The Wii U is everything the Volkswagen Golf isn’t


Wii U (2012)

It’s more trouble in paradise for me, readers – the old motor vehicle is giving me some issues again. Listen, you can tell just by looking at my car that I don’t ask for much out of a vehicle. In particular, pay attention to the moss growing on the windows and the pet mouse colony I have living in there. My old Polo is going to be entering its 19th year now that we’ve stumbled into 2018 – but now some cracks are beginning to show in the hardware. 

They say when it comes to car hardware and reliability, you can’t whack the Germans or Japanese. That’s probably true, although I’ve had to put Kylie on costly life-support and put it into surgery on more than once occasion. Yes, Kylie – she has a lovely rear-end. I’m probably a mechanic’s dream in this regard, because I don’t want hassle, I don’t want to shop around and I pretty much take little interest in how much it’s going to cost. If you’ve ever heard the stories about some of the cheeky snakes in garages trying to charge car-owners a 3-figure fee for turning their car around on the platform… they were probably about me.

The way I see it, the contraption should just work. I don’t need any frills after that. I’ll sit in the thing and freeze without aircon, I’ll just roll my eyes and sensibly chuckle when the hubcaps fall off, I’ll even overlook a broken seatbelt buckle and just make an executive decision not to crash instead. Just get me from A to B, that’s all I ask.

As for the extent of the issues I’m currently having, they’re not too bad. I’m not rolling with three wheels or driving without a windscreen and spitting bugs and broken glass out of my mouth just yet. It’s just that one wiper’s rubber doodad is hanging off (fine), I have long since dispensed with the car’s hubcaps (ugly but also fine) and now my brake lights only work between 9 AM and 11 AM every Wednesday and only in clear weather – otherwise they are, to use a German technical phrase, kaput (fine unless you’re the luckless fool in the car behind me, in which case, watch out).

Still, after 19 years, the fight between precision German engineering and my own criminal negligence continues to favour an Axis victory, so you’ve got to hand it to the Gerrys – they’ve delivered me a bulletproof car. Can the Japanese manufacturers beat that? Well… probably.

Would that the Japanese reputation for car reliability and accessibility extended to Nintendo’s Wii U console, mind you. Ahh, the poor, maligned Wii U. Released to no momentum, no game library and ultimately no expectation, with a reveal video and marketing campaign so cack-handed that even the hardcore vets like me didn’t realise that we were witnessing a new console.

Or was it really that new? To this day there must be, I don’t know, billions of people out there who thought the Wii U was merely some sort of new accessory for the ball-blisteringly popular Wii, in the form of a gynormous, not so sleek gamepad.

The system released with a litany of third party games, about twelve years after they had already come out on Sony and Microsoft consoles. The price point for such an underpowered console with a weak USP was ridiculous and the model I eventually bought for half-nothing had an 8GB hard-drive, which holds about three Virtual Console games and probably has just enough room left over for all the nonsense I spout on here.

Let’s consider the gamepad – almost as big as the console itself. Already it’s been made to look ridiculous by the Nintendo Switch. It boasts “Off TV Play”, in case you’re in the 1980s and still living in a one TV household. What it doesn’t boast about is its 10 foot range and battery life that doesn’t last pissing time.

Prior to the incredible hybrid machine that is the Switch, this seemed to be some sort of half-hearted effort by Nintendo to give their latest home console a semblance of portability. This is hamstrung somewhat by the fact that the console obviously always has to be plugged in, and so too does the TV unless you’re fine with lower res Zelda (which to be fair, I’m perfectly alright with) – and now the controller’s cable as well. The gamepad takes to electricity like a gurning junkie takes to smack, and the fact that the bloody thing turns itself on and keeps flashing blue for no earthly reason doesn’t help its longevity either.

Put it this way: just in order to play Breath of the Wild properly, I needed to use 4 plugs – one each for the console, the TV and the controller, and one for my ancient, colossal external hard drive to hold the necessary data – a hard drive purchased, appropriately enough, in that vaguely totalitarian German outlet Lidl.

Nintendo games can tend to struggle badly for shelf space in Ireland, if you want to go down the dreaded bricks and mortar route. The fact that some shops had to fill out Wii U sections with Wii Just Dance ports and overpriced 3DS games sort of tells its own tragic story.

In any given store, there were probably more amiibos out on the shop floor than there were compatible Wii U game units. That’s a great way to inspire confidence in your machine isn’t it, having more action figures to sell than games? And you’ll probably get more bang for your buck out of the actual €20 figure than the inevitably flimsy amount of content it unlocks. To think that some people praised Nintendo’s approach to DLC at the time.

Its dismal sales and near total lack of consumer presence may not tell the real story. The Wii U didn’t lack games, and I’d be lying through my non-German teeth if I was to say that I had no fun with the thing. Even the fact that I could play Breath of the Wild on it, as well as Mario Kart 8, the latest Smash Bros, and even less heralded titles like Yoshi Woolly World and New Super Mario Bros U, gave me happy memories.

Even Breath of the Wild alone had a chance of salvaging the whole thing, and it’s got plenty of other strong Nintendo hits (we’ll forget about the third parties for now): a God-tier Zelda game, unquestionably the best Mario Kart game, an okayish bah-bah Mario game, and even a Yoshi, Donkey Kong, Pikmin, a Mario level maker, Splatoon…

Sold under a different name, with a different guise and a less embarrassing controller, the Wii U could have been sensational, just as much as the Switch is proving to be. As it is, a string of terrible marketing decisions and more than a few prideful Japanese egos ensures that this particular piece of engineering was never able to clamber out of first gear.

07 February 2018

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