Fortunes change fast in the video game world. Six years ago, Nintendo’s Wii was in a position that every hardware company dreamed of—a game system that not only captured the imagination of the core player but also was widely and warmly embraced by the mass audience.
This generation, though, the company has been the target of endless armchair quarterbacks, who talk at length about why Nintendo (NTDOY) should exit the hardware business.
The Wii U is the point of contention. Life to date, the system has sold about 9.5 million units, says Nintendo. That makes it the slowest selling system in the company’s history, worse, even, than the Gamecube.
(For comparison: It took Sony’s PlayStation 4 less than nine months to top what Nintendo’s system sold in 2.5 years. PS4 sales today stand at 22 million.)
Everyone has a theory about what went wrong. Some say the system’s hardware wasn’t a substantial enough improvement on its predecessor. Many cite the lack of must-have Wii U games. But Shigeru Miyamoto, Nintendo’s famed designer who created iconic franchises such as Mario, Donkey Kong, and The Legend of Zelda, says he thinks something else was to blame.
“I feel like people never really understood the concept behind Wii U and what we were trying to do,” he says. “I think the assumption is we were trying to create a game machine and a tablet and really what we were trying to do was create a game system that gave you tablet-like functionality for controlling that system and give you two screens that would allow different people in the living room to play in different ways. …. Unfortunately, because tablets, at the time, were adding more and more functionality and becoming more and more prominent, this system and this approach didn’t mesh well with the period in which we released it.”
Regardless of the reason, there just never was a real sense of excitement about the Wii U. And while neither Miyamoto nor Shinya Takahashi (who oversees Nintendo’s Software Planning & Development Division with Miyamoto, and heads development on all Nintendo games that aren’t run directly by Miyamoto) were willing to get into specifics on the NX, the company’s next console, they did imply that they think the excitement will be back when details are announced.
“For us, the next step is to think about what is going to be that element that is really going to catch the attention of a large number of players again and get them excited,” says Takahasi. “We’re constantly thinking about this idea from the perspective of the players and the needs of the players in terms of what can we can do with our ability and our technology to capture that excitement and passion.”
Miyamoto’s involvement in the creation of the Wii is well known in the video game industry. But as the NX is being made, he says he’s taking a step back.
“I’ve pulled myself back out of some of the hardware section and I’m really focused on some of the software that I’m involved in—for example, the new Starfox game,” he says. “Of course I am observing and looking at the hardware, but I am not actively participating and making decisions.”
The problem for Nintendo is the NX’s launch is at least a year away—likely more, as the company reportedly just started talking about it with third party partners at this year’s E3. (The reception, say insiders, was positive.) That means the company has to rely on the Wii U a little while longer. And while many gamers may have chosen to focus instead on console offerings from Microsoft and Sony, Miyamoto says he regrets the system will likely never live up to its full potential.
“I still feel it was a very novel approach—and a very interesting idea,” he says.