A Look at the Nintendo Dark Ages
An Essay by Scotty Bussinger (Poliwrathlord)
I’d like to preface this by saying that there is still some disagreement over when the Nintendo Dark Ages began. For the sake of this post I will be saying that it began in 2011. With that out of the way I’ll try to keep this short. I hope you find this good enough to leave a comment or at the very least find it interesting.
Setting the Stage (for confusion)
2011 was a transition year for Nintendo. The sun was setting for the Wii and DS, both incredibly financially successful consoles, however some can argue that the Wii did significant damage to the Nintendo brand in the long run has it had almost completely alienated the core gaming audience. At the end of 2010 the Wii had shipped 84 M. units and the DS had shipped a staggering 144 M. units, but as mentioned before time was closing in on the two systems.
In 2010 Nintendo had announced the successor to the DS, the 3ds which had greatly improved graphics and glasses free 3D the main selling point of the handheld. The 3ds launched in spring 2011 with what many considered a steep price point of $250 and a lackluster library of games. The 3ds floundered for the first few months causing Nintendo to cut the price of the 3ds to $170 in August. While the initial struggle of the 3ds now seems in hindsight as a minor misstep, it was the first time that people, more specifically Nintendo die-hards began to lose faith in Nintendo, however things look up for the 3ds with games like Mario 3D Land and Mario Kart 7 coming out a month from each other, leading to one of the biggest console turnarounds, rivaling that of the PS3.
Reverse back to E3 2011; The Nintendo conference was mostly focused on the last Wii games, mostly focusing on Skyward Sword, the system’s swan song. At the end of the conference Nintendo unveiled the Wii U, their new console with a trailer. While during the conference Nintendo did specify that this was a new console, there was a great deal of initial confusion within the gaming masses over whether it was an add-on for the Wii or an entirely new system. I can recall distinctly as an 11-year-old trying to explain to my older brothers and parents the concept of the Gamepad and that the Wii U was a new console, but they had a hard time understanding.
The main problem was the name of the new console, as something akin to Wii 2 or Super Wii would’ve alleviated the confusion regarding what the Wii U actually was. Another problem that the Wii U faced right after its announcement was the Gamepad. People were far from sold on it and didn’t understand what the full purpose of it was within gaming. Yes, it presented a new way to play games, but would it really make those games any more fun to play than a traditional controller?
The botched launch of the 3ds and the confusion surrounding the Wii U during its reveal are reasons why I believe that 2011 was the beginning of the Nintendo Dark Ages. If I had to give a specific date for it, I would have to say June 7th, 2011 the day of Nintendo’s E3 conference (the botched 3ds launch would be just an event leading up the dark ages).
Failure to Launch (again)
2012 was not a bad year for Nintendo compared to what they would endure in the future. The 3ds was beginning to take off with quality games and an XL model that helped the console ship massive amounts of units.
At E3 2012 all eyes were on Nintendo as they would blow the lid off everything Wii U. They began the conference with the long awaited Pikmin 3. The rest of the conference would highlight games such as Nintendo Land and New Super Mario Bros U. Nintendo Land would serve as a proof of concept for the Wii U, but it still failed to convince people that the Gamepad would enhance games. By this point the New Super Mario series had over stayed its welcome with New Super Mario Bros Wii coming out just two years ago, and New Super Mario Bros 2 coming out just months before the Wii U version on the 3ds. Critics of the series cited the cookie cutter design, and just lack of passion in the games as reasons why the series was becoming too blasé and boring.
The most important thing to take away from E3 2012, and the whole year in general in regards to the Wii U was the lack of a killer app for the Wii U. Mario Bros U would not do the job and without a proper killer app, the console would surely struggle just a few months later as shown by the 3ds.
In September Nintendo held the Wii U Preview event where Nintendo showed off more games, one of which was Bayonetta 2, which still has people angry to this day. Nintendo also announced the price for the system as well with it being $300 for the 8gb Basic Model and $350 for the 32gb Premium model that came with Nintendo Land. Many considered this to be steep asking price for the Wii U, and many did not like the fact that it came in two different SKUs, one of which was almost completely useless with an external hard drive when considering the day one patch for the console. By the end of the event people were still not convinced of the Wii U which would give the Big N a big battle to fight within the coming months.
