Anyone who has spent much time playing Mario Kart - and that's a pretty huge number of people, given that even the franchise's weakest instalments comfortably sell over 5 million units - knows that there's a certain trick to how items are handed out. If you're at the front of the pack, you don't get very many good power-ups; if you're at the back, however, great power-ups are scattered on you like confetti at a wedding. It's designed to give weaker players a chance to catch up. Right at the moment when you think all hope is lost, the fates hand you something that will put you back in the game.
Life imitates art, sometimes. The Wii U may not strictly speaking be at the back of the pack - it's still got a larger installed base than the Xbox One, though Microsoft's console has been steadily catching up - but it's undoubtedly the most troubled of the new generation of consoles. By some metrics, it's under-performing the late lamented Dreamcast, and plenty of the "Nintendo is Doomed" contingent (a choir with a limited repertoire but a seemingly endless wellspring of schadenfreude-fuelled enthusiasm) are being terribly generous with their advice that Nintendo should abandon the console or quickly reveal a "proper next-gen" successor.
"Looking at the relative positions of the consoles, I can't help but wonder if Nintendo hasn't just been gifted a power-up"
Yet looking at the relative positions of the consoles, I can't help but wonder if Nintendo hasn't just been gifted a power-up. At E3 next week, Sony and Microsoft will both pull out the stops to convince gamers of their future software line-ups - but the vast bulk of what they reveal will probably be 2015 software. Several key releases have slipped already, with Sony's The Order: 1886 only the latest game to disappear from the 2014 release schedule. In fact, in terms of platform exclusives, Sony's DriveClub and Microsoft's Sunset Overdrive are arguably the only real tentpole titles in the second half of 2014 on PS4 and Xbox One, with Bungie's Destiny one of the only real stand-out cross-platform games on the roster.
This kind of software drought isn't new, unusual or even unexpected. It's common for there to be a lull in releases between the games hurried out for the launch window, and the true "second wave" of games that arrives some time later. Developers and publishers spend this period coming to grips properly with the hardware, building up the tools and processes that will allow them to tackle the rest of the generation more effectively. In Sony's case, at least, it seems like the company planned for this lull and is trying to paper over the cracks; the PS4 is getting a steady feed of interesting indie titles, and HD updates of last-gen games like The Last Of Us and Final Fantasy XIV. Still, the reality is that the rest of 2014 is going to be quiet for many gamers; there are good games out there, certainly, but compared to the release schedule already shaping up for 2015, this is the calm before the storm.
"In Sony's case, at least, it seems like the company planned for this lull and is trying to paper over the cracks; the PS4 is getting a steady feed of interesting indie titles, and HD updates of last-gen games"
Except, that is, if you look at Nintendo's Wii U line-up. Kicking off with Mario Kart 8, which has already sailed past a million copies sold (no mean feat given the low installed base of the console) and which seems to be driving a significant uptick in hardware sales, Nintendo has a fairly remarkable 2014 on the cards - a point it's sure to hammer home throughout E3 week, when it will be showcasing games you can play this year, and much of the rest of the excitement will be about games you won't be getting your hands on until after your next rousing chorus of Auld Lang Syne.
Super Smash Brothers U is the other massive first-party title on the roster. While it doesn't have the broad appeal of Mario Kart, Smash Bros has established itself as a firm favourite on Nintendo consoles in recent years. If this latest iteration can match the quality of Mario Kart 8, which is earning almost universal praise from critics and gamers alike, it will likely be a major factor in the Wii U purchasing decision for a lot of consumers. Then there's the third-party line-up; Bayonetta 2 is a much-anticipated core title, Monolith Soft's X is an extremely promising RPG from the team that produced the acclaimed Xenoblade Chronicles, and both are firmly placed on the 2014 schedule. Question marks remain over Hyrule Warriors, a crossover of Zelda and Dynasty Warriors, but if it hits the quality bar high enough, this could be another important title for Nintendo this year. Then there are host of other interesting titles, which are more niche or less certain in their release dates; Yarn Yoshi, Shin Megami Tensei X Fire Emblem, and so on.
If all or most of those titles turn up in 2014, and all or most of them are of high quality and well-received, then the Wii U will have had a pretty remarkable year for software. Bear in mind that the console's back-catalogue is already pretty impressive - Super Mario 3D World was lauded as one of 2013's best games by many critics - and it starts to look like late 2014 will be an important tipping point for many consumers who haven't been swayed by Nintendo's offering as yet.
"There's every chance that by the end of this year the Wii U will have a line-up of first- and second-party software that's easily good enough to justify the 'second console' purchase"
Granted, there are a lot of "ifs" up there. The weak release schedule for PS4 and Xbox One this year is an opportunity for Nintendo, because it's going to create a window in which next-gen consoles are gathering a little dust and their owners start to think about making that "second console" purchase; a role traditionally and very effectively filled by a Nintendo system. If that Nintendo system offers a great Mario game, a great Mario Kart game, a great Smash Bros game and a host of other interesting core titles - Bayonetta 2, X (which will likely be the only decent JRPG on any next-gen system) and so on - then the purchasing decision will be swayed for a pretty large group of consumers. However, if Nintendo is going to actually capitalise on this opportunity, it needs to execute almost perfectly. It can't afford for any of its key games to be flops or critical misses; every one has to be superb.
That's a big ask, but then again, this is Nintendo - and however we may critique the company's overall strategy, executing brilliantly on software is Nintendo's home turf. There's every chance that by the end of this year the Wii U will have a line-up of first- and second-party software that's easily good enough to justify the "second console" purchase for a pretty large audience of gamers. Indeed, in the wake of Mario Kart 8, there's a sense that the tide is turning in terms of the console's perception; it will take a few more good shoves to get things moving in sales terms, but the opportunity exists. If a price cut were to come along by autumn (which Nintendo could afford, in marketing terms, as its console is significantly older than its next-gen rivals') that opportunity would be very significant indeed.
"Wii U has had, perhaps, the weakest first year of any console in over a decade - but with Nintendo's studios seemingly firing on all cylinders right now it's still far from dead"
Moreover, this is an opportunity enhanced by the realities of the modern retail market. In the past, when consoles performed badly, their failure became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Retailers withdrew support, shelf space dwindled, point-of-sale marketing disappeared and sales plummeted further. Third-party publishers bailed out not just because of the small installed base, but because retail support was gone and there was no shelf space to put their titles onto. Today, that problem still exists (although the success of the 3DS has given Nintendo some clout with retailers regarding Wii U support, at least) but it has been alleviated to a significant degree by online shopping. Amazon has no shelf space; Wii U will always be in stock there, and especially for the core audience (which Nintendo wants to exceed eventually, but baby steps, eh?) that's good enough, since they buy a console and software after deliberation and research, not based on shop displays.
Wii U has had, perhaps, the weakest first year of any console in over a decade - but with Nintendo's software development studios seemingly firing on all cylinders right now, the console is still far from dead. Nobody expects it to scale the heights achieved by the Wii, but it could yet sell enough to remain relevant, profitable and respectable by comparison to its rivals. The opportunity to turn things around exists in 2014; if Nintendo can grasp it, it will be arguably the most extraordinary second act in the history of any console, a comeback to rival even the most well-timed blue shell.