(Editor’s Note: This article is that of a video game oriented essay. Though it uses facts to illustrate and substantiate key points, this is to be regarded as a persuasive writing piece.)
It definitely goes without saying that Nintendo’s venture into the eighth generation of home video game consoles with the Wii U has not been a bump-free ride. Released in mid November of 2012, the company’s latest system has been constantly struggling to compete with both Microsoft’s and Sony’s current offerings in the same space. There are many factors that have led Nintendo up to this point, with some of them having to do with the changing market and others to do with poor decisions made by Nintendo itself. With everything that has happened in the Wii U’s lifetime thus far, the console has been going in an eerily similar downward spiral that another ill-fated console had traveled. That system is known as the Sega Saturn. The Saturn’s life was very short and its demise was the result of the same ailments with some of the symptoms that the Wii U exhibits today. These similarities will be outlined in detail in order to show all the parallels between both consoles and show how the Wii U is Nintendo’s Sega Saturn.
System Launch & Advertising
Unrelated image of a rocket launching into space.
The best way to outline the similarities between both will be to elaborate on them in chronological order respectively. That being said, I will start with the launch of both systems. Both had a head start over their respective competition, but the launches of the Saturn and Wii U were so poor that this head start was all for naught.
The Saturn’s launch is remembered as being one of the worst in history for a home platform. Originally to be launched during the holiday season of 1995, Sega decided pull the date back to the summer of ’95. This was done to beat Sony and Nintendo to the punch as far as the fifth generation goes. This choice was to the chagrin of both developers (first-party and third-party) and retailers, as none were prepared to develop or market for the console in such a short time constraint. This angered outlets like Walmart, KB Toys and Best Buy. They were so upset that they boycotted the selling of Sega products pertaining to the Saturn. The outlets that would sell Saturn products did not have the time to properly advertise for the system and its software, which led to low initial sales. On the development side of things, third-party companies did not take to this change in date well and did not alter their schedules to provide software for the launch lineup of the Saturn. The result was a lineup of only two titles which were Virtua Fighter and Daytona USA. With the time constraint complicating the creation of both titles, they were released as substandard ports because the first-party teams simply had no time to make them properly. Another issue was that Sega was, for a time, competing with itself by having both the Genesis 32X and the Saturn in the market. These issues along with poor marketing on the part of Sega proper rendered the system’s head start null and void, as sales of the console were woefully low for a platform with no next generation competition for the first few months of its life. When the Playstation launched in September of ’95 it managed to, in two days, sell more units than the what the Saturn had sold in five months. To top the whole situation off, the Saturn was the most pricey console at a retail price of $399. This poorly executed launch hurt the Saturn tremendously and made for a situation in which the system was constantly struggling to compete with the other two hardware companies and their efforts.
Nintendo’s Wii U launch was not as terrible as the Saturn’s. I only say this because no launch has been as poorly executed as the Saturn’s. However, the release of the Wii U definitely yielded similar results because of some similar and/or other issues. The problems actually started before the launch of the Wii U proper. At the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) of 2011, roughly one year before the system’s launch, Nintendo formally unveiled their to be foray into the eighth generation of consoles. The press conference focused so heavily on the tablet controller that both members of retail and the press were confused as to what the Wii U was supposed to be. The consensus was that it was a tablet controller add-on for the Wii. This was not such a poor assumption to make, as the Wii had quite a few during it’s lifespan. Also, the name Wii U is too similar a name to the Wii. Even the pre-launch marketing and advertising focused too much on this controller and created confusion as to what the platform is among members of the trade, press and public. Bill Trinen, Senior Product Marketing Manager for Nintendo of America, even admitted that this was a genuine misstep. This poor conveyance greatly contributed to the resulting lack of confidence in the platform.
Roughly two days after the unveiling of the Wii U, the company’s stock value fell by 10 percent. This had not been seen since 2006 during the last leg of the Nintendo Game Cube’s life. The skepticism centered around the tablet controller that did not have a capacitive touch screen and did not have multi-touch functionality, something that most smart phones had at the time. The bigger issue was how pricey the system would be when bundled with this feature packed controller and the prospect of having to buy extra controllers for local multiplayer. The controller’s initial low battery life did not help things.
