If there’s one thing that Nintendo have become increasingly proficient at in recent times it’s apologising. Seemingly during every Nintendo Direct stream there’s a dignified shot of Iwata bowing and saying sorry for the slip of this or the delay of that. At first what was a very humbling sight is now so regular that I’d be shocked if it didn’t form the core of a Nintendo drinking game.
Last week, however, it wasn’t just his loyal fan base that he was having to eat humble pie in front of. During Nintendo’s quarterly policy and financial briefing he announced to investors that the Wii U, as feared, was dramatically underperforming. Expectations of selling nearly 10m consoles this financial year were slashed to a forecast nearer 3m, and it appears that such a drastic profits warning has caused one of gaming’s most noble of companies to take stock of their approach.
To them, that translates to focusing on what they have hitherto ignored: the gamepad.
Though there have been many issues with the Wii U since its launch, from the way it has been marketed to the dissipating third-party support, the most criminal to my mind has been the exasperating way Nintendo themselves have ignored the gamepad. It’s the unique feature of the system and yet – for reasons best known to themselves – successive flagship titles have shunned the extra screen, choosing to fill it only with maps or token buttons.
From the outset, pack-in Nintendoland showed its promise. From the tense hide-and-seek asymmetric multiplayer that was the Luigi’s Ghost Mansion to the frantic finger flicking and shuriken hurling of Ninja Castle it, much like Wii Sports before it, showcased just how the platform holder intended developers to embrace the system. And to their credit the likes of Zombi-U, Lego City: Undercover, and Rayman: Legends took full advantage of a second screen and offered early adopters a reason to feel buoyant.
Since those early, possibly naïve, days what has been astonishing is how flagrantly the platform’s first-party have ignored it. Nowhere was this truer than in Super Mario 3D World. It used to be that whenever a new Mario game came out it would be guaranteed to take full advantage of the hardware, but when all the sizeable touchscreen was used for was to release a spare mushroom it seemed shocking. Furthermore, the uninspiring use of it as simply a horn in Super Mario Kart only serves to signal that hardware and software groups were obviously not in agreement as to the potential of the hardware. You could argue that both franchises are sticking to tried and trusted principles in a period of financial strife, but If Nintendo aren’t going to step up, who are?
It’s probably too late to salvage anything interesting for the imminent Mario Kart and Donkey Kong – which bizarrely shows nothing at all on the gamepad, a new low in the Wii U’s short history – but there may be hope for Super Smash Bros. It is a little further out and may also benefit from having a 3DS companion game to draw inspiration from. Nintendo need to get their designers together, lock them in a room, and give us all a reason to have their tablet lurking behind the telly and not to dismiss it as a poor man’s Vita.
As it stands they have been shamed by another Japanese giant. In just a few short months Sony have already shown how a bonus display can be used. Whilst they’re still promising that old classic the “rear view mirror” tack-on for driving games, its use as a remote control is superb. The ease at which I can lie in bed racking up high-scores on Resogun and attempting the passing challenges of FIFA embarrasses the token remote play options on the Wii U that are not only selective but operate with far greater restrictions. Woe betide if there are too many walls/floors/doors in between you and the console. Admittedly the Vita has the advantage of being a dedicated gaming machine in its own right but when the two of them are sat next to each other the gamepad feels horribly cheap, in both intent and build quality.
There are parallels too with the Xbox One’s Kinect sensor; equally underutilised it is also currently a bone of contention. Though handy in shortcutting through the Metro interface and for controlling your Blu-rays as you clean out your rabbits, at present it causes gamers to wonder why they’re dropping an extra £80 on a peripheral that is yet to shine. For many that I know the mistakes of last year’s E3 are now distant memories and it is purely a cost barrier that is stopping them upgrading their 360. Thankfully good things are definitely around the corner for Kinect, with both dedicated Kinect games and those featuring hybrid controls, but it is questionable whether the same can be said for the gamepad.
However, where both the Kinect and the gamepad hold an advantage is that every single system sold will come bundled with one respectively. This may not seem like much of a plus but to a development team this is crucial. They’re looking to reach to sell as many units as possible and in doing so typically target the most sizeable install base – anything straying from the most prominent circle on the Venn diagram involves a cost that is less likely to be recouped. There are always exceptions, such as the dalliances with “Better with Kinect” and Sony’s own Move during the last generation, but for the most part you aim where there are fewest barriers to entry.
With both the Microsoft camera and Nintendo’s bonus tablet there are no barrier to entry. If you own that system then you own that peripheral and so each still have huge potential. When developing for either there is an assurance that writing a voice recognition system will not be wasted as everyone on Xbox One can use it, whilst that nifty dual-screen puzzle mechanic you have in mind will reach every player who picks up your Wii U release. Even at multiplatform studios it should allow the creative minds at studios to squeak with glee, assuming they can clear it with the bean-counters first. The same sadly can’t be said about the PlayStation 4 and the Vita, a contributing factor to the lack of rear-view mirrors.
In all cases it’s about focus. Microsoft have first-party developers dedicated to producing Kinect titles and have made integration of voice commands simple for any dev to pop in. Sony allows its remote play to operate at a system level, removing the need for any extra work. Both may have issues elsewhere in their fledgling systems but their hardware and its uses are at least consistent and dedicated. With Nintendo, sadly, there seems a lack of focus. With NFC Pokémon games, DS games on the Virtual Console, and an arbitrary remote play offering, it seems they are making their gamepad all things to all men. Except, that is, for the men (and women) that actually want to play something special on it.
The first step to resolving anything is admitting that you have a problem, and with Iwata now on the record it’s clear that Nintendo have acknowledged their shortcomings. I don’t expect immediate changes, though; most games are too large to suddenly drop in a revolutionary way to add legitimacy to such a device as a second screen and so it may be a while before we can see what changes are being rung.
Although if there’s one team I trust it’s Miyamoto and company. So whilst I may be knocking back the gin next time Iwata offers up his sincere regret about another delay, if it ultimately gives me a reason to charge up that slab of plastic, I’ll be ok with that.