Almost exactly seven years ago Wii Sports had the entertainment world in a frenzy. Wii consoles disappeared immediately at launch at wouldn’t be able to sit on a store shelf for longer than five minutes until July. Oprah gave out Wii consoles with Wii Sports to hysterical and tearful parents. Dedicated gamers trying to hookshot their way through Twilight Princess and rediscover old favourites on the Virtual Console found their machines hijacked by grandmas and cousins looking for their fix of tennis and bowling.
Today Wii Sports relaunches as an online service for Wii U, offering the same sports as before with updated graphics and control, online play and a competitive feature that groups households into regional clubs and pits them against each other. Except the leaderboards and online lobbies of Wii Sports Club are as bare as those empty shelves were seven years ago. The excitable Miis gathered at the virtual tennis court to see families come from around the world to face each other are viewing little more than an empty and yellowing block, and the rental shoes at the bowling alley are getting so little use their odour could almost pass for that of a regular shoe.
While the reintroduction of the Wii Sports brand might initially have given hope that Nintendo was gearing Wii U up for a battle against the next-gen consoles for a piece of the mainstream mindshare this Novemeber, the fact that it’s seemingly failed to arouse any interest in the press or amongst the casual crowd can be put down to a worryingly recurring cause: Nintendo simply didn’t tell anybody outside their hardcore fanbase it was coming.
Contrary to the rhetoric of some the Wii U is not a platform devoid of power or heart or fun gaming experiences. In fact apart from an outrageously popular launch title there’s nothing the Wii ever had that the Wii U lacks, and apart from a near total absence of consumer enthusiasm the Wii U ‘s in about the same boat as the Xbox 360 and PS3 were the year after they launched. People have very short memories but in a few month’s time we’ll all be very much reminded of how dodgy UI, strained network systems and long stretches of software drought affect every massive-scale hardware launch. While the Wii U should be positioned to espouse the benefits of its head-start and show people what an established and stable system it’s become compared to newcomers Xbox One and PS4, the fact is that every time Nintendo overcomes a platform challenge to deliver something good it neglects to tell anybody about it.
The Wii U’s eShop for example has struggled, but it’s now home to a lot of great content and is league’s ahead of the 360 or PS3 online offerings in terms of ease-of-use and progressive thinking. Titles that have been around for a while are frequently 40 to 60 per cent off as part of limited promotions, and digital versions of retail games are periodically given permanent discounts to match the lowered retail prices. Indie developers can self-publish on the Wii U eShop and are offered good terms and support. Yet there’s no way any consumer would know this if they didn’t have a Wii U already with which to check the eShop every day.
Sony and Microsoft both have excelled in establishing their communication channels to ensure their messages reach consumers. By making their every release, promotion and news item visible to the community, they ensure it’s seen even beyond that by way of news services and word-of-mouth. If either company was resurrecting a series as influential in their recent history as Wii Sports, you can be sure we all would have heard about it.
Through Sony’s use of the Playstation Blog and Microsoft’s indelible acumen in retailer relations, potential buyers of the Playstation 4 and Xbox One have been kept abreast of all updates of note, and as always the happenings related to PS3 and Xbox 360 make up a constant stream of communication from platform-holder to news source to audience. Meanwhile the consumers have largely still never been educated on the very basic ideas that make up the Wii U, let alone any improvements or new software. The system is barely ever even mentioned on the sites or communications of video games retailers or media companies. Note the drop-down categories seen here on EB Games Australia’s homepage.
I realise how easy it is for me, with no real stake in the company and its apportioning of resources, to point out flaws and make suggestions. Yet at this point the handling of the Wii U optics situation seems to have been so consistently poor that it’s difficult to know whether the decision-makers at Nintendo are pressing exactly the buttons they mean to be pressing as part of some mysterious and insane larger plan, or whether they are completely lost and flailing their limbs desperately to hit any button they can in hopes it may help.
The fact that a redesigned Wii console is launching later this month in certain locations in the US would seem to indicate it’s the latter. The Wii Mini is $99 and is designed mainly to confuse the hell out of shoppers and appeal to those who never had a Wii and don’t mind dumpster-diving through a sea of Imagine Fashion Party to find any semblance of a decent game – exactly nobody. Of course for an extra $200, still $200 cheaper than an Xbox One, consumers have a Nintendo alternative available to them that isn’t seven years old, has plenty of great games available for it at a good range of prices and still plays all that junk you find at the bottom of the Wii bargain bin anyway. All they need is to be told that it exists.
The Wii U was never meant to compete directly against the PlayStation 4 or Xbox One. It simply is a very different device for a very different purpose. Yet this is the holiday season, and potential customers are being bombarded with video game messaging more than at any other point in the year, especially with two new consoles on the way. With the return of Wii Sports and further ducks lined up in a row including a brand new Mario game and a smart and well-established online store, you’d think Wii U was primed to make a big leap forward on the back of the next-gen hype-train. But Nintendo’s failure to capitalise on any of this shows us that their biggest problem is not whether or not their console can win in a race against the two next-gen consoles, but that the company’s lack of message and communication is keeping Wii U from running in the race at all.