With the Switch now officially launched and several months into the next generation of Nintendo games, I thought it might be a good time to look back on its troubled older sibling. Nintendo certainly has been quick to sweep the Wii U under the rug following the Switch's release, and who could blame them given how abysmally it under-performed? The system struggled immensely out of the gate, with Nintendo heavily banking on the repeat success of the Wii by using the same branding and packing in another party game in the form of Nintendo Land. Unfortunately as we all know, it backfired spectacularly on them, with Nintendo vastly underestimating consumer fatigue toward the Wii brand and running a lackluster marketing campaign that failed to communicate what the system even was.
However as the Dreamcast has demonstrated, just because a console wasn't popular doesn't mean that it wasn't good. In fact, over time the Wii U brought out some of the best in Nintendo, perhaps serving as an important learning experience that helped them in some ways rediscover their roots. As time progressed, it seems Nintendo was forced to reconsider their strategy and recognize that they could not take the core market for granted anymore. Whereas the Wii often took classic Nintendo franchises and tried to make them more accessible to casual audiences by sacrificing depth and challenge, the Wii U instead opted for tried-and-true easy to learn but difficult to master gameplay, or in some cases just outright demanded your full commitment with no hand-holding whatsoever. Their philosophy had shifted toward the idea that ultimately challenging but rewarding gameplay will speak for itself, and you don't have to sacrifice challenge in order to be fun or accessible. After all, the original Super Mario Bros was a brutally difficult game, and that game sold like... well, Super Mario Bros. Which is to say, it sold a lot of fucking copies. So people can handle more heat than we give them credit for.
Still, even with Nintendo's renewed focus, it was unfortunately too little too late. By the time we began to see the company return to form, the Wii U had already been branded as under-powered, uncool, for children only, and a failure by the public at large, even if many of these criticisms were unfair or misleading. I remember particularly with the release of the open world JRPG Xenoblade Chronicles X, the hatred toward the system was so great that I saw numerous comments along the lines of "the Wii U doesn't deserve this game" and there was legitimate anger and frustration expressed that players could not buy it on another system of their choice. To me this was always puzzling as from my perspective it's always been the games that determined the quality of the system, not the other way around. But nonetheless there was this nebulous feeling that seemed to have ingrained itself in gaming culture that the Wii U was just uncool no matter what it did.
Well I'm here ladies and gentlemen to tell you fuck that noise. This shit was awesome, and it deserves to be recognized for the comeback it made, so let's take a look at some of the excellent games that came to the system.
Super Mario 3D World
Kicking things off with Nintendo's return to form, we saw the release of Super Mario 3D World in November of 2013. As someone who was personally not as impressed by the Galaxy series, I was caught completely off guard when I sat down to try this one out. Expecting just another serviceable but forgettable Mario platformer, instead I found it to be a near-perfect merging of old and new school Mario. The isometric camera angle gives it some added old school charm, while still functioning very much like more modern Mario titles from a gameplay perspective. However, with the addition of Luigi, Peach and Toad as fully playable characters that can also easily jump into the fray for some couch co-op, there's another entire layer of replayability and fun factor that hearkens back to Super Mario Bros 2. Each world in this game features a diverse range of obstacles with just the right amount of increasing challenge as you progress towards the inevitable face-off with Bowser. 3D World never lingers too long on any one concept and is constantly throwing new things at you. And to top it off, there's a secret unlockable character that turned out to be a very pleasant surprise for me at the end. This game ended up as my favorite Mario title since the legend that was Super Mario 64. It may not have the same sense of exploration and adventure, but more than makes up for it in tightly-crafted, meticulously-designed gameplay.
