Neal investigates why Wii U games rarely seem to focus on the system’s exclusive features.
In the summer of 2012, I remember feeling excited about the Wii U, giddily anticipating Nintendo’s next console. After experiencing Nintendo Land, Pikmin 3, ZombiU, and much more at various pre-launch events, the wait for November was agonizing. The GamePad, to me, was a new controller filled with potential, especially since it was so fundamentally integrated with the console. When the system launched, I loved the experiences I had in multiplayer with the GamePad in Nintendo Land. I adored how the GamePad was used in Ubisoft’s ZombiU. Then, something happened: The GamePad disappeared.
Now, of course, it’s not like it actually disappeared. The GamePad is still a fundamental part of the console and a wide swath of Wii U owners are still over the moon about off-TV play. But look at how the controller is used in games: outside of rare efforts such as Kirby and the Rainbow Curse, Nintendo barely uses the GamePad as more than a mirror of the TV image in the majority of their games. Rainbow Curse, in a way, was weird because for the first time since Nintendo Land, a first party game used something resembling asynchronous multiplayer. The upcoming game Splatoon uses the GamePad in a seemingly integral way that calls to mind Lego City Undercover, that two-year-old game that featured a necessary interaction between the TV and the GamePad that hasn’t really been expanded upon or repeated since.
At this point, even eShop developers barely use the GamePad in unique ways outside of Knapnok Games’ Affordable Space Adventures, a game that Renegade Kid’s Jools Watsham hopes that “Nintendo helps promote…as much as the game helps to promote the innovative qualities of the Wii U.” Released last week, Affordable Space Adventures is a Wii U exclusive that takes advantage of basically everything the system offers, combining interesting GamePad/TV usage with local multiplayer. Still, that doesn’t stop Knapnok’s Lau Korsgaard from saying that a lot of Wii U exclusive titles don’t “feel like they are ‘fulfilling the potential.’”
“I think the problem (if it is a problem) is deeper rooted in the design of the Wii U,” Korsgaard explained. “The Wii U does a bunch of cool things: It has this GamePad that makes two-screen play possible, it lets you play with your old Wii Remotes, so local multiplayer is easy and cheap, off-screen play makes it possible to continue playing on your GamePad while mom is watching TV. These features are really unique, but also mutually exclusive!”
Korsgaard followed up, giving examples: “If I want to make a game that supports local multiplayer, like Mario Kart, I can't at the same time make the controls depend on a lot of GamePad features. If I want to make a game that lets you continue play if the TV is turned off, like New Super Mario Bros., I can't make the gameplay be dependent on the GamePad either. I think that is why there hasn't been made a single game, even by Nintendo, where everything made sense as it just clicked for the system. You simply can't do everything at the same time.”
He’s absolutely right, even if Korsgaard is one of the few developers who actually uses as much of the system’s potential as possible in each of his games. Before Affordable Space Adventures, he was the mastermind behind Spin the Bottle, which is a crazy eight-player multiplayer game that doesn’t use the TV at all but manages to use the GamePad and Wii Remotes in a wide variety of ways.
Going back to ardent Affordable Space Adventures supporter and noted eShop developer Jools Watsham, he chalks up the lack of interesting GamePad usage to one simple fact: sales. “If you're going to dedicate your time and effort to taking advantage of the unique features of the Wii U, you need for it to pay off in sales if you're going to be able to continue making games for a living,” he detailed.
Watsham, who is currently working on Mutant Mudds Super Challenge for Wii U and 3DS, chalks up big publishers shying away from GamePad-heavy titles because of the lack of profit and porting potential. As for indie developers, it’s more tenable for them to make something compelling with the GamePad, but their scope is limited and an indie developer can’t make something as grand as Nintendo Land.
The bigger mystery for Watsham is why Nintendo shied away from the GamePad themselves. At launch, Nintendo Land was a tour de force of potential for the shiny new controller, but it didn’t stick. “The GamePad is clearly not the revolution that the Wii Remote was,” Watsham mused. “There, I said it.”
