Let me start off by saying I highly enjoy my Wii U. Despite my love of much of the Wii’s library, I would be kidding myself to say I am not having a grand old time on my Wii U. As a big Nintendo fan, they are giving me exactly what I want as a company: Some of the very best entries in the franchises I love. Nintendo the game maker is still at their best, even more so with the increased power the Wii U offers compared to prior consoles.

However, I would also be kidding myself if I didn’t admit the Wii U is a commercial flop. Oh, it’s not getting replaced right now and they aren’t giving up on the system like they did the rushed Virtual Boy, but sadly not as many people are enjoying the same great experiences I have come to love on the system, because the prospect of the system isn’t appealing to most gamers, let alone an expanded market place. They dropped the ball for many reasons, but I’m not here to discuss why the Wii U has been a flop, but how one particular title and how it fairs could be telling for Nintendo’s next home console design.

The Legend of Zelda is one of arguably a few games Nintendo has that reaches beyond the Nintendo base of fans. It’s respected by RPG players the world over despite not technically being an RPG, yet it also has cross generational appeal to gamers of all types, from children to adults. While Mario may be the King, The Legend of Zelda is by far one of the most respected video game franchises in the history of the industry.

They are doing something with The Legend of Zelda for Wii U this time around that has become an industry standard, especially among western development studios: They are creating an open world game. Now, this isn’t new to Nintendo or the Zelda series, but it’s been a really long time since they made an open world game that is this ambitious and also in 3D. Obviously there is more to a game than being open world, but outside of anime like art style, everything they have shown about the game seems to cater to western desires. You have a mysterious cloaked Link, robots with lasers, free flowing grass (trust me, gamers really pay attention to those details), featuring lots of bow combat (fits right into the ranged preference of many western RPG players), and even a Matrix style bullet time type slow down mechanic, something popularized in western culture for movies and video games alike. I have never felt like Nintendo was catering more to western tastes in terms of gameplay than I do now for the Zelda series.

I also feel like it has the potential to end up being the bestselling game on the Wii U platform. It may be wishful thinking, but Smash and Mario Kart to me have always been games that simply cater to the audience who already owns the system. They are momentum sustainers, rather than starters. The Legend of Zelda? Done in an appealing way it can be a go getter. Now, I am not suggesting it will turn around the fate of the Wii U – it’s already been sealed. I am merely stating that its appeal can transcend whatever the current install base is, and since I believe the Wii U will see another price drop before the next holiday season, a lot of folks will be willing to jump in just for that game. It won’t be the bestselling Zelda title, but it could be the bestselling Wii U game. This is important when considering the future of Nintendo.

At this point many feel it is safe to assume that the next handheld and home console will be cross compatible. This makes sense, because it creates an overall bigger library across platforms. Even if it’s only that the handheld games can be played on the home console, that’s still going to be a plus for Nintendo either way you slice it. However, there is one thing undecided: What is the direction of the home console going to be? Will it go after gamers? Will it try to expand the market yet again with another experimental control or input method? Will it go underpowered for budget minded folks or trying to expand the power to allow easier cross platform games from other publishers? A lot to decide, and if we think about Nintendo only has a couple years to really sort that all out.

Zelda U’s sales could be a proving ground for Nintendo that not only are games like that heavily desired, but that the audience that enjoys those types of games will jump in should Nintendo have more of those games around, and the best way to do that is to create a platform that carries enough weight to have those titles. It’s not that anyone would buy a Nintendo for the next Grand Theft Auto or Elder Scrolls game; it’s the prospect of being able to get those titles (note, getting them without them being dumbed down) in addition to getting another Zelda U like title from Nintendo. Heck, Bayonetta 3 could happen, another JRPG franchise, etc. Nintendo’s future could take shape by Zelda U simply proving that when you create products for gamers, they show up.

Nintendo’s mantra that games sell systems is flawed, but it’s flawed because they think it takes only exclusives to move units. Exclusives help, but you need that 3rd party library along the way. They fill the gaps, maintaining any momentum gained. You’ll always sell millions at launch – it’s what comes immediately after that keeps it going. 3rd party titles fill the void. They only fill the void if they feel there is sales potential. It’s a slippery slope indeed, especially for a company that isn’t in tune with these developers, but that’s what sales could show Nintendo.

If a clearly western pointed title with an open world can do this well, maybe then they decide to create a console that caters to that western audience. They expand Nintendo of America and create teams whose main job is to talk to 3rd party developers, get those iron clad contracts in place ensuring game support. Give up a little bit of your royalty fee and let them make a larger profit per unit sold if that is what it takes. You’re playing catch up, so you have to give a little to receive a lot.

However, I am not suggesting Nintendo is going to or should even take this route – what I am getting at is that Zelda U sales may just be a kick in the arse for Nintendo as a company. An eye opening ideal that if it somehow outsells Mario and once a generation mainstays, the market has shifted, and Nintendo will have realized it. The Wii U doesn’t have its Pokémon, but if it turns out to be Zelda, that greatly shapes the audience potential that should be aimed for in the next generation. In many ways, Wii Sports shaped the direction for the Wii U, hoping to catch lightning in a bottle a second time in an expanded market while trying to serve core gamers at the same time. Zelda U could shape the future for the next system this time.

The fan art above is from here.

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