“We’ve heard you.”
Those were the first words out of Nintendo of America, President Reggie Fils-Aime’s mouth when he took the stage at Nintendo’s media event during E3 2011. After an orchestral opening with famed developer Shigeru Miyamoto, who was there to discuss the various ways the company would be celebrating the 25th anniversary of The Legend of Zelda, it was easy to understand what those words meant. Although financially blowing away the competition by capturing the hearts of casual game players worldwide and delivering a solid line-up of first party experiences, the system ended up disappointing the “core” audience due to the lack of third party support. Unlike Sony’s straightforward apology for PSN’s security troubles at the start of their presentation, Nintendo wasn’t admitting any sort of defeat, they were just saying they received the pleas and were ready to respond.
Without even getting to the new hardware, they did just that. A showcase of four new first party titles for Nintendo 3DS, including fan-friendly title Luigi’s Mansion 2, would turn any doubter into a believer. There was even more to show beyond the stage, including Animal Crossing 3DS and Paper Mario 3DS. It seemed that Nintendo was making good on their commitment to please everyone. Kid Icarus was back, Luigi’s Mansion was back – what more could you ask for? Well, as any Nintendo fan would tell you, a lot, but it’s hard to complain too much after that line-up. Soon after was the big reveal: a new home console called Wii U that combines the Wii experience with the graphical capabilities and standard controller layout of the other consoles, opening the door to easier third party support, plus the added bonus of a large touch screen on the controller to really set it apart.
How they chose to showcase the hardware was, well, extremely confusing. Their initial demo reel showed games that looked like they belong on a Wii Play compilation, albeit a high-res one, most with Mii-centric style graphics. Videos of families waving around this new controller in front of their TVs, setting it on the ground to simulate the placement of a golf ball, and using it to play games while their TV was off, worried me more than impressed. It seemed like this was just going to be more gimmick than gold. Meanwhile, hidden in the background of all these scenes was a box that looked similar to a Wii, if you were keen enough to notice it.
Ohohoho, it’s so pretty. And confirmed for Wii U, according to Kotaku.
Then came Zelda. A gorgeous, HD Zelda, with the controller’s screen bringing up exactly what I had imagined when this idea started floating around as a rumor months ago: an inventory screen and map. Out loud, to nobody, I said “yes, this is it, that’s exactly what I wanted out of this.” After a lengthy explanation of a LEGO title that drew little excitement (sorry, Reggie, but those high sales for LEGO games aren’t from brick fans, it was from the Star Wars crowd) the third parties were shown off along with a tech demo of what kind of graphics the hardware could produce. It looked great, and the titles that showed up on the list were a nice confirmation that, yes, you can make “real” games for this system. You no longer needed a complimentary console with a Wii, the Wii U was all that in one. Nintendo made that clear, but there were still a few mysteries.
This is where things start to get weird.
Nintendo is a proud company, as are most Japan-based organizations, be it in the games industry or not. A prime example of this was when President Satoru Iwata gave his talk at GDC and discussed the “de-valuing” of games. He didn’t believe in the $1 experience that cell phones have brought us. That’s why you’ll never see something like a classic-style top-down Zelda game with 8- or 16-bit sprites sold on the eShop for, say, $15. Nintendo is too proud for that, they would feel that it would de-value the franchise, even though it would probably sell like mad. When games journalists scream at the words “Super Smash Bros.” during a press conference with not even a title card in sight, you know an idea like that will work.
My question is, if they’re so proud, why are they hiding so many positive features of the Wii U?
Immediately after Nintendo’s event, Reggie gave a live interview to GameTrailer’s Geoff Keighley. Reggie was questioned about what kind of hardware was in the Wii U. He wouldn’t answer. “It’s just a box,” he kept saying, touting the experience and the controller. Fair enough, the controller is obviously unique. While it seems to be on par with the competition regarding graphics, what sets it apart is the controller. A few hours later it was revealed by IBM that their chips are powering the Wii U, in fact it’s the same technology that powered Watson, the supercomputer that cleaned up on Jeopardy. I’m not in PR or marketing, but this is something you may want to mention to people. While I’m well aware that all the E3 media events are done for not just enthusiast press, but main stream publications as well, if you tell the folks at USA Today “this is powered by the same thing that powered Watson,” they’re going to understand, and they’ll be impressed. That’s not technical talk at all, that’s clear, human language. It gets the point across: this is a powerful machine.
