An early prototype for the Wii's controller was an accelerometer-equipped disc you gripped in both hands, with a huge star-shaped button in the middle surrounded by smaller buttons. It was made out of orange plastic, so Nintendo's hardware team nicknamed it the cheddar cheese. Surprisingly enough, no-one liked it. Cheddar cheese was simple enough to use, and accurate, but it looked weird - and Nintendo's developers thought it unsuited to the company's own software.
Nevertheless cheddar cheese was an important stepping-stone for Nintendo. It demonstrated that innovation is not just about new experiences, but their form factor. Originality had to be matched to simplicity and desirability. Such thinking led to the brilliance of the Wii remote, and a sales phenomenon. With Wii U and its gamepad, there's more than a whiff of cheddar cheese.
Nintendo's figures for the Wii U's first months on sale, from November through to March, are terrible. The headline number of 3.45 million units sold worldwide isn't the killer fact, but the split behind it: 3.06 million of those came in the first month. Since that point Wii U has tanked - there's no other way to put it - with even the release of traditional big-hitters like Dragon Quest 10 failing to make a dent in the Japanese market. If you believe certain analysts, April saw things getting even worse in the US with the Wii U shifting under 40,000 units, easily outsold by the 360 and PS3 - and, even more embarrassingly, the Wii.
These numbers fall well below Nintendo's original aim to sell 5.5 million units - though even that estimate hints at rather modest ambitions. What happened? It is worth remembering, first of all, what the Wii U had to follow. In the DS and Wii markets Nintendo, through a combination of luck and design genius, created a captive audience that will pay them for years to come, and one the company is still trying to guide upstream. This is a point often missed - Nintendo's unusual devices have an audience that is equally unusual for the games industry, i.e. normal people.
Wii U's gamepad is a less obvious sell than the Wii remote was, and not nearly as instantly exciting. The bigger difference is software. Nintendo launched Wii with the greatest pack-in title ever made, and then Wii U came with Nintendo Land - a rather half-hearted run through classic rides of yesteryear. There have been nice uses for the gamepad in a lot of Wii U titles, but the concept hasn't yet been the foundation of anything.
This is important because it's the crux of Nintendo's business philosophy: creative hardware drives developers to make creative software. It's something that, with the DS for example, was a spectacular success - though largely because Nintendo themselves led the way. But it comes with one gigantic problem. Many console developers, and particularly the big publishers, are less interested in being creative than they are in following templates. And you have to sympathise with that position. Original or even branded IPs with new takes on interaction are risky business in the mainstream, and can also be deadly - witness THQ's doomed attempt at doing a Nintendo with Udraw. The Wii, outside of a few outlier hits like Carnival Games and Just Dance, was not good for thirdparties.
Combine this traditional feature of a Nintendo platform with a low installed base and, as one of EA's Senior Software Engineers employee put it in an unguarded moment, "Nintendo are walking dead at this point.". Third parties become less committed, or even walk. Exclusives like Rayman Legends have been lost and then there's the recent will they/won't they EA saga, with the publisher appearing to confirm it was not supporting Wii U at all, then swiftly rowing back on this.
EA's position is terrible news for Nintendo, regardless, because what is clear is that its biggest titles are definitely not coming to Wii U. EA blamed the decision on poor sales of FIFA 13 but this isn't just about sports - or even EA. Wii U is unlikely to see cross-platform versions of games built using the Frosbite tech or Unreal Engine 4, and will undoubtedly lose on this particular front in the next-gen war - though it's one which, in fairness to Nintendo, it was never interested in.
The prime turf on which Microsoft and Sony will tussle is often assumed to be the only console market, even though Nintendo created its own shard with Wii. But there's a bigger assumption behind this. It is that PS4 and Xbone are going to launch serenaded by the sound of cash tills, quickly acquiring large installed bases and shifting enough software to keep Peter Moore's goatee nicely trimmed.
The idea that the market is desperate for new consoles has widespread currency in the specialist press. Once Microsoft and Sony are on the scene, goes the wisdom, Nintendo are a goner - Christmas 2013 ain't no place for a gamepad. That may be true. But consider this scenario: Microsoft and Sony launch with incremental improvements on the same old software we're used to playing at around Ł400 apiece. Nintendo, with Wii U officially under Ł200 by then, crack out the heavy artillery and give us a show: the first high-definition 3D Mario, Mario Kart U, Zelda (all confirmed for this financial year), alongside Autumn releases like Pikmin 3 and the Wonderful 101. That is a real choice for consumers, especially hard-up parents, and not one with a predictable answer.
By far the craziest idea being floated in the wake of Wii U's bad start is that Nintendo should consider its position as a hardware manufacturer, and go on to make games across all platforms. Say what you will about the Wii U, its success or otherwise will not bring Nintendo down - and it's not as though the company is losing money. Nevertheless one might rightly ask what Nintendo is going to change to meet its future targets; for the year ending March 2014 it projects selling nine million Wii Us and eighteen million 3DS units, as well as 38 million and 80 million games respectively. The Wii U estimates look unconvincing, the 3DS estimates look good. Just how aggressive this will make Nintendo's pricing of the former in the winter launch period remains to be seen.
I've largely ignored the 3DS, because it is basically ticking along nicely - though it does set some sort of example for what we can expect from Wii U. Lest it be forgotten Nintendo's handheld also had a difficult launch, but with an ever-improving software lineup now looks extremely comfortable indeed.
This is the part of the equation that still missing for Wii U. Nintendo's biggest asset and problem are exactly the same: the company does not compromise on software quality, and so often games are not released in a timely manner. Rob Fahey eloquently argued on Gamesindustry.biz several weeks ago that this means Nintendo can, however painfully, survive a failed console - but they could not survive tainting the Mario brand in order to meet a deadline. "A delayed game is eventually good," Shigeru Miyamoto once said about Ocarina of Time's development. "A bad game is bad forever."
This is why the Wii U's supporters point out, rightly, that the key software is still to come. But there's a flipside, especially with thirdparties: the ones Nintendo has chosen to back are, Retro Studios apart, Japanese developers that sell well in the Japanese market. These exclusives are of almost guaranteed quality, and personally I am 100% HYPE for them, but severely lack appeal beyond the console's home turf: Monster Hunter 3U, Dragon Quest 10, Shin Megami Tensei X Fire Emblem, a new Xenogears or Xenosaga. For all you can praise the hardware, is any of those titles likely to exploit it to the full? Unlikely. It is a slate designed to cement Nintendo's traditional position in Japan above all else.
Behind this may be the truth of Wii U's positioning. At a time when the goal of its competitors is to own the living room, the extent of Nintendo's ambition is simply to be in it - a dedicated games console, and no more. Wii U is not a new beginning but a consolidation strategy, an attempt to attract back gamers and upsell Wii players, and only time will tell if its less obvious features are worthwhile: does it matter that Nintendo are the only company bothering to keep players' existing game libraries and accessories relevant? Or do people only care about those things on the internet?
There is no denying the conservatism in the Wii U's design. The alternative would not have been more horsepower, but another new direction; perhaps something more cheddar cheese than tablet. Nintendo has made a necessary artform of subsisting on low installed bases and high loyalty in the past, on home consoles at least, and may well have to do so again. Nintendo isn't in serious trouble - not yet, anyway - and this Christmas will be the console's real test in the marketplace. Microsoft and Sony have the habit of talking about their consoles in terms of ten-year plans. Wii U feels like more of a five-year bridge, and a little bit like playing for time.