Most people I’ve talked to about the Wii U recently are at this point primarily worried about one thing: what software will arrive at launch? We’ve only got a scarce idea of what’s coming Day 1 for the upcoming Nintendo console, at least as far as first and second-party games are concerned. With launch titles being the big thing on everyone’s mind, I got to thinking - what about Nintendo’s historic launch lineup? What games really propelled their systems to the next level in terms of popularity? Thinking about those questions might give us a clue to what Nintendo has planned for the Wii U’s launch.
I’ve done some looking back and come up with a list of the top five launch games for Nintendo systems. Note that I’m not ranking these by how good the games are so much as by how they generated excitement for the system they debuted on. (Given that, it’s pretty safe to say that nothing from the 3DS launch lineup is on this list.)
Nintendo 64 had a pretty thin launch lineup that consisted of only two games: Super Mario 64 and Pilotwings 64. (For the record, that’s the fewest number of games available on launch day for any Nintendo system in history.) While Super Mario 64 went on to be revered as one of the most beloved Nintendo games of all time, Pilotwings was quickly forgotten, at least by comparison. Why isn’t Super Mario 64 higher up on the list, you ask? The answer’s simple: while most Nintendo 64 owners loved Super Mario 64, it didn’t do as good a job as previous Super Mario games in generating long-term excitement for the system. It did however push the 3D platforming genre ahead, and while these kinds of games are not as popular as they once were, we still see games descended from them today.
The Famicom Disk System was Nintendo’s first console with the ability to hard save data thanks to its floppy disk format. While the FDS never really made it outside Japan and didn’t even perform particularly well inside the country, there was one notable thing about its launch: the introduction of The Legend of Zelda franchise. Were it not for the game’s arrival on FDS, it might never have gained the large following it has today nor been able to leave such an impact on the industry in the years that followed. RPGs and adventure games owe a lot to Zelda - and the Famicom/NES wound up getting flooded with them.
The Legend of Zelda stands as a rare case of a launch game that, even though it failed to make the system it debuted on a huge success, still managed to invigorate the audience. The Legend of Zelda went on to become Nintendo’s third best-selling franchise, after Mario and Pokémon.
Once upon a time, Nintendo used to bundle Mario games with their new systems. Their philosophy was that the game console is just a box we consumers begrudgingly buy to play games like Mario - and that thinking led them to great success in the 8-bit and 16-bit eras. The Super Nintendo was the last to receive this grace thanks to Super Mario World.
I don’t think it can be overstated how well this game did on the Super Nintendo; we can only guess what might have happened had it been followed up by a true sequel instead of a remake collection.
By this time you might be noticing a pattern - a lot of these games are Mario games! There’s a reason for that: for almost all Nintendo systems, Mario was a major system seller and guided the platform to the height of its momentum. You see this even with systems that didn’t launch with Mario - Wii, for example, hit its popularity peak in 2009 thanks to the introduction of New Super Mario Bros. Wii, and 3DS followed the same pattern by picking up around the release of Super Mario 3D Land.
For the NES, it’s pretty clear that it never would have broken through without Mario leading the way. Super Mario Bros. defined the NES and was single-handedly responsible for bringing game consoles, which many thought were on the brink of defeat against computer gaming, back into the light of popularity. “Mario Mania” went on through the second half of the ‘80s into the early ‘90s, succeeded by Pokémania in the years that followed, and eventually Wii Mania…
Though New Super Mario Bros. Wii proved to be a huge Wii system seller, delivering its best sales year in 2009, we can’t forget that Wii Sports generated similar waves back at launch. Why Wii Sports and not Twilight Princess? It’s all about the expanded audience.
Twilight Princess definitely was a gateway to the system for existing Nintendo fans, but the Wii has always owed its massive success to the expanded audience, to those folks who hadn’t been buying up all of Nintendo’s systems historically. And at the time of the Wii’s launch, that meant the Wii Sports crowd. Wii Sports was the first game to truly show what the Wii was about - getting people together to play and having a ball doing it. That’s an image that I don’t think any other game could have projected quite as well - and we all saw the results. Wii consistently sold out everywhere for well over a year across America and went on to become the best-selling Nintendo home console of all time.
Most of the first-party Wii U lineup is still pretty unknown, but we’ve already gotten a glimpse of one of the pieces of the puzzle: a New Super Mario Bros. game is coming, and likely as a launch title. This will make the Wii U the first Nintendo home system since the Nintendo 64 to launch with a Mario title, and the first in over two decades to launch with a 2D Super Mario Bros. game. With Mario‘s proven track record for selling systems, they’re off to a good start even if they’ve got nothing else up their sleeves.
But we also saw footage of a Wii Sports like title, and that’s something we’ve got to consider as well. Nintendo’s definitely aiming at the traditional gamer with some of the hardware features like HD output and a controller that can both make use of unique features while offering all the comforts that gamers have grown used to, but at the same time I don’t think they’re counting out that expanded audience. They’re sticking to the Wii brand, after all, which means that they still believe that they can offer software that delivers to a non-traditional audience. If Nintendo can pull out Super Mario Bros. AND Wii Sports at the Wii U launch, and manages to convey a solid lineup of titles in the system’s early life, I think we may be in for one of the most interesting Nintendo system debuts ever. Will it prove a worthy successor to Wii? Only the holidays can tell…