Mario Kart 8
2014 was the year when Nintendo really brought out the big guns, beginning with Mario Kart 8 in May. While for many their first experience with this racing masterpiece ended up being on the Switch, they may be quick to forget that its first release was actually on the Wii U, and it's already been lobbing turtle shells at unsuspecting drivers for three years now. Although I've always casually enjoyed the Mario Kart franchise as a whole, I never could have anticipated just how much polish and care would be put into this game to the point that it ended up being my choice for Game of the Year. It's especially surprising given that I'm not a particular fan of the racing genre in general, but the sheer fun factor and attention to detail put into this racer is unlike anything I've seen before. Characters are given lots of lively gestures and facial expressions that react based on the situation. The racing mechanics as a whole also just feel cleaned up, with drifting and mini turbos being much easier to control and pull off. Those who had previously shared gripes with Mario Kart Wii's excessive RNG factor from spammy blue shells and punishing items will be pleased to know that MK8 addresses many of these problems; reducing downtimes when you get knocked off track or slammed by a projectile, as well as providing the air horn as a direct counter to blue shells. The game's central new gimmick, the antigravity tracks, don't exactly revolutionize the gameplay, but they do make for some inventive track designs, and they allow for even many of the reused tracks from previous games to be given some new twists with alternate routes and redesigned sections. And finally, the DLC was an amazing steal, costing only $12 while expanding the number of tracks in the game by 50% and even throwing in Link as a playable racer. If for whatever reason you missed out on this game when it released for Wii U, you owe it to yourself to play it now on Switch.
Perhaps one of the biggest surprises up Nintendo's sleeve was the release of Bayonetta 2 in October of 2014. Originally expected to be a cancelled title, Bayonetta 2 was a violent and hyper-sexualized action game that was suddenly picked up and revived by Nintendo to make into a Wii U exclusive. An odd choice for sure, given Nintendo's reputation. Critically it worked in their favor though, with the game being overwhelmingly well-received. I personally didn't expect just how much of a likeness it had to the original Devil May Cry on PS2, both in terms of gameplay and atmosphere. So close in fact, that I have a hunch some of those developers must have been former Capcom employees. It was a pleasant surprise for me, as I enjoyed the refined DMC-style hack and slash mechanics, as well as the moody demons and angels atmosphere. I couldn't tell you what the hell was going on with its whacked out story however, and those slideshow cutscenes were questionable, but I had a blast cutting down foes in fashionable style regardless. Bayonetta 2 may not have shared as much success financially as it did critically, but it was an earnest showing from Nintendo that they can diversify and they're serious about offering titles for all types of players.
Yet another out-of-left-field release, Hyrule Warriors combines Zelda with Dynasty Warriors gameplay. As my first foray into this subgenre of action games, I can certainly see where the criticisms come from that it's pretty shallow. Hyrule Warriors does a number of things to help mitigate this though, with each character given unique move sets, and swapping weapon types changes their moves completely again. On top of this, you have various equippable Zelda items at your disposal to overcome obstacles. The game introduces a number of fun new characters to the Zelda universe that feel like they fit quite seamlessly alongside other classic characters, and the story follows an intriguing premise that involves Link traveling to different eras across Hyrule's history. The most fun component to this game however is definitely the adventure mode. It's like the equivalent of Star Wars Battlefront's galactic conquest mode but adapted to the Warriors formula, with near-endless replayability and a satisfying progression system. Hyrule Warriors doesn't fundamentally shake up the Warriors recipe or totally escape its shortcomings, but its sheer amount of content and free shit they give you makes it worthwhile for anyone who just wants to beat stuff up and look cool while doing it with their favorite Zelda characters.
Super Smash Bros for Wii U
Still determined to knock it out of the park in 2014, Nintendo unleashed Super Smash Bros in November. Much like other iterations of long-running franchises on the Wii U, they continued to listen to criticisms and stripped out Brawl's infamous tripping mechanic, which used to trigger itself completely at random and leave players open to attacks. In addition, the overall speed and responsiveness to character actions had been increased, making the combat more fast-paced and competitive like the previous fan favorite, Super Smash Bros Melee. I'll be honest here, I'm still super butthurt about the complete lack of an adventure mode, but the game does make a number of refinements and fixes to the core mechanics from Brawl, boasts a plethora of new characters, and is sure to please anyone who just wants a good fighting game. There's still no other fighting games that offer both accessibility and depth in the way that Smash Bros does, and most can't offer as much content either, even with a few notably missing features this time around.
