This could have been Nintendo’s year — should have been Nintendo’s year.
And in a sense, it was Nintendo’s year, though it took some doing to get here. No one was supposed to buy the company’s shiny aqua-blue or whatchamacallit-black 3DS when it arrived back in February 2011 with a clamshell thud. Handheld gaming was doomed, proclaimed analysts like smug armchair oracles. Who’d want a bulky plastic pocket-brick that played games and games alone when they could play on their slender all-in-one smartphone — a device on which games exist in a kind of superabundant app-store-verse and typically sell for a buck or less?
When 3DS sales tanked in those early months — before Nintendo wised up, dropped the price and rolled out games people wanted to play — it looked like all the prognosticating pundits might prove right.
But the 3DS in 2013 is Nintendo’s comeback story: not a Virtual Boy after all, and finally living up to its namesake (and what a namesake: the DS family’s on the verge of knocking Sony’s PlayStation 2 from its all-time bestselling perch). The reason why’s no head-scratcher: ”Software drives hardware,” said Nintendo America president and COO Reggie Fils-Aime in a recent Forbes interview. Obvious, but it bears repeating as early adopters pour money into shiny new platforms based on promises and hypotheticals.
By contrast, the 3DS is signed, sealed and delivered heading into the holiday, with the strongest lineup of any game device — smartphone, tablet or otherwise. That, I’d wager, is what’s behind its sales momentum — from Animal Crossing: New Leaf to Pokemon X & Y to Zelda: A Link Between Worlds — helping the 3DS close on 40 million units sold worldwide.
The Wii U doesn’t have quite as many run-out-and-buy games as we kick off its second year, but its best and brightest in 2013 make the competition’s next-gen roster look a little like the bullets Hugo Weaving fires at Keanu Reeves during the Matrix‘s denouement. That, and the system’s 2014 lineup isn’t messing around, with exclusives I wouldn’t miss for a game console 10 times as powerful. This is why, if I had to choose between the PS4, Wii U and Xbox One today, no question about it…
I’d pick the Wii U.
Because it has the games you want to play now.
There is no Super Mario 3D World on the Xbox One or PlayStation 4, nor a LEGO City Undercover, nor a Zelda: Wind Waker HD, nor a Pikmin 3, nor a Wonderful 101. Not even close. Sony and Microsoft’s first-party games aren’t bad, but stuff like Ryse: Son of Rome and Killzone: Shadow Fall are more about showmanship and visual razzle-dazzle than drawing you in with superlative, memorable gameplay. That, and most of the third-party launch games are available on the older systems; the only must-buy for me — Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag — is on the Wii U, too.
There’s an argument for Forza Motorsport 5, to be fair (it’s an Xbox One exclusive), but it’s a racing game, and if you don’t really, really dig sim-style racing games, it’s no reason to spend $560 on a game system, and it certainly doesn’t have the all-play appeal of a Super Mario 3D World or Zelda: Wind Waker HD.
nd it’ll have the games you want to play next year.
I’m generalizing here, because maybe you’ve really, truly been on tenterhooks for years just to play inFamous: Second Son on the PS4, or to dive into yet another massively online first-person shooter like Titanfall on the Xbox One. But 2014′s shaping up to be a banner year for the Wii U: Bayonetta 2, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze, Mario Kart 8, Super Smash Bros. U and the game I most want to play on any platform after 2012′s Xenoblade Chronicles — Monolith’s X.
That’s just the confirmed-for-2014 stuff. There’s Yarn Yoshi, Shin Megami Tensei X Fire Emblem, perhaps an English port of Dragon Quest X, to say nothing of potential announcements Nintendo’s saving for next year, say new blood in the Zelda, Metroid or Super Mario Galaxy vein.
The Wii U GamePad is a portable console.
Mind you, there’s no killer second-screen app yet — not Nintendo Land, not Wii Party U — that makes the whole tablet-gaming thing feel as revolutionary as the thumbstick on the Nintendo 64 controller or the Wii Remote and Nunchuk in their day, but that’s not why you’ll appreciate Nintendo’s gamepad/tablet. This is: playing Wii U games without your TV.
The Wii U GamePad’s screen is 6.2 inches diagonal, more than an inch larger than the PS Vita’s, and when it comes to ergonomics — in particular the GamePad’s proper full-sized thumbsticks — the GamePad smokes Sony’s handheld. Yes, you have to be pretty much in the same room as the Wii U for GamePad-play to work properly, but I use the feature enough at this point (with a burgeoning family invading my game space) that not having the option to snap off and step away from the TV feels regressive and even prohibitive at this point.
It’s just $300 — $100 less than the PS4 and $200 less than the Xbox One.
“Thanks, math genius.” (You’re welcome.) But in seriousness, $100-$200 equals a bunch of games, or accessories, or annual subscription fees to services like Netflix and Hulu Plus. Price differentials talk, and I suspect this one’s going to say plenty to parents looking to fill Christmas quotas. For what you’d pay just to own the barebones versions of Microsoft’s and Sony’s systems, you could have a tricked out Wii U, games and all. There’s no reason you can’t pick up a PS4 or Xbox One down the road, so why spend all your money on promises and potential that Nintendo’s already made good on?
