Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Similarities between the launches of the Wii and Wii U

When the Wii launched, it sold out immediately, with supply struggling to meet demand. The Wii U also got off to a great start when it launched in late 2012, and it was sold out at a number of retailers for weeks. While sales of the new console have dropped significantly, there are a lot of similarities between the two launches. From consumer attitudes to launch games, there are a many parallels. Let's take a look.

Critics: This will be Nintendo's last console

While many people look back and see the dominance of the Wii as inevitable, success was anything but guaranteed for the console. When the first screenshots of Wii games appeared, the term "last-gen" was thrown around a lot, and Wii Sports in particular was mocked by many. A number of industry insiders, analysts, and members of the media believed it was going to be a failure, criticizing its unorthodox controller and comparatively weak graphical prowess. Just one week before launch, a writer for a major gaming site said that Nintendo had gone "insane in an attempt to become the iPod of gaming."

When screenshots of this game appeared, critics thought Nintendo had gone insane.

With the Wii U, once again we are seeing critics from all walks of life who are focusing on the console's non-traditional controller and "last-gen" tech specs. And yes, there are more than a few industry veterans, analysts, and members of the media who say they believe it will be Nintendo's last console, in addition to a multitude of everyday gamers as well.

The Legend of Zelda: HD Experience
Not even this HD Zelda tech demo was enough to convince critics.

Unimpressive Tech Specs

Samus in Metroid Prime 3: Corruption
As Retro Studios demonstrated, the Wii was capable of great visuals, but they paled in comparison to what Microsoft and Sony's consoles were capable of.

When the Wii launched, it was a generation behind the Xbox 360 and PS3 in terms of processing power, and aside from the Wii Remote, there wasn't anything impressive about it. Many gamers questioned if it was even as powerful as Microsoft's first home console. Even after the system had been out for a year and developers had become more familiar with the hardware, they seemed to have differing opinions themselves. Here's what Tim Tschirner, producer of FIFA 08had to say about the Wii:

It's about as powerful as the original Xbox. The video hardware unfortunately is not as powerful. There's just a couple of key things that you can do on Xbox like shaders which you just cannot do on the Wii. It's unfortunate in the sense that for a lot of things we can actually use some of the current-gen code, and other solutions that already exist in the building, where people have already come up with, for example, a shader for the pitch; we kind of have to re-implement this now, but can't use shaders and have to find a different way to make it work. Overall though it's pretty much what the original Xbox was.

While other developers might have contested claims that the Wii was weaker than the first Xbox, Tschirner was not alone in his assessment, and critics said it "wasn't a true next-gen console." Regardless of which system is stronger, no one can deny that Nintendo's system was not in the same league as its HD competitors.

With the Wii U, we are seeing the same debate play out once again. Some developers are questioning whether the Wii U is even as powerful as Microsoft and Sony's current-gen systems, and their comments about the console's capabilities also echo those that were said about Nintendo's last console. As a result, we are hearing the same claims that were made about its predecessor, such as "it's not a true next-gen console," "it's too expensive for the specs," and naturally, "it's doomed." And yet, the fact of the matter is that tech specs alone don't make or break a console. If they did, the Wii would have been a complete failure.

Nintendo launches both systems with a mini-game compilation

When the Wii launched, a copy of Wii Sports, the system's killer app, was bundled with every console (except in Japan). The pack-in title was a mini-game compilation that consisted of little more than glorified tech demos with very simplistic graphics. Fortunately, they were all pretty good and undeniably fun. It seemed like everyone and their parents (and grandparents) wanted in on the action. Each mini-game showed off, in brilliant fashion, the capabilities of the Wii Remote's motion-sensing capabilities. It was the perfect launch game.

With the Wii U, Nintendo once again has a console with an unorthodox controller: the GamePad. And just as they did last generation, they put together a mini-game compilation for the system's launch: Nintendo Land. Like Wii Sports, Nintendo Land is meant to demonstrate the capabilities of a high-tech controller via  glorified tech demos, and the reviews have been overwhelmingly positive. While it's not bundled with the Basic model of the console, most consumers are opting for the Deluxe Set, so it is serving a very similar purpose to Wii Sports.