Nintendo seemed much more interested in discussing connectivity at the E3 conference than solid facts. To some, it was reminiscent of the Pac-Man Vs. fiasco of E3 2003.
During the same interview, Reggie was asked about the type of media that it would play. Again, he wouldn’t say, and again, just a few hours later, it was revealed that the Wii U would use a 25 GB proprietary disc format. Again, this is very impressive, and is information easily conveyed to any audience. Bigger than a DVD, the same size as a Blu-Ray disc. People get that. Why wouldn’t you want to mention something like that?
Going beyond the hardware, one of the most shocking things revealed near the end of E3 was from THQ, publishers of Darksiders II, telling Eurogamer that they spent over a month prior to E3 creating a playable demo of the game for Wii U. Nintendo refused to show it. They wanted to make “the experience” the forefront of their presentation, and not show “full games.” Aren’t games the experience? Not only that, instead of taking footage from this version, Nintendo still showed clips from another console’s version during their press event. The only two demos actually showing some really impressive graphics powered by the Wii U were the Zelda demo and the bird demo, the latter of which Nintendo refuses to reveal the creator of, reluctantly admitting the Zelda demo, a quite impressive display, was done by their own teams in Japan, proving that Nintendo is ready for the HD generation. They just don’t want to admit it for some reason.
Nintendo has always shown, to put it gently, confusing behavior. You never know what they’re going to do. I completely understand not wanting to bog down a press conference with tech specs, and not talking about aspects that aren’t finalized is totally reasonable as well. If, for example, you don’t want to discuss how much or what kind of storage you’re going to use because that’s not finalized yet, fine, say that, however hiding solid facts, especially when they’re quite impressive, is detrimental to your business. In fact, Nintendo’s stock dropped after the Wii U reveal, and continued to do so in the days following as no more information was revealed. Mainstream press was confused if this was a new console or just an accessory for the Wii since hardware wasn’t discussed, let alone shown, something Iwata admitted later was a mistake. After E3 was over, the total drop was nearing 10 percent. There is plenty Nintendo could have said about the hardware, as most components have to be finalized since, according to investment firm Wedbush’s Michael Pachter on the May 26th Giant Bombcast, Foxconn is going to start production of the console in October.
This is the Wii U’s revolutionary controller but it’s one of the few things we know about the console.
This isn’t the end of the story, of course, in fact we’re far from it, but we may have had a little teaser as to what’s to come, thanks to a few other sources. The first clue came from N’Gai Croal’s game industry consultant group Hit Detection who had learned Wii U development kits that were out in the wild, such as the one used to create the Nintendo-rejected Darksiders II demo, were actually underclocked, leading to graphical power that “only” matched the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, rather than exceeding it. Along with that, Eurogamer was told by Sega Europe that the “next generation” of Wii U prototypes will reach developers by June or July. Add this to Game Watch’s info that the Wii U is sporting a newer (but not newest) AMD graphics chip that exceeds the power of the competition, and it’s easy to start seeing a clearer picture of what could be going on here: Nintendo is purposely hiding the power of the Wii U. As PC Gamer questioned, why would would Nintendo do this?
Nintendo is in an awkward position where they’re getting what could end up being a hefty jump start on the next generation of consoles, and revealing too much about what its insides consist of could push Microsoft and Sony to change their own hardware plans. They’ll also end up being awkwardly placed between two generations, which means they need to make their hardware more powerful than the other consoles so they can keep up, but not too powerful where third parties would have difficulty porting their current games over.
As sure as there will be a Mario game for Wii U, there will be questions about the console up until its launch sometime next year. Until then, all we can do is speculate and watch the slow trickle of information that comes out, but just like analog sticks, rumble, dual screens, touch screens, and motion control, we should give Nintendo the benefit of the doubt, even if it seems like their methods are crazy.