Why the Numbers Aren’t All Doom and Gloom for Nintendo

Wii U sales: down, but not out. December was the console's best month yet.

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The news you won’t read in most of the stories reshuffling a Reuters report that ominously claims Wii U sales have “flopped,” is that Wii U sales in December 2013, according to NPD, were the best they’ve ever been.

Or take the company’s weirdly dismissed 3DS: you know, Nintendo’s handheld-slash-console that, just last night, NPD reported “topped overall hardware sales for December 2013 and for 2013 as a whole.” Important sidebars — or in the 3DS’s case, headliner — lost in the admittedly disturbing din of Nintendo’s “third consecutive annual loss” bandwagon.

The other parcel of news you won’t read in these reports is that none of this is, in fact, news: Roughly speaking, we’ve known what Wii U sales have been for months, and we’ve therefore known that Nintendo was going to miss its Wii U sales projections by a country mile for a long, long time. The only entity that seemed blissfully unaware of this fact, like any good company towing its marketing line, was Nintendo.

But yes, as I’ve said before and repeatedly, Nintendo, to quote PBS’s adorable Peg + Cat, has a biiiiggg problem — a compounding problem driven by increasingly accurate public perception that the Wii U is not where you want to live if you’re after most of the things gamers are gaga for these days, from competitive game achievements and gamer scores to progressively sophisticated social networks (live broadcasts, easy-capture brag clips, etc.) to your third-party multi-platform tentpoles.

On the other hand, it’s far less the problem you’ll hear overpaid analysts blather on about like armchair CEOs, namely this recurring assumption that Nintendo could save its bacon and conquer the universe if it would only pull a Sega and sow its beloved intellectual property far and wide. I don’t subscribe to this simplistic, cash-in-your-chips mentality as the default fallback strategy. It’s pull-the-cord-on-a-doll substituting for serious analysis. You might as well call Microsoft moronic for hogging Master Chief, or Sony stupid for keeping its mitts on Gran Turismo, Ratchet & Clank and Nathan Drake.

If you assume the only road to success is the one paved with the most money possible (as opposed to a respectable or even sufficient amount of dough in the coffer), then sure, get Mario and Zelda on the App Store pronto and damn the torpedoes. But I don’t think Nintendo thinks like that, or at least I hope they don’t, because with so much else in video gaming, namely the perennial march of financially bloated, mechanically anodyne sequels and me-too genre coatriders, we’re seeing what a crude, shallow, bean-counting focus on the bottom line too often reaps, gameplay-wise. You can have your record-breaking sales figures and celebratory PR parties when those new platform launch numbers hit, but like treadmills, books by Stephen Hawking or even Nintendo’s original Wii during its latter days, that doesn’t mean people are actually using this stuff, or that you’re building platforms with intellectual property that’s creating longterm, engaged users and sustainable forward momentum.

Yes, Nintendo’s guilty of some of that itself nowadays, trotting out its iconic IP in sequels that till decidedly familiar turf. And it’s surely not enough in 2014 to say “Hey, we’re Nintendo, doing what we’ve always done, and we’ve never claimed otherwise,” though perhaps after the looming shareholder exodus levels off, that’ll be the company’s fallback prerogative: to accept and even celebrate third place, using 2014 as an opportunity to change the conversation and focus on the things that make its platforms uniquely Nintendo-ish. Nintendo does need to be profitable, but profitability was never analogous with first place.

In any event, it’s too soon to light memorial candles for the company’s flagship console (and the “Wii” brand in general), or to glean something as definitive as “flop” from the economic tea leaves, anymore than Microsoft’s abysmal original Xbox sales, right up to the end, heralded the demise of the Xbox platform. Nintendo has plenty of options left on the table, from dropping the Wii U’s price again to selling a significantly discounted version that unbundles the Wii U Gamepad. Just being Nintendo isn’t enough to make these problems go away (or for the Wii U to experience a 3DS-style comeback), but speaking about the company’s prospects in stark terms when it had the bestselling dedicated games console in 2014, is clearly putting the cart ahead of the console.

MORE: The History of Video Game Consoles – Full