At the time of writing, Nintendo’s latest console, the Nintendo Switch, has already begun to release worldwide. As a hybrid between a home and handheld system, it represents a bold new direction for Nintendo, particularly from a software creation standpoint. However, as is the norm with traditional games hardware, when one thing begins, another must come to an end – in this case, the ending in question is that of the era of the Wii U, Nintendo’s previous home console which, whilst playing host to a number of critically acclaimed titles, served to be a commercial failure that has caused the company to rethink many aspects of its approach in designing a follow-up.
Although the Wii U will always be remembered as the catalyst for a difficult period in Nintendo’s rich history, now is a fitting time to look back and celebrate some of the things it did do right, namely those that may easily have been overlooked or even forgotten amidst a mixture of reverence for much-loved games and harsh, often deserved criticisms of the attitudes and structure that made the system what it was.
A Social Approach to Starting up a Console
There are likely some who are unaware that the first screen you see when you turn on your Wii U has a name; the “Warawara” of the WaraWara Plaza is taken from the Japanese onomatopoeia for ‘bustling’, or the general sounds of chatter in a crowded place. This is an appropriate title for the console’s ‘hub’, a social open space filled with crowds of players, represented by their Mii characters and sharing their thoughts, progress and artistic tributes to the games they’re playing with the world. This is linked closely with the Miiverse, the console’s own social network, but rather than navigate an application or focus on ‘posts’, the WaraWara Plaza offers a more natural, convivial way of sharing the activity of gaming with other people – it sets out to create conversation and give using the system a communal feel in an original manner.
In terms of structure, the WaraWara Plaza could potentially be seen as an extension of the setup established by the 3DS’s StreetPass Mii Plaza, serving as a place to gather players and their shared experiences, with some not-so-subtle marketing for the latest titles taking place on the side. Perhaps it’s how drastic a change it presents from the Wii’s largely isolated online system that makes it noteworthy. It’s safe to say that there’s room for further exploration when it comes to the WaraWara Plaza’s concept for a social system – potential that will more than likely go untapped, but should be appreciated regardless.
A UI with Unnecessary but Exemplary Sound Design
If you asked me to name a piece of music that comes to mind when thinking of the Wii U, it would have to be the track linked above. With the likes of Super Mario 3D World, The Wonderful 101 and Mario Kart 8 on the platform, this may seem like a bizarre pick. The music, produced by an unknown, presumably in-house composer, plays when viewing the system’s ‘Download Management’ screen – it also served as the background music for the killer day one update that left many waiting hours before even being able to do anything with their new machine.
This hardly sounds like the kind of scenario you’d want to be reminded of, but the time spent listening to this electronic tune on a loop (one that, in the moment, felt like it was going to be endless) offered an unexpected opportunity for reflection on a unique aspect of hardware creation championed seemingly by Nintendo and Nintendo alone. When you give a brand new Nintendo console its inaugural powering-on, the system’s audio design is more than likely to serve as some of your earliest sensory interaction with the hardware. In other words, it’s an overlooked but potentially important aspect of setting the tone of the console and its design as a whole – if you were to judge based solely on this approach, the Wii U makes a pretty good first impression.
The sounds of the Wii U’s user interface have a cold, distant echo to them. They feel remarkably more mature than the tunes of its predecessor, the Wii, although they’re arguably a lot less memorable. What’s commendable is the sheer attention to detail in terms of musical accompaniment for almost every aspect of the console’s interface. Everything from the Parental Controls application to the Friends List sport their own unique melodies, with some parts of the menu even having variations for when the console’s GamePad controller is being used alone. Standout pieces include the tune found on the largely undiscussed Wii U Chat application, the System Settings menu‘s bell-like chimes and the Mii Channel’s synth-heavy accompaniment, maybe not the successor to the Wii’s iconic offering that many would have expected, but one making for some appealing listening nonetheless.
The most charming aspect of the inclusion of this kind of sound design is perhaps how unnecessary it feels. Beyond the possibility of some kind of ambience – something else the Wii U does a solid job at providing – it’s very rare to find accompanying music for the interfaces of modern electronics. It’s a distinctly Nintendo way of adding personality to what could easily serve as a lifeless bridge between software and one that offers an interesting look at what was the company’s approach to a modern day, multi-purpose machine that offers more than simply playing games in its functionality.
The earliest showings of the Switch’s UI reveal that sadly, we will be interacting with our systems in relative silence for the foreseeable future. Many will pay no heed to this loss, but it certainly is a great one.
A Storefront with Even More Unnecessary but Exemplary Sound Design
The Wii U’s eShop audio accompaniment deserves its own subheading, because it’s that good. The background music found on the Wii and DSi‘s storefronts were always going to be a tough act to follow, but the Wii U’s takes are thoroughly enjoyable with a laid back, less corporate sound. The Wii U even offered a progressive soundtrack that scaled back into a calmer, more ambient melody as you commit to purchasing a piece of downloadable software.
