Thousands of gamers across the country queued into the early hours to get their hands on Nintendo’s new Wii U console, with stores reporting that stocks of the eagerly anticipated follow-up could run out.
But its launch masks greater concerns at Nintendo, where executives are hoping that a successful new console can end what has been the worst year in the company’s history on a high note.
In April, the Japanese company posted its first annual loss in three decades, while its half-year report for 2012 showed a further loss of £219m thanks to weaker than expected sales of its 3DS handheld console. The Wii U’s American launch saw first-week sales of 400,000, a figure eclipsed by the 750,000 shifted in the same frame by the seven-year-old Xbox 360.
It has been an annus horribilis for the entire industry. August saw the closure of the highly regarded Sony Liverpool studio, while software sales hit a record low. The latest instalments of tentpole franchises such as Halo and Call of Duty failed to sell as many copies as their predecessors.
But outside Oxford Street, fans’ enthusiasm was undimmed. Four games developers pitched their tent on Saturday afternoon having already decided who would be the first to get their hands on the Wii U in a Mario Kart tournament in September.
The winner, 25-year-old Izzy Rahman, travelled from Luton for the launch. “If I hadn’t started playing Nintendo games as a child, I could have been living a life of crime,” he said. “The first game I really got into was Zelda, and I became really passionate about it. It was then that I wanted to become a games designer and my results started getting better at school.”
Second in line, Sing Duong, 26, said he loved Nintendo’s “innovative” approach to gaming. “I’m a games fan, so I play everything, but one of the reasons I’m a Nintendo fan is that the graphics don’t matter. Playing Pong is still fun, and it wasn’t successful because of its graphics.”
Analysts have been more sceptical, pondering whether the console’s unique features – including a game pad with a separate screen – make up for its poor specs.
Oli Welsh, deputy editor of Games website Eurogamer, said: “The twin screen aspect could be very big, and Microsoft and Apple will definitely be watching. But from a gaming perspective, it’s a difficult sell. People may not see how it could be beneficial to the gaming experience.”
He anticipated that the Wii U would do “very well in the short term,” but added: “there is a worry once the more powerful consoles release that it won’t get the best versions of the top-selling multi-platform games like Fifa and Call of Duty.” There are also concerns over price.
“The Wii U, at £250 for a basic package, is a bit more expensive than the Wii, and it’s coming out in an economic climate where it’s harder to persuade families to part with more than £300 for a console and games.”
Neil Saunders, managing director of retail analysts Conlumino, said the Wii’s appeal for casual gamers was the key to selling almost 100 million worldwide units. But this could create a problem for its successor. “Retailers are fairly optimistic about the Wii U, but there is a worry that the older consumers who played video games for the first time on the Wii will decide they don’t need the new console, as the old one works just fine for them,” he said.
A HMV spokesman said: “The industry is excited that we’ve got a new product. The Wii had such a great family application and we hope that the Wii U has the same appeal.”
Nintendo bosses will be hoping to match company’s projection of selling 5.5m Wii U units by April, especially since its president Satoru Iwata slashed their bonuses in response to lower than expected sales.
But it’s not the first time they have been written off. Gamers were initially sceptical about the Wii’s remote, which was dismissed as unwieldy, while the firm’s apparently reduced purchase on the hardcore gaming market never evidenced itself in lost sales.
“It’s unwise to bet against Nintendo: they’ve been in the business longer than anyone. But I don’t think the Wii U will be bigger than the Wii,” said Mr Welsh.