The Future of Nintendo: How Wii U might be Nintendo's biggest gamble yet
30th Sep 2012 | 14:00
Nintendo have a way with consoles. Specifically, that way involves announcing an exciting new format with a metric ton of potential, and then hiding it behind a Wizard Of Oz-style curtain, leaving everyone guessing for months of end. While we seem to know a bit more about Ninty's latest platform than we did about the 3DS - and Wii U's iPad-like controller is certainly easier to describe to another person than glasses-free 3D - we're still in the dark to an alarming degree.
How powerful is it? When's it going to launch? And how does it compare to PS3 and Xbox 360? It seems that every other headline involves some industry bigwig claiming that it's more, less or equally powerful to the established HD formats.
Annoying these headlines may be, but you can see why they persist. Wii's technical shortcomings have been keenly felt over the last few years, as Other Format games grow better and better looking, and as Nintendo's stake in multi-format releases plummets like a Branson-powered balloon. We want top-tier third-party games like Call Of Duty, Assassin's Creed or GTA, and not hobbled, feature-cut versions either. That's going to depend on how Wii U compares to Sony and Microsoft's platforms - and how it weighs up against their next-gen iterations, which are expected to be announced at next year's E3.
So, how powerful is Wii U? We're not going to give you a full set of technical specs here, mainly because one hasn't been released, but the prevailing consensus - based on leaked documents and consultations with Derek Acorah and his 'spirit guide' Sam - is that it will have at least three times as much RAM as the current crop of HD consoles.
1.5Gb of RAM would offer a significant performance advantage over PS3 and Xbox 360, so we fully expect Wii U versions of multi-format titles to equal the 360 ones or even surpass them, if developers get to grips with the new architecture in time. For the first time in a long while, Nintendo may gain a substantial lead in the (groan) 'console war', which should put gamers' fears about a lack of third-party support safely to rest.
However, while the focus in the news has been on Wii U's graphical clout, it's clear that Ninty's focus is on social networking - an area they've paid little attention to in the past. If you own a 3DS, you'll already be aware of how they're playing catch-up.
SpotPass and StreetPass are wonderfully innovative communication tools, even if they only truly work in Japan or, in the West, at designated nerd gatherings such as Comic-Con or the city of San Francisco. There's also a limited achievement system, quietly bundled in a firmware update, and currently restricted to the Mii Plaza.
Accomplishments, as they're known, are going to have a much bigger presence on Wii U, where many developers are now listing them next to Achievements and Trophies on press releases. If these aren't supported by every Wii U game we'll be massively surprised - we'll even do our 'massively surprised' faces. Accomplishments aren't the only, er, accomplishment Nintendo are hoping to, um, accomplish though - they're also set to radically redesign the notion of Miis.
At the moment, these are little more than optional player characters, which occasionally pop up in minigame collections. The MiiVerse redefines them as your personal online avatar, tied to a persistent account across an all-encompassing social network. To put it another way, it's probably not a good idea to make your Mii look like Hitler anymore. Like Xbox Live or the PlayStation Network, MiiVerse will enable you to send messages to your friends.
However, it goes beyond that, giving you the option to send images, videos or even screenshots of Wii U games. There will also be a Twitter-style social media element, so you can discuss games with the community or recommend them to the rest of the MiiVerse. While MiiVerse appears to be based on a number of existing systems, it's a first for Nintendo, and given their relative inexperience in this area, probably a bit of a gamble too.
The first game we've seen to take advantage of MiiVerse is the ridiculously exciting ZombiU. Leaked screenshots - are there any other kind? - revealed a pop-up message in the corner of the screen, seemingly notifying the player that a fellow zombie-hunting friend had lost a fight with the undead, and become an infected as a result.
Presumably, they would then be able to hunt the other player down and mercifully dispatch them, looting their corpse afterwards. In a nod to the excellent Dark Souls, players can also leave symbolic messages, either as a warning or part of a grisly prank.
This sort of 'asynchronous' multiplayer is all the rage these days, and it could well become one of Wii U's defining features. If there's one thing to take away from this current generation it's the power of connectivity, and Nintendo are wise to base so much around the concept.
When it comes to another aspect of the modern game market, however, the company has proven slightly stuck in their ways. Whether it's on PC or consoles, digital game sales have taken off in a huge way, and for the past few years Wii and 3DS have been left firmly behind. Wii got off to a good start, filling its virtual shelves with the best titles plundered from Nintendo's classic back catalogue, but the Wii Shop soon ran out of steam. 3DS, meanwhile, has a handful of great titles, but if you hop online now you will be greeted by a trickle of old GameBoy games, with no rhyme or reason to their re-release.
Ninty has just started experimenting with digital versions of retail titles, such as New Super Mario Bros 2. Only, in a fit of commercial madness, they've released it at the RRP of £40 - roughly £10 more than the boxed version is currently selling for. Sony is equally to blame here, of course, leading us to believe it's not quite Nintendo's fault, but it's an astonishing situation nonetheless.
The answer here is to simply copy Steam, the store/platform that's near-monopolised the PC space over the last few years. Steam's regular insane deals have helped to prepare an entire generation of PC gamers for the inevitable download-only future. Copy the Steam model, by offering worthwhile sales on digital titles, and gamers will be flocking to the eShop in droves.
So we're reasonably certain about Wii U's specs, and what Nintendo's online strategy will entail, but which games will we be playing at launch? Well, a couple of titles have been strongly suggested by retailer GameStop - film tie-in Rise Of The Guardians as well as Ben 10: Omniverse - but there will obviously be some better quality first-party stuff available too, including NSMB Wii U and Pikmin 3.
Many more, less dubious titles such as Darksiders II, Assassin's Creed III, ZombiU and Rayman Legends are also listed with a vague 2012 release date next to them. November is the date many are pegging for the US launch of the console itself - specifically, 'Black Friday' week, which occurs around Thanksgiving. It's historically been a popular time for Nintendo: Wii, Skyward Sword, and many other huge releases were let loose upon the world during that period. As for the UK, manufacturing issues are rumoured to be holding it back until December, when, from what we've heard, it will probably launch for around £250.
Compare that line-up with the 3DS release schedule, and the handheld's immediate future suddenly seems a little bleak. Paper Mario: Sticker Star and Epic Mickey are the only real lights on the horizon - except for Imagine Horsez, of course. So, it's an uncertain future for Nintendo, then, but if the GameBoy, DS and Wii have taught us anything up to this point, it's that the unknown is where Nintendo thrives.