Thursday, 7 June 2012

Lackluster E3 for Nintendo raises more Wii U questions

Wii U, we hardly know you.
Of all the companies showcasing new games and hardware at the E3 video game convention this week, none face as much pressure as Nintendo. The once -mighty Wii may have left an indelible mark on the game industry by broadening the very definition of a gamer, but it's been on a downhill slide for years now. After toiling away in its top-selling shadow, Microsoft and Sony's more mature consoles are now proving their worth in terms of sheer staying power, trouncing the Wii on the charts month after month.

But with the first new home console in six years coming out this holiday, Nintendo has a chance to leapfrog the competition with the Wii U and define what the next generation of gaming will look like. It's a risky position, but one that could pay off big time if the company plays the game well.
So far, it isn't. Instead of giving fans a launch lineup, a deep feature dive, a sophisticated online network reveal and possibly a price and a release date at E3, the company merely asked us to wait longer, to remain patient, and to trust in Mario.
Unfortunately for Nintendo, no one's buying it. Despite high hopes for a big presence at E3, the company's stock dipped 2% after their disappointing media briefing Tuesday. While new Mario and Pikmin games have fans excited, the press has had a field day taking shots at the company's lack of a coherent message. What is the Wii U, exactly, and who is it for?

It's a problem Nintendo hasn't faced in ages. The Wii connected immediately. You wave the remote, you hit a tennis ball. Innovative enough to wow gamers yet digestible enough for those who last played a Mario game in 1985, it bridged a gap and brought countless new players into the fold. They kept it simple with the 3DS, too: it's a handheld system with a glasses-free 3D screen and fancier processing guts. "Forget that pricey Sony nonsense," the company seemed to say, "because we figured it out already." The thing just clicked.
But the Wii U? It's a game console that you play with a tablet controller, though Nintendo's disproportionate emphasis on the tablet has led some outlets, like CNN, to misconstrue the device as being an add-on for the Wii you have gathering dust on your shelf. Others think the tablet is the console itself. Actually trotting out the console — you know, the piece of hardware you'll actually buy and connect to your TV and have sitting in your living room — and doling out some more thorough specs would have helped. Bandying about wonky terms like 'asymmetric gameplay,' where the experience of a player using the tablet differs from those using Wii remotes? Not exactly the catchy simplicity Nintendo is known for.

But how about the games? Nintendo showed off 23 Wii U experiences at E3, including an assortment of titles from third parties like Ubisoft and EA. Many of these fell flat, though. An upcoming Wii U version of 2011 masterpiece Batman: Arkham City isn't exactly a system seller in 2012. Mass Effect 3 is a tremendous game, but by the time it releases for the Wii U it will be a good 8 months old. Even the flagship New Super Mario Bros U -- essentially a sequel to New Super Mario Bros. Wii -- feels a bit underwhelming, especially when compared to past system-defining Mario games like Super Mario 64 and Super Mario World.
Perhaps most damning was the mild reception of Nintendoland, the collection of mini-games Nintendo hopes will do for the Wii U what Wii Sports did for the Wii. The company ended its press conference with an overlong look at the title, awkwardly wrapping it all up with a fake firework display that left the crowd baffled.
It's just the latest gaffe from a company struggling to recapture the glory days of the Wii in its prime. A 3DS price drop only four months into that system's life was considered a desperation move (it has since paid off, at least in terms of goosing sales), prompting company CEO Satoru Iwata to take a whopping 50% pay cut. Earlier this year the company reported its first annual operating loss in 30 years. It's been a tough ride for Nintendo, yet they inexplicably keep making it tougher.
And the challenges are only growing now that the competition smells blood. Microsoft's SmartGlass technology essentially mimics the Wii U's second screen functionality by letting you use your smartphone or tablet to control games or enjoy tangential content. Sony's Cross-Play between the PS3 and the Vita lets you save games to the cloud and take them with you on the go — a step beyond the Wii U's living room limitations. A year after its first reveal, and suddenly the Wii U isn't quite so innovative. Waste enough tech time and eventually you'll be lapped.
Nintendo needed to change that perception with an unmistakable win at E3. The world wanted to get to know the only new system of 2012, but we're left with more questions than answers. By failing to produce, it's left the future in doubt — and that's no way to start the next generation.

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