I believe the term “next gen” refers to more of an idea than a set period of time that a group of consoles launch. Instead, it should be a moniker for the frontier—the new standard. It’s a phrase that represents the shiny future of photorealistic graphics, lossless sound, and seamless online connectivity.
So, does the Wii U, by virtue of being the first new console to launch in six years, deserve the label of “next gen?”
The more prudent question might be: was the original Wii considered a part of the current generation? Power-wise, the console was only an incremental step above the horsepower of the Game Cube and nowhere even close to the might of the PS3 or Xbox 360. The vast majority of third party games that released on other consoles either bypassed the Wii or were downgraded and infused with waggle controls.
It’s now 2012, the Wii can’t output HD signals, and it is still considered part of the current generation of consoles. To put that in perspective, the original Xbox, which launched in 2001, could output HD. Compared to its console brethren, the Wii was woefully underpowered.
Yet the Wii dominated the competition. It’s a difficult argument to discount the winner of a generation from participating in said generation, but here it goes.
What if the Wii wasn’t actually part of the current generation? The price point, the specs, and the lack of a universal online system show that the Wii should have belonged in the generation before it.
The Wii U is setting itself up to face the same questions of generation identity. The graphic potential of the device is nothing to scoff at, but only through the lens of current generation consoles, and developers still have to figure out an effective way to harness the big screen power of the Wii U, while simultaneously spitting out another video stream for the controller, an obstacle that could keep the Wii U from achieving graphical parity with true next gen consoles.
When Star Wars 1313 or Watch Dogs release for the next Xbox and PlayStation, will the Wii U versions be laughably downgraded, like the third party ports of the Wii? Will LucasArts or Ubisoft even bother with releasing one?
To figure out where the Wii and Wii U fit into their respective console generations, we need to make the distinction as to whether or not the novelty of the new functionalities they introduce (motion controls for the Wii and the tablet controller for the Wii U) propel them to the status of “next gen.”
In the case of the Wii U, the second screen controller isn’t a technology that is prohibited from the current generation of consoles. With Xbox SmartGlass and the connectivity between the PS Vita and PS3, the same basic functionality will be available for this generation. The original Wii had motion controls that set it apart from the PS2 and Xbox, making it a challenge to lump it in with that group, but the Wii U won’t have the same benefit. The argument can’t be made that “the Wii U is ‘next gen’ because it has the second screen,” because critics can point to current gen consoles with the same functionality.
While it’s not a fresh idea, my opinion is that Nintendo is like a renegade cop in an eighties movie, in that they like to play by their own set of rules. They’ll release their console when they damn well please, and if you’re lucky, they’ll put in some features that have been mastered by their competitors.
The problem for Nintendo is capturing the allure of the “next gen” label. When they released the Wii, and they had to stand toe-to-toe with vastly superior machines, motion controls and the sheepish casual market came to the rescue. With grandpas and soccer moms thoroughly over their brief affair with WiiSports, and instead planted firmly behind their iPads and Kindles, Nintendo needs that “next gen” stamp more than ever to entice their wayward hardcore audience into dropping $350 on their machine. It’s a tough road ahead without it.