Also, the confusion surrounding the heavy focus on the tablet controller coupled with the name Wii U led to persistent confusion among consumers. The 20 percent of us who follow the industry eventually understood that the Wii U is a new system entirely, but the issue is that the rest of the consumer base that buys games did not grasp this. Even now there are still people in North America who think that the Wii U is a controller add-on for the Wii like the Wii Fit balance board. Other average consumers who saw the Wii U as its own system had moved on from the Wii to mobile games on smart phones and tablet computers. The tablet controller was an incredibly expensive failed attempt to bring that section of the consumer base to swing back over to Nintendo. The company could have easily cut a hundred dollars off the price of the system by doing away with the tablet pad, simply making it optional for select titles. Instead, Nintendo opted to leave the controller in, making the console debut at a price of $299.99 for the Basic SKU and $349.99 for the Deluxe SKU. You cannot argue with the logic that if the console is cheaper, then more people will buy it.
If this was not bad enough, the Wii U launched with firmware that was not finished. Though announced as having several application features aside from playing games, this functionality did not come out of the box. The player would have to sit through roughly four to six hours of updates via online patch downloads. If the owner’s internet connection cut out at all during this updating process the console would be bricked. This actually occurred more often than you would think, though it was not nearly half as deplorable as the 360’s red ring debacle. There are a few other launch issues, but those mentioned here further illustrate how the Wii U’s launch was simply a mess that did everything to inhibit the console’s nine month head start on the competition.
Hardware & Software Support
From left to right: the Sega Saturn and the Nintendo Wii U.
Both the Sega Saturn and Wii U have interesting software identities that have differentiated them from their respective competitors. The sad thing is that this support had fizzled out for the Saturn and is fading out for the Wii U for various reasons. Because of this not so insignificant fact, the Saturn found itself in a grim struggle for commercial relevance that the Wii U currently is dealing with in similar fashion.
As for the Saturn, the console had only two titles at launch and was trying very hard to get third-party developers to create titles for the system during its first two years of life. You can see this when looking at the system’s library that includes many of the third-party firsts in various franchises. Many gamers may not realize or remember that games like Wipeout, Need For Speed, Tomb Raider, Megaman 8, Resident Evil, Croc, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, Loaded and many others saw their first incarnations on the Saturn as well as the Playstation. Some of these franchises would later see sequels either exclusively made for Playstation and/or for the N64, with many of the N64 versions being specially branded ports. With the exceptions of games like Wipeout 2097 and a few other sequels to great titles coming out in Japan and Europe, the North American Saturn did not see these releases. The reason for this is that the Saturn’s convoluted hardware architecture and development tools made the console a pain to develop for. Sega did nothing to make the notion of third-party software development for the system appealing to other companies like providing better tools as time passed. This problem in conjunction with the system’s poor sales and lower installed base offered no incentives to create third-party content. I could elaborate to further detail these problems, but this point is abundantly clear. This hurt the platform and these two issues fed off each other, contributing to the system’s untimely demise.
We are definitely seeing this issue with the Wii U, though the circumstances are slightly different. With Nintendo’s focus clearly being put on their tablet controller, not enough time and money was put into the hardware to make it able to stack up to the Xbox One or Ps4 in the ways of horsepower. The system also followed the Power PC architecture that the Wii and Game Cube also used as their foundations. There are advantages to this with one of them having to do with software compatibility. A good example of this can be seen in the release of Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker HD. The problem is that the system’s architecture is vastly different from those of the Xbox One and Ps4. Both Sony’s and Microsoft’s latest consoles have negligible differences between one another and are X86 based. Both have more horsepower than the Wii U and have nearly identical across platform hardware. If you were a third-party developer making AAA games that push the envelope in terms of graphics and presentation, which systems are you going to develop for? It makes perfect sense to make games for the PC, Xbox One and PS4 because they all share the X86 structure. In the realm of consoles it makes all the sense in the world to make a title for the PS4, for it has the largest installed base. Because of the similar hardware, porting said PS4 title to the Xbox One should not require a lot of time or money to accomplish. What about the Wii U? It has a lower installed base that is only slowly increasing, runs a completely different chipset architecture and requires truncation in graphical/audio fidelity because the system’s hardware is not as powerful as its competition. Like the Saturn did in its day, the Wii U currently offers few incentives for third-party developers to work on porting or creating new titles for Nintendo’s console. When a platform makes for a situation where a studio has to make a large investment of time and money for diminished returns, it is both unfair and unrealistic of a hardware company to expect from third parties. This culminated in a launch lineup that lacked any heavy hitting titles to push console sales.