Nintendo, historically, has always made their systems around a single vision or concept, usually tying into a Mario game of some kind. The clearest examples, according to Watsham, are Super Mario World and Super Mario 64. The goal with those titles is to “demonstrate and inspire developers to create great things on their new hardware.” Nintendo Land, with the absence of anything resembling it in the past two and a half years, clearly missed that mark.
Because of how much that mark was missed in both acclaim and system sales, there is a clear, inherent risk to any Wii U-heavy game, which is a sentiment that both Yacht Club Games’ David D’Angelo and 13AM Games’ Alex Rushdy share. “Introducing such a bizarre, unique gameplay design element exponentially increases that riskiness in both game quality and financial aspects,” D’Angelo elaborated. “Incorporating such a unique hardware feature also means the Wii U is pretty much the only option for sales. Cutting off other huge sections of the market is very scary.”
D’Angelo and the team at Yacht Club are in the process of bringing their 2014 Wii U and 3DS game Shovel Knight to PlayStation 4, Vita, and Xbox One. Even though Yacht Club might have had other systems on their mind when creating Shovel Knight, they still created a unique feature for the game that couldn’t be replicated on another platform “We felt Miiverse was also a big part of the Wii U experience, so that's how we ended up with the Digger's Diary.”
The Digger’s Diary is a way of letting players post to Miiverse for specific areas of the game in a similar way to how New Super Mario Bros. U did. D’Angelo further explained: “We spent a very large amount of time coming up with this feature. We wanted to create something we thought would be fun and engaging, but at the same time not create something so big and unique that you'd be disappointed if you owned the 3DS or PC versions.”
And because of that last point, Digger’s Diary wasn’t something wholly necessary. As someone who personally played through Shovel Knight on 3DS, I can’t say I felt I was missing anything by not playing it on Wii U. That seems to be par for the course with a lot of Wii U features, as it’s usually as simple as a map on the GamePad’s screen, if that. Essentially, the GamePad has been reduced to being the touch screen on the 3DS.
On the other hand, you have Rushdy and 13AM Games’ current project Runbow, which is an ambitious nine-player competitive platformer that features modes and controls that can only be done on Wii U. As they near the end of development, there are no regrets on their heavy Wii U focus. “I think it's really worth it to put in that extra effort,” he said. “Wii U owners are looking for games that make use of the hardware beyond off-TV play and a lot of people have been really pleased with ColourMaster and its unique use of the GamePad. Heck, even just the fact that the GamePad allows us nine players instead of eight is something that is really cool and only possible on Wii U.”
For eShop developers like 13AM Games and Knapnok Games who want to go the extra mile, that system-specific focus can be worthwhile. “I also believe Nintendo really takes notice when you put in the extra care to make your game a Wii U game, as opposed to a game that is simply appearing on Wii U,” Rushdy explained, about a month after Runbow was a highlight of Nintendo’s own eShop-focused press event during GDC.
But for others, even the carrot of support from Nintendo might not be enough to save the system and its unique ideas. “The Wii U never lived up to its own potential, even from its creators,” Watsham said. “You have to lead [by] example, and Nintendo are the kings of doing this, but they failed to deliver with the Wii U in terms of utilizing their own platform, which has resulted in a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
That doesn’t mean the Wii U is a failure, as the system still has many magnificent games, even if most of them don’t take advantage of the system’s biggest features. Developers have fond memories of Nintendo Land, and Watsham directly called out a slew of games ranging from Super Mario 3D World to ZombiU. D’Angelo even mused over the idea of working on a GamePad-specific game in the future, but the way things are looking, that might not be a reasonable idea.
“It's not like the Wii U has failed gamers in a general sense, but in regards to how well the GamePad has been utilized, overall [it] has unfortunately been somewhat of a failure,” Watsham concluded. “And that is Nintendo's burden to bear.”
So here we are, more than two and a half years past the launch of the Wii U and it is more or less guaranteed the GamePad won’t be a revolution like its motion-controlled predecessor. While we might be able to look forward to a few more bright spots similar to Affordable Space Adventures, the sad reality is that the GamePad will never be anything more than an underachieving peripheral, serving up little innovation or consistently unique experiences outside of off-TV play. For some, that’s likely more than enough, but as Wii U system sales continue to be trumped by competitors, it makes you wonder: what if the GamePad’s potential had been fully realized?