The Wii U and Its Clutter: A Premature Hardware Post-Mortem

This last week I was just gifted a Sega Saturn and decided to re-arrange my gaming area to put the Nintendo 64, Sega Saturn and Sega Dreamcast near my up-scaler. Partially because of this addition and partially because of its relative disuse, I unplugged my Wii U and moved it to a different TV. It’s been awhile since I moved it and it really struck me how much clutter the Wii U brings with it.

First you have the unavoidable essentials that come with all modern consoles: HDMI, AC adapter for the console, and a USB cable to charge the Pro controller. Technically, you can use a Wii U with only these cables, but you will miss out on many GamePad specific games and experiences. To expand to the full feature set, you’re going to be including a second AC adapter for the GamePad and a sensor bar for Wii Remotes. If you have shelf space to burn, you can add a charging dock for the GamePad as well.

Already there are some possible improvements. Why doesn’t the Wii U GamePad use the same cable as the controllers? The GamePad could at least pull its power directly from the Wii U rather than from the wall. Better yet, the Wii U could also send the GamePad’s video over this magical cable rather than using WiFi. And the sensor bar need not be wired at all. Nyko has sold a wireless sensor bar for almost a decade; the Nintendo version could have improved on the Nyko version by being rechargeable and intelligently sleeping/waking when the console asked for it.

A mess of Wii U accessories and cables
Ew, Gross.

If you only play your Wii U casually and mostly buy physical copies of games, you probably only have as much clutter as comes with the Wii U. If you use your Wii U more frequently and purchase digital games, you will feel compelled to introduce more clutter into your house to compensate for at least two of the hardware’s main shortcomings: the network connection and storage space.

Since the Wii U prioritizes the GamePad’s connection for its 5.0 GHz WiFi, many will be forced to get a USB to ethernet adapter to overcome the congested world of 2.4GHz WiFi. Not to mention the Nintendo Network’s bad speeds. If you’ve been buying your games digitally, you’re going to need an external hard drive to store anything over the Wii U Deluxe’s 32GB of storage. Nintendo only recommends external desktop drives with their own power supplies, so there’s another power socket in addition to the hard drive’s USB cable.

There are only so many ways to handle WiFi problems, so the least Nintendo could have done would be to include a dedicated ethernet port. If the Wii U could send video to the GamePad over a wired cable, that would at least give some users the option to free up the 5.0GHz antenna if they live in an area with congested wireless. On the the further ends of possibility, the Wii U could use a more complex antenna or wireless protocol method to ensure that the Wii U and the GamePad both had full use of the wireless spectrum.

The storage problem has a range of solutions. Sony’s PlayStations 3 and 4 allow the user to swap in their own 2.5" hard drives to replace their smaller stock sizes. That doesn’t fit the Wii U’s compact design, but the Wii U’s design could have alleviated the problem by supporting game storage on SDXC cards, which can reach 256GB at affordable prices. The Wii U also could have supported USB 3.0 to allow portable external drives as the Xbox One does. Finally, the Wii U could have simply shipped with a larger storage model for enthusiasts to purchase or upgrade to.

Joyplus Handy Boy Accessory on a Game Boy
It’s like it wants to hug your face.

Cables and clutter aren’t always deal breakers for people. The plethora of plastic snap-ons for the Wii didn’t stop the console from flying off the shelves. And people buy new accessories for their consoles everyday hoping to make their lives easier. But I do think that the Wii U’s clutter demonstrates some of the reasons the Wii U has been such a historic failure for Nintendo.

First, the clutter demonstrates Nintendo’s faulty assumptions and the missed design opportunities they lead to. For example, the assumption that 2.4 GHz would be sufficient for the Wii U’s network connection sets off a series problems that require clutter to fix or end up driving away people. For every one person that seeks out an ethernet adapter because Netflix keeps buffering, I suspect at least a hundred more will just turn off their Wii U instead.

Second, the clutter shows that the Wii U lacks a strong concept to unify player experiences. Most Wii accessories centered around the Wii Remote Controller, as did the gameplay revolution the Wii hoped to bring about. By comparison the Wii U has a tablet GamePad for dual screen play, a Pro controller for mainstream games, support for Wii Remote Controllers for Wii games and many modern games, plus all the cables to support these controllers. It’s not never clear how you should expect to play a game until the game tells you that you’re using the wrong controller.

Wii console organizer
Console War Crimes.

Since the release and commercial failure of the Wii U, Nintendo has changed significantly. Nintendo consolidated its console and handheld hardware divisions, longtime CEO and president Satoru Iwata passed away, and the entire internal structure of the company has shifted. I believe that the next Nintendo console can learn from the Wii U’s mistakes. But more than anything, I hope that Nintendo realizes that their new play experiences have a real world cost that must be overcome. Players welcomed the original Wii’s plastic steering wheels and Nunchucks because the accessible, fun game experiences overcame the real world cost of storing the clutter in a whicker basket next to the couch. Players paid the premium price for the PlayStation 4 because of its 1080p resolution and Blu-ray Player. For most players, Wii U never overcame the cost of its clutter.

Gunpei Yokoi famously designed the Game Boy with older, more common parts to keep costs down and improve battery life. The Wii was the closest Nintendo has come to Yokoi’s philosophy since the Virtual Boy, and the Wii U could have taken more than it did from the Wii and the Game Boy. Shipping with last generation hardware at current generation prices, the Wii U only used as much of the Yokoi philosophy as directly benefitted Nintendo’s bottom line. All the solutions I’ve suggested would raise the cost of Wii U production and thus lower Nintendo’s profits. But the Wii U has never been cheap enough to justify its thrift, as the Wii was. And the Wii U’s old hardware does not improve the user experience, as the Game Boy’s battery savings did.

Going forward, I don’t believe that Nintendo’s next console needs to be a sleek, high-end machine like the PlayStation 4 to succeed. I believe that the Nintendo NX needs just a strong philosophy that guides the design of the console, its accessories, and the games that play on it. And please let me charge all the controllers with the same cable.