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The Wii U is the GameCube (but not the Virtual Boy)

In case you missed it yesterday, Nintendo released its April-June quarterly results, and the news was a mix of good and bad for the company. The worst bit was that the Wii U sold an impressively low 160,000 units globally. To give some context on how poor that is, the nearly seven-year-old (and functionally moribund) Wii sold 210,000 systems across the world in the same three months. On the plus side, Nintendo posted a (small) profit for the period, mostly thanks to the strength of 3DS sales. The reality of a profitable Nintendo in spite of its floundering home console felt more than a little familiar to me. After some research, the Wii U is looking remarkably similar to the GameCube--but don’t worry too much, because that’s hardly the worst piece of history Nintendo could repeat.

Just how is the Wii U the GameCube? I certainly don’t mean in a technological sense. While the Wii’s visuals were fairly close to the Cube’s, the Wii U is a legitimately HD console that keeps pace with the PS3 and 360. But when you look back a decade ago to Nintendo’s financial results for April-June 2003, the situations are easily comparable.

Both sales periods have dismal home console sales. By that point in 2003, the GameCube was nearing the end of its second year on the market and only 80,000 systems were sold worldwide in three months. And yet those quarterly results in 2003 were also seen as a ultimate positive for Nintendo thanks to the crazy high sales of the Game Boy Advance. Over 3 million GBAs were sold, which is more than double the 1.4 million 3DS systems Nintendo was proud of for that period in 2013. That spike in sales was largely thanks to the launch of Pokemon Ruby/Sapphire.

Meanwhile, the release calendar for Wii U’s April-June of 2013 had another unfortunate similarity with the GameCube’s 2003: The systems had almost no new games. While the GBA and 3DS were respectively supported by Pokemon and Animal Crossing, Wii U and GameCube both got underplayed Wario games and virtually nothing else. Nintendo made sure its handhelds would have major titles to boost system sales in late spring/early summer, but the publisher left its home consoles high and dry a decade apart.

Even with Nintendo’s lack of console games, both periods have Nintendo’s home system losses being offset by a booming handheld division, and that was basically the situation throughout the entirety of the GameCube’s existence. As the GameCube puttered along in third place, Nintendo was making huge bank on handhelds, just as it did with the Game Boy during the N64’s lifespan. Hell, even when the Wii was the hottest thing in gaming, the DS was pulling in at least as much cash for the company. Looked at from that angle, it appears that Nintendo’s been operating for years under the assumption that its handheld business supports its home console releases, not the other way around.

That would also explain why Nintendo’s executives don’t seem as worried about the Wii U as they were with the 3DS. You can bet president Satoru Iwata wishes the Wii U did 10 times its current sales, but when the 3DS was seeing similar consumer ambivalence, Nintendo was far more proactive. Even with holiday releases like Mario Kart 7 and Super Mario 3D Land on the horizon, Nintendo slashed the price by $80 at the end of July 2011, after those quarterly results had the 3DS selling only 710,000 systems globally. Nintendo moved swiftly then because its all-important handheld future seemed dire, but this year Nintendo appears much more willing to watch how Wii U does in the holidays before doing anything drastic. Iwata doesn’t seem that concerned in this recent Japanese interview, likely because the 3DS’s current success allows Nintendo the luxury of patience.

So if the Wii U is enduring despite its poor sales just as the GameCube did--and Nintendo seems to be acting that way as well--is the Wii U’s transformation into the Cube really so bad for gamers? By the end, the GameCube’s library featured amazing first-party titles like The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker and Metroid Prime. Even today Super Smash Bros. Melee is a huge deal in the competitive gaming community. If the Wii U never reaches half the sales of the Wii, Nintendo still seems very invested in delivering quality titles to the system as our Pikmin 3 review can attest. Unless you’re a stockholder in Nintendo, why should you care so long as the Wii U gets good games and the 3DS keeps Nintendo’s lights on? Nintendo will keep supporting the console regardless, out of pride alone if nothing else.

And there are many worse Nintendo products to be compared to than the GameCube. Just look at the Virtual Boy. The unportable portable was conceived as the future of Nintendo’s handheld market, but the massive headset had few good games, gave players headaches, and saw horrendously bad sales from day one. Nintendo killed the system outright in less than a year and the system’s architect, Gunpei Yokoi, resigned from the company despite a 30-year history as one of Nintendo’s top designers (you can thank him for such landmarks as the Game Boy, Metroid, and the standardized D-pad). Conversely, Iwata isn't ready to give up his position even if the Wii U drags Nintendo to a less profitable 2013.