Preemptive Next Generation Superiority and Transitional Overlap
The Wii U Could have received titles like these, but that is no longer an option for the system.
There were two important spans of time when things may have been looking up for the Wii U. The first time window came in the form of preemptive next generation superiority and the other in the form of transitional overlap. These two potential phases in a platform’s lifetime are great opportunities to accrue a solid software foundation for increasing the installed base and to incentivize developers to create more significant titles for the system to forge a unique software identity. It may be a tad confusing as to what preemptive next generation superiority and transitional overlap mean, so I will do my best to define these two terms and how Sega and Nintendo could have taken advantage of both in a meaningful way respectively.
Preemptive next generation superiority refers to the length of time between the launch of the first platform in a new generation of console hardware and the launch of a platform competitor joining said new generation. A good example of this can be seen in the history of the Sega Dreamcast. It was the first sixth generation console and had a clear technological advantage over the Playstation and N64. To get third-party content on the system quickly, companies would release enhanced ports of Playstation and N64 titles on the Dreamcast. These versions often had better graphical/audio fidelity and sometimes took advantage of the system’s unique features. For example, Resident Evil 2 on the Dreamcast would show the character’s health rating on VMU’s screen. After this release, Capcom followed it up with Resident Evil: Code Veronica, which was a proper successor to Resident Evil 2 when compared to Resident Evil 3: Nemesis. This is a good way to give early adopters of the platform something they may not have played before to hold them over until the console gets its killer apps and solid exclusive titles.
The Sega Saturn had this advantage for roughly five months. Unfortunately, this advantage was only achieved by arbitrarily changing the launch date. As previously mentioned, this decision backfired on the company and its system. Even Sega’s internal teams were unable to bring polished content to the system during this time. Admittedly, they were set up for failure because of the release date change. Third-party developers were also put on the spot and could not put out meaningful content for the console. Early buyers of the Saturn had few options to keep them engaged until more titles were made available to them. This put significant pressure on Sega to make games in order to sell more units.
Nintendo’s latest system also had this advantageous head start for nine months. The Wii U received enhanced ports during its launch. The system was getting some releases in the form of gussied up versions of preexisting games seen on the Xbox 360, which has the same chipset acrhitecture. Games like Batman: Arkham City Armored Edition and Tekken Tag Tournament 2: Wii U Edition were products of this. The Wii U also saw the releases of Call of Duty: Black Ops 2, Epic Disney 2: The Power of Two, Darksiders 2, Ninja Gaiden 3: Razor’s Edge and Assassin’s Creed III as a result of this preemptive advantage. The system would see one or more sequels from certain franchises and that is where the support ended when the Xbox One and PS4 launched. Nintendo could have pushed harder to make some of these franchises to be either timed or permanent exclusives for the platform, but did not. Regardless of the company’s persistence, the lower hardware specs of the Wii U would not be conducive for third-party studios trying to push advanced visuals once the competition upped the ante in the latest generation. This nine month window of preemptive next generation superiority has since come to a close and the Wii U failed to gain any substantial traction in the ways of its installed base, thus putting more pressure on the first-party teams to create meaningful and worthwhile games for the system.
Transitional overlap refers to the span of time in which certain consoles of a previous generation are still commercially relevant during the first stent of the next generation. In this window of time, some titles made for the next generation systems will sometimes be ported down to consoles of the previous generation. Both the Saturn and Wii U had this advantage as well and could have used this get some heavy hitters in their software library, but did not.
