The Wii U: The Beginning Of The End

So we’ll know the official American prices for the Wii U later this morning. That will come courtesy of our resident Nintendo nut, Nathan Birch. But the Japanese prices have leaked, and they’re bad. They’re really bad. Nobody in the gaming press is saying it, but everybody is pretty much in shock.

The Wii U is basically a slight improvement over the PS3 and the Xbox 360. By all accounts it looks good, plays good, and is a good system. That’s not at issue here.

What IS at issue is the price, which, as revealed in Japan, is jaw-droppingly high for both the console itself and the GamePad that is its centerpiece.

Essentially, Nintendo has gone insane. We are on the verge of seeing one of the most venerable console game companies go down in flames.

Let’s start with the cost of the Wii U itself, $338 for the “basic” bundle, and $403 for the Premium (I’m going to use currency conversions because you guys don’t seem to make many trips to Akihabara). Currently, a PlayStation 3, with 160GB, costs $250. The Premium comes with 16GB of storage.

Yes, really.

An Xbox with similar storage capacity runs about $300. So, to review, Nintendo is dropping a new system with a game library that largely overlaps with these systems for a slightly higher price. Until 2013, when clearly Nintendo is hoping to be the cheap option compared to the cost of the PlayStation 4 and the next Xbox. One problem with that strategy, though… nobody will be developing games for the Wii U. In fact both PlayStation 4 and the next Xbox are rumored to basically be mid-range gaming PCs sold at a loss; several developers have said adapting their PC workflow to the console was simple and easy.

Now that GamePad. Want a second one? In Japan that will run you a heart-stopping $173. Yes, Nintendo wants basically the cost of a nice seven inch tablet or a new iPhone 5 for a game controller that can’t even make a phone call. The “hardcore” controller is a more reasonable $60, but the GamePad is the centerpiece of the console. Break the GamePad, and you’re basically out the cost of an entire console. The games are even worse: New Super Mario Bros. U will run $77 and Nintendo Land, the widely scorned collection of minigames, will cost $64.

I don’t doubt the Wii U will sell. At first. But it’s hard to see how Nintendo will avoid being overshadowed by the mobile sector, its console opponents, and, oh yeah, the streaming game companies and digital distribution companies that are starting to enter the sector en masse. This isn’t quite a “PS3 Launch” misstep, but it’s close, and I’m not sure Nintendo will be the same if this goes wrong.