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.

Henry Gilbert

Henry Gilbert is a former GamesRadar+ Editor, having spent seven years at the site helping to navigate our readers through the PS3 and Xbox 360 generation. Henry is now following another passion of his besides video games, working as the producer and podcast cohost of the popular Talking Simpsons and What a Cartoon podcasts.