Cord Cutting

My girls recently re-discovered Nintendo Land on the Wii U, since Super Smash Bros has mostly gotten old, and Splatoon is still a week away. It's a hidden gem for the platform, and if you own a Wii U, it's worth tracking down, if only to see the unfulfilled potential for the system. Nintendo Land was supposed to be the Wii U's Wii Sports, in that it was a collection of mini-games that showed off what the Wii U gamepad was capable of. There are a lot of ideas that have been minimally explored outside of that title that are interesting to play around with in Nintendo Land: asymmetrical multiplayer, motion control on the gamepad, the touchscreen and stylus as primary input devices, and even some interesting use of the gamepad in a portrait orientation. The problem is that Nintendo Land was never as immediately intuitive as Wii Sports was. If anything, Nintendo Land was as difficult to explain as Wii Sports was effortless, and so it never got to the point where people were curious enough to try it and then appreciate the potential of the system when it was first released.

Asymmetric local multiplayer games, in particular, can be a lot of fun, but they're rare given the limitations of current hardware. The best one I've played was back on the GameCube, and it was called Pac-Man Vs., which came as a pack-in with Pac-Man World 2. In that game, one player would play as Pac-Man on a Game Boy Advance system that was connected to the GameCube, and the others would play as the ghosts on the TV. Pac-Man would play as normal, but the ghosts could only see Pac-Man on their screen when he got close. It was a ton of fun at the time, and there really hasn't been anything like it since. I'd actually misremembered the game as putting the ghosts on GBA systems and Pac-Man on the TV, which made me sad because I thought that it wouldn't be able to be recreated on the Wii U. Hopefully Namco and Nintendo will rectify that oversight soon, but that got me to thinking about what I'd like to see Nintendo do with their next system, currently codenamed the NX, since Nintendo, and the console industry at large, seems to be at a crossroads.

With Nintendo's recent announcement that they're moving into mobile games, they have gone above and beyond to reassure their fans that they're not giving up on consoles. That hasn't stopped some from editorializing that's exactly what they should do, of course. I don't think console gaming is dead or a bad bet to make their next system on. I do think, though, that Nintendo needs to rethink their approach to console gaming in order to justify the existence of whatever their next console ends up being.

If you ask any Wii U owner what the best feature of the system is, most people will tell you that it's the off-TV play, bar none. It's hard to explain how much of a difference this one feature makes, especially when you have more televisions than people. I've ground through long sessions of Mario Kart and all of Super Metroid via virtual console, while watching TV with the family. Especially compared to the unreliable at best Sony equivalent, PS4 Remote Play, the feature works flawlessly, but it doesn't go far enough, in the literal sense. For starters, the range is limited; I can't use my gamepad in my kitchen, two rooms over from my Wii U, for instance. That's kind of a minor quibble, though; when you think bigger, why should the TV need to be there at all?

It's always struck me as backwards that the Wii U gamepad is tethered to a console that's attached to a stationary television somewhere in the house when I'm playing something single-player and off the TV. I'm not alone, either; while I wouldn't go so far to say that it's common, there are people who have devised plans to play Wii U games on long flights. But why should one need to hope for a plane with available AC jacks for something like this? Ideally, the next Nintendo console would be the gamepad, with a real HD screen and the CPU and GPU built into the gamepad itself, instead of simply streaming off the console that's attached to the TV. To facilitate local multiplayer and the times when you do want to play on a bigger screen, Nintendo could offer a box that attaches to the television and pairs with one or more gamepads and additional controllers like Wiimotes and Wii U Pro Controllers. For single player content, though, it would be great to just throw the gamepad in a backpack and attempt to get better at Mario Kart on a plane, for instance; you shouldn't need to place a console on a tray table in order to do that.

