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The Nintendo difference: Wii U's first two years

It's struggled in the marketplace, but Nintendo's console has remembered something its competition seemingly forgot.

This was the year when the difference was supposed to show, when the gap in power between Sony and Microsoft's new consoles and the Wii U was going to leave Nintendo limping forlornly behind in a distant third place. And yet, two years into its life and a year since it first shared shelf space with the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, the Wii U still stands as the best prospect for experiences you can't get elsewhere - and if it's simply the best games you're after over the winter break, there's really no faulting Nintendo's console.

To say it's been a success would be a flat out lie, of course. The Wii U's launch was, atypically for Nintendo, a mess: the operating system chugged and wheezed until later firmware updates got it running at an acceptable lick, while the console itself was left searching for a clear purpose. There was no Wii Sports to sell the system, or the philosophy behind it; in its place was Nintendo Land, an odd scramble of mini-games built around the potential of that second screen, and Zombi U, a lovable but low-budget undead romp, to fly the flag for this strange machine.

The Wii U can't boast a new Uncharted or Halo next year - but can any console offer up the splendour promised by something like Xenoblade Chronicles X?

It's still searching for that purpose, too. Two years later, that pair remain the only big name titles to truly explore a gimmick that was dead on arrival. Many of Nintendo's first-party games now choose to ignore the second screen, for the most part, leaving it as the reserve of remote play (an admittedly very welcome feature that works better than on Sony's Vita/PS4 pairing, the gameplay free of artefacts and with minimal lag).

Shigeru Miyamoto's experiments shown at E3 earlier this year - a tower defence game, a robot brawling simulator that was the wrong kind of scrappy and a slim Starfox demo only displayed to a very select few - hardly convinced that there are better uses of the GamePad lying in wait. They had a knockabout charm, though as explorations of what's possible with two screens they already lagged behind what Katsuya Eguchi's team had rustled up with Nintendo Land - which, despite it not quite earning headline status, remains one of the very best games on the Wii U, in multiplayer at least. It seems even Nintendo's star asset can't quite salvage anything from one of the more redundant pieces of hardware.

There have been other hiccoughs, too. The Virtual Console, already seemingly winding down towards the end of the Wii's life, has slowed to a near halt in the era of the Wii U. Game Boy Advance games have been reluctant to come forth, while Nintendo 64 ones have failed to materialise altogether - so don't even bother holding out for GameCube titles to ever arrive at any point in the near or even distant future.

The belated arrival of Earthbound to these shores may have made up for some of the other deficiencies - though the pain PAL Nintendo fans have become accustomed to since the days of the SNES persist when, two years after it launched in Japan and North America, Nintendo TVii is yet to arrive in Europe.

The Miiverse remains the most open-armed online community of the new-gen consoles - even if it's sad to see how long it's been since friends have logged on.

How thin those promises made at E3 in 2011 by third party publishers seem today, too, with EA having walked away mere months after the Wii U's release and the third party support all but evaporating before the first year was out. The limp and late release of Watch Dogs earlier this month would appear to be a sad but fitting end to big budget multi-platform games on the Wii U, even as they continue to find their way to the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360.

And yet, in what's been a lacklustre year for new releases, what Wii U owner would honestly complain they weren't able to play the next mediocre, broken instalment of a creaking mega franchise? Games like Destiny and Alien: Isolation were certainly missed, but was the loss of Unity and the late arrival of Watch Dogs that much of a shame given all the other games the Wii U has in its favour?

It's only natural that, having been around twice as long, the Wii U would have more exclusives - but still, what exclusives they are. From the fruits of its first year - Pikmin 3, New Super Mario Bros. U, Super Mario 3D World and Wind Waker HD - to all that's been delivered in a more esoteric but no less thrilling year. Having seemingly turned its back on mainstream success, the Wii U's settled into a more cultish groove - not, perhaps, the best move to boost those still ailing sales, but the perfect tonic for those turned off by the creaking bloat that's become the norm on the other new generation consoles. Bayonetta 2's arguably the peak of the action genre while Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze embellishes that particular series with a craft that seemed to escape Rare's early entries.

Other Wii U games of 2014 are odder still. Captain Toad - if you're lucky enough to live in the US, that is, where it's launching this side of the New Year - is one of the stranger games to come out of Tokyo EAD, but is no less essential for that fact, and if you've got an open mind there's even a new Zelda to settle down with this Christmas in the curious shape of Team Ninja and Omega Force's Hyrule Warriors.

Mario Kart 8 might put on a fancier show, but for my money Mario Chase remains the standout Wii U multiplayer experience.

There have been surefire, top-billing blockbusters too, of course. Mario Kart 8 - as strong a contender for game of 2014 as anything else out there - wasn't just a gloriously attractive amalgamation of all that's great and good about one of Nintendo's longest running series. It was also proof positive that Nintendo could craft an online experience in step with contemporary expectations - and one, in its simplicity, efficiency and sturdiness a lot of its contemporaries could learn from, too. The recently released Super Smash Bros. sees out the year on a high, a colourful exclamation at the end of a year that possibly didn't deserve such a boisterous, chipper full-stop.

It's also gently ushered in another new era at Nintendo with the introduction of Amiibos, the Kyoto company looping back to its origins as toy-maker as it seeks to rediscover the direction it had seemingly lost two years ago. There are signs of it coming back elsewhere, too, in a 2015 that sees the Wii U's catalogue bolstered - even if they're all coming from first-party studios, and predominantly from the leftfield. A new Zelda's the headline addition, sure, but it's games such as Shin Megami Tensei x Fire Emblem, Xenoblade Chronicles X and Splatoon that are the kind of bold, offbeat games fast becoming the Wii U's calling card. They're not going to drag the Wii U's sales into contention with the other new-gen consoles, but they're a reminder Nintendo's always played a contrasting game to other. At a time where it's only the odd dropped frame and pixel that distinguishes the competition, Nintendo's at least remembered there's value in offering something different.

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