Not as Bad as it Seems
Have you seen the documentary series Playing with Power on Crackle? It’s pretty great, but it also did a good job of hammering home a point that the internet has very much blown out of proportion, and that’s the legacy of the Wii U.
I’m aware that social media runs almost exclusively on hyperbole, but the Wii U, while definitely not a success, really wasn’t the horrible flaming disaster that people seem to revel in proclaiming it was. It underperformed significantly, but it was also a very unique platform, albeit with some overwhelming flaws. The concept was sound though, and I think if handled correctly, it could prove to be an excellent starting point for an eventual followup to the Switch.
What U got right
The general consensus seems to be that the Wii U stood so that the Switch could soar. While that’s at least partially true, a fundamental misunderstanding is that the Wii U should have been its own handheld device, and since the Gamepad was tethered to the console itself, it failed at doing what it was “supposed” to be able to do. This is an easy mistake to make because it just seems like such a natural thing when you hold it in your hands. But the real point of the Gamepad was to be a controller with a screen.
Yes, Gamepad-only play was a killer feature when the Wii U launched so you could play on the controller while someone else did something else on the TV, or even take it somewhere and set it up wherever you could find a wall socket without the need of a TV at all, but that was more of a neat bonus feature. The core conceit came in the form of dual screen play, something Nintendo had been perfecting with the DS for quite some time.
It’s crazy to think of it now, but back when the Wii U launched, the whole “second screen” experience was something of an industry fad. Every TV network and streaming service under the sun was touting apps you could bring up on your tablet or phone that would give you extra information and such. The Wii U though, actually had that whole concept baked in, and when used properly it made a real difference.
From One Screen to the Other
Take Super Mario Maker 2 for example. On the Switch, the game is great. Making levels is fairly intuitive, and the feature set was off the charts awesome. By the time they were done with all the free updates, Super Mario Maker 2 truly earned that 2 in its title. However, in certain ways, it never quite lived up to the sheer brilliance of the first game.
Super Mario Maker was made for the Wii U, and I don’t just mean that in the literal sense. I mean it in the way people say peanut butter and chocolate were made for one another. These two things fit together flawlessly, and that’s thanks to the very nature of the Wii U itself.
It’s not just about having a touch screen, it’s about having a touch screen with a built in stylus in addition to whatever’s going on on your TV. Switching back and forth between making and playing was unbelievably intuitive on Wii U, and using the stylus to actually build your levels felt leagues better than it ever did using your finger on the Switch’s screen.
Or take something like Wind Waker HD. In that game there’s some basic inventory management on the touch screen that’s great but pretty easy to live without. But then there’s the sea chart, which is indispensable. Propping up your Gamepad with the included stand nearby and playing the game with the Pro Controller was pure gaming bliss. It’s one of the very best setups I’ve ever experienced. Like so many DS games before it, having a second screen just there to display HUD elements or a map is actually a really great thing to have.
The Experiences You Can’t Get Anywhere Else
Of course, that just leads to the kinds of games that could only ever really work on the Wii U. There weren’t too many of them, but the ones that did it right are still some of the most fun experiences around.
Nintendo Land is probably the best example of this. The asymmetric gameplay in Nintendo Land provides some of the very best local multiplayer around. To a lesser extent, Wii Party U works the same way. Even the massively underplayed Wii Sports Club showed off some great additions to the classic Wii Sports gameplay that Clubhouse Games on Switch just can’t match. And don’t forget Game & Wario. Heck, there’s even a case to be made for Star Fox Zero. It sure was weird, but when the controls worked, they REALLY worked.
Then there’s the launch title ZombiU. Not only did this game come out at a time when zombie games were incredibly oversaturated, and the name ZombiU is incredibly awful, AND it came out on the Wii U so it was already up against some serious hurdles, ZombiU is actually a really cool game. It was ported to other consoles in what I can only assume was a desperate attempt to make back some of the investment that went into the thing, but everywhere except Wii U the game was just another zombie game. On Wii U, the game used the physical act of looking at the Gamepad screen as a means of increasing tension. Your inventory was only available on the second screen, so when you went to root through your stuff, you had to keep an eye out on the big screen to make sure you didn’t get killed while looking for whatever it was you needed. It was brilliant, and it’s super unfortunate that it was dressed as a zombie game because if people had noticed this concept more, maybe the entire system’s fortunes could have been at least a little different.
