It's been an insightful day for Nintendo fans. First Nintendo announced that starting with New Super Mario Bros. 2 in August, they'll be selling first party 3DS and Wii U games online in their respective digital stores alongside their physical retail copies from the day of release. Later, someone at Ubisoft gave the entire Wii U game away alongside confirming the existence of the recently heavily rumoured sequel to Rayman Origins - Rayman Legends - by leaking a trailer for the Wii U version of the game online.
This trailer seemed to be E3 ready - though Ubisoft later commented that it was a video for internal development departments in some fashion and doesn't represent a completed anything - and demonstrates for the first time a real game running on the hardware. Included is a demonstration of the oft-rumoured Near Field Communications technology built into the Wii U tablet controller, something that's both popular in the world of easy mobile/credit card payment (which is sure to be one major element of its use in the system) and more recently in Activision's successful Spyro reboot 'Skylanders'. The Skylanders concept has been - justifiably - heavily compared to the Pokemon franchise for its ability to drive a mighty storm of merchandising forward in a manner not dissimilar to how Pokemon built its empire towards the end of the 90s. It's not hard to see the potential this technology has for the Pokemon franchise itself - and that's pretty exciting for a start.
But, given that Nintendo also just posted a major loss in the past year, and the 3DS is still making a loss thanks to its failure to achieve high orbit after launch last year, the Wii U needs to do what the 3DS is still struggling to try and manage: it needs to deliver on that potential.
In the trailer (above) we can see that the Wii U (which, if the trailer is destined for E3, it seems that the name is staying around, despite its poor reception) does seem to be capable of matching the 360 and PS3's visual capabilities to a sold degree (though a range of different games will be necessary to determine this for sure), and the online multiplayer does at least hint towards a possibility that the Wii U's online system will be far more open and utilised than the Wii's was - and hopefully a lot closer to the PSN and XBL in function and usability, too. The tablet controller, and the continuing reliance on Wiimotes for further players, still comes across as a letdown for the system in terms of local multiplayer action - but the controller itself does seem to be bringing enough of an extra dimension to the gameplay to be a much more useful tool to developers in making good games better than the Wiimote was ever capable of.
Still, despite the promise of the potential for good multi-platform games to be better on the Wii U as a result of its unique features, the fact remains that we've been down this road before.
Travel back in time to E3 2006, where the Wii was in the position the Wii U now stands - its first real public demonstration ahead of a launch later in the year - and the promises of potential were high and lofty then, also. Videos demonstrated an unbelievable level of immersion in games as your every move was flawlessly replicated by the game thanks to the magical Wii remote, and considering that the Xbox 360 was still finding its own visual grounding at the time, the graphics even managed to come across as looking pretty good also (though gratuitous use of pre-rendered cut scenes helped).
The reality is, though, that it would be the end of 2011, when The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword was released, that we even came close to seeing that potential finally fully realised. Further disappointment throughout the years was also felt by the failure by Nintendo to make full use of the potential of its Virtual Console online store. Touted as a complete back catalog of every single Nintendo console from the NES to the N64 (and a few guests along for the ride), releases started off slow and somehow managed to lose even more traction, slowing to basically nothing at all. To date, there are many major first and third party games and franchises just not represented at all, and those that are find themselves priced rather high for what is functionally nothing more than an emulator and a ROM packaged together.
The Wii is a financial success (an insanely massive one, at that) - but in many respects it is also one of Nintendo's most pungent failures. The broken promises and shaken confidences leave the Wii U in a precarious position amongst would-be customers. While Nintendo's name is almost certainly enough to make the system sell at all, the 3DS has proven that this isn't enough to sustain a weak platform beyond the early adoption flurry, and the battering Nintendo has taken over the 3DS's troubles is not something they can easily suffer twice.
So, can Nintendo turn things around and make the Wii U a total success? Yes, but only if they truly, genuinely deliver the goods. Here are a few of the major points I'd consider that Nintendo will need to hit to manage that:
Nintendo needs to learn from the 3DS's mistakes and be prepared to cut their short term profits on each system or, as Microsoft and Sony have done previously, take a simple loss on each console until falling costs even the playing field. Either way, a replication of the 3DS's excessively high launch price can't happen - nor can Nintendo be seen to back down from such a high price just months later again. The Wii U must come in at under £300 to be viable at all, and closer to £200/£250 to stand a chance at building any momentum.
Another failure of the 3DS was that its premature launch in the spring deprived it of any meaningful launch software. A spike in sales occurred when the Ocarina of Time remake finally came around, but even that wasn't enough to sustain the 3DS through the summer. No system has ever launched with a large range of fantastic games - but ensuring that there are big name Nintendo titles at launch (such as Mario, Pokemon or Zelda) is a must. Actually managing to launch with a large range of fantastic first and third party games, however, would be a coup the system's competitors would struggle to live up to in its wake.
Nintendo can't be seen to turn its back on the casual customers that made the Wii the runaway success it was after its launch - but the reality is that those customers are not the ones buying new software on a consistent basis. Of the titles that sold more than a million copies on the Wii, almost all of them are Nintendo first party games, and almost all of the other - third party - games are, well, party games. The people that bought the Wii for Wii Sports may have moved onto Just Dance, but that's about as far as they stretch. It's the 'core' gamers, seeking deeper levels of gameplay and game design that will buy the majority of the software that is the life blood of the system. Nintendo failed to provide both the platform and enough of an abundance of those titles to let the market take hold on the Wii. The Wii U has the potential to be the correct platform for a more complete gaming experience than its predecessor - but Nintendo will also have to prove its own commitment to that market for others to believe it'll be strong enough to support them as well as the Wii's competitors have until now.
Nintendo has, without exception, made a mess of all their online systems to date. The DS was a worthy experiment for its time, but Nintendo's shown a stubborn lack of innovation or evolution since. While the success of Xbox Live or the Playstation Network is unquestionable, Nintendo has ignored their direction to take their own, more awkard path. It hasn't worked and it never, ever, will. Ideally, outsourcing that entire aspect of their console to another company would be the best solution, but at the very, very least, just copy what the competition is doing right and work from there.
Most of all, though:
They must, must, must make good on their promises.
E3 will undoutedly be an optimistic time for Nintendo, and fans of what they produce. A lot will be said about what the system can do and what doors it will open up. It's important that Nintendo, at last, demonstrates that they are prepared to actually walk through those doors and show us what's really on the other side. Don't just reverberate the concept that the NFC technology will provide new ways to make games like Pokemon even better, just do it - and don't take 5 years to do it this time, either.
The latest peek behind the glowing veil of the Wii U's imminent reveals is a promising one. Things are looking better than they are looking worse - but Nintendo's corporate personality is one riddled with character flaws. They can be an entirely self-destructive force if they let it, and they wouldn't be the first major Japanese game developer to cripple themselves out of the business. Mistakes have been made of late, and now - as E3 and the Wii U's launch both rapidly approach - it's up to Nintendo to demonstrate that they can learn from those mistakes - or be doomed to repeat them for ever.