With Nintendo’s worst-selling console (bar the Virtual Boy, of course) now six feet under, we take a look back on the Wii U's life with some of the independent developers that kept the console ticking, during its infamous game droughts.
With those games in mind, who better to ask about the much-maligned Wii U than their fair creators! We’ve been fortunate enough to speak with Jools Watsham of Renegade Kid fame (Mutant Mudds), Thomas Tyssoy from Rain Games (Teslagrad, World to the West), Knapnok’s Anchel Labena (Affordable Space Adventures), Rodrigue Deperron of Thunder Lotus (Jotun, the upcoming Sundered), Rhys Lewis of Squarehead Studios (Star Ghost), and Asier Quesada and Arturo Monedero from Delirium Studios (The Rivers of Alice, The Delusions of Von Sottendorff). Enjoy!
What was the Wii U like to develop for?
Rain Games: We’ve built all our games in Unity, so in most regards it hasn’t been very different from developing for other platforms. The primary challenge has been in porting, and figuring out how to reduce the amount of RAM we use to fit the Wii U.
Knapnok Games: Wii U was a super exciting machine to work on, it opened up opportunities for creating games that weren't really possible on other consoles.
Delirium Studios: Well, 3DS was rough for programming. Let’s say it is a machine that requires lots of skills if you want to reach a high visual and technical performance! For The Rivers of Alice port to Wii U it was completely the opposite, apart from some audio conversion problems, Unity - we previously developed the game with this engine – allowed us to port the game from PC to Wii U reporting few tech-related problems. We had to redesign the game to make it compatible with the Wii U gamepad screen though.
Were Nintendo helpful/encouraging of your project?
Squarehead Studios: Yes absolutely. They were kind enough to feature Star Ghost on the eShop and they also promoted the game on leaflets included with physical titles. Considering it was a tiny one man, self-published title, I don’t think I could have asked for more.
Thunder Lotus Games: Nintendo did indeed offer much support for the development of Jotun for Wii U. It was important for all concerned that our game (as well as other indies due to release last fall) be available in time for a Nindies promotion Nintendo had planned for September.
Jools Watsham: Yes, it was always great working with the team at Nintendo. They were very supportive of our efforts on the Wii U.
"...it was easier for us to get visibility on the platform compared to other mainstream alternatives as fewer games are released for the Wii U, making it easier to stand out."
Did you ever worry about releasing a game on a console with such a small install base (comparatively speaking)?
Rain Games: Not at all. While the Wii U has a small install base relatively speaking, we were never in a position where the smaller pool of potential players would negatively impact our bottom line. Teslagrad actually did pretty well on the Wii U, and we think part of that is because it was easier for us to get visibility on the platform compared to other mainstream alternatives as fewer games are released for the Wii U, making it easier to stand out.
Knapnok Games: Not really - you always need to scale the cost of your project to match the potential gain on the platform, and we managed to scope the project relatively well so we didn't have to sell hundred of thousands of copies to break even. The advantage of making something on a less crowded console is that you have a much higher chance of standing out.
Squarehead Studios: Not really, though perhaps in hindsight I could have given it a little bit more thought! One of the attractions for me was that although the market has been small, it is composed of highly passionate and knowledgeable gamers. From a developer's perspective, it is very rewarding to be able to connect with the kind of people that really care about what you’re doing.
What are your thoughts on the Wii U now its time has come to an end?
Thunder Lotus Games: It's hard to strike a resoundingly positive tone when speaking of the Wii U. Truly, there were some stellar gaming experiences to be had on the system, but in retrospect, I believe Nintendo never adequately communicated to gamers why they should want the console, nor to devs what manner of unique experiences they wanted to offer on the console. It seems to me that the story of the Wii U is one of unrealized potential - though what precisely it had the potential to ultimately become is up to debate.
