The Nintendo Switch is finally upon us. And as excited as we are, we also can’t help but think of the prior Nintendo home console that is being left behind, its suite of underappreciated features abandoned and forgotten.
The Wii U was meant to be a shoo-in success story, the follow-up to a gaming phenomenon. Whereas the Wii parlayed its motion controls and iconic Mii avatars into one of the most successful game systems ever, the Wii U limped out of the starting gate and never found its footing. It is Nintendo’s lowest selling home system by a country mile.
Expectations and excitement for the Switch have reached fever pitch. And yet, with it now out in the wild, I need two hands to count off all that it cannot do in comparison to its maligned predecessor. Let us not dim your eagerness for this shiny new thing; let us instead shine a light on the old thing and remember its idiosyncratic and ambitious feature-set, soon to be obsolete. This is what the Wii U did that the Switch can not.
The Switch’s main draw is that you can play the same games on your television and anywhere away from the house. But you still have to turn your TV on with a remote. Like an animal.
The Wii U GamePad had a small “TV” button on its face that, when properly paired with your television, brought up basic remote functions on the embedded screen. Turn on the TV, set the Input, turn the channels or even adjust the volume. It’s a tiny convenience but one I miss when playing on other systems, and one I’ll miss on the Switch.
Though the Wii U had a stellar line-up of titles, the quantity remained low. But add in its backwards compatibility, with not only retail Wii discs but the entirety of its Virtual Console and WiiWare catalog, and the Wii U could play over a thousand games on Launch Day. The Switch can play a dozen. Add to that upgraded titles like Wii Sports Club that added online to the titular fad and if you liked the Wii, as millions did, you surely should have liked Wii U. Alas, you probably did not.
The failure of the Wii U was really a failure in communication. Nintendo Switch has been the recipient of marketing gold: Its initial 3-minute music video reveal in October was a slick nugget of perfect pop culture, aligning a catchy song with high production values that left us wanting more. Nintendo had learned how to tell a compelling story. But in four years, they never succinctly demonstrated what the Wii U was all about, which was this: One player on the TV, one player on the GamePad, each playing together but each playing differently.
The pack-in title, Nintendo Land, was built to drive this point home. Running after a friend cosplaying as Toad in Mario Chase or cooperating to take down a mechanical Ridley in Metroid Blast was different than other local multiplayer because you weren’t staring at the same screen; each had separate tasks and separate viewpoints. The Wii U’s screened controller allowed for concepts impossible on any other system. And yet that potential was largely unmet due to disappointing early sales. Who knows what kind of asymmetric games might have been invented? We won’t see them on the single-screened Switch.
Speaking of Nintendo Land... it should have been lauded, but for many it was loathed, or merely tolerated. The game’s highlights are many: a willingness to experiment with new takes on old characters; a glimpse into Nintendo’s past in thrilling high-definition; a grab-bag of experiences built for our ADHD culture, small bursts of play all stitched together in an amusement park setting.
But many couldn’t see past its gentle theme and assumed it was something it was not. Raise your hand if you beat the Extra Course in Captain Falcon’s Twister Race, or even saw the fourth and final board of Donkey Kong’s Crash Course. There was teeth here where many only saw a fake smile. As nutty as 1-2-Switch looks and as majestic as Breath of the Wild surely will be, there’s nothing on Switch launch day or on the immediate horizon, for this writer, that appears to be as intriguing, varied and new as Nintendo Land.
Early demonstrations of the Wii U GamePad included video of driving in a car. On the TV was the view out the windshield. But take the GamePad in your hand and now you could look out the window at the passing people or trees or other cars; as you moved the controller left or right and up or down, the screen became a window through which to see your surroundings. Eventually Nintendo sold four of these experiences for $2 a pop and called them “Panorama View.”
One has you flying alongside a squadron of ducks. Another is a double-decker bus tour of London. One drops in the middle of Carnivale in Rio de Janeiro. Each let you explore a tiny magical world in your hand. As far as we know, the Switch has no applications in the works that use the concept.
Wii U’s home start-up screen was two-fold: On the GamePad, you saw the standard line-up of rectangular icons, a collection of games and apps and options; on the TV, though, you looked in on some digital circus, those same icons floating above the ground and a mass of tiny people milling about underneath. These were meant to represent players across the world and the games popular at the time. Using Miiverse (see #8), these avatars communicated the thoughts, wishes and wisecracks of hundreds of strangers while you watched.
Wait for a few minutes and they start to…. do things. Two Miis next to one another will begin dancing in rhythm, bumping their bottoms in synchronicity. A solo Mii swings an invisible golf club, practicing his form. One Mii strikes a yoga pose, and then another nearby does the same, until a circle of dozens are all posing together. This was User Interface as improv performance. By all accounts, the Switch UI is stripped down and lean, just a sequence of boxes. Perhaps that changes with an update and Nintendo sneaks in some of that weirdo fun. But odds are low.
The Wii U Internet Browser was another example of stylish form supplementing function. Not only could you browse online (a feature lacking from the Switch) but, using its two-screen format, the GamePad holder could hide from TV viewers what he or she was searching for by closing a curtain over the television screen. Once you’re ready to show off the latest cat video or Gluten-free recipe, hold a button and a drum-roll begins. Release it and the curtains open with a trumpet fanfare. Ta-dah!
The Switch has no internet browser. And though Netflix and YouTube video-sharing are likely coming down the road, they aren’t there on Day One.
Miiverse was Nintendo’s attempt at a bespoke social network. Each game had its own community. Can’t get past level 5? Post a question asking for help. Within hours, a fellow player would likely see it and share a hint. Psyched that you finally beat the end-boss? Post a screencap of the pivotal moment but hide it with a “SPOILER” tag. Love the design of a new character? Draw your fan art using your stylus on the touch-screen GamePad.
Sure, there were some unruly elements. But much of the chatter, silly as it was, could be oddly endearing. And some games used the feature in novel ways: Affordable Space Adventures, a download-only gem from Knapnok Games, asked you to… well, play it and find out. But suffice to say, Miiverse was not only Nintendo’s Instagram and Reddit rolled into one but a full-on interactive communication platform. The Switch has no such element, instead relying on Facebook, Twitter and a paid app coming this fall. R.I.P. you crazy ‘Verse of Miis.
Since 2003, Jon Irwin has been paid to write about film, techno, ice cream, wine, golf, drag-racing, French children and videogames. His first book, Super Mario Bros. 2, was published last year by Boss Fight Books. Follow along: @WinWinIrwin.