As I eagerly await the release of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, I examined my hopes and tried to lower my expectations. It’s easy to get caught up on a hype train fueled by nostalgia.
Franchises have a burden in order to entice consumers. They must have something familiar to bring back people who remember earlier entries fondly, but they also must embrace something new to not be a retread or rehash. Nintendo understands this for the most part. Everyone knows what a Mario or a Zelda game comprises of but audiences want something new on top of that experience. Nintendo usually adds a new mechanic (or gimmick) and expands on the experience1.
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time was a big game at the time, it expanded on the story of Zelda, and realized it in a 3D world. Due to limitations of the Nintendo 64, Nintendo needed to guide the experience in order to make the game seem bigger than it was though scripted events and linear story telling. The world of Hyrule was explorable, but only for when the story was ready to show you, and other 3D Zelda’s followed this strategy for every following entry2.
The (OG) Legend of Zelda was a very unscripted game. The limitations of the original NES required the player to fill in gaps using their imagination3. Then The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past expanded on that (as the Zelda formula hadn’t been finalized yet), and opened the world up and added details and more story. To me, the original feeling of playing that game, the world was huge and free and didn’t hold my hand. Part of the experience was trying to find every little secret in the world. Today, years after advances in video entertainment, that version of Hyrule doesn’t feel as big. It feels well crafted and will always have a place in my heart (thanks nostalgia), and I still feel it’s one of the best games of all time. I also feel that even with every iteration of Zelda, I haven’t had that original feeling since. That is, until The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds was released. A Link Between Worlds did something that Zelda games hadn’t done in a while. It didn’t hold the players hands. It let the player figure things out without guidance4, which in 2013 was not typical of a Nintendo game. It didn’t completely recapture the feeling of A Link to the Past, but it got close5.
Like I said earlier, it’s hard to recapture that feeling. When Star Wars: The Force Awakens debuted, the crowds for the most part loved it. I saw only a rehash of the original even though it held true to the formula. It didn’t capture me the way it did others. But now on the eve of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild I see the Zelda game I’ve been wanting since I played A Link to the Past: a vast world by today’s gaming standards and a return to exploration and finding out things on your own. I simply cannot wait for this game and hope to rediscover that balance of nostalgia and novelty.
While some may not agree, it’s been pretty successful for Nintendo. ↩
I’m looking at you Skyward Sword. At least Wind Waker made it feel bigger with an ocean. ↩
It’s a like a TV show that plays in your brain. It’s something only old people have. ↩
But it did have options for newcomers if they needed it. ↩
It doesn’t hurt that it brought back that whole Light World / Dark World mechanic. ↩
An excerpt from Super Mario Bros. 2 (Boss Fight Books Book 6) by Jon Irwin:
Each of these advances in business strategy relied on the same simple idea: building something new from old parts. Yokoi called it the philosophy of seasoned—or lateral—technology. State-of-the-art didn’t necessarily equal innovation and wonder. But find a clever way to combine common ideas and you can surprise and delight an audience—for cheap.
Nintendo has always done this. It’s in their DNA. The Game Boy was technologically inferior at the time, however it prevailed in the handheld market, and its limitations made some of the most creative games. Nintendo doesn’t compete in a 4K, jillion teraflops, HDR market.
It’s 2017 and the Wii U is no longer in production. As we await the release of the Nintendo Switch, I would like to dedicate this post to my final thoughts as we send it out to pasture.
The Wii U was never going to be a hit. It came out a year before the PS4 and XBone. It was Nintendo’s first foray into HD games, and other consoles already had a generation foothold on that front. Nintendo even admitted they didn’t realize how much effort was needed to develop in HD.
In my opinion though, the Wii U was an improvement over the Wii in every way, and some of my favorite games made by Nintendo (and some third parties) were Wii U games.
I am going to outline my favorites, the biggest disappointments, and the biggest surprises set by the Wii U.
Super Mario 3D World
Super Mario 3D World is probably my third or fourth favorite Mario game ever1. I like it more than Super Mario 64, more than Super Mario Sunshine, and even more than Super Mario Galaxy2. Some fans enjoy the exploration Mario games, but to me Mario is well designed levels from the beginning and with an end. No fetch quests. No dumb minigames3, just focused, fun platforming. The amount of polish on this game is amazing. I hope this game is not lost to time. If you consider yourself a fan of Super Mario Bros. 3 or Super Mario World, you need to play this game.