The Wii U launched November of 2012 with 32 games, which at the time Nintendo claimed was the largest launch lineup up to that point (I couldn’t find a source for this, but I remember them saying something like this). Most of these were ports of games that the 360 and PS3 had for months already. Nintendo saw good success that holiday season with around 3 M. consoles shipped at the end of 2012, but all of that success would completely disappear after everyone had put their Christmas decorations away.
Wii U? More like Wii BOO!
2012 ended with the Wii U selling a decent number of consoles, never again would the console see that much success. From January 1st, 2013 to March 31st, 2013, the Wii U shipped 390,000 units. The next fiscal quarter from, April 1st to June 30th, the Wii U shipped a meager 160,000 units. Sales for the Wii U had dropped off a thousand-foot cliff and then were ripped to shreds by pointy rocks. Immediately after the launch of the Wii U, there was legendary game drought. A game or two a month would come out, causing countless Wii U owners to their leave their new system under layers of dust.
Nintendo would cite the cause of this horrific drought as a lack of experience when developing in HD, however things did not help when almost all 3rd party support for the system had vanished. EA, 2K, Bethesda, and other major developers did not touch the Wii U after its opening months. Really the only 3rd party companies willing to work on the Wii U were Ubisoft, SEGA, and Traveler’s Tale, but eventually their support waned towards the later years. In September 2013 Nintendo dropped the price of the premium Wii U SKU to $300 alongside the release of Wind Waker HD and phased out the Basic SKU out of store shelves entirely.
Come November of 2013, with the price drop and the release of Mario 3D World Wii U sales did pick up, but no where near what they needed to be. By that point the Xbox One and PS4 had released and the true next generation of consoles was here, rendering the Wii U almost irrelevant.
With the beginning of 2014 morale for the Wii U and Nintendo was still relatively high. During all of the Wii U’s first year struggles the 3ds was still doing quite well and was now starting to hit its peak, and despite the Wii U floundering, people were now thinking that the Wii U was worth a purchase as it finally had decent games in its library. May 2014 saw the release of Mario Kart 8, and momentum was strong after its release. Sales were starting to rise, and some promising games were coming out in 2014. Games like Bayonetta 2 and Smash Bros for Wii U would release late 2014 and games like Captain Toad Treasure Tracker and Kirby Canvas Curse (I know this isn’t a 2014 game but it was an early 2015 game) used the Gamepad in fun and interesting ways; it was clear that in 2014 Nintendo still had a lot of faith in the system and more importantly the Gamepad. All that needed to happen was for those games to convince people that the Wii U was worth buying.
As we all know now, the sales for the Wii U did not pick up; things were over for the Wii U. In my opinion 2014 is where the Wii U truly died. The damage from the name, the terrible advertising, the severe droughts, the confusing concept, and the alienation of core gamers had killed the Wii U in such a way that it could not be recovered.
The Dark Before the Dawn
2015 would be a very rough year for Nintendo on all fronts. A very limited amount of quality games for both the Wii U and 3ds would plague Nintendo during the coming months. I believe that it was at this point Nintendo shifted all focus. This is apparent because in March of 2015, Satoru Iwata announced that the Big N would be releasing a new console, with a “brand-new concept” called the NX.
"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,'" – Satoru Iwata
Most people at the time said that Nintendo made this announcement because in the same press conference they also announced that they would be making mobile games, however, after the fact, I think that wasn’t the case. Personally, I believe that this was Iwata’s “the Saturn is not our future” moment, just worded better. Following the announcement of the NX, and all the way until its full unveiling, rampant rumors and speculations about what the console could be set the internet on fire every month.
I think that this is the case because if you look at the Wii U’s releases for the upcoming years of 2015 and 2016, there is a small amount of games that we had not known about for a while. Game like Splatoon, Yoshi’s Wooly World, Xenoblade Chronicles X, Star Fox, and Tokyo Mirage Sessions, the biggest games from Nintendo in 2015 and 2016, were games we had already known about for years. It was clear that nothing new was in development for the Wii U and that the delays that those games received were probably done to space out what was left of the Wii U’s upcoming releases. The state of the Wii U’s release schedule was so bad this year, that a Mario Tennis game was the premier title of the holiday season.
As a small mention, 2015 was a bad year for the 3ds. Aside from a couple Zelda games, niche JRPGs, and mediocre games like Chibi-Robo, there wasn’t a whole lot going on for the system; its sales success that year mostly came from the New 3ds model that released.
