Two years ago today (November 18th, 2012), the Wii U launched in North America. People had been clamoring for an "HD Wii" for years, but the tablet-centric console ended up being a major source of confusion for early consumers. Was it a new console? A peripheral for the Wii? A portable tablet device? Would the games play on an original Wii? Fast forward to today, and the system has found some of its footing, but it's still in strange spot on its second birthday.
But, first, let's go back to the start of things. The Wii U was announced back in 2011 and unveiled at E3 2011. The opening video, while containing some exciting ideas (a good number of which have since been realized), really didn't show much of the console. It showed the GamePad, a controller/tablet hybrid, front-and-center. Really, this is a logical approach—who cares what the box looks like?—but it muddled the message that this was, in fact, a totally new console. And, as the PS4/Xbox One reveal events showed us, people really care what the box looks like, even if that's a little silly.
And then the name: Wii U. The idea was that the tablet offered a very "you"-centric experience, so it was "we" plus "you." Wii U. Terrible name. It's easy to imagine that potentially different fate of the console if they had just used "Wii 2." At one point in early 2013, when the console was still young and relatively unknown, I thought they might make a switch, but I'm certain that ship has sailed.
Market confusion aside, Nintendo moved toward the release date with regular updates on the launch games and the launch features. I remember the day they announced that GameStop would be taking pre-orders in a Nintendo Direct event; I went to my local GameStop that night to reserve a console. It turned out I would hardly have needed the reservation, as demand was FAR below the original Wii, but I was nevertheless excited to get my launch day console. Obligatory Instagram pic below.
It's always exciting to bring a new console home, but the Wii U's notoriously-huge day one patch certainly delayed the fun a bit. It seemed that many key features of the console simply weren't ready when production and packaging needed to happen, so it was definitely a necessity. Still, it was an early taste of what is now a far more common phenomenon with consoles and games.
Still, this lasted a few hours.
It was actually such a big deal that Nintendo of America even recommended via Twitter that folks purchasing a Wii U as a gift might want to unpack it, update it, and repack it before tucking it under the tree.
But once the patches and updates were done, the Wii U made for a good deal of fun.
The console offered a unique take on social media with Miiverse, a game-focused social experience that let players draw, type, comment, and include screenshots in communities for their favorite games. To this day, it's one of the most unique features of the system (despite now also being on 3DS), and is absolutely entertaining all on its own.
From the moment the system boots up to the Wara Wara Plaza (a collection of Mii avatars huddled around the top trending games on Miiverse, complete with comments popping up automatically), everything felt wonderfully "Nintendo" (except for the initially very low menu load times). Even the eShop, the system's digital storefront, has regularly-different music and all sorts of fantastic Nintendo touches.
I initially only had Nintendo Land, the pack-in game for the deluxe console that offered twelve different "attractions" focused on Nintendo's wide range of characters and worlds set in a virtual amusement park. I still maintain that Mario Chase, one of the attraction that pits four Toad players with Wii remotes and four-way split on the TV against one Mario player with the GamePad, is an absolute system-seller that will be a hit at any party. It's the sort of gameplay feels more like a board game than a video game, and I think it's still worth anyone's time if they own the system.
Other launch window standouts include:
- Zombi U, a unique take on the survival horror genre that leveraged the GamePad in many excellent ways, including real-time "backpack" (inventory) management on the second screen while you frantically kept an eye on the un-paused action still happening on the TV screen.
- New Super Mario Bros. U, a smart and beautiful take on the "2D" style of platforming from everyone's favorite plumber.
- Assassin's Creed III, which wasn't really different from the other versions except that it let you play the whole game in off-screen mode on the GamePad. Getting to explore colonial Boston from the comfort of my bed was pretty awesome.
It's true that the subsequent months (really, most of 2013) felt unusually barren for the console, and any hype that surrounded the launch and holiday season quickly dissipated with pundits and industry analysts eventually starting to suggest that maybe Nintendo had lost its touch with home consoles and should get out of the proverbial "game" (pun intended).
Steadily, though, amid stories that Ubisoft was "sitting on" finished-but-unreleased Wii U games and that EA was simply done making Wii U games for time being, Nintendo kept releasing more and more fantastic software for the system: Super Mario 3D World, Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze, The Wonderful 101, Pikmin 3, The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker HD, Mario Kart 8, and Bayonetta 2 (which is currently tied for the highest-rated game of the year at IGN). Oh, and Super Smash Bros. for Wii U is due out soon with eight-player matches.
So, yeah, Nintendo has been bringing it.
There's been other good stuff in the past two years, too: Nintendo's released many updates to the system's operating system that have sped up load times, added features, and streamlined interfaces, the web browser continues to be surprisingly competent/usable, and the indie scene on the eShop continues to flourish. In fact, the whole console is surprisingly adept at being a digital-era machine, with Super Smash Bros. for Wii U even marking Nintendo's first foray into the world of pre-loading digital games. I have a 1 TB hard drive for the console and actively try to avoid getting physical games for it anymore.
So, we're two years out, and the system that everyone discounted is still kicking. Sales are up quite a bit, albeit not where Nintendo might like them, but there's momentum building around the holiday and the impending release of Smash. And, if you took a look at the libraries for all three current-gen systems, the Wii U's library pretty handily trounces either the PS4 or Xbox One's at this point, even if there's not parity with regard to a lot of the third party content missing on Nintendo's console.
Even if it hasn't had the easiest road, the Wii U continues to be a fascinating experiment and, frankly, a really fun console to own. So let's put its troubles aside, celebrate its victories, and raise a glass to the Wii U. Cheers!