Early this morning for us in the United States, Nintendo released its earnings report for the six months ended on September 30, 2015. Net sales are up 19.1 percent year-over-year and the company's operating income is actually looking like income again. Nintendo also had a couple of million sellers: Animal Crossing: Happy Home Designer sold 2.02 million copies, Super Mario Maker hit 1.88 million, and Splatoon reached a total of 2.42 million during the period. It's good news for Nintendo.
Alongside the earnings release, Nintendo also offered up a list of planned games for the foreseeable future. A few interesting tidbits jump out. For one, Star Fox Zero's delay was relatively short, with the game coming to US and Europe in the first quarter of 2016 and a Japanese release in Spring 2016. Pokken Tournament, the Pokemon fighting game, is not listed for a release in Japan at all. Europe is seemingly only getting a single release of Fire Emblem Fates, instead of the Birthright and Conquest versions the United States is receiving.
Most importantly, the unnamed Legend of Zelda title for Wii U isn't even listed as a 2016 release. Instead, the game is simply listed as "TBD", as is Nintendo's Project Giant Robot. This potentially means that we could be seeing The Legend of Zelda sometime in 2017. A 2017 release would probably put the system within the same territory as Nintendo's upcoming new system, currently code-named the NX.
The NX release date itself is speculation of course. It's been collectively assumed because of statements former Nintendo president Satoru Iwata made prior to E3 2015. The idea is that we'll hear about the NX in 2016, with a potential release in 2017.
"As proof that Nintendo maintains strong enthusiasm for the dedicated game system business, let me confirm that Nintendo is currently developing a dedicated game platform with a brand-new concept under the development codename "NX." It is too early to elaborate on the details of this project, but we hope to share more information with you next year," said Iwata during the announcement of Nintendo's partnership with DeNA.
"We will not announce any details about NX until 2016," Iwata said during a financial results briefing in May 2015. "I hope you will understand that if you expect us to discuss NX during the upcoming E3 show, you will just end up being disappointed."
Recent reports have pushed the NX's release date up to the end of 2016, which would represent a very quick turnaround if developers have yet to recieve development kits. Assuming the speculated 2017 release window is correct, it would make sense for Nintendo to move the new Legend of Zelda over to the brand-new NX system as a flagship title. That said, Nintendo can't afford to anger consumers who purchased the Wii U for Zelda alone, so keeping the Wii U version alive is a good idea. Nintendo has been in this very situation before, with the dual release of Twilight Princess on GameCube and Nintendo Wii.
The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess was first announced for the GameCube in 2003. Well, to be fair, a Legend of Zelda game was announced, but the production of the game shifted direction and it wasn't until E3 2005 that it became Twilight Princess in name. Then during production, Twilight Princess director Eiji Aonuma determined that he wanted to make a Wii game and it was decided to co-develop both versions at the same time.
"Upon its conception, I was curious to see the Revolution, Nintendo's new platform announced at E3 2005, would innovate Zelda's gameplay. I was eager to try it, but I thought that that could happen only after we completed work on Twilight Princess. I was surprised at first to hear Miyamoto's suggestion that we try it right away," said Aonuma in a GDC 2007 talk.
"However, if we put Twilight Princess on the Revolution, we ran the risk of those looking forward to playing it on the GameCube. For this reason, we knew that we had to release it for the GameCube as well."
That worked out in Twilight Princess' case because the Wii was designed to be backward compatible with the GameCube, so the transition wasn't as painful as it could've been. For this new Zelda, we don't even know the basic design of the NX. Will it be backward compatible with the Wii U? Will it even carry forward some of the design cues of the Wii U, like the additional screen on the Wii U GamePad?
The Wii U version of Zelda is still on Nintendo's radar to be sure. In addition to the information above, Aonuma told Gamespot, "I want to assure you that the Wii U Zelda was not delayed in any way because of Triforce Heroes."
Regardless, releasing a new Zelda title on the Wii U around the same time as your new home console is a poor choice for Nintendo. The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword had a year to breathe before the Wii U launched and went on to become the fastest-selling Zelda title at the time, but ultimately didn't match up to its predecessor according to official numbers. Yes, the Wii U will have a larger installed user base - the console sits at 10.73 million units sold right now - but the perception of a new Zelda on an old console could hurt sales of the game.
Another split release is probably in Nintendo's best interest for the game. Skyward Sword sold 3.52 million copies before Nintendo stopped updating shareholders about its sales progress. In contrast, Twilight Princess had sold 4.52 million units on the Wii by April 2008 and 1.32 million units on the GameCube by April 2007. (Once again, those are the dates Nintendo stopped offering up sales data for each version.) It's arguable that releasing at the beginning of the console cycle actually helped Twilight Princess beat out its sequel (the extra GameCube sales help).
Nintendo would do well to repeat that feat with its latest Zelda and a new open-world Zelda deserves the chance to be all it can be. It'll get that chance as an NX title with an additional Wii U release. A Wii U-only release would only serve to relegate the new Zelda to the same space Skyward Sword occupied: the last hurrah on an older platform.