The Wii U launched into the long shadow of impending console generations. While Microsoft and Sony have not made any formal announcements, many analysts and industry-watchers are expecting to hear word on the next generation sometime next year. We’ve even heard some purportedly leaked (and predictably impressive) specifications for the new systems. When they launch, Nintendo’s latest console will be comparatively underpowered. Whether a half-step late by today’s standards or a half-step early by tomorrow’s, the company seems destined to find itself in an awkward position at this time next year.

After waiting an unprecedented period for another generation of consoles, the market seems primed for something shiny and new.

“Nintendo has always operated at their own pace,” said Jesse Divnich, an analyst at Electronic Entertainment Design and Research (EEDAR). “They decide the timing of their releases – not their competitors, and in some cases not even to the demands of the market.”

Those demands can be fickle. After waiting an unprecedented period for another generation of consoles, the market seems primed for something shiny and new. But this isn’t the first time a company has positioned itself between generations. It’s not even the first time Nintendo has done it. By learning from the history of its own systems and those of its competitors, Nintendo can start to form a healthy blueprint for how to make sure the Wii U doesn’t suffer from the pitfalls of its predecessors.

The industry started to take shape in the 8-bit era, as the concept of generational hardware began to form. Nintendo broke onto the scene in this period, as the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) competed against Sega’s Master System. But NEC’s TurboGrafx-16 took a head start, making a small jump past both technologies before Nintendo could introduce its Super NES or Sega could launch the Genesis. It was the first significant example of console half-steps. Despite its relative power, though, the TG-16 failed to gain a foothold in North America.

“TG-16 just never had Western or third-party support, I think the only reason Genesis took off was lots and lots of marketing dollars,” said game historian and Gamasutra editor Frank Cifaldi. “It looked fresh, it looked just like arcades, it just didn’t have any marketing muscle or software support.”

Third-parties are the lifeblood of a console, and have historically been a struggle for Nintendo to capture. It’s too early to say for sure if the Wii U will gain third-party support, but it does have the advantage of matching its competitors – at least for the time being. Nintendo was very frank in its intentions to capture existing franchises, and we’ve already seen that strategy showing from ports of games like Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 and Assassin’s Creed 3. Meanwhile, marketing dollars certainly shouldn’t be a problem. Nintendo’s war chest was estimated at $13.7 billion last year. That number may have been reduced by R&D and other assorted launch costs for the Wii U, but the company still certainly has money to spend if it needs to.

Plus, the TG-16 suffered largely because people were satisfied with their existing gaming options. “People weren’t avoiding it waiting for the next big thing, they were avoiding it because they had Nintendo already,” said Cifaldi. “I don’t think the Wii U has that problem. I think people are ready for a new console. It’s been pretty much the longest cycle ever.” On the other hand, he says the Wii U feels like a “spinoff” and wonders if people will see it as “the next big thing.”

Divnich similarly noted that both the TG-16 and Sega’s Dreamcast “tried to compete with the core gaming market where there already existed clear market leaders.” The PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 already have captured the core market, which seems likely to balk at the idea of buying Batman: Arkham City again just to play with its second-screen functionality. Simply offering equivalent experiences won’t be enough.

As Cifaldi noted, the Dreamcast’s main obstacle wasn’t its competitors at launch, but rather a system that hadn’t yet been released. “Dreamcast had this huge PlayStation 2-shaped shadow over it,” he said. “Everyone was waiting for PS2, just as ‘hardcore’ gamers are all waiting for the Durango and Orbis.” Those two code names allegedly belong to the next Xbox and PlayStation system, respectively.

One of the most infamous divergences from the apparent direction of the industry came from Nintendo itself, in the form of the Nintendo 64. The Sega CD, its successor the Saturn, and Sony’s PlayStation all relied on CDs, marking a clear sea change in media types that has continued to this day. The N64 relied on Nintendo’s old tried-and-true cartridges, sacrificing storage capacity and the faith of some developers. Now as the industry tentatively steps toward digital distribution, Nintendo seems much more willing to participate in the transition. Its 3DS and Wii U online storefronts offer a selection of full retail games as downloadable titles, particularly first-party games. That, at least, seems like a hard lesson learned.

“If Nintendo tries to compete with Sony or Microsoft on the core gaming experience, they are unlikely to succeed.”

The company has also already shown that it considers console power parity as an important feature in the Wii U – at least, until the console is outmatched by future generations next year. Nintendo of America president Reggie Fils-Aime even recently claimed that third-party games look significantly better on the Wii U than on the PS3 or Xbox 360. But horsepower can only account for so much of a console’s success. The Atari Jaguar was the company’s last attempt at the home console market, a powerhouse system that leapt past the SNES and Genesis. But the console suffered a severe lack of third-party support, due in part to its notorious programming difficulty. By the time the PlayStation was released, the Jaguar was already nearly forgotten.

Raw power is no substitute for developers’ ease-of-use, especially as equally matched consoles loom overhead. The Wii U hasn’t received many developer complaints, but it faces the overshadowing problem two-fold. It will probably be outmatched only a year or two into its lifespan, and isn’t particularly power-intensive in the first place.

“For me the horsepower part of the equation just isn’t that interesting,” said Cifaldi. “It’s all about how something’s being marketed and perceived by the audience. And right now, I have no idea how the general public is perceiving the Wii U. I suspect that no one knows about it.”

“What’s the promise?” Cifaldi asked. “What’s the story they’re selling? The story the Wii sold was your mom playing videogames again. 360 was the HD console, PS3 was even more of the brand you’re still attached to. The Wii got by because of its promise to break down barriers and expand the audience, which it did (for like a week).” By comparison, Cifaldi says, the new hardware lacks focus. “The Wii U has a Swiss Army knife of things to play with.”

Divnich is a bit more optimistic. “If anything, launching in-between console transitions is a great way to distinguish yourself, and as long as the Wii U can capture the same audience (and playing experience) as the Wii, then I have no doubts of its success.

“If, however, Nintendo tries to compete with Sony or Microsoft on the core gaming experience, they are unlikely to succeed. So there is some worry with all of these port releases that Nintendo is trying to capture the core audience in-between console transitions. If that is the case, it won’t work out for them in the long-run. But I highly doubt this is Nintendo’s long-term plan. At least for their sake, I hope it is not.”

It’s bizarre to think of Nintendo’s new system at risk of being left behind so shortly after a system’s initial launch. The Wii certainly proved that a supposedly underpowered console can be a breakout hit by distinguishing itself from its competitors, and Nintendo is banking on the strength of the brand in marketing the new system. The Wii U can’t be ruled out too quickly, especially given Nintendo’s tendency to shock the market with surprise successes, but it has struggles ahead. Whatever the company has planned for the future, it should be looking into the past. Otherwise, it runs the risk of the next-gen success being a half-step out of reach.

Steve Watts is a freelance writer living in the Baltimore-Washington area, whose credits include Shacknews, Joystiq, 1UP, and GamePro. He’s also getting way more use out of the Wii U’s “play Mario while watching TV” feature than he thought he would.

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