Nintendo releases a full-fledged first-party title from one of their flagship series

In addition to Wii Sports, there was another launch game that was irresistible to Wii owners: The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. In terms of sales, the Zelda franchise is second only to Mario when it comes to Nintendo's IPs, and Twilight Princess was a solid entry in the series. It was perfect for Nintendo fans who wanted something more than mini-games, and helped satisfy their hunger for months to come.

With the Wii U, the Big N has once again launched a system with a first-party title rooted in a classic series: New Super Mario Bros. U. Like Twilight Princess, it is an entry in one of the Big N's flagship franchises which follows a tried-and-true model which players love. Sales of the game have already surpassed the 2 million mark, and the figure will continue to rise as the months and years go by.

And now, let's move on to third-party games...

Ubisoft delivers a hyped "hardcore" wildly mixed reviews

Box art for Wii game Red Steel

In the months before the Wii launch, Ubisoft was one of the most vocal supporters of Nintendo's new console, and their "hardcore" shooter Red Steel was intended to showcase the unique capabilities of the Wii Remote. The hype was incredible. Footage of gamers using the motion-sensing controller as a sword and gun was shown frequently by the media, and the title was featured in promotional videos at seemingly every opportunity to drive home the fact that such an experience was only possible with the Big N's system.

Player shooting at enemies in Red Steel
As they said, "You can even shoot gangsta style!"

However, when critics finally got their hands on Red Steel, they had extremely different views about its quality. Some proclaimed it to be the "most immersive" first-person shooter they'd ever played, while many others said that aside from the novel control scheme, it was just about the most generic thing they'd played in years. The range of scores on Metacritic must be seen to be believed.

Using GamePad to play Wii U game ZombiU

With the Wii U, Ubisoft once again took on the role of lead cheerleader, praising the console at seemingly every chance they had. And just as before, their aim was to deliver a "hardcore" launch title, and the end result was ZombiU. The survival-horror title played a similar role to Red Steel in that it was meant to demonstrate the capabilities of yet another non-traditional controller and was featured prominently in marketing material. Gamers eagerly awaited to hear what critics had to say about the Nintendo console exclusive.

Ubisoft got pretty creative when it came to the GamePad.

As with Ubisoft's previous "hardcore" launch title, the reviews were all over the place. As you can see on the game's Metacritic page, some critics proclaim it to be the perfect showpiece for the platform, while others think it's pretty much a waste of time. It's worth noting that ZombiU has had a much better reception than Red Steel, but even so, the parallels are striking. We're talking about two very divisive games from the same company which served a similar function for their respective platforms.

Ubisoft delivers a Rabbids game

Box art for video games Rayman Raving Rabbids and Rabbids Land

This is hardly worth mentioning, but it is kind of interesting that Ubisoft released a Rabbids launch title for both of Nintendo's systems. Both games are mini-game compilations which are essentially glorified tech demos, but that it isn't necessarily a bad thing (see Wii Sports). Rayman Raving Rabbids was given solid marks when it launched alongside the Wii, while Rabbids Land has had a much colder reception.

Activision delivers a Call of Duty game at launch

Unimpressive graphics and weaker AI than the HD version, but with unique controls.

Call of Duty is considered by many to be the epitome of "hardcore," and Call of Duty 3 was quite a spectacle on the HD systems. Nintendo fans were pleased when a Wii version was announced, and Activision published a scaled-down version in time for launch. The standard def version retained the basic look and feel of the World War II shooter, but much was lost in translation (including DLC). However, the system's controller allowed for a control scheme that was not possible on the other systems, making it more accessible to gamers who have trouble with dual analog sticks.

Fallen turbine tower in Call of Duty: Black Ops 2
Almost identical to the other versions but with a few exclusive features, including Wii Remote and Nunchuk support.