Bayonetta (XBOX 360, PS3) was my first introduction to Platinum Games. I liked that game a lot. Bayonetta 2 took everything from the first game and improved on it to near perfection. It can be difficult for any game4 to keep your interest from beginning to end, but Platinum Games knows how to pace a game to a T with over the top action. Not only was Bayonetta 2 a Wii U exclusive, Nintendo published the game5, and the retail release included the original game. Nintendo heavily promoted this game, helping encourage the idea that Nintendo was going to be pursuing more adult rated games for the Wii U. There were several Nintendo themed consumes in the game that were so wonderfully executed down to the littlest details. The cherry on top is a secret level when Bayonetta is wearing the Fox McCloud costume, where she turns into an Arwing from Star Fox. It was almost an audition tape for Platinum Games for a new Star Fox game. I hope this game comes to the Nintendo Switch, because without Nintendo, this game would not exist.
One of my favorite Mario Kart games ever. Great tracks. It took the land, air, and sea 6 mechanics from Mario Kart 7 and added the insane anti-gravity sections to new and old tracks, which allowed for some fun thrills. Nintendo then announced their plans for DLC, adding 16 ADDITIONAL tracks for only $12.99. Nintendo delivered on their promise of making super high quality DLC which they promised for the Wii U lifecycle. I consider the DLC to be essential for this game. Never forget the Luigi Death Stare™.
Super Smash Bros. for Wii U
Do you remember7 how Super Smash Bros. Brawl had so much hype around it, but ultimately left the fan base pretty sour? Well, it did. I didn’t hate Brawl as much as everyone else, but it’s definitely the worst in the series8. Super Smash Bros. for9 Wii U had me hyped from when Mega Man was announced. It may not live up to the Melee purists, but this version of Smash is my favorite. It has Mega Man, Sonic, Cloud, Bayonetta, and Ryu, and it all makes sense somehow. I hope this gets ported to the Nintendo Switch, because it didn’t live very long otherwise.
Donkey Kong Tropical Freeze
It’s no secret that I love Nintendo platformer games. The original Donkey Kong Country Trilogy for SNES compiled some of my favorite games. I loved how those games mixed scenic outdoorsy backgrounds to scary factories with an atmospheric soundtrack. Donkey Kong Country Returns for the Wii was a great game, but it was mostly a reintroduction and modernization of the first game. That may be an over simplification, but some of the game felt like a retread. Tropical Freeze innovated on that framework, but made every single level truly unique, fun, and full of adventure10. In this game, Donkey Kong Island is taken over by the Snowmads, a group of cold weather animal foes that transform the island to a winter wonderland 11.
Donkey and Diddy, along with Dixie and even Cranky 12, have to find their way back to save the island. The premise was fun and the enemies were full of character. Retro Studios finally captured everything special about the original series and improved on it. They were able to bring back David Wise, who composed the music for the first three games, and he crafted a truly atmospheric and magical score for this game. Top notch.
Even though the Wii U holds some of my favorite games from Nintendo, it wasn’t without its persistent issues.
The launch of the Wii U was mostly barren. The system was bundled with NintendoLand, a minigame collection full of various Nintendo franchises. Think of this as what Wii Sports was to the Wii. The games did a decent job of showing off some possibilities of the Wii U Gamepad. Luigi’s Ghost Mansion in particular was a favorite among my friends, but the games were mostly hit or miss. It’s a fun tribute to Nintendo, but it didn’t hold the attention of many for long.
The other game at launch was New Super Mario Bros. U. This was the fourth game in the “New” Super Mario Bros. series… and it wasn’t very new. This game is good, I don’t want to discredit it, but the masses weren’t really clamoring for another 2D Mario game. The game also did little to show off the new capabilities of the Wii U. It included the same graphical style as all the other games in the “New” series, only in HD.
Outside of Nintendo’s launch titles, the only original games that weren’t ports that looked enticing were Zombi U and Epic Mickey 2. Both turned out to be pretty average.
The slow trickle of the Wii U drought
Throughout the lifecycle of the Wii U, it seemed like there was always a huge wait between games. This was coupled by very little third party support, leaving the burden of games solely on Nintendo.
In addition to new games, Nintendo also slowed the release of Virtual Console games to a crawl. Not only did the Big N make everyone repurchase Virtual Console games that they may have purchased on the Wii, they were released so… slowly. Some games that were on the Wii Virtual Console weren’t even guaranteed to be released again. The introduction of downloadable Wii titles for those who may have missed them the first time around wasn’t enough to save the Virtual Console.
