By most people’s reckoning — and ways a reckoning in this business can be determined — the Wii U has been a failure. Whether you look at its sales, the number of “classic” Nintendo titles it was home to or even just general brand awareness, it’s been a bust. But what do we know? We’re just stupid adults.
As the Switch’s release draws nearer and the curtain comes down on the Wii U’s short and troubled time in the market, I’ve been thinking of ways to send the machine off in a story like this. But I’ve been having trouble finding anything positive to say.
My experience with the Wii U has been, after all, almost non-existent. I played a couple of games for review and played a few more for fun, and really enjoyed those brief times, but for the most part the console has sat under my second TV gathering dust. I hated its squishy touchsceeen, the poor build quality of the controller and, most of all, the inexcusably long load times, especially on the menus.
That wasn’t going to make for a particularly enjoyable send-off for a Nintendo console. “Oh hey, goodbye, you thing I didn’t like that much and barely played”.
Just because the Wii U was an afterthought for me, though, doesn’t mean it went ignored by the rest of my household.
I have two kids. The youngest is my son, who is now almost four. Not long after his second birthday, he was growing aware enough to see that everyone else in the house was playing video games, and he wanted in on that action. My PC was strictly out of bounds, the PS4 and Xbox One were too complicated for his little hands, Android’s tablet interface wasn’t compatible with stubby fingers and my daughter’s 2DS was very much hers and nobody else’s.
Wanting to play games and unable to do so on most of the house’s main platforms, he started wandering out to the TV in the family room to play what he still to this day calls “The Big Nintendo” (the honour of “The Little Nintendo” going to what’s now a shared 2DS).
I was more than happy to let him play on it because a) I am cool with my kids playing video games, and b) it’s not like I was ever using the Wii U. And if anyone else wanted to use the TV it was plugged into, he could just use the controller’s screen. From my perspective, it was a pairing made of convenience, a blip on my parental radar.
From his perspective, it has been life-changing.
It’s not until I sat down with him for the first time to show him how to use the console that I realised how intuitive everything was compared to, well, pretty much anything else in the house that played games. The power button for the entire console was right there on the controller and it was red. Once the menu popped up on the screen he could touch it, just like a tablet, and it was pretty easy to show him how to “tap the moustache man” to start playing a game. It was all stuff he could easily remember then do on his own without help in the future.
I said “a game”, but I mean “the game”. Super Mario 3D World. It was one of the two Wii U titles I reviewed for this site. I’d loved it, but I've never been back to it. It was the first game he tapped on, and it’s been haunting him ever since. Seen again through my son’s eyes, Super Mario 3D World isn’t just a good video game, it’s the pinnacle of Nintendo’s constant drive for accessible and intuitive design.
It’s a relatively complex game for a kid that young! There’s a hub world, and collectibles, and you can swap between five characters, and there’s a story, and ghosts and high scores, and basically there’s a lot going on if you imagine the tiny little mind of a toddler. But, crucially, almost all of it is explained visually.
Where most games — and ironically, Japanese games are usually the worst culprits here — would over-explain with buttons and menus, SM3DW just gives you big bright buttons, faces and some simple icons then lets it all bleed together. It just makes sense. He learned how to play as easily as we all figured out that in the original Mario you just go right.
My daughter is six years old, and if she and my son ever want to play Disney Infinity on my PS4 it’s an ordeal of user profiles and text menus. Despite over a year of them constantly playing the game, I still need to set it up for them every time they play, then go back and help them navigate menus any time they want to change levels.
The Wii U? I just tell them to go get it and they’re off.
As I sat and watched my son play SM3DW the first few times, I could see him learning with each step, first how to walk, then jump, then some special moves. Then he explored other characters, learned about boss battles and how they were harder and different to every other bad guy. He could get through menus because they had big pictures on them, or were colour-coded in a way that even his formative lil’ brain could understand.
He started playing the game when he was around 2.5 years old, and he was quickly finding secret areas I’d never discovered in my own playthroughs. He finished it just after his third birthday. As he approaches his fourth birthday he is now a Nintendo fanboy, with a suite of nightmarish Mario Maker levels (another masterclass in intuitive interfaces) under his hat. He has loads of new games in his collection and a ton of Amiibo on his shelf (not to mention an obsession with other Nintendo merch).
There was only one request for a theme for his birthday party last year. Cake by my wife.
The more games he gets, though, and the more he branches out — he plays everything from Yoshi’s Wooly World to Minion Rush these days — he keeps coming back to Super Mario 3D World. He keeps digging around for new secrets, keeps trying out new characters in new places he’s never experienced before.
The weirdest thing about this state of affairs is that, despite my day job, I didn’t push him into it. I’ve never forced the company or its games on him, never made him play or buy anything. He grew into Nintendo organically, from simply picking up the household’s least-used console, and stumbling onto a game that was so good even a two year-old could play it.
When I see him wearing a Paper Mario shirt while playing Super Mario 3D Land on the 2DS I’m struck by the fact this is his first cultural crush, the first thing he’s ever really been into the same way I was into Transformers or Batman at his age. And how much that’s potentially going to mean to him going forwards with his life.
Our gaming genesis is one of the most important things that defines our entire experience with this medium. Whatever you first got into and grew up playing, whether it was Mega Man or Pokémon or Minecraft, it shapes your idea of what video games are and what you can expect them to be. It tends to remain a cultural touchstone in your life long after you’ve stopped playing it.
The Wii U, as irrelevant as it has been to me, is going to be that important to my son. He’s going to look back on it in 10, 20, 30 years and beyond and remember Super Mario 3D World the same way you or I may revere Super Mario Bros., or Metroid, or Civilization.
It’ll be his game, the experience he cut his teeth on, which he’ll talk about as his first real gaming memory, and which maybe shaped an obsession and helped define his tastes for a lifetime going forward. And the Wii U, with its convenience and weird design, which let him play games on it where otherwise he may have been left out, played a big part in that.
So as we all gather to mourn the Wii U’s imminent passing, I’ll join you as a grizzled, mean games writer in cataloguing Nintendo’s myriad missteps and miscalculations, because for me, in my grown-up professional opinion, the console has been an abject failure.
Yet despite all that, while others trade theirs in or retire them to closets, I’ll be keeping my Wii U around. Because my trash has become someone else’s treasure.