Two years into its life, the Nintendo Wii U has finally begun to gain some serious traction. Not too long ago, recommending the system to someone often came with a caveat: potential buyers had to consider their love towards selected first-party franchises. Now, as 2015 begins and games of the caliber of Xenoblade X and Star Fox appear on the horizon, the system begins to stretch its claws to gain ground on a number of different genres. Besides, considering its competitors have not been exactly stellar in terms of software releases either, the Wii U – backed by Nintendo’s almost failproof studios – rises as a viable option to all gamers.
As it still trails both Sony and Microsoft’s machines in terms of sales, it is hard to call it a financial or commercial success. However, as gamers, those two matters are of little to no importance when compared to the real defining factor for any console: games. And, as far as that field goes, the Wii U has indeed been a success.
It is, after all, a system that is currently the exclusive home of three of the best platformers in recent memory (Super Mario 3D World, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze, and New Super Mario Bros. U); one of the finest action games ever (Bayonetta 2); the best editions of two masterful multiplayer franchises (Mario Kart 8, and Super Smash Bros); one of Nintendo’s most creative games in years (Captain Toad: Treasure Trackers); a real-time strategy masterpiece (Pikmin 3); an inventive mini-game collection with high production values (Nintendo Land); a good Zelda spin-off (Hyrule Warriors); not to mention a set of solid third-party efforts (The Wonderful 101, Lego City Undercover, ZombiU).
Interestingly, though, as it begins to stand up with its predecessor in relation to quality software, it becomes ever more blatant that both the Wii and the Wii U took very distinct paths in the building of an alluring library. It is a fact all the more surprising when we consider both pieces of hardware were conceived in very similar manners: the two chose to be less powerful than their peers and opted to make unique control schemes their calling cards. Yet, while the Wii succeeded spectacularly because of the Wiimote, the Wii U has been achieving glory despite the Gamepad.
Three reasons were key in the Wiimote’s, and consequently the Wii’s, widespread popularity: accessibility, flexibility, and practicality. It was a simple joystick that did away with hordes of buttons and replaced some of them with intuitive movements or pointer commands, hence making its commands easier to grasp. At the same time, with the addition of the Nunchuck, it could become something closer to a standard controller in terms of buttons and functionalities. Such flexibility made it overwhelmingly practical, for it could be used creatively in a number of different games.
In shooters such as Metroid Prime 3: Corruption, its pointer would become a straightforward and engaging manner to aim, comparable to the smooth simplicity of the mouse-and-keyboard setup. In sports games like Tiger Woods 10, its movements would be useful in the creation of immersive and challenging mechanics. In party games, such as those birthed by the Raving Rabbids franchise, its motion capture would be the fuel to creative activities.
In sidescrollers, like Kirby’s Epic Yarn, its plain sideways stance would perfectly replicate a joystick from the 8 and 16-bit eras; by far the finest way to tackle games of the sort. In epic adventures, such as The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, its features could be used in a multitude of different ways. In racing games, its accelerometer would turn the controller into the perfect make-believe steering wheel.
Even for games in which its use was limited, like Super Mario Galaxy or Animal Crossing, some of its functionalities – mainly the pointer – would be useful in one way or another. The Wiimote was, by all means, absolutely brilliant in its design, for it served countless purposes and frequently powered ingenious concepts.
Meanwhile, the same cannot be stated about the Gamepad. Nintendo’s attempt to find new ways in which games can be played instead of simply engaging itself in the arms race propagated by Sony and Microsoft deserves loud applause, because it is a strategy that requires invention and imagination, and not mere technological brawn. However, it is unquestionable that the Gamepad has failed to live up to what the company expected of it.
It can be said that the Big N followed the same recipe they had utilized in order to popularize the Wiimote. The first obvious step was singing high praises towards the controller on E3 and following that up by showcasing a number of different demos build around the new scheme’s quirks. The second was releasing software that would serve as a blueprint of sorts for other developers to see what could be done with the new supposedly revolutionary product, which last generation appeared in the shape of Wii Sports, and came in the form of Nintendo Land for the Wii U.
As games, the two experiments were successful. However, only Wii Sports was able to ignite a spark. Nintendo Land was far better produced and packed much more value than its older brother, but it failed to capture lightning in a bottle. The game made wonderful use of the touch screen and crafted gorgeous displays of asymmetrical gameplay, but none of those features truly caught on.
The cause was not the game itself, though, but the fact the Gamepad sorely lacked the trifecta that sent the Wiimote to the stratosphere: accessibility, flexibility, and practicality. For inexperienced gamers, it might be more daunting than a traditional joystick due to its huge size; it does not have the various functions of the Wiimote; and the gameplay-related features it does carry are not that practical.
Therefore, a controller that demanded a grand investment in research and development, not to mention that it drove the price of the console up, did not add much to the package it was supposed to sell. Nintendo itself has not been able to find many clever uses for the device other than an easy-to-access map, and even a game that would have obviously benefited from the added screen, such as Mario Kart 8, where it could have allowed the support of 5-player local multiplayer, completely ignored that usage.
When it is all said and done, while the Wii’s list of best games is almost completely made up of titles that greatly benefited from its control scheme, most of the Wii U’s software highlights have achieved success by almost completely ignoring the new features of its input interface. And even though it is great to see the Wii U deliver a great stream of good games, it is disappointing to notice that – two years in – the Gamepad has been relegated from a potential source of invention to an expensive burden. Still, as the console has yet to reach the halfway point of its life cycle, there is still time to turn this ship around.