was in use, or dipping back into Nintendo’s rich history with Virtual Console, many of Wii U’s best moments came when it worked in a way that none of the competition could. Soon Wii U will be gone but, as with anything original, the experiences and happiness it delivered will linger long in the minds of those who gave it a chance.