Nintendo and E3: Can the Wii U be Saved?S

E3 is nearly upon us, and much has been said concerning the importance of this year’s event. Sony and Microsoft will be showing off their powerful new consoles, while Nintendo lurks in their shadows, pulling out much-anticipated and desperately needed software for its newest entry. It has been suggested the future of console gaming is hinged upon what happens at — and after — E3 2013.

Nintendo is faced with a particularly steep challenge; one largely of its own making. The Wii U is not selling. Hardcore gamers, unimpressed with its comparatively weak power and lackluster title lineup, are staying away; either showing no interest at all or waiting for a price drop that may never come. Casual audiences, meanwhile, by and large do not know the Wii U even exists, and those who do can see no reason to invest in the hardware when their old Wii or current tablet or smart-phone suits their gaming needs just fine.

It is far too early to say whether the Wii U is doomed, or if Nintendo can reverse its fortunes. Nintendo has already punted at E3 to an extent, eschewing a big news conference as it cannot possibly hope to compete with what Sony and Microsoft will be offering. Of course, we’ll see some new games, but we already have a pretty good idea of what those will be — Super Mario, Mario Kart, Super Smash Bros., Pikmin, Wonderful 101, etc. There may be a few surprises, but not likely any that will be system-sellers at the level of what PlayStation 4 and Xbox One will have.

So what, if anything, can Nintendo do?

I have a few humble suggestions, most of which I have seen elsewhere in various gaming columns, message boards, etc. This is at once both encouraging and disheartening; I believe these are, to borrow an overused political phrase, “common-sense solutions.” They are common-sense because they seem obvious, and what’s bothersome is that Nintendo is either ignorant of them or refusing to implement them.

At any rate, here is my multi-point plan to save the Wii U:

Not just a price cut, but added value. First, scrap the useless Basic Set with its pitiful 8GB storage and lack of a pack-in game. Reduce consumer confusion and give more for their money by offering just the Deluxe Set, but throw in a Wii U Pro Controller, a Wii Remote and a Nunchuk along with two pack-in games: Nintendo Land and New Super Mario Bros. U. MSRP: $299.99.

Nintendo may be denying any plans for a price cut for financial reasons, but I suspect one is coming regardless — they are just waiting to see the price points for PS4 and XB1 so they can undercut the competition, if necessary. At least, that’s what I hope they’re doing.

Improve the hardware. Nintendo recently announced an optional Wii U GamePad battery upgrade for players in Japan, along with a rechargeable Wii Remote battery pack and charging station. These should become standard for all new Wii U consoles sold worldwide. While they’re at it, Nintendo should go for broke and give the Wii U a whopping 500 GB of built-in storage. This will increase the manufacturing cost quite a bit, but it will pay for itself in the long run: such a move will increase hardware sales because of perceived added value by the consumer, and Wii U owners with a 500 GB model will be much more likely to download titles from the eShop, thus increasing Nintendo’s profit margins in the digital realm (and reducing the costs of distribution).

Such additions probably can’t be done by Holiday 2013, but could give sales a boost in early 2014, possibly blunting sales growth by the other newer consoles or among kids who have post-Christmas money to spend.

Improve the software. My Wii U was a day-one purchase, so I can say to Nintendo’s credit that the UI fixes and firmware upgrades they’ve already made are a great improvement. One thing remains: get rid of the “Wii sandbox” and allow Wii discs to be played in the Wii U interface, rather than forcing players to burrow in to “Wii Mode”. Ostensibly this exists to fight piracy, but let’s face it — pirates’ gonna pirate, and Nintendo should be more concerned with the 99% who buy games and use consoles honestly. It can’t be too difficult to have a Wii emulator launch as soon as a Wii disc is inserted in the drive.

Unchain Virtual Console. Nintendo’s greatest asset is its library of legacy titles and the affection that comes with them from older gamers. Guys in their late 20s to late 30s with disposable incomes will gladly pay to buy vintage games — the problem is, Nintendo hasn’t made them available! Nintendo should immediately create a small division devoted entirely to converting all existing Wii Virtual Console titles to the V.C. on Wii U, releasing them rapidly and filling the Wii U Virtual Console marketplace. From there, they should work to bring every single title possible to Wii U V.C. from legacy systems — NES, SNES, N64, SMS, SMD / Genesis, TG-16, Neo-Geo — and use that as a marketing tool. Suddenly a system with “no games” has a library of thousands, available instantly and inexpensively. THAT alone would make Wii U a must-buy.

While you’re at it, resurrect WiiWare. Nintendo really blew it with the Wii Shop. It was almost impossible to navigate and did an atrocious job of selling games. Developers and publishers were said to be unhappy with the service as well. Nintendo can make good on this, generating great P.R., winning back developers and drastically increasing the offerings in the Wii U eShop, by extending a similar initiative to what I described above. Devote a small but dedicated team of programmers to converting the best 100 or so WiiWare titles to Wii U, making them GamePad compatible and upconverted to HD (and available at a big discount to Wii owners who transferred their WiiWare purchases on to their Wii U consoles). Wii U has increased value as a console, and an online store finally comparable to Xbox Live Arcade and the PSN. A bigger selection of titles will also encourage more developers to bring out more titles.

PROMOTE THE DAMN THING. Nintendo is already far behind in the marketing race by virtue of giving Wii U what might be the worst console name in history. Renaming it is out of the question, as that will just create even more confusion and enrage developers and retailers. Nintendo’s current attitude toward marketing seems to be along the lines of “we need to make consumers understand what makes the Wii U useful and better than Wii.” What they REALLY need to tell people: it’s a great console with great games now and even better games to come, and a totally innovative way of playing them, at a better overall gaming value than other consoles and iPads. Part of the problem is Nintendo’s reliance on selling points that seem to be aimed at Japan but which are lost on Americans - off-TV play (most American households have more than one TV); low energy consumption and quiet operating (most American households are larger than their Japanese counterparts); etc. Don’t even try to compete with PS4 and XB1; they’re more powerful and will have all the same AAA titles plus some exclusives Nintendo will never get anyway. Instead, focus on what makes Nintendo great — make the Wii U a niche system, but a really GREAT niche that earns the adoration of its fans, old and new.

All of the above overlook software, which I assume is a given. If Nintendo doesn’t come out with a stream of fantastic, must-buy titles over the next six months, odds increase that the Wii U will end up being Nintendo’s Dreamcast.

What do you think — what else can Nintendo do to prop up Wii U?