The Wii U ran so the Nintendo Switch could run

Nintendo closed its Wii U eShop in March 2023 and will shut down the console’s online functionality today, April 8. The Nintendo Switch predecessor, originally released in 2012, is officially being retired. Yes, Wii U owners can still play games offline – and participate in the active Wii U modding scene – but Nintendo will finally wipe its hands of its worst-selling console ever. (Nintendo has sold just over 13 million Wii U consoles, with at least one purchased last year.)

For years, the Wii U was largely considered a colossal failure. And in many ways that is still the case. But as time passed since its initial release in 2012, it became easier to see how the console was actually a flawed but necessary step in Nintendo’s journey to the Nintendo Switch. After all, the Wii U’s tablet isn’t all that different from the Switch’s form factor, even if it’s only meant to be played at home.

“We had launched the Wii U, following on from the Wii, which had sold 100 million units worldwide,” said former Nintendo of America president Reggie Fils-Aimé at the GeekWire Summit in Seattle in 2018. “The Wii U didn’t have the same level of success. But what we heard from consumers is that the proposition of a tablet that allowed them to experience gameplay, coupled with the ability to play games on the big TV screen, was really compelling.”

Nintendo’s Wii U tablet was the most progressive feature, but that was hard to see due to its technical limitations. The tablet-style controller had the look of a portable device that could be played anywhere, but was limited only to the home, close enough to the Wii U console to stay connected. This tension was there from the start: at Nintendo’s 2011 E3 presentation, where Nintendo first unveiled the Wii U, Nintendo focused heavily on the tablet and the second screen: how to turn off the TV and keep playing on your Wii U tablet screen. .

After the presentation, former Nintendo CEO Satoru Iwata told London’s Evening Standard newspaper that people became confused: “Because we placed so much emphasis on the controller, it turned out that there was a misunderstanding.” People were thinking about the tablet controller used to be the console, or whether it was a new piece of hardware for the Wii. Neither was true. Indeed, the tablet was just a tablet – and Nintendo planned to pair it with its own upgraded console, the Wii U. But the leap didn’t seem big enough to entice Wii players to buy another console and then upgrade the tablet receive. something that was functionally so similar – just with a new controller.

The Wii U tablet was almost a device that could be played on the go, but it ultimately wasn’t. The tablet connected to the stationary console via its own wireless connection: they communicated directly and no Wi-Fi connection was required. But that connection had technical limitations, meaning you could only move about ten meters away from the console, making the tablet controller feel very restricted and uncomfortable. (The battery life was also pretty bad.) A portable tablet should have given players more flexibility, but the connectivity issues made it difficult. If you can never stray far from the TV, you might as well stay connected to it.

And yet, despite its limitations, the Wii U tablet proved to be secretly revolutionary for Nintendo. “Without our experiences with Wii U, we wouldn’t have Nintendo Switch in terms of what we learned and, most importantly, what we heard from our consumers,” Fils-Aimé said in 2018. “They told us, ‘I want to play with this tablet, this gamepad for the Wii U, but as soon as I’m more than 30 feet away, it disconnects.’ So the core concept is something that you can take with you anytime, anywhere.”

GeekWire reported that Fils-Aimé said that the Wii U wasn’t exactly a “beta test” for the Nintendo Switch, but that it was a necessary step in the timeline of innovations that would lead to the development of Nintendo’s future console. Ultimately, the Nintendo Switch was everything players wanted the Wii U to be: a truly portable device that could also connect seamlessly to a television. There was no confusion; the Switch’s tablet-like controller is the console.

Because the Wii U was so essential to the development of the Switch, it’s incorrect to write the Wii U off as an outright failure. It’s not. While the console didn’t sell well, it had its advantages: It was a huge win for Nintendo games’ backwards compatibility and local multiplayer – and it served as a stepping stone to one of Nintendo’s best consoles of all time.