Nintendo may hope that Wii U sales will explode around Christmas time, and its line-up of first party titles looks at least competitive with the collection of exclusive PS4 games and Xbox One games. But should Wii U come in third to those systems by January 2014, the system will be insulated just like the GameCube was, so long as the 3DS stays the breadwinner. And with Pokemon X and Y out in October, this new/old status quo looks to continue for the foreseeable future.

You know that kid at parties who talks too much? Drink in hand, way too enthusiastic, ponderously well-educated in topics no one in their right mind should know about? Loud? Well, that kid’s occasionally us. GR Editorials is a semi-regular feature where we share our informed insights on the news at hand. Sharp, funny, and finger-on-the-pulse, it’s the information you need to know even when you don’t know you need it.

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43 comments

  • Charlsmander - February 5, 2014 4:31 a.m.

    Oh I think you missunderstood, what I meant with "true gamers" was people who is not in this "console war" stuff and just want great games wich in my opinion there are in every console, I never said it was necessary to own PS/MS consoles, just if you do you can give it a chace to WiiU too. And I meant seccondary cause I really don't think WiiU is gonna be the top selling system this generation altought we'll see with their new politics, anyways I wrote that like 6 months ago :P And btw *Stands up*
  • mrclam - December 21, 2013 3:22 p.m.

    Im fascinated by the "doom and gloom" stories of "the wii is falling" the gaming press seems obsessed with. Is the wii-u selling brilliantly? No. BUT let's look at the REAL figures shall we? Dec 7 weeks sales (N/A) : Wii: 70k ps4 : 110k xbone: 180k Sure the wii-u is behind here.. but not that far behind the ps4.. Which - lets not forget, only just recently launched to massive publicity! A week previous and the wii-u OUTSOLD the ps4 in North America. Global sales, they're even closer together (but i've purposefully not posted them as people will point out the ps4/xbone arent released in japan yet). But still, the numbers are low across the board. lets look at how many the wii-u sold LAST year in this week.. 500k units in North America! I remember not long back the press was predicting doom and gloom for the 3ds (they were wrong - it is now the best selling console, by a huge margin). Seems to me like the gaming press is (weirdly) desperate for nintendo to fail for some reason.. Doesn't bother me either way though - i just find it interesting to watch from the sidelines people pump these stories out for page hits, to rhile up fanboys, or for whatever reason... But the numbers themselves arent as bad as you're talking about.... Which begs the question.. We see the SAME "doom and gloom" stories the 3DS had, that the wii-u has constantly... But yet.. Why do we never see as many of those stories about the VITA (which is performing EVEN WORSE than the 3ds or wii-u ever did.. but yet doesnt get even 1 millionth of "doom and gloom" press coverage... and AFAIK sony is in a much worse state financially than Nintendo is...). If it was purely about reporting about a failing console - fine.. But there seems to be something more to it than that... Interesting isn't it? I can only assume sony pays for more ads on this site? :-D
  • NintendoDragon - February 2, 2014 5:43 a.m.

    I agree with you completely! I find it completely bizarre that Nintendo is literally on top with 3DS and they keep putting doom this doom that on it. The Wii U has so much hope for it it's ridiculous. Honestly I might just buy a second one this year and give it to someone so they can see it's actually an amazing system with amazing games on the way.
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  • kaleb-mayhew - August 3, 2013 8:33 a.m.

    i'm too young too remember but the i've seen pics of the dreamcast and it looked purely awesome
  • delimma - August 2, 2013 5:47 a.m.

    I don't think Nintendo has TOO much to worry about. Theres no way they sell the same amount as the WII. They capature a rare young / casual crowd that was looking for something fun to play. I think a lot of those people have moved on to tablet / cell phone gaming. Hoping what's left of it may want to hop on sometime by the end of 2014. But it dosent help the marketing when you call the newer version of the console, the same as its predecessor. It's is a statement that gets made every day but it really IS confusing for a lot of people. Especially that casual crowd who went crazy for Dance Dance, or Wii Sports. I guess you could expect 3-4 million consoles being sold by late q3 / q4 with the drop of of Super Smash.
  • Umpiresoftball - December 17, 2013 7:59 p.m.

    No it has help sony so it should help Nintendo in the long run. this why Nintendo called it simliar to wii.
  • BladedFalcon - August 1, 2013 11:28 p.m.

    You got it wrong in both counts Henry. The Wii U is neither the GameCube nor the Virtua Boy... The Wii U is the DreamCast :P
  • Redeater - August 2, 2013 12:16 a.m.

