Earlier this year, Nintendo decreed to the gaming world that this would be the Year of Luigi. As the perpetually put-upon and endlessly anxious brother of company mascot Mario, Luigi has always been the second-banana character of Nintendo's most recognizable universe. Where Mario dared to be brave--or, at least, lacked any discernible emotional response outside a kind of vacantly cheery determination--Luigi has primarily been portrayed as the scaredy-pants of the equation. He has always been beset by a mixture of fear and occasional disappointment at his own place in Mario's shadow, though still heroic enough to get his own princess girlfriend and occasionally save the day in his own occasional adventures.
Nintendo's announcement of the title really just had to do with a sudden preponderance of Luigi-related content on the schedule for the year, including a Luigi's Mansion sequel, a Mario & Luigi RPG sequel that takes place inside Luigi's mind, and the addition of Luigi DLC levels to New Super Mario Bros. U. It was a simple marketing gimmick, but in a weird way, it's become emblematic of the year Nintendo's having thus far. As the weeks of 2013 have rolled along, Nintendo has begun to resemble its timidly anxious secondary mascot, both in behavior and fortune. Where once it operated more like Mario--confident, and perhaps blithely oblivious to the threats around them--the company now seems more intensely aware of the danger it currently sits in, and deeply unsure of itself in the face of it.
Of course, I doubt I'm the first person to make this fairly obvious comparison. But it's something I've thought more and more about as the Wii U has continued down its troubled path. Since it launched in November, the system has regularly suffered from dismal sales, coming in the last few months well under the numbers of consoles that have already been out for years, including the Wii U's under-powered predecessor. In its financial statement made this past week, Nintendo noted that the Wii U had only sold 3.45 million units worldwide, which was well short of the 5 million it had targeted. Worse still, only approximately 400,000 units sold in the first quarter of this year.
There simply isn't a nice way to spin those numbers. They're dreadful, even removing them from the absurd comparison of the Wii's highly successful opening six months on store shelves. The Wii was its own strange beast, a console that became an instant fad, thanks in no small part to the immediately fresh appeal of the system's motion-controlled mechanics. I say this not to diminish that console, which had more than its share of terrifically fun games. But it would be dishonest to say that the quality of the Wii's games was what turned it into the industry-disrupting behemoth it became. In truth, Nintendo sold accessibility to an audience that otherwise wouldn't have even bothered with a video game console. It bridged a gap between a mainstream audience and the hardcore gaming segment. Those people didn't flock to the system because they were hot to play Super Mario Galaxy, or The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. They flocked to it because the novelty of Wii Sports and its ilk captured their attention, if only for a time.
The Wii U has not done this. In fact, it's barely managed to hold its own in a marketplace that seems, at best, indifferent to Nintendo's promise of a simultaneously family friendly and "core gamer" focused machine. Of course, part of that may be Nintendo's own fault. No shortage of people piped up when the Wii U was announced to note that the name seemed problematic, since it sounded like either just a new variation on the existing Wii, or like some kind of accessory for it. Those of us who live and breathe games obviously know that isn't the case, but the people who bought into the Wii purely on the merits of its status as a fad of the time either haven't gotten the message, or haven't been bothered to listen in the first place. Even Satoru Iwata has acknowledged the brand confusion issue, though he hasn't necessarily explained how Nintendo plans to combat it from here.
One way it won't be combating the issue is by holding a major E3 press conference this year. The console maker announced this past week that it would be foregoing its traditional Tuesday morning press conference in favor of more targeted events, which include more Nintendo Direct live streams between now and E3, a press-focused hands-on session the morning when the conference would have been held, and a retailer-focused event that would allow them to talk directly to their sales partners.
Opinions on this have been as varied as they have been strong. Those of us in the older guard have seemingly focused on displeasure toward the move, with famous Videogamesman Adam Sessler getting up on his trademark soapbox to deride Nintendo for abandoning an important opportunity to make its voice heard amid the din of Microsoft and Sony trying to shout each other down with their respective console announcements. Game Informer's Mike Futter echoed those sentiments, noting that Nintendo's communication problems to the mainstream audience aren't likely to be solved by messaging through fan-focused events like Nintendo Direct.
Others, however, have taken Nintendo's bowing out as a sign of something more positive. E3 press conferences are obviously of no small expense, and with 2K Games opting out of even having a booth at all this year, it seems like austerity might be the order of the day at this year's show. More to the point, as this writer at Jump Kick Punch! explains, Nintendo can easily target the media it wants with the kind of focused event it's talking about. His example pertains to his own experiences working for Adult Swim, where instead of an expensive "upfront" (the TV industry term for a big, stupid event where all the fall's big shows are announced to sponsors), his team traveled from sponsor office to sponsor office, explaining the lineup in a personalized meeting. According to him, at least, it was a big time success.