But as we see with ZombiU, the biggest trouble with these games right now though is that they’re basically impossible to ever actually port to another console. They need that second screen to function, and since there isn’t really anything else out there quite like the Wii U, that means these games the way they were intended to be played are stuck where they are.
Touching is Good
In a similar vein, the Wii U also provided a unique opportunity for Nintendo to re-release some of their DS games to play in a whole new way; on the TV! It’s a bit of a bizarre experience sometimes to be sure, but the ability to play Nintendo DS games blown up on a big screen is a very special experience.
I love a good handheld as much as the next guy, but given the choice I will always opt to play my games on the TV. Playing through New Super Mario Bros. on my big screen was a fantastic experience, and is likely the only way I’m going to play that game going forward.
I’ve even used it to discover some DS games I basically skipped the first time around. I recently beat Metroid Prime: Hunters for the first time, and while I wrote the game off for the most part when it came out on DS, playing it on the TV gave me just enough of an incentive to give it a serious shot. Turns out it’s actually a pretty solid game. Who knew? Maybe this is how I’ll finally make it through those two DS Zelda games I’ve never been able to get into.
It’s a shame more games weren’t released on the service, since it’s still nothing short of tragic that the three Castlevania DS games, Contra 4, Henry Hatsworth, and countless other DS games remain stranded on the handheld. The stuff that actually is available on the service is great, and the Wii U Gamepad gives you a ton of options on how to actually play the games.
Nintendo’s Unique Personality
The Wii U also had something a little harder to define that the Switch is sorely lacking, and that’s Nintendo’s unique personality, and it was on full display with Wii U.
They built in integration for their own social media platform called Miiverse where you could basically use the touch screen to draw whatever you wanted in message boards for specific games. This was neat in games like New Super Mario Bros. U, but it was at its best with Virtual Console releases because if you needed help with an old game, you could jump on Miiverse and post to that game's specific board, and someone would usually be there to give you a helping hand when you needed it, or congratulate you when you posted a screenshot from whatever game you just defeated.
I’m sure it kept Nintendo very busy with all the moderation needed, but it was such a fun feature.
There was also the Mii Plaza, which is a feature I definitely took for granted while it was still around. Every time you turned on your system, a bunch of Miis from all over the world would walk onto your screen and gather around icons for games that were trending at that particular time. So you had your own menu stuff on one screen, and what’s trending worldwide on the other, complete with links directly to the eShop. Sure, there are still ways to see what other people have been playing on Switch, but this was so much more fun. It was just there the moment you turned your system on, and it was great. Now that the service has been shut down, you just get some random placeholder stuff gathering around the system settings icon and stuff, and it’s really sad.
There was also an eShop with music, the ability to create folders to store your games in, and stuff like this amazing system transfer sequence for when you wanted to bring your information from your Wii over to your Wii U.
The Wii U didn’t make Nintendo a billion dollars, and its messaging was a disaster, but there were a plethora of rather brilliant ideas cooking on that platform. Now that the Switch is almost as ubiquitous as the Wii was, following it up with something that incorporates some of the Wii U’s best ideas would be great. Imagine if the Switch 2 allowed users to utilize their existing Switch units as controllers. Or even their existing tablets or phones. Imagine if Nintendo started injecting more of their personality into the system’s infrastructure, and really played up the social aspect even more. Imagine if the next Switch allowed for a proper DS and 3DS “Virtual Console” style experience. They’d have to be careful not to repeat the same mistakes that tanked the Wii U, but if they play their cards right, they could make their Switch’s followup a true dual screen revolution.
At the time, the Wii U was a tough console to have as your primary unit. In retrospect though, as a thing to go back and collect for, it’s pretty spectacular. It’s got just enough exclusive stuff to be well worth your time. Heck, I just moved my unit back into my living room so I can have a proper modern version of Dr. Mario to play with my wife, and so we can all play Nintendo Land in the living room instead of all heading down to the basement.
It isn’t perfect, but unlike the Virtual Boy, the Wii U will likely stand the test of time.