It’s been a difficult week for Wii U fans.
First came word that players will not be able to take advantage of the online multiplayer functionality for the upcoming “Batman: Arkham Origins.” Then there’s the matter of sluggish sales for the console. Nintendo unveiled in its latest earnings report that the Wii U continues to have a “negative impact on Nintendo’s profits,” with only 3.6 million units sold worldwide since its release late last year.
Earlier reports had Nintendo hoping to be well above 5 million units sold of the Wii U by this point — the company laid the blame for the slow start on the release of “few” first-party titles for the console.
But amid all the woeful reports there is still reason for optimism.
The Wii U undoubtedly has suffered from a lack of software — the system can’t capture the public’s imagination without a selection of great games for the console — and the arrival this Sunday of “Pikmin 3,” which has generally received positive reviews across the board, is a prime example of how the system and its games can create wholly unique experiences.
In the Hero Complex review of the latest title from legendary gamemaker Shigeru Miyamoto (“Donkey Kong,” “Super Mario Bros.”), “Pikmin 3″ was described as patient, surreal and abstract — qualities increasingly lacking from mainstream, big-budget games. As the industry moves toward more cinematic, scripted experiences, Nintendo’s best titles stand apart with unexpected uses of game mechanics.
To be sure, the lack of multiplayer in “Batman: Arkham Origins” is a definite blow in terms of public perception of the Wii U. It again creates the too-early-to-call belief that players and developers are skipping the system, which at less than a year old should be assumed to have a relatively limited install base.
It’s a shame that Wii U players will miss out on a part of the “Arkham” experience. The console brings a second screen to the equation via its touchscreen-enabled GamePad, and generally speaking, if a game is available on multiple platforms, I opt for the Wii U version. The GamePad, if used to its full advantage as in “Pikmin 3,” can invite players to view the world from an alternative perspective. In “Pikmin 3″ the second screen is a map, a transportation device and the home of humorously encyclopedic data on the universe.
Even if a developer doesn’t make the most of the GamePad and simply tosses some inventory and map items on the small screen, the ability to play the entire game on the controller — divorced from the TV — offers a flexibility not found on other systems (check this image of Kotaku editor in chief Stephen Totilo playing “Pikmin 3″ in an airport.)
But the “Arkham” news is far from an early death knell for the Wii U. Those games are built around single-player campaigns, and no matter how good the multiplayer is in “Origins,” the feature likely isn’t going to be the primary driver for the action.
“Origins’” online component allows players to assume the role of Batman or Robin, or play as a henchman for Joker or Bane, and a press release from Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment described the online action as mixing “traditional ‘Arkham’ gameplay with third-person shooter mechanics.”
More third-person shooter mechanics isn’t what I’m looking for in a Batman game.
The multiplayer component is being developed by Splash Damage, which said in a statement given to Eurogamer that its efforts were being focused on platforms with larger online audiences. Although one could argue it would be better if efforts were going toward developing an audience on a new platform, third parties, for better or worse, aren’t going to view the Wii U’s slow start as their problem to solve.
While re-igniting public interest in the Wii U is a major hurdle for Nintendo, the “Arkham” news does point to what will ultimately have to be one of the Wii U’s biggest selling points. The experience on the Nintendo console, like that of the company’s hand-held device the 3DS, is one that has to strongly contrast with what’s available on other consoles.
Earlier this year the question was put to Darrell Gallagher why the Square Enix reboot of “Tomb Raider” skipped the Wii U. Gallagher, in his role as the head of that company’s Bay Area game studio Crystal Dynamics, oversaw the development of the game.
“The people who buy a Wii U are looking for something unique to that platform,” he said. “The controller is the unique part of it. If they’re getting the same game they could have gotten on the PS3 or the [Xbox] 360, then maybe they should buy a PS3 or 360. The key differentiator is the tablet. We’d want to take advantage of that.”
In terms of the 3DS, the system and its dual-screen, touch and sharing-on-the-street abilities have hit a stride in 2013. Games such as “Fire Emblem: Awakening” and “Animal Crossing: New Leaf” make use of the system’s one-of-kind control scheme and allow players to share items and expand on the in-game universe simply by passing strangers who also own the titles.
The 3DS, after a slow launch, has had two consecutive months as the leading platform in hardware sales, according to the NPD Group.
At June’s Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) in Los Angeles, Nintendo of America President Reggie Fils-Aime compared the Wii U to where the 3DS was a year ago.
“The Wii U is in the same place we were before the barrage of great games hit the 3DS,” he said. “We’re confident that with that steady stream of content, the consumer will have the same reaction.”
Of course, this situation could have potentially been avoided if games such as “Pikmin 3,” and many of 2013′s other Wii U titles, hadn’t been delayed. Fils-Aime noted that the Wii U launched with only two must-own titles — “New Super Mario Bros. U” and the compilation “Nintendo Land.”
The company misjudged production time on the new system, he said.
“When we make pronouncements of when a game is going to launch, it’s anticipating that the development cycle will finish over some period of time,” he said. “When a system is brand new, like the Wii U, we haven’t gotten our scaling completely accurate. That’s really the challenge.”
When asked about third-party support, Fils-Aime directed the conversation back toward Nintendo’s responsibility to its partners.
“In the end,” he said, “what third-party publishers want is a large, diverse install base for their products to find a consumer base. It comes back to Nintendo. It’s our responsibility to drive that base, which is why we’re launching ‘Mario,’ ‘Donkey Kong’ and ‘Zelda’ and utilizing the power of our franchises to drive the install base. If we do that, then all of that third-party content is going to be there finding a home.”
There are indications that Nintendo is ready to keep the originality flowing beyond “Pikmin 3.”
Next month brings the release of the equally wacky, highly energetic superhero title “The Wonderful 101.” While I haven’t had much hands-on time with the game and can’t say with any degree of certainty whether it will be chaotic or brilliant, the Pixar-perfect style and touch-heavy controls ensure it will offer players something different.
And some of the new additions to “Super Mario 3D World” suggest it might be one of the franchise’s more inventive titles. You can crawl up walls as a cat and claw at enemies, and you can once again play as the vastly under-utilized Princess Peach.
Also, the Wii U’s GamePad essentially can unlock an alternative universe, as it can be used to uncover secret passageways and put a hold on enemies. Of course, when it comes to any discussion regarding “Super Mario 3D World,” I am, as a cat-obsessed member of the game community, a little biased.
But Nintendo this year also has “Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze,” a 2-D side-scrolling game that can be explored up, down, backward and forward, as well as “The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker,” a remake of an older title but one that should offer some clues as to Nintendo’s plan for the franchise on the Wii U.
With new consoles from Sony and Microsoft on the way, Nintendo also will have more competition. Nintendo stumbled with its head start, but for the first time in nearly seven months, the Wii U will have something it has sorely lacked: a parade of content.
– Todd Martens | @toddmartens
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