2016, the final year of the Wii U’s relevance, had minor releases spread throughout the year. By this point the console was a bloated corpse that Nintendo had to parade around with until the Switch released the next year. To me the lowest point of the Nintendo Dark ages came when Nintendo announced that all their E3 showcase for the year would be the Nintendo Treehouse, mostly focusing on Zelda Breath of the Wild, which they also announced would be coming to the NX
In October of 2016 Nintendo released the now famous trailer unveiling the Switch. People were still skeptical of the system, and they had every right to be after the last four years. Nintendo was now moving on from the Wii U, almost seeming as if they wanted you to think the console had never existed. The 3ds took the main spotlight holiday season 2016, and the Wii U didn’t even get a mention.
In January 2017 Nintendo held the Nintendo Switch Presentation, blowing the lid off everything Switch. People after the event were lukewarm on the system at best. But Nintendo went full steam a head with the Switch, advertising it everywhere they could, and on March 3rd, 2017, the Switch released worldwide, alongside five games, one of which was Breath of the Wild, which not only served as the Switch’s grand entrance to the gaming world, but also as the Wii U’s swan song as it would be the last game that Nintendo would release on the system. It was over for the Wii U; the console could now be put to rest.
A new Nintendo era was ushered in by the Switch; the Nintendo faithful could raise their heads after years of embarrassment as the Nintendo Dark Ages were over.
Why the Wii U Failed
I’d now like the time to explain the main reasons as to why the Wii U failed. I will keep this very brief as I’m sure we’ve all been told the reasons why several times.
Poor Advertising – Nintendo’s marketing team took a shit to say the least when it came to marketing the Wii U. The company said it was for the core gamers initially but the first commercial for the Wii U from holiday season 2012 featured mainly kids, and the rest of the commercial for the console would follow suit. They also talked down to the kids which is not the way to advertise to them.
Similar Library to the 3ds – The Wii U’s library became increasing similar to the 3ds’s in the following years. Here’s some examples:
3DS Wii U
Smash Bros for 3ds Smash Bros for Wii U
Mario Party Star Rush Mario Party 10
Yoshi’s Wooly World 3D Yoshi’s Wooly World
Mario Kart 7 Mario Kart 8
Super Mario 3D Land Super Mario 3D World
Hyrule Warriors Legends Hyrule Warriors
This cross pollination of games across both platforms made the 3ds, not the PS4 and Xbox One, the main competitor of the Wii U.
As mentioned earlier, the name for this console is atrocious. To this day I’m not sure what the “U” is supposed to mean. If the console was named Wii 2 or Super Wii, I’m sure it would’ve sold more units.
Lack of Ambitious Games
Super Mario 3D World does not hold a candle in terms of sheer brilliance, and elevation of the series to Super Mario Galaxy
Mario Kart 8 didn’t change the series as much as Double Dash!! or Mario Kart Wii
Smash Bros for Wii U did not come close to having the same amount of content to Brawl. It didn’t even try to include a story mode.
Yoshi’s Wooly World was practically the same as prior Yoshi games, just with a new coat of paint (or yarn)
Star Fox: Zero could never come close to Star Fox 64
Releasing in 2012
To me releasing in 2012 was one of the biggest mistakes Nintendo made for the console. With the closest thing to a killer app coming out the year later, it just seems erroneous that Nintendo would’ve wanted to launch the console that early. With how good the 3ds’s sales were in 2013 they were under no financial pressure to release the Wii U when they did. They could’ve easily sat on the console and wait until they had more games to release on the system.
The Nintendo Dark Ages were incredibly hard to go through as video gamer who almost exclusively plays Nintendo. While the 3ds did not suffer nearly as much as the Wii U (and has even overtaken the GBA as my favorite handheld), Nintendo’s home consoles are what I enjoy the most. It was excruciating to live through this, and while Nintendo was never at any risk of going out of business during this period, I really do hope they learned their lessons from the Wii U.
I’ll look back at this era of Nintendo with conflicting feelings; it gave me games that I loved like Pikmin 3, Bayonetta 2, Pokemon ORAS, Super Mario 3D Land, DKC: Tropical Freeze, but with all that being said it was an incredibly tough time to go through as a Nintendo fan, and to be honest almost completely threw me out of gaming; the Switch has now saved me, and I’m beginning to enjoy games as much as I did when I was a young kid.
Thank you for reading, and I hope that you enjoyed it.Last edited by Poliwrathlord - on 28 November 2018