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Wii U sales improve, but are still historically terrible

(Credit: Nintendo)
(Credit: Nintendo)

It’s been a good week for Nintendo, in a bad year.

On Thursday, the company announced a return to profit for the first time in three years. The sales slide of the 3DS handheld family is slowing, thanks to the excellent New variations. The collectable Amiibo toys have been such a huge hit, Nintendo is having trouble meeting demand. And with plans to expand into smartphones and theme parks, Nintendo is aiming to do big things with its big brands.

But they also wedged in this little nugget: worldwide sales of the Wii U currently sit at around 9.5 million.

That’s bad. Really bad. The console was released in November 2012. In two and a half years, the Wii U has yet to break the 10 million mark.

Sony’s PS4 did that in nine months.

Sony sold over 22 million PS4s in just a year and a half. In that same time period – and despite an incredibly shaky launch - Microsoft managed to move somewhere in the neighborhood of 13 million Xbox One consoles. By any measure, the Wii U’s numbers are awful.

Too little, too late

To be fair, the Wii U is at least moving in the right direction. The company sold 3.4 million systems in the last fiscal year, a jump from 2.7 million the year prior. Software sales were up a good 5 million over last year as well, attributed in large part to the success of Super Smash Bros. and Mario Kart 8. If you work at Nintendo, you are feeling optimistic.

But these modest gains do little to change the picture that this system is in extremely rough shape.

That 9.5 million mark makes the Wii U the slowest selling Nintendo console ever. It's even trailing the Nintendo Gamecube, which was caught in the crossfire of Sony’s juggernaut PlayStation 2 and Microsoft’s upstart Xbox. Nintendo managed to sell only 21 million Gamecubes in six years, a pace that, should sales stay relatively consistent, the Wii U will barely match.

But matching the Gamecube isn’t what Nintendo had in mind with the follow-up to the Wii. Over 100 million Wiis were sold during its seven-year span, good enough to make it the fifth best-selling game system of all time behind the PlayStation 2, DS, Game Boy and original PlayStation. It’s one thing to struggle a bit when trying to follow a smash hit (see: PlayStation 3), but this isn't a struggle. It’s a failure.

Gaming the system

I have no idea how Nintendo will turn this around. Fans will point to the Wii U take on The Legend of Zelda as the system’s saving grace, and while it looks absolutely awesome, it’s not due out until 2016. Can the Wii U limp through another holiday without its most anticipated release? The inky shooter Splatoon, the nostalgic level editor Mario Maker, the massive RPG Xenoblade Chronicles X, and the rebooted dogfighter Star Fox will help, but I’m not sure even a steady stream of solid games is enough.

In January, game review aggregation site Metacritic noted that Nintendo was the top-rated publisher of 2014, and while the science of review aggregation is a little suspect, in this case, it makes sense. Critical giants Bayonetta 2, Mario Kart 8, Super Smash Bros, and Shovel Knight all released for the Wii U last year, as did well-received smaller franchise entries like Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze and Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker.

That’s a pretty strong lineup, and yet it only resulted in a gain of about 700,000 systems. The problem? As always, a lack of third-party support means that many of the biggest-selling franchisesCall of Duty, Madden, Grand Theft Auto, Minecraft - still don’t appear on the Wii U. Even without the big names, Nintendo’s hoping to hold serve and maintain the sales momentum, estimating that they’ll sell another 3.4 million systems between April 2015 and March 2016. At that rate, they’ll indeed reach the Gamecube mark of 21 million units in about three and a half years.

Assuming, that is, Nintendo stays focused on the Wii U as its primary console. But it won’t. Nintendo has already announced that they’re working on a new system – codenamed ‘NX’ - that will blend mobile and console gaming in some weird, Nintendo-ish way. It’s slated for release in 2016. Will it complement the Wii U, or effectively replace it? We don’t know yet, but it’s safe to say Nintendo is trying to take the pressure off the Wii U to perform.

That’s a good move. Nintendo has made huge strides in recent months expanding past its playground, embracing other platforms and finding new ways to turn a profit. This is a resilient company. Whatever happens with the Wii U, it’s a fool to count Nintendo out of the home console scene. But it’s also foolish to take much solace in an uptick in sales when you’re so far out of the game.

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