The Wii U had a tough 2015. Nintendo can boast that they have released some of the most excellent exclusives of the year, yes, but with their next console looming in the horizon, it's hard not to feel like 2015 was a transitional period. This is part of our 2015 "State of" series, a look at how the five major consoles (and PC) are doing this year.
Let's go back in time to the middle of 2015. May saw the release of Kirby and the Rainbow Curse, a solid game with a distinct visual style. Nothing ground-breaking, par for the course for a Nintendo console. By now, we all know that Nintendo hardware means playing Nintendo-developed games, be it new iterations of classic franchises, or virtual console re-issues of fan favourites.
The start of the year was anchored almost entirely by Nintendo's continued support of Smash Bros. That game may have come out in 2014, but 2015 was the year Nintendo invested heavily in updates. That support, in combination with the ever-growing fighting game scene, made 2015 feel like it was the year of Smash Bros. Smash Bros. broke records in 2015. One of the biggest bombshells of the year was from Smash Bros.. Some of the most inspirational stories of 2015, eSports-wise, were for Smash Bros. A Wii U game from 2014 became one of the most talked about things in 2015!
The flip-side is that this demonstrates how weak 2015 was for the Wii U: one of its stand-out games wasn't actually released that year.
The kid-friendly competitive shooter Splatoon also came out in 2015, and it was great. Leave it to Nintendo to find a way to make shooters feel fresh again. While the launch of Splatoon was kind of rocky thanks to a number of bizarre oversights and a lack of content, Nintendo kept updating the game throughout the year with a number of maps, modes, and gear — all of which were free. In 2015, the Wii U felt like an advent calendar for Splatoon owners, especially with the constantly rolling events known as "Splatfest." While it took Nintendo a while to catch on to the whole games-as-services thing, now it feels like they're showing everyone how it should be done.
More than anything, though, 2015 felt like the year that Nintendo went overboard with Amiibo. Nearly every game they released this year came packaged with a little plastic figurine or in some way connected to them. It was hard not to get the sense that Nintendo is as interested in selling figurines as they are in developing games. Sometimes, it can even feel like a cynical cash-grab that capitalises entirely on the cuteness of Nintendo characters. Oh, I shouldn't talk shit. I bought a bunch of Amiibo in 2015. Nintendo's 'Amiibo problem' only exists because people like me have enabled it.
And then there was Mario Maker. Real talk, everyone slept on this game for most of 2015, until it was actually released in spring and suddenly Mario became relevant to gaming once more. This is the most exciting Mario has been in a long, long time. Even the game's obtuse course-curation system couldn't stop how much arse it kicked. Players built some of the most ridiculous and inspired creations with Mario Maker, and I'm glad Nintendo had the confidence to let their fans run loose with their iconic mascot.
Games like Mario Maker demonstrate that Nintendo has started to see the value in listening to fans. Updates to Mario Maker (as well as Splatoon and Smash Bros.) often focused on player complaints and concerns. Had you asked me in 2014, I would have never guessed that Nintendo would become this receptive and flexible.
Some of Nintendo's old ways of thinking still linger, though. YouTube is a huge part of gaming culture, and people on YouTube love playing and sharing Nintendo games. Unfortunately, sharing Wii U gameplay videos on YouTube was a nightmare in 2015, thanks to Nintendo's draconian stance on copyright claims. Nintendo's YouTube revenue sharing program kind of sucks, too, but at this point YouTubers might just have to take what they can get.
Nintendo also cracked down hard on some of the more niche communities that have helped the Wii U's fandom grow into what it is today. Speedrunners, who helped build the remix culture that Mario Maker draws so heavily from, saw many of their beloved accomplishments with emulated Mario games wiped from existence on YouTube. These are the same people who are keeping Mario Maker alive right now — they don't have a choice, really. If they want to make elaborate Mario creations, they have to play Mario Maker. Nintendo is within their rights to shut down courses created through Mario emulators, but the communities Nintendo is 'fighting' here also feel pretty harmless. In 2015, it sometimes felt like Nintendo was betraying some of its most hardcore fans, and given that the Wii U is so reliant on the evangelising efforts of the community, that's not just awful, it's counterproductive.
The Wii U's sales have never been huge, but the small-ish group of people who have picked up the console have built one of the best communities in gaming. Nintendo's social media experiment continues with Miiverse, and the service saw a big update in 2015. While it's not as robust as Facebook or anything, Miiverse is still pretty fantastic. It helps that Nintendo integrates Miiverse into games. I know that I can browse any game on there, no matter how esoteric, and see some hilarious and entertaining comments about Nintendo games. The art is often phenomenal too, considering how limited the tools are.
Here at the tail end of 2015, the Wii U feels kind of barren. There was Project Zero, a game that might not fit on your Wii U if you got it as a digital download. There was Xenoblade Chronicles X, which is actually pretty good, but a bit obscure. Oh, and, uh….Mario Tennis? Sure.
While there are a few exciting games on the horizon — Zelda, SMT X Fire Emblem, and the Pokémon fighting game, for example — it feels like the Wii U lost momentum in 2015. For most owners, I would imagine that isn't a big deal: the Wii U has been considered a 'secondary' console by a lot of people, the sort of thing that complements something like a PS4, Xbox One, or PC. Despite some great games and killer moments, the Wii U's sidekick role didn't really change in 2015. And next year, we'll already be hearing about its successor. Maybe even playing it.
Illustration by Sam Woolley