As with all things, the true impact of Nintendo's decision is probably somewhere in the middle. The odds of Nintendo having an announcement that would make significant noise in the presence of the deafening echo chamber that is NEW CONSOLE YEAR E3 were probably slim to none. Nintendo has games to show, but they're the expected games, the franchises you already know, with maybe some strong third-party additions to go along with them--emphasis on maybe. Holding an expensive press conference, which often serves as little more than an excuse for the press to tear them to shreds via social media and the modern art form that is the animated gif, would probably have been futile. This way, the enthusiast press gets to play the games, Nintendo can still try to rope in the mainstream press for interviews and exclusives (provided they have any of note to offer), and the retailers will get their little show too.
At the same time, there's playing things smart, and there's conceding the conversation. While it might be reasonable for Nintendo to bow out of the press conference dog-and-pony show, it also is at least a tacit admission of defeat. Nintendo isn't saying this directly, but to not have a big press conference is to essentially say up front that nothing we're showing will sound more exciting than what Sony and Microsoft are showing. Nintendo may have awesome games to show, but they know they're showing them for a system that looks exceptionally weak right now in the face of its more immediately exciting competition.
It's not that Nintendo is devoid of any strength, of course. The 3DS is, at the very least, still rolling pretty strong sales wise, and there's a solid slate of games headed to the handheld throughout the rest of this year. But even with relatively strong sales, the 3DS is missing targeted projections. And while the Wii U could very easily turn things around with a strong lineup of games at this E3, it would still be suffering from a dearth of interesting games for the foreseeable future, as little of Nintendo's announced lineup appears prior to the fall, and I highly doubt much of anything the company announces before or at E3 will arrive prior to then either.
For my part, I'm sad about the lack of a Nintendo conference, about the sales of the Wii U, and just about Nintendo in general these days. Say what you will about the company's hubris at various stages of its existence, but Nintendo is the reason quite a lot of us are even playing video games. For whatever mistakes Nintendo has endured, for whatever ill-conceived moves it has made in the name of its own strange, sometimes misplaced sense of corporate pride, there has always been a hope--at least in myself, but I think in a lot of other people too--that Nintendo would some day just figure it all out. That maybe one day, they'd suddenly snap to attention, get their bearings, and start addressing the many facets of modern console gaming that it either seemed unwilling, or unable to adapt to previously.
In some ways, the Wii U almost looked like that moment. For all the morbid talk surrounding the console's sales, it's really kind of a neat piece of hardware, at least from the experiences I've had with it. When you consider what an insane stir the Wii caused with its relatively modest innovation, the Wii U is practically the reverse, a system full of buzzy terms like "second screen experiences," "social media hubs," and "HD visuals" all kind of thrown together into an anarchic technological slurry that, sadly, nobody seems all that interested in. Of course, that slurry is far from perfect, with no small number of technical shortcomings and awkward implementations of its various ideas. But even for its faults, there is a glimmer of something unfamiliarly hopeful in its awkward lurches toward a better understanding the modern gaming landscape. Or, as Ian Bogost put it in his staggeringly thought-out critique of the system for Gamasutra:
"It's almost impossible to understand the Wii U in the abstract, without playing it. And even then you won't be sure of it, because the Wii U isn't sure of itself, and that's its greatest virtue. In an age when showy CEOs shout hubristic, trite predictions about the inevitable future of games, The Wii U offers an understated bravado that's far more courageous. With it, Nintendo admits, "we don't know either." We don't know what video games are anymore, or what they will become. It's a huge risk, and it's probably the most daring move Nintendo has made in its 125-year history. Domestication through polite ferocity. Feral design."
It's more than just the Wii U that isn't sure of itself. Nintendo has never looked more vulnerable, more uncomfortable with its place in the scope of modern video games than it does now. Last year's press conference showed a parade of Nintendo executives who seemed, at best, to be putting a brave face on an unsure thing. In the year since then, the company's tone has appeared to retreat more and more to a place of depressed bewilderment as sales targets were continually missed. Through seemingly no intention of its own, Nintendo has managed to mirror the personality of the very character it has chosen to celebrate on this, one of its most challenging years.
While I love the character of Luigi to death, specifically because of his role as an underdog who often has to overcome his own abject fear to succeed, it's not a role Nintendo seems well suited to. Its many years of unfettered, sometimes unearned confidence, even in the face of sub par sales of other consoles like the Nintendo 64 and the GameCube, always lent the feeling that no matter what, there would be a Nintendo console somewhere in the marketplace. For the first time in a long while, that confidence seems genuinely shaken. Here's hoping Nintendo can push forward, and make good on that underdog storyline. Because if it doesn't, the Year of Luigi could be its last as a relevant name in video game hardware.