The charming lack of necessity continues here, with not one but roughly thirteen different tracks playing over the years, each version with a distinctly different flavour intended to put you at ease as you browse the store’s wares. January 2014‘s variant offers an ambitious callback to the music found in 2006’s Wii Sports, whilst in September 2015 the music made use of a mixture of fast-paced and lighter percussion, fittingly resembling something you might find echoing within the plazas of a shopping mall. Even special tracks to coincide with seasonal events have made an appearance, with music from games themselves being used to coincide with high profile releases, a subtle form of promotion. The people behind these themes go completely uncredited on the system itself, with the likes of Toru Minegishi and Asuka Hayazaki – the latter of which being a composer we have profiled in the past – said to be responsible for a number of them. With this in mind, it’s no surprise that they sound so appealing.
Memorable Marketing That Sold a Brand, but Not a Games Console
It can be said without hesitation that the communication of the Wii U’s ideas to potential consumers served to be one of Nintendo’s biggest shortcomings both before and after its release. Be it the initial confusion as to what the console actually was, the underwhelming reveal at E3 in 2011, or even the supposed flaw of carrying on the name of its predecessor in a market burnt out on all things Wii, it was clear that conveying the message of Wii U was a struggle from the get-go – plausibly a result of the message being not quite as ground-breaking as Nintendo liked to make out.
After a generation of success thanks to the late Satoru Iwata’s adoption of the ‘Blue Ocean Strategy‘, seeing Nintendo so drastically miss the mark in appealing to regular consumers was surprising, to say the least. However, around the same time Nintendo could be seen to take a fresh approach to communicating with their more dedicated fan-base – Nintendo Directs were new at the time, an open and rather unprecedented move from a company known historically for their stern demeanour when dealing with the outside world. Announcements and reveals carried a newfound sense of fun and personality about them, fitting for an image long championed by Nintendo’s games that could now extend to their corporate identity. Whimsical, at times surreal gags and skits that gave birth to the likes of Non-Specific Action Figure quickly became a regular feature of Nintendo’s presentations starting with the Wii U and have emerged as an established and important part of how the company interacts with its fans.
As the final home console to see launch under Iwata’s leadership, it’s undeniable that his personality and style shone through in the way it was introduced. I and many others will surely never forget that sudden cut to a shot of the late president gazing longingly at a bunch of bananas, unexpected and unexplainable, yet now iconic amongst fans – it was these small, outlandish, human moments that have had a lasting impact on the way Nintendo’s brand is perceived, in a manner arguably more effective than any TV commercial or sales pitch could have been. Understandably, this was never going to be enough to shift units, but by provoking a few laughs and putting on a show for its most dedicated followers, Nintendo have been able to make people fall more deeply in love with their image than ever before.
Experimental Software With Ambitions Beyond Gaming
The Wii and 3DS were experimental in their core ideas, making use of technologies that at the time, had yet to be honed effectively for use in a gaming environment. In comparison, the Wii U’s primary gimmick of a controller with a screen in it seemed a lot less impactful, doing little to push the boat out from a technological standpoint. Whilst the asymmetrical gameplay concepts that this new controller enabled gave it a unique purpose – the likes of Nintendo Land and Affordable Space Adventures standing out as particularly strong examples of this put into motion – Nintendo would be forced to dig deeper than ever to find original ways to use their hardware in more exploratory ways, especially when pursuing ‘non-games’ and other types of software that had seen a boom in popularity during the Touch! Generations era.
As we now know, this wouldn’t exactly pan out in terms of financial success, but the opportunity to look back at some of Nintendo’s attempts at following the same formula with the Wii U that had seen titles such as Cooking Guide: Can’t Decide What To Eat? and Nintendo 3DS Guide: Louvre come into being is an interesting one, to say the least. One such piece of software, Wii Street U – a souped-up version of Google Maps’ Street View functionality designed to work with the GamePad’s gyroscopic controls – had a surprisingly ambitious vision in spite of a simple concept. In an Iwata Asks interview about the application, Google’s Kei Kawai highlighted how the idea was to create an experience that differed from simply using Google Maps to navigate from A to B, making use of the Wii U’s technologies to put an entertaining spin on exploring the world around you. “I always thought Street View was a tool to prevent you from getting lost! But this makes you say, ‘With this, getting lost is fun!'”. The idea may have lacked depth, but it felt right at home on the Wii U.
Wii U Panorama View offered something of a similar nature, allowing users to follow ‘tours’ through various world cities with a 360° view controlled with the GamePad; essentially a primitive attempt at VR that had you controlling the perspective of a pre-recorded video. Quirky secrets dotted throughout and a down-to-earth presentational style again showcased an unmistakable amount of Nintendo’s personality and flair. Projects of this manner make up what is arguably the most under-appreciated part of Nintendo’s wider software output. These ideas are hardly perfect, nor are they at their best on the Wii U, but it’s important to recognise and respect the aspiration and thought process behind them, in spite of their limited wider impact – they highlight the greater intentions of the Wii U, to continue the positive legacy of the Wii and provide a platform for a continuation of the innovation that Nintendo do best.
The Wii U failed to deliver on everything it set out to do. It fell in many places, and for that some will always hold it in contempt. At the same time, it played host to games and experiences that some will treasure and re-visit for years to come. For now, Nintendo must look towards the future, but when the time comes to reflect on the Wii U from a more distant perspective, here’s hoping that even the smallest of successes it had the pleasure of celebrating will not go forgotten.