Support for the handheld is modest, yet doom-and-gloom is minimal
The 3DS is hot right now, with positive vibes bouncing around the web as its major releases have enjoyed an impressive record of critical and commercial success. Simply mentioning games like Luigi's Mansion: Dark Moon, Fire Emblem: Awakening and Animal Crossing: New Leaf justifiably leads to a broadly universal reaction; that the 3DS is on a roll. In addition, sales figures and charts in Western territories have often shown the strong line-up paying off at retail, and upcoming titles such as Pokémon X & Y and The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds are both expected to be commercial blockbusters later this year.
Yet there's a common thread in those titles — they're all first-party. There have been third-party releases so far this year, including examples such as LEGO City Undercover: The Chase Begins and Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate, Project X Zone is filling current schedules, while later in the year we'll have games such as Scribblenauts Unmasked: A DC Comics Adventure, Sonic Lost World, Batman: Arkham Origins Blackgate and eShop-only retail download Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney - Dual Destinies. These aren't all of the games coming, of course, with Atlus in particular delivering content and a number of hoped-for localisations are also a possibility, but almost all of those titles above have a version or franchise equivalent coming to Wii U. Yet the narrative seems so different between the 3DS and Wii U. The handheld is being widely praised for a fairly limited but top-notch release schedule, while Wii U is a system under pressure, with an emphasis on its challenges maintaining third-party parity with its rivals, and whether the first-party lineup will cut it.
Naturally there are plenty of differences not only between the systems and their prospective audiences, but also their current positions in the games market. That goes without saying, but is nevertheless worth outlining. From the handheld's perspective, it's benefited with sales growth from late 2011, when an attractive price point and heavy hitting Mario titles helped to drive it beyond a poor start, with a steady stream of quality content then seeing it progress and gain momentum. This year, despite the modest third-party contributions that we've already outlined, we've seen something resembling a perfect storm for the platform. Major releases have been critically acclaimed, marketing appears to have been clever and effective, and a notable buzz has developed about the system and these headline experiences. Combine that 2013 hype with a solid back-catalogue and an affordable price, and it's proving to be a popular device on the high street.
The Wii U is in some respects, though not all, in the same position as the 3DS before its Holiday 2011 revival. It's started poorly — which is beyond reasonable doubt — and is now preparing a comeback based on a raft of big-name and familiar first-party brands; at this stage Nintendo is stating that a price cut isn't on the agenda, but we won't definitively know its intentions until the Holiday season has come and gone. Some are sensibly holding off before deciding whether the system is in long-term trouble, while others are making "Wii U is doomed" noises similar to the "3DS is doomed" commentary from mid-2011; the only thing that's certain is that it's all uncertain. With that said, Nintendo has staged plenty of comebacks in its time, while over two decades of near-constant profits mean that financial disaster is a distant prospect.
Naturally there are clear differences between the markets in which the 3DS and Wii U are operating. The home console, for its part, is competing with the still-popular PS3 and Xbox 360, while by the end of the year we'll be able to add the PS4 and Xbox One to the equation; if you want to push it further, the raft of Android TV console units also chip away, arguably in a small way, at the home console market. The 3DS was naturally competing against the DS, PSP, Vita and a host of smartphone / tablet devices, yet has seemingly carved a niche for itself primarily as a dedicated gaming portable; other features are included in the hardware, but it truly seems to be almost exclusively about the games. The Wii U is fighting over the living room space, in contrast, and seems unclear in purpose — is it going to be seen mainly as a gaming console alone, or will it legitimately be treated as a broader multimedia entertainment device?
These differences, and the missed multi-platform games gracing Sony and Microsoft systems, have made third-parties a tough issue for the home console, while the 3DS merrily moves along with modest support and positive press coverage. There are good multi-platform games coming to Wii U, but question marks exist over whether that support will continue into 2014 and whether, more tellingly, owners of the system will actually buy these titles. If a perfectly good version of Watch_Dogs arrives but sells a pitiful number of copies, companies like Ubisoft will be further scared away. Nintendo will have the unenviable position not only of shifting millions of units to boost the userbase — a feat it'll surely still be confident of achieving — but persuading partners to continue investment in the off-chance that those gamers will buy more than Mario Kart 8 and Super Smash Bros. as 2014 progresses. With studios on "wait-and-see" holding patterns, it all resembles the most precarious of balancing acts for the big N.
The 3DS is, perhaps unsurprisingly, becoming a Nintendo showcase handheld with occasional extras and localised Japanese titles to flesh out its library, and that seems to be just fine. There's a school of thought that the Wii U will become the same thing, a Nintendo-exclusive machine that dabbles with the occasional third-party commercial success. For some consumers that'd be more than enough, and in other households it may be an "other" system, sitting next to a beefier box that delivers the latest blockbusters from publishers such as EA, Activision and Ubisoft. Perhaps that will happen, and perhaps — like Wii — that'll deliver commercial success for Nintendo and allow it to continue delivering its own unique content to happy consumers. Speculation, yes, but not the least likely scenario to be pitched.
The third-party conundrum was one that, last year, some Nintendo fans may have hoped would be solved by the Wii U. Then releases passed it by, question marks about raw processing power were raised, and we went through E3 2013 with a majority of new announcements skipping the platform. It certainly feels like deja-vu.
It's possible that the Wii U will ultimately set off on the same path as the 3DS and, before that, Wii, standing out from the crowd and enjoying a mixture of mostly first-party successes either developer or published by the company. For Nintendo gamers two things are already clear; we won't be playing all of the biggest PS3 / PS4 / Xbox 360 / Xbox One multi-platform releases on Wii U, and it's tough to predict whether the console will fly, flop or something in between. Based on recent memory, a flop doesn't seem likely to us, even if Nintendo has to ultimately build the platform in in its own inimitable style, somewhat apart from rivals.
There's not much heavyweight third-party support coming to 3DS, yet few seem to care; perhaps the Wii U will have to work towards the same end result.