The Wii U became two years old in November 2014. Whereas toddlers are infamous for frequent and nonsensical emotional meltdowns through "The Terrible Twos," Nintendo's console appears to be going through a period of stability and maturity.
That's not to say the Wii U is a massive financial success, nor is there any proof it will ever be a massive financial success. According to official numbers from Nintendo, the Wii U sold 7.29 million units as of September 2014. While that may sound like a modest number, by comparison, the GameCube, another Nintendo system that didn't exactly set cash registers on fire, sold about 22 million units across its six-year lifespan. The PlayStation 4, largely considered by analysts to be the latest console generation's biggest success story thus far, sold 13.5 million units across a single year (November 2013 through September 2014).
But whereas hardware manufacturers are notorious for turning their backs on under-performing items in order to focus on the next project in the queue (hang in there PlayStation Vita, we believe in you), Nintendo is taking an opposite approach with the Wii U. 2014 was the year Nintendo said "Heck it - If the world is going to make fun of the Wii U, we're going to throw all our energy into making great games for the people that believe in us."
In other words, 2014 is the year the Wii U validated its existence and demonstrated it's a downright vital acquisition for fans of Nintendo's franchises. For instance:
Nintendo and the Wii U rocked E3 2014: Nintendo had a lot riding on this year's E3. If it had flubbed the show, the Wii U's spark likely would have cooled off for good right then and there.
But Nintendo grabbed everyone's attention, primarily by setting itself apart from the rest of the presenters. The company offered a pre-recorded presentation instead of a live press event - again - which contained comedy bits engineered by Robot Chicken. Said comedy bits even took pot shots at Mother / Earthbound fans, which is hilarious or in poor taste depending on your outlook. Either way, Nintendo rarely makes light of its fans, so needless to say its presentation was an attention-grabber from minute one.
More importantly, Nintendo showed off games worth talking about. The footage of upcoming paint-based shooter Splatoon added literal splashes of color to an E3 that was dominated by guns and grenades. Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker ambled out of the shadows to deliver a pleasant surprise. We learned a new Star Fox is in the works, and Eiji Aonuma previewed a glimpse of a very beautiful-looking and intriguing Wii U Legend of Zelda game.
In other words, Nintendo's E3 2014 show was all about itself, and what it does best. USGamer's own Jeremy Parish noted that third-party developers abandoned the Wii U ages ago, and Nintendo isn't wasting energy getting them back.
"Nintendo screwed up in the first place by trying to pitch the Wii U to the disinterested hardcore gaming audience," Jeremy wrote in USGamer's Nintendo E3 round-up, " a group of people who will never go in for Nintendo no matter what. It would be folly for them to double down. Instead, Nintendo did what it does best this year: Show off a lot of excellent software while opening its collective arms to everyone."
Nintendo's 2014 Wii U releases are polished to a mirror shine: 2014 has been the year of broken triple-A game releases. If game bugs were collectively represented by a single image, it'd be the Eldritch horror that is an Assassin's Creed Unity character model without a face.
Nobody expects a triple-A game to be bug-free at the time of its release. In fact, most bugs are hilarious rather than game-breaking. But when a title is teeming with the digital crawlies, it becomes obvious the studio sacrificed vital play-testing in order to rush the game out the door. It's especially damning when publishers instruct players to download a massive fix shortly after a game's release (with your own bandwidth, by the way). It can only happen so many times before you begin to feel like a sucker.
By contrast, Nintendo's biggest release of the year, Super Smash Bros for Wii U, is almost clean enough to squeak. And given the amount of content in the game, there is a lot that can potentially go wrong. For the most part however, Super Smash Bros for Wii U doesn't suffer from major hiccups that destroy the game's realism - which is an odd thing to get to say about a game that lets you beat up Pac-Man with Mega Man. But even that weird scenario as it exists in Super Smash Bros is more digestible than a carefully-directed cinema scene that's broken up by jeers from random French peasants.
Nintendo doesn't get off without a ding, though. The online connectivity for Super Smash Bros on Nintendo 3DS was horrible immediately following launch. Thankfully, the Wii U version of the game did better, though it's still not perfect.
Amiibo is hot with players and collectors: While Nintendo is undeniably mishandling the demand for Amiibo figurines in North America, the scarcity of the figures is the symptom of a product that's super-hot. That's not too bad, considering nobody knew what to make of the Amiibo when it was presented at an investors' meeting in May of this year.
At first, it was easy to assume Amiibo would generate lukewarm interest thanks to the glut of toy / video game combinations brought on by Disney Infinity and Activision's Skylanders series. Nintendo has also been flying by the seat of its pants in regards to how Amiibos interact with its games. Does the Amiibo deserve its success? That's up for scrutiny, but the toys are definitely doing well. More profit for Nintendo in these hard times can't be a bad thing.
But what really makes Amiibo interesting is how Super Smash Bros players have latched onto the little guys. Smash tourney players tend to be purists, so it was easy to predict serious Smash players wouldn't want an Amiibo within ten feet of their Wii Us. In reality, players are training up their Amiibos for all-Amiibo Smash tourneys. In a way, we've taken a step closer to inhabiting a real-life Pokemon world.
Now that Nintendo has assurance Amiibo is a hit, let's hope it surprises us with improved distribution and integration next year.Wii U DLC is meaty: Nintendo is notoriously slow to adopt online practices that are standard for other consoles (and have been for years). But in 2014, Nintendo took a serious crack at offering downloadable content (DLC) for its games. It reacted like some kind of primate that took a bite out of a popular fruit and said, "Hey...hey guys, this is really good!" before proceeding to glut itself.
Thankfully, DLC for Nintendo's games has been substantial and satisfying. With optional downloads, Mario Kart 8 can become a product that's more akin to "Nintendo All-Stars Racing," and Hyrule Warriors can receive all kinds of extra characters, missions, and goodies.
Mewtwo is coming to Super Smash Bros Wii U and 3DS via downloadable content as well, so maybe we can expect to similarly witness the re-introduction of other characters lost in the transition from the Wii to the Wii U and 3DS. Don't cry, Lucas. You'll get your turn. Maybe.
2015 is looking good, too: E3 2014 set up what promises to be a pretty amazing 2015 for the Wii U. New Zelda. New Star Fox. Splatoon. And, given Nintendo's penchant for surprises, maybe some cool curveballs we won't see coming.
Is the Wii U a system for everyone? Absolutely not. Though Nintendo is sure to deliver some new experiences in the coming year, the Wii U is a machine for Nintendo fans first and foremost, and Nintendo is beyond hiding that fact. If you're lukewarm about Mario and his friends, you might be better off saving your money.
Don't go for cheap laughs by mocking the Wii U and its library, though. That rap is undeserved - and making fun of the Wii U is so totally 2013 at this point.