There’s no annual subscription fee.
The total cost to own a PlayStation 4? Games and accessories aside, you’re looking at $400 for the system plus $50 a year to access essential services like online multiplayer. Microsoft’s Xbox One is pricier still: $500 for the system, plus $60 a year for the same. Nintendo charges nothing for its online ecosystem, making its total cost of ownership $300, full stop. $50-$60 doesn’t sound like much, but this stuff adds up (factor in what you’re paying for Netflix or Hulu Plus or Amazon Prime subs). Also, for $50-$60, you could buy a game that might yield 20, 30, 40 or more hours of play.
It’s high-def enough.
Wii U games generally output at 720p, or 1280-by-720 pixels. That’s the resolution a preponderance of people’s flat-screens run natively in 2013, which means having a console that can output at 1080p (1920-by-1080 pixels) for these folks is pointless. Even if you have a 1080p set, the Wii U’s games look fantastic upscaled (just like the Xbox One’s, many of which also run at 720p). Assuming you’re not a mindless, slavering graphics wonk, you’d probably agree that artful games trump visually muscular ones, bar none. Which would you rather play: a superlative new Zelda at 720p, or another military/aliens/post-apocalyptic-themed shooter in another near-future/dystopian/sci-fi setting where the story parses like the Cliffs Notes version of a Michael Bay movie at 1080p?
[Update: 720p isn't a hard limit, and yes, I realize a handful of Wii U games output at 1080p today; I meant 720p is where you're going to see most titles land.]
Wii U games are cheaper on balance.
Not in all instances, and you’ll still pay $60 for premium titles like Super Mario 3D World, but the Wii U has the most non-indie sub-$60 games today, from New Super Luigi U and The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD to LEGO City: Undercover, Nintendo Land and Wii Party U. In other words, you’ll spend less on Wii U games overall than you would buying non-indie PS4 or Xbox One titles.
Nintendo has the Virtual Console and Wii backward-compatiblity. Sony and Microsoft have nada.
The PS4 plays PS4 games and the Xbox One plays Xbox One games — that’s it at launch. The Wii U? Wii U games of course, but also the entire Wii library (over 1,000 and counting), as well as NES and Super NES classics via the Virtual Console, from Super Metroid to F-Zero and Earthbound to Super Mario Bros. 3.
Yes, Sony’s promised streaming game support in 2014 to fold in backward compatibility, but the service has some pretty serious caveats: visual artifacts and total picture degradation if your Internet connection wavers, plus you have to be online, by definition, to play.
It has a decent indie lineup, too.
If you’re an indie fan, the Wii U’s ready to dish: Cloudberry Kingdom, Trine 2: Director’s Cut, Nano Assault Neo, The Cave, Bit.Trip Presents Runner2: Future Legend of Rhythm Alien, Little Inferno, Mutant Mudds Deluxe and TNT Racers – Nitro Machines Edition. And in August, Nintendo America business honcho Dan Adelman said to look for two dozen or more indie games on the system’s e-shelves before year’s end.
It’s more than just a game system.
Most consoles are nowadays, but the Wii U has a few unique tricks up its sleeve: You can use the Wii U GamePad as a TV remote or scan information about programs (or sports events, updated in real time) while they’re playing on your TV screen. You can also use the GamePad as a portable TV of sorts, watching programs on it while someone else is using the television.
That said, Nintendo still has plenty of work to do.
Like dropping the system price again.
I don’t know what Nintendo’s making or losing on each Wii U sold, and I’m guessing Reggie Fils-Aime might call me nuts (or badly confused), but $200 sounds about right to really turn the Wii U’s sales trickle into a landslide. Pull Nintendo Land out of the box if you have to, or create a $250 bundle with Super Mario 3D World as the pack-in. But $300 feels steep for a Nintendo console. I don’t want to be that annoying know-it-all price pundit (who doesn’t know anything, really, sitting outside Nintendo’s walled garden), but put it this way: We’d be having a very different conversation about the Wii today had Nintendo opted instead to roll it out at $350 back in 2006.
And it needs a killer Zelda or Metroid or new Nintendo IP we haven’t seen before, ASAP.
Remind us why you’re Nintendo, Nintendo. Work your magic. Show us what your next Zelda or Metroid looks like because those are beloved evergreen franchises, then show us what next-gen gaming’s really about (which is to say so much more than this facile obsession with graphics and horsepower).
And it needs more third-party games.
Can Nintendo subsist on Nintendo first-party games alone? Sure…you know, if Nintendo clones its top developers times a thousand and somehow churns out top-tier games every 12 months. Barring this, Nintendo needs more third-party standouts. I don’t mean third-party ports of Xbox One or PS4 games, because those systems are too different, architecturally, and Nintendo doesn’t need any “bottom-end version” stigma. I’m talking great third-party exclusives, like LEGO City Undercover or The Wonderful 101. Stuff no one else has. More of that, please.