With the Wii U, Activision delivered another Call of Duty at launch in the form of Black Ops 2. This time around, Nintendo fans got an almost identical version, although they have missed out on few things (such as  DLC). In spite of any shortcomings, it is still far more faithful to the source material than a Wii game could ever be. And like its predecessor, it boasts some unique features that the other versions don't, thanks to some very unique controllers. For one, it supports the Wii Remote and Nunchuk. And perhaps more importantly, it supports Off-TV Play, something that no other platform boasts. So once again, there is a trade-off for players to consider before making a purchase.

EA delivers a Madden game with unique gameplay

Screenshot of Wii version of Madden NFL 07 with list of controls on screen
Very unique controls in this one.

When a new console launches, a Madden game is a given. EA put together a Wii version of Madden NFL 07 which was completely unlike the others, making full use of the Wiimote. Naturally it ran on a different engine than the other platforms since the console was significantly weaker, but all things considered it was a solid football game that provided a refreshingly different experience.

Receiver catching football in Wii U version of Madden NFL 13
After years of waiting, Nintendo gamers finally have an HD football game.

As with the previous launch, EA gave Nintendo's new console its own version of Madden, and there are more similarities than meets the eye. The Wii U version of Madden NFL 13 is missing a few things, including the Infinity Engine which allows for more realistic physics, and a few game modes were left out as well. This time, the shortcomings were the result of time constraints rather than a lack of processing power, but the point is that it isn't quite up to par with the other versions from a technical standpoint, as was the case with the first Madden for the Wii.

Not up to par with the other platforms, but it has some unique features

However, like its Wii forerunner, it does have some content that makes it unique from the others, once again because of an unusual controller. The GamePad's touchscreen can be used to call plays, assign defenders to cover certain players, draw paths for receivers, and more. So once again, there is a trade off for players who opt to "go Nintendo."

Wii and Wii U launched with over 20 retail games

Plenty of games, but launch titles are always a mixed bag.

Nintendo's past two consoles had pretty good-sized launch title lists. The exact numbers vary depending on which part of the world you live in, but it looks as though both consoles had at least 20 games available on day one in every region. Respectable numbers for a new system, but we're talking quantity here, not quality.

History Repeating Itself?

In some ways, yes. In others, no. When the Wii was first revealed, it received a lukewarm reception and nobody knew what to make of it. The news that it was essentially a generation behind the competition in terms of processing power led to skepticism and outright ridicule, and the controller was also mocked as well. With the Wii U, we have seen a similar pattern.

The Wii was released in mid-November and was continuously sold out for roughly 2 years. The Wii U was also released in mid-November, and while it did sell out at many stores, sales pretty much slowed to a trickle once the New Year began.

While many gamers might think that the success of Nintendo's previous console was because of an abundance of quality software available at launch and in the months that immediately followed, that really wasn't the case. Most third-party games weren't all that great, and the Big N didn't release another first-party title until April the following year (Super Paper Mario, for those who are wondering)So why was the Wii such a hit? Mostly because of the mass appeal of Wii Sports, a game that perfectly illustrated what the console was about.

With the Wii U, people still don't really "get" it. Nintendo Land shows glimpses of what the system has to offer, but the game is certainly not a "killer app" and it's definitely no Wii Sports. Third-party games haven't been selling nearly as well as the first round of third-party Wii games, and while things are improving in many ways, some companies may decide to abandon the system. If that happens, Nintendo will once again have a console whose success will be determined primarily by first-party titles.

While third-party support may be a weakness that both consoles share, their digital stores are another story . WiiWare was plagued with issues, and indie developers were driven away by some questionable requirements and policies. The eShop, on the other hand, is shaping up to be a haven for independent game makers, and there are plenty on board with many more trying to get in on the action. If Nintendo can fully leverage their support while maintaining a good level of quality control, there should be no shortage of games to play.

There are a lot of questions about the long-term outlook of the Wii U, but one thing is certain: like its predecessor, it's path will be an interesting one to watch.

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