This past week, Nintendo finally lifted the veil on Wii U, first with its Nintendo Direct presentation on the system’s hardware capabilities, and then with a few launch window titles at its E3 press conference. For many Nintendophiles, including many here at the Dojo, there was a lot to like. The hardware looks promising, with its versatile tablet and much-appreciated leap into HD, and some of the launch window titles, including Batman Arkham City: Armored Edition, New Super Mario Bros. 2, Pikmin 3, are nothing short of intriguing.
All the pre-launch hoopla is great, but, as history has shown, the test of a system’s greatness lies elsewhere.
In April 2006, Nintendo made a surprise announcement regarding its forthcoming motion-controlling gaming system. The system known to that point as “Revolution” was now called “Wii,” and this disclosure brought howls of laughter (and more than a few crude jokes) from across the gaming universe. I recall watching one GameSpot video where one of the site’s editors paraded from cubicle to cubicle, prodding for reaction from professional gaming journalists and getting the usual guffawing over the oddball name. (Reggie Fils-Aime acknowledged the skepticism when he took the floor at Nintendo’s E3 2006 Press Conference and quipped: “We want to thank everyone who wrote good things about it the day you heard it– both of you.”)
But one of those GameSpot editors took a different tack. He acknowledged that name “Wii” was stupid but added that it doesn’t matter what the name was. “It’s about the games,” he said.
It’s about the games.
Names do not make a system. If that were true, I think the SEGA Nomad would be the most successful portable of all time, every home would contain a fully-stocked Phantom, and no one on earth would touch a “PlayStation” or a geometrically confused “Xbox 360.”
Nor does cutting edge innovation make a system. If that were true, such forward-thinking systems as the internet-enabled Dreamcast, the powerful 3DO, or the 3D experience of Virtual Boy would all be in the gaming hall of fame.
Sadly, even launch titles don’t, in and of themselves, make a system. Notwithstanding the promise of Nintendo’s current candidates, past consoles have never wanted for promising launch titles. Nintendo has actually had a decent track record in this regard, with the likes of Super Mario World (SNES), Super Mario 64 (Nintendo 64), Super Monkey Ball (GameCube), and The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess (Wii) among the better launch titles of all time. But for every great Mario launch title, there are ten other launch titles (Red Steel (Wii), Kameo:Elements of Power (360), Genji: Days of the Blade (PS3)) that get played once by early adopters and before promptly fading into oblivion. I would bet that most current PS3, Xbox 360, DS, or Wii owners haven’t touched or thought about a launch title in years.
(The absence of good launch titles doesn’t doom a system, either. DS’s best launch title was a port of a years-old Mario game, and somehow that system turned out alright.)
At the end of the day, the systems that are revered commercially and critically are the ones that can deliver good games throughout their life cycle. By “good games,” I don’t necessarily mean “beautiful games,” although good looks never hurt. Instead, good games are ones that enthrall a player and bring them back again and again. These are the classics that win players over on their virtues of winning gameplay, great atmosphere, and, in some cases, great story.
PlayStation 2 is one conspicuous example of this formula. When it was first released it was powerful enough that Saddam Hussein apparently tried to import them for military purposes, yet it would clearly end up as the least powerful system of its generation, behind Xbox and GameCube. That did not keep PS2 from cultivating the broadest and deepest gaming library of its day, if not the most beautiful.
Nintendo has also managed this playbook with great success. Game Boy didn’t hold a candle to Game Gear technically, but it had a far superior library. Nintendo DS could never duplicate PSP’s graphics, but the modest touch screen wonder brought arguably the greatest collection of hit titles ever developed on a portable.
In watching the impending release of Wii U, my biggest concern is that it will wind up less like those Nintendo portables and more like its immediate console predecessor. Wii has been one of the biggest gaming teases I’ve ever seen in my life The system sold in buckets largely on its promise, and while that promise was realized with a handful of awesome titles– Super Mario Galaxy (1 and 2), The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, Metroid Prime 3: Corruption, Super Smash Bros. Brawl, Xenoblade Chronicles— the gaps in quality titles faced by Wii owners was all-too-similar to the days of GameCube, especially in the context of the dry seasons both systems experienced in their last two years. That Wii owners nearly rioted for the campaign of Operation Rainfall is as much an indictment against Wii’s poor late-cycle library as it is the merits of the games in question. One could point a lot of fingers as to why Wii wound up that way, but one thing is clear– Wii has struggled to deliver the same kind of library of its current gen competitors or its portable counterpart, DS. (The jury on 3DS is still, at present, very much out.)
Unfortunately, no one can predict where Wii U will wind up in the annals of gaming history. Innovation and launch titles are not a clear predictor of system success one way or another; it will be a few years before we can begin to grasp the destiny of Nintendo’s new system. I can say this: Nintendo will deliver the first party goods– it always does– but how successfully Nintendo courts third party titles will define the system. This is a very old argument, given the relative dearth of third party support on GameCube and Wii, but that does not make it less true. We’ve seen this firsthand with PlayStation 3, a system seemingly imperiled in 2007 that has nevertheless clawed its way into respectability alongside Xbox 360. PS3’s success is partly in its Blu-ray capabilities and its more competitive price point, but Sony’s ability to bring Xbox 360 third party hits to multiplatform status on their system is a major, major driver of the console’s recent renaissance.
The question then remains: can Wii U finally cultivate the deep and broad library, especially at the third party level, that remained elusive for GameCube and Wii? Even as the dust settles on E3, that remains the biggest question for me.