Wii wha - Why the Wii U will be the most confusing console in history

A year on from the official announcement, and no one’s any the wiser on the Wii U. Nintendo’s next console is a complete oddity in an otherwise predictable market, but is that necessarily a good thing? Probably not: Nintendo’s in danger of launching a huge flop, because nobody – including Nintendo themselves – knows what it is. Here’s why the Wii U is the most confusing thing in gaming…

Now before I start, a quick disclaimer: I have actually played the Nintendo Wii U. The circumstances under which I first played it, however, were really, really weird. Nintendo pulled me into a room backstage at E3 2011, a day before the (first) official announcement, to play what was then a bulky debug machine with no more than three game demos and this whopping great big tablet controller. And I wasn’t allowed to ask any questions.

I wasn’t allowed to ask anything, which was frustrating because the thing threw open so many obvious queries. What the hell is this? Is it actually a new console, or just an add-on? How powerful is it? How much will it be? Who’s it aimed at?

Thing is, I wasn’t the only person asking these questions, and a year on they’re still all being asked. I wrote yesterday about how Nintendo’s E3 showing this year was confusing because of how similar it was to the last, but that’s very much the theme here: confusion.

Simplicity sells

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If you cast your minds back to 2007… Actually, forget that: just look under your TV at that solemn white box all covered in dust. The Nintendo Wii. Nearly every human on Earth bought one (There’s one in every fourth household in the UK) because it was new, it was fresh, it was cheap and – crucially – it didn’t need explaining.

Pick up wand, wave it about – job’s a good’un. That sort of simplicity sold it. Your mum could play it. She probably did. Arguably it could only have been Nintendo that pulled off such an oddity, but it was the sheer idiot-proofness of it that made it work.

And that’s all been lost along the way, because the Wii U is not simple. Not by a long shot. The mainstream media don’t know what it is. I spoke to a Sky News reporter after the 2011 launch who thought that the new controller was just a peripheral for the current Wii. “Will Nintendo’s forthcoming Wii U controller breathe new life into its aging Wii console?” CNN asked only this month (before being corrected and self-editing that last word to “concept”).

Nintendo’s not been clear enough because it tends to think that everyone knows exactly what it means all of the time – a lesson it should have learnt after botching the marketing for the Nintendo 3DS to such an extent that people were buying 3DS games for old DS’. It forced a change of tact that brought about the heavy-handed strapline: “This is not DS, this is Nintendo 3DS.”

Who’s the market?

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But initial confusion aside, the wider problem facing the Nintendo Wii U is the question of who it’s for. A year on, that’s still not been adequately answered. Actually, it’s even less clear.

My thinking was always thus: with the Wii, Nintendo finally cut its weakening ties to the core gamers. It didn’t have dual joysticks or HD graphics, so it couldn’t run Call of Duty. Bang – out you go. It’s fine, though, because Mum can Zumba herself into an early grave and Granddad can play tennis like a young man again.

That was straightforward. The Wii U isn’t because it’s got all the movey-shakey motion control nonsense but also a full complement of gaming controls and better graphics. It’s capable of playing all the titles that more serious gamers want on the controller. So that’s good. Except then Nintendo goes and launches the Wii U Pro controller at E3 2012, which is essentially an Xbox 360 controller designed to help you play proper games.

Should Nintendo stop making hardware?

Erm. If that’s needed for that, then what’s wrong with the actual tablet controller? Maybe the Pro controller’s for multiplayer? That makes sense, given that Nintendo’s just announced that using two proper Wii U controllers together will half the framerate to 30fps. For those unsure, you can get a similar experience to 30fps by standing near a road, closing your eyes and not opening them until you’re on the other side.

If you’re going to hamper the gameplay, why bother making it possible at all? Probably because everyone moaned in 2011 that they wouldn’t be able to. It feels like Nintendo’s buckling to people’s demands on this, making tweaks but only because it seems like a good idea at the time, and ending up with something that the company itself doesn’t know any more about than the developers or the would-be consumers.

The point here is that nobody knows. It’s a box full of tricks, but there are too many tricks for anyone to master.

I’m ready for Nintendo to prove me wrong on this. I want it to, because when all’s said and done no one really dislikes Nintendo – it takes a certain amount of craziness and bravery to do what it’s doing.

I just have a gut feeling that we’re too close to launch to be at this stage, where the only vibe I’m getting from anyone I speak to about the Wii U is confusion. Confusion and worry.

More on E3 2012:

– Nintendo at E3: A review
– Microsoft at E3: A review
– Sony at E3: A review

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