Nintendo isn’t giving up on the Wii U


This image released Nintendo shows a scene from the video game "Mario Kart 8." (AP Photo/Nintendo)

Nintendo is doubling down on the Wii U. That was the message from the company's first major event at the 2014 Electronic Entertainment Expo. 

The gaming company announced several new titles, including a brand new (yet-unnamed) "Zelda" game with high-quality graphics, a "Mario Maker" game that lets users make their own Mario levels, and a colorful team shooting game called "Splatoon." Nintendo also showed off a Wii U version of its popular group-fighting game, "Super Smash Brothers."

The games showcase the "full potential of the Wii U and Gamepad here on the show floor," said Cindy Gordon, the company's vice president of corporate affairs, in an interview with The Washington Post.

The Wii U has failed to gain significant traction against Sony's PlayStation 4 and Microsoft's Xbox One, though the console may see a boost from last week's launch of "Mario Kart 8." In a release Monday, the company said that the new title was its fastest-selling game for the Wii U, with more than 1.2 million units sold globally in its first weekend.

In its presentation Tuesday, Nintendo didn't shy away from the fact that its console -- first introduced in 2012 -- isn't selling as well as it would like. But the company clearly remains  behind the console. And it's pumping out content that takes advantage of its unique tablet-like controller, the GamePad, which works alongside the traditional Wii remotes.

The firm accomplishes that in two ways. First, many of the new games are set-up for the Wii U's unique two-screen display. For example, a coming game in the company's storied "StarFox" franchise, lets the GamePad player see different camera angles in the midst of play. Second, it is using the GamePad to interact with a new line of real-life character figurines, called "amiibo," that come to life -- digitally, that is -- when placed on the GamePad.  The "amiibo" contain an embedded chip that remembers how you play and stores that information over time, regardless of whether you're playing on the same console or not. That means that players will be able to take their toys to friends' houses without losing any of their own customization.

"For the first time, Nintendo characters are coming to life," Gordon said. "It creates new dimensions of gameplay and the Wii U GamePad is a built-in portal," she said.

By launching the toys, Nintendo gets a shot at the "toys-to-life" market already carved out by the "Skylanders" and "Disney Infinity" franchises. Both have been popular hits and provide companies  a good way to keep kids and their parents buying new, successive sets of the toys. The Nintendo toys will work with titles such as "Super Smash Brothers" and will eventually interact with other games such as the newly launched "Mario Kart 8."

Gordon said the Nintendo will reveal more about its plans for children's games -- including announcements about its Nintendo 2DS handheld device --  as the conference goes on. Gordon also said that gamers can expect more details on how those who play "Super Smash Brothers," which is launching first on its handheld Nintendo 3DS system, will see more interaction between the 3DS and the Wii U. Much of the presentation Tuesday focused on Wii U, she said, but promised that Nintendo is moving "full steam ahead" on its handhelds, too.

And what about titles for older gamers? After all, the new toy line does little to address criticism that Nintendo focuses too much on younger gamers, rather than adult players who hold much of the industry's spending power.

The company has heard those criticisms, and Gordon said that Nintendo is looking to attract a range of players to the Wii U with a range of games. She pointed to titles such as "Bayonetta 2," which was first announced as a Wii U exclusive in 2012, as well as and games from outside publishers such as Ubisoft's  "Watch Dogs." That game which recently launched on the PlayStation and Xbox, has been confirmed for the Wii U, but has yet to launch. For those who worry that the Nintendo magic is getting old, the company also promised two completely new games coming from legendary Nintendo designer Shigeru Miyamoto -- all of which have been imagined with the GamePad in mind, Gordon said. The firm showed off two Miyamoto games in development -- one featuring a giant robot -- though it didn't offer any release date information.

Nintendo recently lost its crown as the most successful gaming hardware company to Sony, and has to release games that sell consoles to succeed in a console market that's increasingly become a race between the PlayStation and the Xbox. But, for better or for worse, the company is sticking behind its Wii U console and seems confident that this generation of games will make, rather than break, the product.

"This is a tipping point for Wii U," Gordon said.

Hayley Tsukayama covers consumer technology for The Washington Post.
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