I now have the brand-new Sony PlayStation 4 and Microsoft’s even newer Xbox One under my television set, but I spent the weekend with the Nintendo Wii U instead. That sounds like the setup to a bad video game joke. A year into its existence, this follow-up to the Wii is flirting with a reputation as the game console equivalent of Microsoft’s star-crossed Zune music player, which was well designed and had fierce devotees — among the few people who actually bought one.
The sales numbers for the Wii U, especially in contrast to the 100-million-selling Wii, have been almost unbelievably woeful. The console got off to a decent start, shipping three million units worldwide in 2012. Since then, however, whatever enthusiasm existed for it seems to have been kidnapped and locked, to borrow a bit of Nintendo fantasy, in a Mushroom Kingdom castle.
In the first nine months of this year, Nintendo shipped fewer than one million Wii U’s. The new console was outsold by the seven-year-old Wii in the second quarter, from April to June. Worse, as the British video game magazine Edge notes in its newest issue, sales of Wii U in Europe were actually negative for the most recent quarter, which ended in September: Retailers outside of Japan and the Americas returned more consoles to Nintendo than they sold to customers.
But the Wii U is also the only new console with a video game worth playing. Super Mario 3D World, which went on sale Friday, is the best Mario game in years. It’s not just the best game for the Wii U, it’s the most entertaining game that has been released this fall for any system. (To a calendar pedant, Grand Theft Auto V went on sale in the summer.) If you live in one of the perhaps two million households with a brand-new game console — the number is fuzzy in part because it is impossible to know how many of the one million Xbox Ones and PlayStation 4’s that Microsoft and Sony each sold in separate 24-hour periods in the past week and a half were bought by the same people — you’ve probably already discovered that new consoles, with rare exceptions, don’t come with particularly exciting games.
Ryse: Son of Rome is probably the most enjoyable game exclusive to the Xbox One, and it’s a trashy, repetitive romp that plays, in ways both good and bad, like a violent version of Simon, the color-matching memory toy introduced in 1978. The games that can be played only on the PlayStation 4 are even weaker. The star attraction there is Resogun, a reimagining of the 1980s arcade shooter Defender that’s terrific fun and impossible to employ as a justification for a $400 console.
That doesn’t mean that buyers of the new systems from Microsoft or Sony are disappointed, necessarily. The voice control and cable-television features in the Xbox One should satisfy the desire of early adopters to show off to friends and neighbors. They’re just going to have to wait for a while until there’s a must-play game, at minimum until Respawn’s Titanfall is released in March — if not longer. The wait for new PlayStation owners will be even lengthier, I suspect.
Nintendo has often flouted the mediocre-game rule of thumbs — bad plural pun intended — for new consoles, which has added to the frustration of Wii U owners. The company built its reputation in 1985 with the Nintendo Entertainment System, which came bundled with Super Mario Bros., one of the greatest video games ever designed.
An early game for the Nintendo 64 in 1996 was Super Mario 64, which players regard with similar reverence. It brought Mario, the jumpy Italian plumber into three dimensions for the first time and inspired the creators of the open-world Grand Theft Auto games, among others. And, of course, the original Wii came packaged with Wii Sports, one of the very best games for that system. It remains the purest execution, for any system, of the power of motion controls to add realism to play.
Now, with Super Mario 3D World, Nintendo has at last delivered the kind of game for the Wii U that its players probably expected from the outset. Like the best Mario games, Super Mario 3D World is a surreal celebration of play and exploration. It’s a dazzling display of shifting perspectives, with an inventive use of light and shadow.
Mario has been with us long enough that the fundamental strangeness of these games may be wearing off. It’s not particularly clear why Mario — or Luigi, Toad or Princess Peach — is collecting green stars, breaking blocks and jumping on flagpoles. Nor is it clear why, in the game’s most prominent new trick, the characters can use a bell to turn themselves into cats. Or why they eat cherries that create doubles of themselves, or why they glide on trapezes, ride giant ice skates and clamber atop stone cubes tumbling through a lake of fire. Or why the villainous Bowser, in his newest incarnation, is the leader of some kind of disco circus.
In these games, none of the why matters. Except perhaps, for players who have been with the series for almost 30 years and know the back story: Princess Peach has been ritually kidnapped by Bowser only to be rescued by Mario more times than Batman has battled the Joker. In a Mario Bros. game, to take control of a no-longer-helpless Princess Peach and enable her to defeat her longtime nemesis is an act of cathartic vengeance on the order of the far more realistic violence carried out by characters like Beatrix Kiddo in “Kill Bill” or Lisbeth Salander in “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.”
One great game won’t save a console. There are other good Wii U titles, but the console’s lineup is still pretty thin, especially in comparison to Nintendo’s own hand-held 3DS, which has shipped almost 35 million units worldwide in its two and a half years on the market, including more than 11 million in the United States.
If the Wii U is your only console, you still can’t play the rest of the this year’s best games, including Grand Theft Auto V, BioShock Infinite, Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch, The Last of Us and Gone Home. You would need at least two more machines to play all of those.
But for the first time, you need a Wii U to play one of the year’s best video games. For beleaguered Wii U owners, that’s probably enough.