Xenoblade Chronicles X
Giant mechs and cool anime characters were enough to sell me on this behemoth RPG. With a world that is larger than the size of Fallout 4, Skyrim, and The Witcher 3 combined, you'll have no shortage of content to explore either. Xenoblade Chronicles X is a game that demands your full attention, as much like the latest Zelda title, it pretty much just dumps you off in the wilderness and leaves you to pull yourself up by your bootstraps. If you happen to come across a level 60 monster that decimates you in one hit, well tough shit. It's both a refreshing and occasionally frustrating game in this regard, as I often found it exhilarating to stumble upon massive alien creatures roaming the landscape that I had to carefully navigate around, lest I face nature's retribution at my feeble attempts to challenge it. However, the game has so many different mechanics and moving parts to it, none of which is adequately explained, so navigating the numerous menus and maximizing your characters' potential can be a real chore. But if you're willing to put in the effort, Xenoblade is a rewarding game with breathtaking visuals and challenging gameplay. And also mechs. Can't forget that. Mechs make everything cooler. Did I mention this game really sells the functionality of the Wii U gamepad too? This was the only game on the Wii U where I genuinely preferred the gamepad over the Pro controller. Being able to navigate the mini map and execute commands on it was pretty handy, and it also could pull up a screen full of fun emote buttons that you could express yourself with. Being able to create extra buttons on the fly is a pretty cool feature of the tablet.
Wind Waker HD and Twilight Princess HD
You could say it's cheating to include these titles being that they're just remasters, but they are notable in that they do a better job than most offerings of this type. Wind Waker's cel shading aesthetic already helped the game a lot in maintaining its charm over the years, but improvements to lighting further enhanced the color and vibrance in its HD release, and while Twilight Princess perhaps didn't benefit as much from its visual upgrades as Wind Waker did, it still got a nice overhaul on all of its previously muddy textures. More importantly, Twilight Princess ditched the tacked on motion controls that originally hamstrung its Wii release, which combined altogether make it into a title that's deserving of a second chance at life. Twilight Princess has a reputation of being somewhat of a disappointment by fans, but I submit to you that when played with a proper control scheme, it takes the Ocarina of Time formula and refines it in nearly every way. Midna is an infinitely better assistant than Navi, complete with a full character arc where she naturally grows from a mischievous imp who just wanted to use you for her own personal gain, to someone who truly cares about the inhabitants of Hyrule and wants to do whatever she can to save it. It's also a more story-heavy game in general, which I think lends itself in a good way to providing motivation and context for what you're doing, as it feels like there's more purpose behind why you're risking life and limb through all these dungeons. And finally, the new techniques that you acquire throughout the game add some much-welcome diversity to the combat that I was sad to see never returned in later iterations. TL;DR it's Zelda. Buy it.
There's plenty more of course that I could talk about, like Super Mario Maker, Wonderful 101, Splatoon, Donkey Kong Tropical Freeze, Star Fox Zero, and so on. The Wii U technically even got Breath of the Wild, but these were just some of the highlights from my experience. Feel free to share some of your own.
So yeah, the Wii U's gamepad may have looked like a Fisher Price toy, but when properly utilized like it was in Xenoblade Chronicles X, it was actually a quite competent controller, and if it still really rubs you the wrong way, almost every game I played on the system offered multiple ways for you to play, including the Pro controller or even the old Wii remote if you felt so inclined. And while the hardware certainly doesn't stack up to current-gen systems either, it was still a very capable HD console, with many games running at a stable 60 FPS, and Smash Bros even achieved native 1080p to boot. Within its first couple of years on the market, it already had enough exclusives to make it a worthwhile purchase despite its lackluster launch, and if you ask me, that's more than can be said for the PS4 and Xbox One.
And so I bid thee farewell, Wii U. It was a great time while it lasted. You may have been a troubled console, but you never lost your Nintendo charm, and your sacrifice paved the way for a much brighter future in the form of the Switch. In time, I think gamers will come to see you the way you should be remembered: an underappreciated gem - Nintendo's Dreamcast.