Sega only had a small window in this overlap to get third-party ports, but the Saturn saw very few back ports (none of them being significant releases) because the company abandoned it so quickly. As for Nintendo, it could have gotten titles like Destiny, Grand Theft Auto V, Alien: Isolation and other titles that have been back ported to the Xbox 360. We have seen in the past with sports games and more iconic games that have been commercially successful and how they can give a system something to keep it going. A specific instance when this has happened was with the first Mortal Kombat and Sonic the Hedgehog, which saw release on both the Genesis and the Master System. In the Wii U’s case, this had some clear advantages and could have led to more third-party back ports of games crossing over from the Xbox 360, which shares the Power PC architecture. However, this window of time has also come to a close, so the system can no longer capitalize from this. Moreover, the Wii U is no longer getting the sports titles that would usually see back port treatments, which in and of itself is a grim sign of what the future holds for the console. Yet another opportunity of transitional overlap that has been squandered.
Statements Made by Leadership
From left to right: Bernie Stolar (previously President, Sega of America) and Satoru Iwata (currently President, Nintendo of Japan/America)
As previously mentioned with the launch of the Wii U breeding a lowered confidence in the platform, Nintendo’s president made an honest yet stupid statement that has added to this lack of confidence in the struggling platform. This was said to folks who have a financial stake in the company, but the power of the internet has allowed this quote to be seen by the gaming community as a whole; not a good thing for imbuing confidence in the system.
In Reference to the Wii U:
…We have so far failed to make propositions worthy of Wii U’s position as a successor to the Wii system. ~Satoru Iwata (President of Nintendo, Japan)
While honesty is the best policy, it is also still important to show support your system that some people have, in fact, purchased and are still expecting to play new games on for the next couple years. This rings especially true when considering that we are still waiting for heavy hitters like Splatoon, Star Fox 2015 and Legend of Zelda 2015 (Zelda has been pushed to coming out next year). The same exact mistake was made by Bernie Stolar, President of Sega of America at the time, during the commercial relevancy of the Sega Saturn when he made an honest yet idiotic statement regarding the system’s place in the market.
In reference the Sega Saturn:
…The Saturn is not our future. ~Bernie Stolar (President of Sega, America)
Stolar’s statement is much more blunt than Iwata’s, but the meaning is essentially the same if one has the mental capacity to read between the lines.
My interpretation of both quotes ensemble:
We have no confidence in our platform in which only some consumers have invested time and money. ~Don San Juan (President of Juegomundo, America)
When Bernie Stolar said the Saturn was not the future of Sega he basically told consumers who did not own a Saturn not to buy one. This course of action caused a domino effect that led to the death of the platform and the eventual demise of the hardware company. The result was that the installed base never substantially increased. A low installed base means no hard hitting exclusive third-party support. The Wii U is slowly and surely suffering from this.
After the Nintendo NX project announcement, people are already looking at the Wii U as if it is on its deathbed.
With Satoru Iwata’s most recent announcement about licensing out the use of Nintendo’s intellectual properties to mobile developers and the shocking reveal that the company is already in deep working on a project known as Nintendo NX has me worried. The Wii U, in similar form of the Saturn, is in serious jeopardy of being abandoned all too soon into its life and has been since its launch. This system will most likely be buried a year or two before its true potential is allowed to shine through. Some of the first-party and third-party games that have been announced to come out later this year or the next will be pushed back so far that making them for the Wii U will no longer be a financially viable option. They will then be repurposed for release on Nintendo’s NX system. Those who invested in the system for the sake of playing the killer apps that have been pushed to the new system will be frustrated by this. This will have long-term negative consequences that hurt the brand in the years to come.
Everything that has happened during the system’s life at this point has eerily echoed what happened with the Sega Saturn. This is unfortunate because the Wii U, like the Saturn in its day, is a system that has such potential that has not full manifested yet. It has a software identity that is unique and composed mostly of exclusive content when compared to its competition. The sad truth is that Nintendo as a company made several genuine missteps when marketing the platform and did take enough initiative in capitalizing on certain time sensitive advantages when it clearly had the opportunity to do so. Publicly stating that the company has no confidence in the system is another terrible move to make. Nintendo can still do something to recover its brand this generation before moving on to the next, but I am not confident Nintendo will attempt any such course of action. As it stands, the Wii U is Nintendo’s Sega Saturn.