It didn’t take long for console warriors, fanboys and a brutal media to take aim at Nintendo’s Wii U. The fledgling system was relentlessly teased for its name (seemingly even sillier than that of its predecessor) and a list of specifications certain to be outdone by its competitors. The device’s novel tablet controller stayed judgment for a short time, but it didn’t last long — a weak launch lineup, a slow operating system and software delays soured an already judgmental community.
Wii U detractors eventually climbed atop their soapboxes to issue their final verdicts: Nintendo is doomed. A premature prophecy, perhaps, but one that became increasingly difficult to argue with: diminishing sales and third-party desertion set a negative tone for the Wii U’s future. Dedicated fans (this editor among them) quickly fell into a defensive position, dismissing EA’s abandonment of the platform with promises of Nintendo’s own first-party wonders. Optimism reigns supreme. Still, with both Microsoft and Sony’s cards on the table, it’s clear that Nintendo is about to take another hit.
Nintendo will always be able to move its own hardware — fan-favorite IPs like The Legend of Zelda, Super Smash Bros., Metroid and Mario Kart will see to that — but the industry has suddenly shifted in a way that makes the Wii U outright unappealing to developers. It’s not a question of visual fidelity, digital ecosystems or brand recognition; it’s a divide between computer architectures. Today’s Xbox One unveiling didn’t just tell us about Microsoft’s next console; it also showed us that the Wii U is the last home gaming machine to use a PowerPC processor. Nintendo’s latest console just became the odd man out.
The Xbox One and the PlayStation 4 will both use x86 processors, the same sort of CPU architecture found in most current desktop and laptop PCs. It’s a big change — the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and original Wii all ran on PowerPC-based processors not unlike the silicon found in Apple products before its 2006 Intel switch. It’s a somewhat arresting transition, but it’s also a very smart one.
Bringing consoles closer to the common PC puts developers in a familiar environment, giving them an edge in multiplatform development. Porting a game between PC and consoles just became that much easier. The natural consequence, however, is that bringing that same software to the Wii U is that much harder. The fanboy-fueled debate over the Wii U’s graphical prowess or the practicality of its funky tablet controller simply doesn’t matter anymore — if we’re going to call it a “last-gen” console for any reason, it’s going to be because it’s based on a “last-gen” system architecture.
This presents a serious problem for Nintendo: several third-party studios already see it as an outdated console, and this architecture gap could push even more developers away. That doesn’t mean that next-gen multiplatform games can’t or won’t be ported to the system, but it forces developers to jump through extra hoops — and many won’t make that effort until the Wii U is sufficiently popular to start with. It’s a classic catch-22. This isn’t a terminal diagnosis, however. Nintendo’s pulled a flailing system back from the brink before. It still has time to woo the interest of third parties, and its own library of well-loved properties will keep the console afloat — but this architecture discrepancy puts the Wii U at a severe disadvantage. Any hope the company had of a surprise comeback in this generation’s console war may have just been dashed.
Still, there’s an upside to being the last PowerPC console on the market. The very architecture that pulls Sony’s and Microsoft’s new systems ahead of the Wii U also limits them in terms of legacy software support. It’s already been revealed, for instance, that the PlayStation 4 isn’t compatible with the previous generation’s save data, nor disc-based / PSN games — and its new x86 processor is to blame. It’s the same kind of problem that drove Sony to equip early PS3s with the PS2’s Emotion Engine processor alongside its next-gen chip: native code can’t translate across CPU architecture. No surprise then that Microsoft’s latest console has the same limitation, making the Wii U the only modern console on the market to offer full backwards compatibility. It’s a small comfort to Nintendo fans discouraged by the Wii U’s lackluster third-party support, but is it enough to secure Nintendo’s place in the next console cycle? Early indicators aren’t looking good.