The Wii U is now officially five years old, but unlike most systems that turn five, the Wii U is not still on store shelves to enjoy its fifth anniversary. The console was discontinued in January 2017, barely four years after its initial launch on November 18th, 2012. Its short life parallels that of the SEGA Dreamcast. There is another parallel: the Wii U will probably be much more appreciated in a few years.
I unexpectedly got the Wii U a month after it launched. The original Wii was the first console I ever owned; I picked it up just two years prior to the U. Being so late to the party, I only got to enjoy the last few years of the Wii, but they were fun. So, when the Wii U was announced, I was excited. It’s been discussed a thousand times now about many people being confused when Nintendo first revealed the Wii U, with some thinking that it was an add-on for the original Wii. I was about 12 years old when that announcement took place in E3 2011, yet I understood fully that this was an all-new system, and I was already psyched to get my hands on it.
A Best Buy demo kiosk was my first interaction with the Wii U. I remember walking up to it and seeing the Gamepad in-person for the first time, totally mesmerized by its massive size compared to a traditional controller. Yet, when I held it, the initial intimidation almost melted away instantly. I found it to be comfortable and natural, never ‘clunky’ like some claimed. When I actually got a system of my own, the Gamepad quickly became one of my favorite controllers ever. To me, that touchscreen wasn’t ‘awkward’, it was very useful. While many games didn’t use it in a special way, I found it to be pretty handy for simple things like typing, menu navigation, and of course, Off-TV play. Sure, the battery life wasn’t the best, but I was satisfied with the controller and the system itself.
But, as we all know, the gaming community and general public never paid any special attention to the Wii U. Once the usual hype surrounding every console launch died down, sales remained low and slow for the next four years that the system was in production. Early on, I was one in a tiny group of people who believed that the Wii U just needed time to grow. I thought it was just a late bloomer. Ths system never flourished, though. The PS4 and Xbox One launched a year later and flew past the Wii U’s sales in the blink of an eye. The console stayed at a distant last place ever since then. But, that doesn’t make it a bad system. Like the Dreamcast before it, the Wii U’s highlights probably won’t be fully appreciated by the mainstream for several years.
Nintendo made some mistakes with the Wii U, but it was not a bad system.
The thing about the Dreamcast is that it seems like almost everyone has such fond memories of the system. Basically, every time I see it mentioned in a comment on a website/forum, or in a YouTube video, it’s always spoken so highly of. The Dreamcast has a global community of passionate fans that hold it to a gold standard. Yet, despite the Dreamcast being such a beloved system today, it was fundamentally totally ignored when it was actually on the market. Of course, SEGA’s reputation at the time is really to blame for the Dreamcast’s incredibly short life and troubled legacy.
After finding success with the Genesis, SEGA sought to keep a strong hold on the market. In its mind, the only way was to try and stay one-step-ahead of the competition at all times. This resulted in the constant release of hardware add-ons for the Genesis, and also entirely new systems. SEGA was trying so hard to seem like the ‘coolest’ and ‘most advanced’; but that wasn’t the reality at all. Really, gamers saw the company as being too haphazard and unpredictable. Developers felt the same way. As SEGA’s hardware sales began to bomb, third-parties started to pull away more and more, flocking to rival platforms: Nintendo and Sony. This put SEGA in a financial tailspin, and it needed to get out of it fast. That’s where the Dreamcast comes in.
The Dreamcast was essentially SEGA’s last-ditch effort to try and win over the whole gaming market. Honestly, it was an impressive system for its time. Its graphical capabilities were quite high for a machine in 1999, and it even sported a built-in modem for online functionality (a first for home consoles). It had a good price and decent selection of launch titles. SEGA really seemed to hit all the right notes this time around. But, it wasn’t enough to rewrite the company’s history.
Similar to the Wii U, the Dreamcast was also brought down by mistakes.
By the time the Dreamcast came around, SEGA’s sporadic reputation was already well-established. People simply didn’t trust the company like before. As a result, similar to Wii U, Dreamcast sales tanked shortly after launch. The release of the other sixth-gen systems (PS2 and Gamecube) only made the situation worse (also similar to the Wii U). It got so bad that retailers were basically giving away stock by slashing prices to as low as just $50 (USD) in some cases. In total, the Dreamcast only lasted a few months shy of three years. SEGA was in bad shape prior to the launch of the system, so once sales began to slump so quickly, SEGA’s tailspin pretty much turned into a death spiral. The company only managed to scrape past hitting total bankruptcy. This is how the Dreamcast ended up marking the conclusion of SEGA’s legacy as a console maker. In the months following the system’s demise, SEGA quickly rebuilt and reestablished itself as a third-party company, now only handling game development and publishing.
I’m still not quite sure why the Dreamcast went from being the total ‘zero’ of its time to now being considered an unsung hero. For whatever reason, over time people just came to realize that it was actually a good system and had a decent library of games. Maybe if SEGA didn’t have such a bad rep when it launched the system, the Dreamcast would have probably made it out in much better shape. So, how does this situation compare to the Wii U and Nintendo?
When you examine all the aspects of these two situations, they don’t mirror each other completely. But, they do have some similarities. Like the Dreamcast, the Wii U got off to a strong start but quickly crumbled to a very low state. Both systems had a decent library of games but were overshadowed by the competition. Both systems also introduced concepts that proved to be quite revolutionary later on (Dreamcast: built-in Internet modem, Wii U: the ability to play home console quality games in a semi-portable form factor). It remains to be seen if a resurge in interest in the Wii U will gradually come about as time passes, but so far it’s at least mirroring those three key aspects of the Dreamcast.
These two systems aren’t exactly the same, but they do share a few similarities for better or worse.
One area where both of these systems differ drastically is the effects they had on their parent companies after their poor market performance. While the Dreamcast nearly demolished SEGA, the Wii U only put a dent in Nintendo’s financial health. Unlike its former rival, the Big N has a much better reputation in the gaming industry, hence the reason why it’s the oldest surviving hardware maker in the business. Most companies that stood alongside Nintendo in the 80s and 90s are now either shadows of their former selves, or basically completely gone.
A lot of people expected the Wii U to bring Nintendo down, but this obviously did not happen (nor was there ever any real chance to begin with). In fact, Nintendo has seemingly done the impossible by having one of the most amazing comeback stories in gaming: jumping from its lowest-selling home system ever, to now having a new system that’s taking the whole world by storm in the form of the Nintendo Switch. Even the Big N admits that the reason for this major turnaround is due to all the lessons it learned from falling so hard with the Wii U.
Ultimately, both the Wii U and Dreamcast will go down in history as important turning points for each of their companies: for better or for worse. The main point in all of this is that while both systems did not perform well during their time, they were still able to build a true fanbase. It’s impossible to say whether or not the Wii U’s legacy will transform from ‘troubled’ to ‘appreciated’, but there will always be those who enjoyed the system while it was Nintendo’s frontrunner, such as myself.