I didn’t do a poll or anything, but I suspect I’m the only person on the Ars staff who happily and unreservedly turned to the Wii U version of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild instead of jumping for a copy of the game and a brand new Nintendo Switch.
Although the game was originally developed as a Wii U game, it is clear that this version is being released almost as an afterthought. The Wii U version comes with the same content as the Switch version and the DLC will be available for both platforms, but the expensive Special and Master Editions are exclusive to Switch. Breath of the Wild will be a silent coda for Nintendo’s least successful home console since the company helped create the modern game industry in the 1980s. This is a system that Nintendo pretty much gave up before any concrete details about its successor were announced.
But somehow I think history will justify Wii U; at the very least, it should be considered a “good” failure like the Dreamcast rather than a “bad” failure like the Virtual Boy. It was and is a system worth paying attention to, it was just done by bad timing and messaging and a central gimmick that no one (including Nintendo) ever did. For real managed to find out.
From the jump, Nintendo’s coverage on the Wii U… wasn’t great. Start with the name, which to this day feels bad to say (really roll it in your mouth. “Wee You.” It sucks.). It’s not immediately clear if the “Wii U” is an improved version of the original, super popular Wii, if it’s something new, or if it’s just the tablet, or whatever. The console graphics upgrade was ultimately more important to the overall experience than the usually rudimentary tablet accessory, but the name didn’t convey that.
And let’s talk about that tablet. The few games that used it well (Mario Maker is the best example) were exceptions that made clear how badly the tablet was used in most games. It usually duplicated what you saw on the TV or offered some sort of map or inventory screen. Further, by the time the Wii U came out, the tablet’s hardware had already been made thick and cartoonish alongside Apple’s lineup of increasingly slicker iPads and an emerging class of inexpensive, high-quality Android tablets. It didn’t help that the Wii U stood still while tablets and phones around it were refreshed at least once a year. Shigeru Miyamoto himself pointed to the GamePad’s poor timing and execution as one reason why the Wii U couldn’t connect to consumers.
So Nintendo started with that unconvincing sales pitch and then added a completely predictable lack of third-party support. Third parties mainly released warmed-up versions of year-old Xbox 360 and PS3 games at launch, and those old games inevitably didn’t sell well. From there, third parties used low sales to justify staying away from the Wii U. It’s a perfect recipe for mass-market failure, even if you have a hardcore customer base that will buy whatever you put out.
If Nintendo had been able to build some top-notch momentum, the Wii U might have looked like the GameCube, but the company could never quite live up to that. The Wii U’s best selling punch was when I bought it, when the one-two-three punch from Super Mario 3D World, Mario Kart 8and the new one Smash Bros title combined to build some momentum for the console. splatoon and Mario Maker provided those new buyers with more stuff to play, but Nintendo’s first-party games couldn’t end up carrying just a release calendar. By the time the delayed Star Fox Zero game flopped in April 2016, any wave of momentum was gone, and Nintendo was already playing the Wii U offstage.
Why I will remember it well
One word: games.
The Wii U had no a lot games, but overall, the library offers a plethora of bright, fun platformers, entertaining party games, and just enough action games, RPGs, and weird experiments to keep things interesting (I’m not counting multi-platform indie games like Kick Knight or Virtual Console releases like earthbound, as they can be played elsewhere and it’s a mystery how long Nintendo will keep the Wii U version from the eShop once the Switch is up and running). The one thing this console really lacks is first-person shooters, but they abound on every other platform.
The crown jewel of the Wii U is probably Super Mario 3D Worldthat the Super Mario Galaxy the fast creativity of games and makes it really fun to play with multiple people (something that side scrolling) New Super Mario Bros games never were). It has tremendous replay value, and it’s by far the most fun I’ve had on the system.
But the list of solid platformers and platform puzzle games is still quite a bit longer than what you’ll get elsewhere. New Super Mario Bros U and the speedrun-focused Luigi U extensions are mostly forgettable, but still entertaining. I would put too Donkey Kong Land: Tropical Freeze and Yoshi’s woolly world on that list; the former is better if you are looking for a challenge and the latter is better if you want to relax and enjoy a cool art style. Both Pikmin 3 and Captain Toad’s Treasure Tracker are fun puzzle platformers that aren’t particularly adventurous, but still build nicely on previous games in their respective franchises. It’s almost more fun to sit with friends and play weird Super Mario Maker levels made by kids on the other side of the world than to create levels yourself.
On the action side are the two HD Zelda reissues may not be new, but I enjoyed the streamlined version of Wind Waker much more than the GameCube original, and the tablet’s second screen is really useful here. Bayonetta 2 follows the bizarre, over-the-top template of the original, even if the title character’s extreme objectification can make it harder to enjoy. ZombieU and The beautiful 101 received more mixed reviews than the platform’s best games, but according to most accounts, they’re at least worth a try. And if you’re looking for JRPGs, both Xenoblade Chronicles X and the strangely named Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE are solid adventures you can’t get anywhere else.
Even aside from the Wii U library, the thing can play a lot of games, including anything released for the original Wii. If you’re comfortable with a bit of hacking and ripping ISOs from your GameCube games, a nifty little program called Nintendont will even restore some sort of GameCube compatibility restore that Nintendo removed from Wii U’s Wii Mode. The Switch leaves behind three generations of games, with the exception of future Virtual Console releases (the jury is out on whether the Switch is powerful enough to emulate the GameCube or the original Wii, although it’s not completely ruled out given the state of emulators from third parties such as Dolphin on modern Android tablets).
The Wii U’s games stand a good chance of survival, given how obsessed Nintendo is with reliving its own history. a version of Mario Kart 8 is a Switch launch title, Splatoon 2 looks more like an expansion pack than a sequel, and if we don’t see more Wii U titles in the next few years to fill the gaps in the first batch’s launch calendar, I’ll be taking my Wii U apart and eating it. In this case, the reintroduction is a good thing. The Wii U games deserved more attention than they got, and they deserve a wider audience than the flawed Wii U could give them. Based on the initial reviews, Breath of the Wild is a fitting capstone to his legacy.