    ......because Nintendo released 3 confusing console/console add ons prior to the release of the Wii U? Or because Nintendo will drop it after the two year mark because......wait, how exactly is it even remotely like the Dreamcast? :/ I did love my Dreamcast and I do love my Wii U. They are both the underdogs of a generation but the Dreamcast was a dead man walking where as the Wii U will ultimately be at least moderately successful.
  • BladedFalcon - August 2, 2013 11:50 p.m.

    Because both are underpowered systems that came out a year before the much more powerful and more hyped competition? And which, just like with the Dreamcast, the Wii U is probably gonna wither within a year from now? Also, considering the dreamcast still managed to sell more than 10 million systems, and the Wii U hasn't even managed to break 4 million so far, being a much more expensive system and times, I don't really see how the Wii U will be considered moderately successful if it gets trampled under the upcoming systems. Which, no matter what the Nintendo loyalists say, I'm still certain that it WILL happen.
  • Vonter - August 7, 2013 3:44 p.m.

    Also if the industry doesn't start withering during that same year. Nintendo isn't the only one depending on yearly fixes for their properties (it's the one that has done it the most albeit in intervals of five years except Mario). Also I'm bias but I like to ask for prespective what are the other two killer apps, it might be my tastes but MGS V and GTA V, as well as Dark Souls 2 are for this gen. I will assume Destiny if it can mix it more than Halo or..............I'm thinking..................Infamous?.......Well IMO I'll see what happens up until now is pure speculation (haven't seen preorder numbers but I mean there could be delays or technical problems, I'll wait).
  • Aquasol - August 3, 2013 11:24 p.m.

    So...you're saying the Wii U is going to be an amazing ahead-of-its-time console that's sadly underrated, and that Nintendo is going to fail hard and suck ass as a 3rd party dev/publisher but you'll be doing the happy dance while games are shipped out not even halfway-complete?
  • BackwaterRifle - August 1, 2013 7:34 p.m.

    I am seriously ok with this, the GameCube is honestly my favorite console ever.
  • Redzaku - December 14, 2013 7:10 p.m.

    Gamecube has my best memories as a gamer. LOZ:WW Metroid prime that game wowed me. But alas it was the least liked out of that gen.
  • GOD - August 1, 2013 6:45 p.m.

    The WiiU will gain momentum ultimately. Nintendo is willing to be patient, and in the long run it will work out for them because the WiiU is slowly building up a library of games that not only can you not get anywhere else, but also aren't like games you can find on a Sony or Microsoft console. Once Nintendo can build up this library enough to convince to buy a WiiU (for a lot of people that breaking point will be Mario Kart 8 and Smash Bros.) then they've won, because there are all the other Nintendo exclusives that maybe couldn't justify the console alone, but now that you have it you have no reason not to get them. WiiU will ultimately be a success. They have the money to support a slow build up, and the wide range of established franchises. Nintendo franchises aren't like Gears of War that can only go so long. They can be built upon indefinitely because they have solid gameplay foundations rather narrative restrictions. Even the more story oriented LoZ games are so contained that the events in one game don't mean another can't happen. The one thing they do really need to do though: MOAR ADVERTISING I never see WiiU ads. What the hell Nintendo. This is the first console you've made since the SNES that had almost the exact same name as it's predecessor yet you never advertise it?
  • jedisamurai - August 1, 2013 6:35 p.m.

    My two cents: I bought a DS because it played Gameboy Advance games too. I bought a Wii because it played gamecube games too. Wii U doesn't support Gamecube. 3DS doesn't play GBA. I will not buy a 3DS or Wii U because I don't want to own another system unless I can get rid of one. I won't buy a PS4 or Xbox One for the same reason. Backward compatibility with the 300+ games I already own or take a hike.
  • Charlsmander - August 2, 2013 5:42 a.m.

    You're aware you can play Wii games on your WiiU and NDS games on your 3DS right? They both have backwards compability with the previous console. By your logic you will never buy another Nintendo console cause there won't be anymore consoles compatible with GameCube or GBA games...
  • Vonter - August 7, 2013 3:52 p.m.

    3DS plays perfectly DS games and some are much better than the gameboy advance ones 3 excellente castlevania titles come to mind. Wii U can play Wii games an scale them for your TV (or so I hear), pointer controls IMO feel more natural if you like shooters, Xenoblade Chronicles I think is the best JRPG of the last generation, niche games unique to the system are memorable like No More Heroes (has Tarantino influences), Fragile (for people that like "different gaming experiences"), etc. So in the end you get two libraries instead of one (PS4 will do the same but until seeing it I will not mention it).

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