Knapnok Games: I think the Wii U was a great platform that tried a lot of different interesting things. One of the core problems of it was that many of these things were contradictory: the GamePad had a touchscreen which is great, but if you wanted to support the pro controller you couldn't utilise the touchscreen. The secondary screen is a really cool feature, the option to continue your game on the GamePad if someone else wants to use the TV. It was cheap to buy Wii Remotes so you could easily make multiplayer games, but then you couldn't really support the thumb sticks of the other controllers. All this gave the feeling that no game was truly designed for the Wii U - because no game could hit all the unique selling points at once.
Delirium Studios: In my opinion, with the new Zelda, Wii U has said goodbye in a more than dignified way. I suspect that many have dusted their consoles off and have given it a small chance again. There are great games for Wii U, and we keep selling on this platform, so (hopefully) it will last a little bit longer!
Rain Games: The Wii U was a strange beast. Now that the Switch is here, it feels almost like a prototype or proof of concept by comparison. The Wii U’s unique parts, like the nun-chucks and gamepad are just done in such an improved form on the Switch! The Wii U had plenty of fun games, particularly in terms of multiplayer that a lot of us have thoroughly enjoyed.
What are your thoughts on the Switch? Will you be developing games for it?
Squarehead Studios: It’s a nicely restrained and well-considered design. Nintendo often throw curve balls into their hardware that can leave you scratching your head, wondering how to take advantage of the quirks whilst also maximising the potential of your game. The Switch looks focussed, with characteristics that seem to cater well to the kinds of games that Nintendo fans want to play. Of course, only time will tell and the age old question of whether Nintendo can keep their pipeline full of new and interesting software is going to be key. I think it would be good for the industry if they can continue to define a viable middle ground, somewhere between snack sized mobile gaming and the massive AAA machinery.
Jools Watsham: The Switch seems to address many of the mistakes Nintendo made with the Wii U in terms of unique features and messaging. We are currently developing for the Switch.
Thunder Lotus Games: I think our initial collective reaction to the Switch here at Thunder Lotus has been as gamers first and foremost, gamers that have each grown up and grown through various generations of Nintendo hardware both portable and stationary. So our reactions have reflected some genuine love of the Nintendo brand (even if that love may have lapsed for some in the Wii U generation): we're all excited to see how great an experience Nintendo can craft with the Switch, now that they're working from what is visibly a clearer and more viable concept of how a living room console can also be portable. We can certainly imagine our games eventually finding a happy home on the switch. We'll see what the future holds in that respect.
There you have it, chums; the Wii U dissected by the developers that made its games. As we open up the console to check its organs for the cause of death, it seems clear that, from a developer’s vantage point, the Wii U was not only easy to make games for, but a comparative lack of competition actually helped to stand out from the crowd. It was, however, tricky to use all of the unique features the console boasted - something Nintendo themselves failed to do.
As one of the thirteen-odd million people that bought a Wii U, I part ways with mine having felt confused and disappointed, though, critically, entertained. I’ll cherish it for the wonderful Zeldas, Marios and Splatoon, as well as the fabulous indie games.
That said, the Wii U actually played a large part in putting me off investing in Nintendo’s future - a reliance on gimmicks and churning out the same core franchises has severely impacted the love we once shared. The current lack of games on Switch (bar two great titles already available on Wii U in Mario Kart 8 and Breath of the Wild) only proves that Nintendo haven’t learnt their lesson.
I can only echo Rhys Lewis’ sentiments that the gaming industry needs Nintendo firing on all cylinders to fill the middle ground left vacant by Microsoft, Sony and mobile phones. Whether they manage that, only time will tell. Until then, I’m off to drop some flowers on the Wii U's grave. Goodnight, sweet Prince.
Thanks very much to all the developers that spoke to us for this article, we look forward to playing more of your games soon!
This week’s giveaway is for a copy of Forma.8 on Wii U; the game is a new take on the Metroidvania genre from Italian indie developer MixedBag, so be sure to get your entries in here!