Even better, this could make local multiplayer more viable than it is now. The DS and 3DS both have modes where multiple owners of the same game can play together locally; some only require one copy of the game among all the players. If Nintendo could take this mode to the NX, where one gamepad could host a multiplayer game session and any number of controllers or other NX systems could join a game in progress, that would alleviate a lot of the processing limitations that the Wii U runs into when trying to implement multi-screen local multiplayer. Hyrule Warriors lets two people play co-op, one on the TV and one one the gamepad, but the frame rate struggles to keep up. Splatoon also will have the feature, but reports are that will also be limited to one-on-one with no option for split screen on the TV, presumably because the demands of driving two screens push the system to its limit. Offloading each screen to its own system could eliminate a lot of these restrictions, and presumably the processors have improved enough over the three years since the Wii U was released to allow a non-trivial number of additional players on the TV screen.

Once you start thinking along these lines, this starts addressing a lot of problems that plague Nintendo right now. Splitting their efforts between 3DS and Wii U is a challenge, especially since third party support has slowed to a trickle, so Nintendo bears the burden of keeping up a steady stream of releases for two platforms virtually alone. Having one platform that's both portable and capable of traditional console games could address a lot of that problem, because they'd only have to sell one system and build all their games targeting that. Similarly, consumers wouldn't have to choose what kind of experience they wanted to have, or worry about cross-buy; they'd just get both experiences with a game purchase without any additional cost, and presumably the cost to develop would be significantly less for the developer as well, especially for indie developers who are currently offering cross-buy versions of their games. I'm not a game developer, but I don't think it's a stretch to imagine there's a significant cost involved for developing or porting their games to two platforms with different architectures. Since Nintendo seems to be betting heavily on indie games to supplement their major releases right now, anything they can do to make it easier to get those games on their platforms has to be a win.

There's one major snag here, though, and that is the simple fact that this scenario isn't particularly compatible with disc based releases. The Wii U isn't a particularly bulky platform, but what bulk there is comes almost exclusively from the presence of the optical disc drive. In order to get the gamepad to have all the power of the console but still be usable, the disc drive would have to go. There are a number of implications for a move like this, not the least of which is that Nintendo still relies heavily on their retail partners to sell systems, accessories, and now Amiibo. Their decision to partner with Best Buy for the Nintendo World Championships underscores how important those relationships are to Nintendo, and going disc-free could jeopardize those relationships. It would be a difficult sell to retailers to get them to only carry the low-margin hardware but not the higher-margin software. One only needs to look at the machinations Microsoft went through when announcing the Xbox One to try to go primarily digital but keep retailers appeased, and they were in a significantly stronger position in the marketplace than Nintendo is now. There are ways around this; GameStop sells download codes for eShop games in its stores now, so they could expand that program to full retail releases as well, but it's hard to say how receptive they would be to that.

The bigger elephant in the room, however, is Nintendo's terrible handling of digital purchases up to now. Cataloging all the issues with the eShop would take an entirely separate blog post, but suffice it to say that their insistence on tying games to not only a single purchasing account, but a single hardware device, has been problematic at best. I've deliberately avoided purchasing 3DS games from the eShop because I can't share them between me and my two daughters who have 3DS units; once the game is downloaded to one device, it will stay there forever, whereas if I buy a cartridge, the three of us can share the same game on any of our devices. This also assumes the device never gets lost or broken, in which case Nintendo may be able to assist, but not without a long wait and a lot of heartburn. This is already unacceptable in 2015, and will be even more so if buying games on disc or cartridge is no longer an option. The DeNA arrangement is supposed to address this as well, but given how long Nintendo has promised improvement in this area and failed, skepticism isn't unreasonable here.

Obviously, there are no end of people telling Nintendo what to do, and Nintendo has shown time and again that they're going to ignore all of them and do what they think is best, for better or worse. Further, I'm not qualified to tell Nintendo what to do, either; I don't make games for a living, so there could be a million technical holes in this wish list that I don't know because I only play the games that other people make. It's easy to look back at the original iPad announcement for inspiration here, though. Before the iPad was announced back in 2010, there were a slew of artist renderings of the device, few of which imagined it would be as simple as a bigger iPod Touch. That seemed underwhelming to some at the time, but that simple change of form factor was enough to make a drastically different experience. Something simple like detaching the Wii U gamepad from the television could be the change that makes the console that revitalizes Nintendo for the next generation.