Late at night in private club, Nintendo tries to win back the love of longtime fans

The line out the door at this trendy venue wasn’t for a band — it was for Mario.

Nintendo fans packed a rented space in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood Friday night for their first official date with Wii U, the next big thing from the iconic game company.

The main attraction: Wii U’s motion-sensitive, touch-screen, tablet-style GamePad controller. It acts as a secondary display in the hands of gamers, complementing the main screen with related content, information, controls and additional ways of interacting with and playing games.

Nintendo has been holding these exclusive “Wii U Experience” sneak peeks in cities around the country, but the series taking place this weekend is a homestand, in the backyard of Redmond-based Nintendo of America, the longtime U.S headquarters of the Japanese video-game giant.

If this were politics, it would be called rallying the base. A favorable reaction from hard-core fans would give the company a solid foundation for the Wii U’s debut later this year. And Nintendo desperately needs that support as it tries to come back from a dramatic slump in its business.

The first Wii, which popularized motion-based controls for game consoles, has experienced a sharp decline in sales after initial record highs. Nintendo has also been struggling to recover from a lackluster launch of its 3DS handheld, while stubbornly avoiding the booming world of smartphone apps. In its latest fiscal year, the company posted its first annual loss in at least three decades.

Nintendo is looking to turn things around with Wii U, due out later this year. It will be the first in the industry’s next generation of home consoles, getting Nintendo out ahead of Microsoft and Sony.

On Friday night, with the music thumping inside the Seattle club, the crowd stood three- and four-people deep around kiosks, and filled side rooms featuring many of the Wii U’s upcoming titles — Nintendo Land, New Super Mario Bros. U, Pikmin 3, Ninja Gaiden 3, Batman Arkham City Armored Edition and many others.

The crowd included many members of the Club Nintendo rewards program. They’re some of the company’s most loyal supporters, but a lot of them have strayed over the past couple years. Many people at the event admitted that they’ve relegated their original Wiis to the closet or the garage in favor of a PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360 — both of which now offer their own motion-based control systems, following in the footsteps and in many ways overshadowing the Wii.

So what do they think of the Wii U controller? The reaction Friday night was generally positive, but not universally so. Here’s a representative sampling of comments from the gamers I spoke with at the event, after they had a chance to play several of the games on display.

  • “It feels really good in your hands. The definition on that (GamePad) screen is really clear.”
  • “It takes a little getting used to. Once I had a few more minutes with it, I’d probably get it.”
  • “They’re using it in cool ways. It’s like a big DS. You have two screens (handheld and TV).”
  • “It’s fantastic — lighter than I thought it would be, and much more comfortable. I thought it would be bulky and heavy, but it’s nice and comfortable and light.”
  • “I’ll probably just wait for my friends to buy it and play it there.”
  • “It looks expensive.”

That last comment was not a compliment. It was a concern, expressed by longtime Nintendo gamer Trisha Knobel of Auburn, Wash. Nintendo hasn’t yet announced the price for the Wii U, and the uncertainty is one of the things causing gamers to stop short of unbridled enthusiasm.

But for Knobel, there’s more to it than that.

“It seems like everything has been done before,” she said of the games. “It’s all repeats. Number 3s, Number 2s. Nothing new, nothing super exciting,”  As an example, she cited Nintendo’s ZombiU, saying it essentially was a knock-off of Left 4 Dead.

Others were more encouraged by what they experienced, with several citing the Wii U’s higher-definition graphics as a noticeable step up from the original Wii.

John Leen of Seattle said he liked how the GamePad was used in the multiplayer Luigi’s Ghost Mansion, one of the games in the Nintendo Land suite. The person playing the ghost uses the GamePad to see the ghost’s location and move it through the map. The people playing the other characters can’t see the ghost on the TV screen, but their traditional Wii controllers vibrate when it’s close, and they can expose and attack the ghost by shining their flashlights on it.

“I was skeptical (of the GamePad controller), because I didn’t know what they were going to do with it, but these games seem fun,” Leen said, praising the “tight design” and edgy competitiveness of the Ghost Mansion gameplay.

David Lewis of Gig Harbor, Wash. called the Wii U “definitely a great party device” to play with friends, but after trying some of the games, he was still on the fence about whether he would buy one.

After an extended session with ZombiU, Brandon Law of Seattle said he was almost sure he would buy a Wii U. “It’s looking pretty positive right now,” he said. However, he added, “I still have to know the price before I’ll be committed.”

Here are more pictures from the night. (Click any image to open a gallery.)

  • http://www.christopherbudd.com Christopher Budd

    The console business is fascinating to me for how wildly things swing up and down.

    As an example, a true story: six/seven years ago I decided to get a game console. My last console was the N64 (original Playstation before that). I’d been away from console gaming for a few years and had finally missed it and thought I’d get one (plus we had a TV that could support it again).

    I actually had decided to get a Wii. The motion element was interesting and I have a soft spot for Zelda since I had the original NES back in the day.

    Back then, the Wii was so insanely popular that you just couldn’t find one. After much searching and failing I just gave up and went to the Microsoft Company Store and bought an XBox 360 instead.

    In a way, the Wii’s insane popularity worked against it, driving me to XBox instead.

    2 – 3 years from now we may well be talking about Nintendo being on top and crushing Microsoft and Sony once again. It’s just that crazy a business.

  • http://www.facebook.com/howard.phillips.102 Howard Phillips

    Having witnessed first Nintendo, then Sega, then Sony, then Xbox, etc. etc. topple what seemed like an unseatable console market leader, I fully expect the pattern to continue – Will WiiU’s deserve that honor? Need to see the “killer app” (great game or great new social experience) first before considering that possibility. Nothing shown so far speaks to the necessary game or new social experience being there yet…

    • guest

      or maybe we’re in the Post-console gaming era and Apple already negated them all.

      • http://www.natclayfu.blogspot.com/ Natclayful On DISQUS

        The Wii U will defiantly have to try to separate itself from regular gaming consoles while at the same time show how the tablet has more innovative features than iOS and Android devices….they will have to introduce something FRESH.

  • bergoo

    Really looking forward to Thursday’s (9/13) WiiU event in NY. Price, release date, and rumored killer apps to be unveiled.