The Wii U will also be another console without a Metroid title13, and it will not feature a unique Zelda game, as the The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is headed to the Wii U and Nintendo Switch simultaneously. While it will may be a fun final adventure on the Wii U, it’s somewhat depressing that the console will be without its own escapade with Link and Zelda.
The full potential of the Gamepad was never realized
The technology found in the Wii U Gamepad is impressive. It is capable of wirelessly receiving a video signal from the console with almost no latency. The Gamepad itself has no horsepower of its own. I believe this is what led to consumer confusion. Can you take it on the go? No, it has to be in range of the console. It does allow for off-TV-play, which seems like a blessing for some parents wanting to watch TV.
Ultimately, there was no game that truly made the Gamepad a magical experience. It was tacked on for most game experiences. It could show the map or inventory for the Wind Waker and Twilight Princess re-releases, a feature most DS and 3DS owners appreciate. But a TV doesn’t really require extra screen real estate like a portable game console does. There was no true wow factor.
Star Fox Zero
I have to include Star Fox Zero as one of the biggest disappointments for the Wii U. It was Nintendo final charge at pushing the Gamepad as a unique play experience. In this game, you use the left joystick to control the Arwing. Aiming and shooting was deferred to the Gamepad. The Gamepad offered a view from cockpit of the ship while simultaneously flying on the TV. Nintendo touted this mechanic as a new, fun, and unique way to play, transforming controlling the Arwing into an even more powerful experience. But this control scheme, while unique, required a very steep learning curve. Once it was grasped, the game was over. There was no option to play the game without this control scheme.
Furthermore, Star Fox has not had a great game in the franchise since Star Fox 64. When Star Fox Zero was announced the fanbase was excited, and with Platinum Games (creators of Bayonetta as mentioned above) co-developing the game, it attained some high expectations. As more information about the game was released it was discovered this was another retelling of Star Fox 64, which was a retelling of the original Star Fox. Fans did not want to seem the same basic story told again14.
Star Fox Zero was the last big release from Nintendo, and it left a sour taste in the mouths of many fans. It wasn’t a horrible game, but it was very flawed. And it will be a penultimate low note before the Wii U exits with The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.
Even with the disappointments of the Wii U, it did have a handful of generally welcome surprises. There are some games in this section that I do consider some of my favorites for the Wii U, but I feel they are better described as surprises because I would never have prophesied their awesomeness.
Hyrule Warriors is the best celebration of The Legend of Zelda
Hyrule Warriors was shown off early in the Wii U lifecycle. It’s a mix up of Zelda and hack and slash games based off of the popular Dynasty Warrior series. Nintendo was overseeing the project with a third party developer, and it appeared at first as an odd combination that wouldn’t work. This game ended up being a ton of fun, and incorporated almost everything from the series’ long history into its gameplay, characters, settings, and story. I enjoyed it much more than any Dynasty Warriors game. It is stuffed full of content and playable characters. It is a true tribute for any Zelda fan. The game was supported for months after release with a mix of free and purchased DLC, and all of it added to a fantastic game.
The answer to Toad’s enormous wealth
The Toad minigames in Super Mario 3D World were so good that Nintendo turned them into their own full game, called Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker. Nintendo knows cute, and this game is full of charm. It’s a puzzle game where Captain Toad must find his way to a star at the end of each level. Captain Toad isn’t as resourceful or athletic as Mario (he can’t even jump), so he has to find his own way through each puzzle. It also made good use of the Gamepad, unlike many other games. It’s not the biggest game, but it’s dense with secrets and references, and adds depth to Captain Toad as an independent character. We finally know how Toad can afford a factory, a harbor, and a highway15. It was nice to see a game that started off as an experiment blossom into something new and different.
Super Mario Maker
Super Mario Maker is something I would have never imagined from Nintendo. Various hacks and programs available on the Internet have allowed people to make their own Mario levels for years, but Nintendo releasing their own game with a quality editor, and options not possible in the original games, was unfathomable a decade ago. Nintendo has always been protective of their IP, so the idea that people could create super shitty Mario levels and publish them online via a Nintendo supported method seems contrary to their image. This game was not just a simple editor; it had so many secrets, options, packed-in levels, and references to Mario Paint, and all with a Nintendo polish. It turned out being the best experience that only the Wii U could produce, and a common answer to the question, “What’s your favorite Wii U game?”16
Cuteness Overdose: Yoshi’s Wooly World
Yoshi’s Wooly World only ends up here as a surprise because it’s the best Yoshi game since Yoshi’s Island. After numerous releases, I never thought Nintendo would be able to recapture that magic, but they did. Also the graphic style and presentation for the game is the cutest thing ever.
