Nintendo Reaches into Wii U Grab Bag, Pulls Out Some Vague, Some Fascinating Promises

Nintendo ran damage control Wednesday by trotting out company president Satoru Iwata in a "Wii U Direct" video effort to soothe jittery system owners and would-be buyers still waiting for slam dunks.

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It’s been a ho-hum 2013 for Nintendo’s Wii U so far: some carry-over posturing about scads of “launch window” titles, but less than a handful of games with bankable release dates. When I checked the hopper for January, February and March, I counted four, maybe five Wii U titles with firm dates, all of them at least a month or two off.

That’s not how you move systems, and Nintendo ran damage control Wednesday morning by trotting out company president Satoru Iwata in a broad-ranging (and reaching) “Wii U Direct” video effort to soothe jittery system owners and would-be buyers still waiting for slam dunks. Call it Nintendo circling its wagons…or maybe just an “if you squint you can make it out on the horizon” wagon-train parade.

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“In past Nintendo dialogues, we have focused more on games releasing in the near future, but it’s still early in 2013, so I’d like to change the format a little bit,” said Iwata before launching into a sneak preview of what Nintendo has cooking.

For starters, Iwata says the Wii U will see at least two major system updates this year: one in the spring, another during the summer. Arguably the most important of these involves a desperately needed fix for the crazy-long time it takes to launch apps or reload the Wii U Menu — a process that can take up to 30 seconds. Imagine if each time you backed out of an iOS app it took half a minute to bring up iOS’s icon overlay. That’d be insane, and it’s a shame quality control didn’t view load times as prohibitive enough to remedy before the launch in November. Thank goodness Nintendo’s working to put things right.

Iwata also mentioned finally debuting the long-awaited Wii U Virtual Console – Nintendo’s vehicle to sell old-school NES and Super NES games – just after the spring system update. The Virtual Console’s been missing in action since the Wii U launched, despite its longstanding availability on the original Wii. That, according to Iwata, is because Wii U Virtual Console games are poised to offer features their Wii counterparts didn’t, like being able to save backups of your game progress, the option to play away from the TV on the Wii U GamePad, access to Miiverse communities for these older games and support for additional platforms like the Game Boy Advance (never released on the Wii Virtual Console).

If you’ve already purchased the Wii Virtual Console version of a game, it sounds like you’ll have to pay again, though Nintendo says you’ll get “special pricing”: regularly priced games will run $5 to $6 (NES) or $8 to $9 (SNES), with those prices dropping to $1 and $1.50, respectively, if you bought the game for Wii Virtual Console. It’s better than no discount, I suppose, and Nintendo can probably justify the nominal buck to buck-and-a-half for research and development on the Wii U Virtual Console’s extras (it’s certainly taking the company long enough to pull everything together).

If you’d rather not wait for spring, Nintendo’s running a beta dubbed “Wii U Virtual Console Trial Campaign”: Between January and July, Nintendo will release a classic title every 30 days for $0.30 a pop (Nintendo’s tied the pricing and release timeframes in with the original Famicom‘s 30th anniversary in Japan, coming up this July). After July, the prices of the discounted titles will bounce back to normal, but you’ll be able to buy them at the reduced price if you participated in the beta. The games list is none too shabby, either: Balloon Fight, F-Zero, Punch-Out!!, Kirby’s Adventure, Super Metroid, Yoshi and Donkey Kong.

Wii U Virtual Console sounds like a clever little diversion for Nintendo wonks, but let’s not forget how fuzzy these games look nowadays on resolution-locked flat-screens. It’s not that I want high-res versions — these things are what they are at their native pixel counts — but you wouldn’t lay wax paper over a Monet, would you?

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Let’s cut to the chase: Nintendo fans want to know where the next Zelda game is, what comes after Super Mario Galaxy 2, when they’ll be able to sample the Wii U’s take on Mario Kart, what’s up with the next Super Smash Bros. game and so forth.

Iwata confirmed that Nintendo won’t offer new games in January or February and apologized for this, but said “Nintendo takes seriously its responsibility to offer a steady stream of new titles in the very early days of a new platform to establish a good lineup of software.” Why the delay? Because, says Iwata, “We firmly believe we have to offer quality experiences when we release new titles.” No argument there.

What’s coming between spring and summer? Iwata identified several titles: Game & Wario, Wii Fit U, Pikmin 3, LEGO City Undercover and The Wonderful 101. But don’t get too excited: These were originally slated to hit by March.

We also caught another glimpse of Bayonetta 2 (as well as the female protagonist’s backside), heard a bit about Super Smash Bros. U and why it’ll probably be a while before we see it (screens at E3), and then Iwata talked about, well, a bunch of stuff we already knew was in the offing: a new unnamed Super Mario game by the team that developed the Super Mario Galaxy and Super Mario 3D Land platformers, a new Mario Kart racer (both set to be playable at E3) and a new Wii Party game (Iwata showed video of someone shaking a Wii U GamePad to roll dice as well as two players using a GamePad like a mini-foosball table).

More intriguing were the two unannounced new games, like one from the developers behind Kirby’s Epic Yarn starring Yoshi (a kind of sequel to Yoshi’s Story for the Nintendo 64) or — wait for it JRPG wonks — a Shin Megami Tensei / Fire Emblem crossover from Atlus.

Last but not least, Iwata revealed the company’s plans for Zelda on the Wii U. The really good news: Nintendo says it’s planning to “rethink the conventions of Zelda,” tinkering with tenets like dungeon linearity and solo play. The merely good news: Nintendo’s remastering Zelda: The Wind Waker in HD for the system and tweaking the gameplay. The bad-good news: You’ll probably have to wait a long time for the new Zelda, but you’ll get The Wind Waker HD by “this fall.”

But the best news of all, from where I’m sitting: Taking a page from Apple, Iwata closed by invoking “one more important topic”: a new Wii U game from Monolith Soft, the company responsible for Xenoblade Chronicles, the best roleplaying game on any game system released in…well, when was Final Fantasy XII released? Has it been seven years already?

All told, a mixed performance from Nintendo, but here’s the thing: However vague much of the information in Iwata’s presentation was, I love the dignified, spare, wonderfully thorough way Nintendo’s chosen to address its audience lately. By contrast, I feel like a need to shower after watching most Microsoft/Sony pressers.

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