Sometime near the end of yesterday, Nintendo released its annual summary of the last fiscal year. Video game financials? Boring, I know. But the day’s most interesting event lies beyond the numbers.
With the industry’s biggest tradeshow barely five weeks away, it’s the last chance for Nintendo to make a PR splash before the lights come on at the company’s E3 conference in Los Angeles. In this case, it’s their last chance to correct a mistake before it blows up in their faces.
At last year’s E3, Nintendo took the veil off the first new console the industry had seen since 2006. With the original Wii struggling to captivate the fickle mainstream base that put Nintendo on easy street for several years, this new set of hardware represented the company’s effort to not only reinvigorate the average non-gamer, but to bring its core fans back home by stepping into the HD era – finally. As Nintendo of America President Reggie Fils-Aime put it, the Wii U was meant for “you” and “me.” But Nintendo’s showy confidence of June 2011 was undermined by a simple, fatal misjudgment in marketing. The new name, punchy as it was, confused some, alienated others and embarrassed the rest. The stakes were higher than ever, and Nintendo was going all in with a hand that looked bad to everyone at the table but themselves.
Out of necessity, I’m writing this just before the event I’m referencing – which, as I said, already occurred. That might sound like a backwards way to write a column, but its relevance isn’t diminished even under the admittedly curious circumstances. This moment, though quiet, is a pivotal one for Nintendo. To properly capture its uneasy tension, I need to commit my thoughts without the benefit of hindsight. If Nintendo makes what I’d call the right move, consider this an impassioned defense of that decision. If not, the clock is ticking – so consider this the boldest warning that an unpaid student-journalist can possibly muster.
While the name “Wii” was so boldly different that it turned heads everywhere, adding a pathetic relic of ‘90s online chatrooms – the “U”, of course – is such a subtle change as to be imperceptible. For the casual gamers that Nintendo successfully wooed with the “It’s different!” approach of the Wii, the intuitive conclusion is that a Wii U is simply an add-on to the one console they already have sitting under their TVs. They aren’t familiar with typical hardware cycles or alternative gaming platforms, and they certainly don’t keep up with enthusiast gaming news. The Wii U is just another controller to them, like the Wii Balance Board or Classic Controller Pro, only this time it’s a tablet.
And who could blame them? After all, Nintendo never actually showed off the console itself in any of its marketing materials last year, but just trotted out a tablet with the Wii U name slapped on it.
As a member of the old Nintendo guard, meanwhile, I’m not alone in saying that the “Wii U” moniker is disappointing. We accept the Wii for what it is, but only under the once-safe assumption that Nintendo would eventually come out of the powder room and get down to business, flexing its technical muscles once again by making a system that pushes boundaries but still allows for the types of games we grew up loving.
The continuation of the Wii brand opens some old wounds for us, and frankly, it makes me a little sad to think that Nintendo’s most loyal supporters aren’t at the top of their priority list.
You might be wondering: what would I name the new console? It’s not easy to say. I understand why Nintendo wants to keep its most successful brand name alive, especially when continued failure means reaching even deeper into the war chest. That tactic was successful, after all, with the Game Boy brand and a host of other consoles. But subtitles like “Color,” “Advance” or “Pocket” – members of Game Boy line, in this case – carry self-evident hints of real, qualitative differences. The same can be said, quite obviously, of numeric titles like the Atari 7800, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 2. So, my suggestion? Keep it simple, stupid: Wii 2.
That’s what my brain says, anyway. My heart might prefer something more…original.