Nintendo Listens? The little things
There were many small things that came as a surprise over the course of the Wii U lifespan. It seemed that Nintendo was listening to criticisms of the Wii U and the video game market at large. The changes were minor, but they nonetheless expressed an evolving Nintendo.
The Wii U had a few improvements overall in the way that most Nintendo published games had multiple controller options. Between Super Smash Bros. for Wii U, Mario Kart 8, and beyond, most games let you use existing Wiimotes, classic controllers, pro controllers, and the Gamepad. Star Fox Zero was the only game where Nintendo completely restricted the Gamepad to the point where it was a determent.
Nintendo has always been reluctant to add DLC to their games. Nintendo has a high standard when they release games, and try to ensure games don’t need a day one patch and are full of content. But as I stated with Mario Kart 8, the DLC was high value, and it was in addition to the already existing 32 tracks. For Super Mario Maker, they released more content for free on a pretty rapid basis. So although their games can stand alone without it, Nintendo’s track record with DLC is very, very good compared to nearly all other video games.
Nintendo also courted indie developers to the console and repaired their relationship with other developers they had dismissed for conservative views. This paved the way for games like Shovel Knight, which debuted on the Wii U before other consoles. Shovel Knight is one of the best games to come out in the past decade, and I consider it the most “Nintendo” game made by another developer. Another indie game made possible by the Wii U is Runbow, a massively fun NINE player game. What other console has nine player games?
You’re a kid now, you’re a squid now
The biggest surprise for the Wii U by far was Splatoon. Nintendo made one of the best online multiplayer shooters, and they did it while being completely Nintendo. Splatoon focuses on 4 on 4 team gameplay. The objective is simple; cover the map with ink. Shooting other players will not win games. Teamwork is encouraged, and each player can play how they want. One person with a lot of experience can run interference for the other team, while a newcomer can run around a map with a giant ink roller. The game has a fantastic single player campaign as well. It’s optional, but it isn’t just tacked on. The single player game establishes the lore behind the world of the Inklings, and you progress through every game mechanic in a fun manner, culminating in an amazing and hilarious final boss. Nintendo supported this game for over a year with in-game events and free content, effectively expanding the game. It’s no surprise that Splatoon 2 is coming to the Nintendo Switch within the first few months after launch. Splatoon is one of the best new things from Nintendo, and it’s already a classic that everyone should know about.
Wii Will See U Later
The Wii U only lived for four years, and the writing has been on the wall for a while. Although the games trickled out, overall they were of a higher quality and ended up being some of my favorite games in years. It may have not been a console for everyone, and definitely didn’t feature the AAA games everyone was talking about as they were saving up money for a PS4 or XBone, but I think Nintendo carved out a fun niche and offered truly unique games unlike anything else out there. The true potential of the Gamepad was never realized, and it’s sad the Nintendo Switch will abandon the concept completely. Nintendo has said that the Wii U was a stepping stone to get to the Nintendo Switch, and I believe that. I often tell people that Nintendo doesn’t compete directly with other consoles, and that’s true. The don’t compete for graphical parity, triple AAA game exclusives, or cutting edge tech. The Wii U was a unique console, and even though it did not sell well, it’s already becoming a collector’s item based on its uniqueness. So if you picked one up, you’re now a collector!
I like the Wii U more than the Wii. It may have a small library, but it’s a good one. As everyone spreads doom and gloom for Nintendo, as they always do for any new Nintendo console, remember that the Wii U and its slow march into the future led to the Nintendo Switch. Nintendo is once again doing something no one else is attempting to do, and they will be just fine.
Favorite Mario games at the time of writing this: 1st:Super Mario Bros. 3,2nd :Super Mario World 3rd&4th:Super Mario 3D Land & World 5th:Super Mario Galaxy 2↩
Sakurai’s very clever way of calling this Smash 4. ↩
There’s a level where Donkey Kong races through a tornado on a rhino. What other game allows me to do that? ↩
The main antagonists of Donkey Kong Country Returns were evil drums. That’s not an over simplification. ↩
In the original DKC it was Donkey and Diddy. In DKC2 it was Diddy and Dixie to save Donkey. In DKC3 it was Dixie and Kiddy to save Donkey and Diddy. For a series named Donkey Kong Country he was only playable in one of the games. I always thought it would have been cool for Donkey and Dixie to team up to save Diddy. I finally got to see that team up in Tropical Freeze so it was a dream come true. ↩