Why the Wii U is better than people believe

This past holiday season was the fourth featuring the availability of Nintendo’s Wii U video game console, meaning the unit just passed its third anniversary. As technology goes, that means that the Wii U is… Well, how can I say this nicely? Long in the tooth? Showing its age? At least that would be the popular perception of reality.

Another popular perception of reality is that the Wii U is the ugly redheaded stepchild of the video game world—a loser; passé. In short, a console only children and grandparents could love.

So, is there any truth to any of that?

I may be a gizmolier, but video games have never really been my thing, so the last consoles I owned were the first generation Wii, and a Sony PlayStation 2. I simply don’t appreciate the blood and guts themes that dominate most mainstream video games you find on the PlayStation and Xbox systems (and yes, I know there are exceptions). Sure, I enjoyed running people over, gunning people down, crashing cars and generally creating havoc in Grand Theft Auto: Vice City on the PS2, but I mostly goofed around rather than following the main storyline and play sequence, which—I confess—I found both too difficult, and too boring. Bottom line? I’m not a hardcore gamer.

When it was time to have the family over for the holidays, I knew kids would be coming, so I grabbed the old Wii, dusted it off, replaced the batteries in the remotes, hooked it up (what, no HDMI?) and figured I’d let the kids have at it. In the process, I rediscovered some of the entertainment value of the Wii and its unique approach to gaming. And frustrated by the lack of HDMI, I wondered—what would a Wii U upgrade cost, and what would it offer?

Doing my homework, I discovered what many already know: The abysmal lack of strong third party software support for the Wii U. Beyond Nintendo’s Japanese partners and peers, there’s just not much out there, and what’s out there is dominated by Nintendo’s softer game fare: kid- and family-friendly, for the most part, with lots of side-scrollers and variations on that theme. It just didn’t seem all that compelling. With Nintendo itself carrying most of the development burden, there also weren’t exactly tons of titles available that looked to have any appeal to middle-aged me.

For better or worse, I’d mentioned my thinking about the Wii U to the powers that be, and lo and behold, Santa brought one for Christmas with a two-game bundle featuring Splatoon and Super Smash Bros. I was more worried about it becoming a bookend like its Wii cousin, with which I never really did get past Wii Sports Resort in terms of software. (No wonder it became a bookend when the luster wore-off.) But after playing with it for just 10 days? Well, I’ll just cut to the chase here, and say:

  1. I’ve been having a freakin’ blast with the Wii U.
  2. I’m convinced that there are some very subtle things about the Wii U that make it a much better console than most people think.

So in no particular order, let me spell out, item by item, why I think #2 is true, and why #1 has been the case:

  • Backward compatibility. Nintendo went to great lengths to provide backward compatibility for the Wii and its accessories. They could have just not bothered (like Sony and Microsoft). Instead, all the Wii Remotes I already have were easily re-paired to the Wii U, and the software plays easily (once you boot-up in Wii  mode, which is made seamlessly transparent).
  • Skill range. For hardcore gamers, there are some hardcore choices, just not that many of them. But hardcore gamers are not the only gamers, and that’s the Wii U’s sweet spot. You could overgeneralize and say that non-hardcore-gamers are the children, middle-agers and grandparents I referred to earlier, and perhaps you’re right. But many of the games available for the Wii U have been cleverly designed with a low skill floor, but with a high skill ceiling. This allows casual gamers to enjoy the experience, while more capable players can still be challenged. That’s a balance not easily achieved, and one that in my experience is quite rare.
  • Online battles. The skill differential challenge even translates into the online realm. The online games I’ve played in the past have been frustrating experiences. Highly skilled players make the game play miserable and discouraging for less skilled players to the point where I mostly just give-up. While I’m sure the pros enjoy annihilating newbs, when there’s zero reward and zero enjoyment, the newbs just fold and move-on. I know I did. With the Wii U, this can still be the case (look no farther than Super Smash Bros.), but there are areas of marked design improvement, and Splatoon is a perfect example. In its online battles, sure, a team of four really strong players can still dominate the opposing team. But I find that my win/loss ratio is about 50/50, and win or lose, the gameplay is still seriously enjoyable.
  • Cognitive overload (or lack of it). Nintendo’s GamePad and Wii U Pro controllers are, like most console controllers, loaded with buttons and knobs to the point of cognitive overload for anyone over, say, age 18 or so (give or take a handful of years). But most of the games are still designed in a way where there’s elegance and simplicity in the primary game control methodology that makes them more approachable to a wider audience. I suppose that’s a plus or minus depending on your POV, but for me, it’s a plus.
  • Embracing the softer fare. I find myself embracing the softer fare that dominates the Wii U title selections. If you like violence, there are violent games; as I said earlier, just fewer of them, and many popular mainstream titles aren’t available on Wii U at all. But the software that is available, even with softer themes, represents some of the industry’s strongest characters, with novel gameplay concepts that can be truly enjoyable. Splatoon is, again, a terrific example of this—a unique storyline, with classic Nintendo weirdness and fun twists. And the truly light stuff, like Wii Sports Club with its bowling, tennis and such, still represents solid entertainment for a lot of people who wouldn’t find anything of merit in an Xbox One or PS4.
  • Define “failure.” Finally, I find myself sort of resenting the portrayal of the Wii U as a failure in the market. The PS4 has something like 30 million consoles sold, with the Xbox One some number less (20-something-million apparently). The “failure” that is Wii U has about 11 million. In any industry other than video game consoles, 11 million units moved would be a raging success. It is unfortunate that Nintendo found themselves in a classic Mexican standoff of co-dependency between sales of consoles depending on solid games, and solid games needing a large installed based of sold consoles. Maybe the situation will improve with their much-dismissed next-gen offering (the “NX” people keep talking about). Maybe it won’t.

The bottom line for me is that even three years down the road, the Wii U is a decent console with solid games that provides great entertainment value for a particular segment of the consumer market. The $300 street price of a standard bundled system (which will likely come down further soon) seems a bargain to me; I’ve already gotten that much entertainment value from it, and I’ve had it for less than two weeks. Your mileage may vary, as they say.

Regardless, I think I’m just fine being dismissed by the average customer of GameStop as one of those “old Wii-playing farts.” I’m still having fun, and when it comes to video game consoles, isn’t that the point?