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With a new system looming, Nintendo may be getting ready to sunset the Wii U.
Japan's Nikkei reports the company plans to end production of its current flagship video game system by the end of the year. While it's likely the company would continue to sell stockpiled versions of the Wii U well into 2017, the action would mark an inauspicious end to a disappointing run.
Nintendo did not immediately reply to a request for comment, but the Wii U has never been a system that truly caught on with players. Since Wii U's release in November 2012, Nintendo has sold some 12.6 million units worldwide — making it the slowest selling hardware in the company's history. To put those numbers in perspective, Sony has sold nearly three times that many PlayStation 4s in a shorter time period.
From the beginning, nothing went especially smooth for the Wii U. The first wave of buyers had to deal with a system update that prevented them from playing games from one to five hours, sporadic system outages and delayed anticipated features. And there was never the overwhelming demand the company saw for the Wii.
That arose, in part, due to confusion about what Wii U was. The name was likely too similar to its predecessor that mass market consumers didn't realize it was a new system, rather than a peripheral. That's something the company realized in retrospect.
"We are to blame," Nintendo President Satoru Iwata said in 2013. "We relaxed our [marketing] efforts, so the consumers today still cannot understand what's so good and unique about the Wii U. Because we're always trying to be unique, it takes some energies on our side to [make] people understand the real attractions about whatever we are doing."
The system also launched without a title that really showcased what differentiated Wii U, as "Wii Sports" had done for the Wii.
"We have been unsuccessful in coming up with one single software with which people can understand, 'OK, this is really different,'" said Iwata, who died last year of cancer. "Because there's not software that's simple and obvious for people as 'Wii Sports' for the Wii, potential consumers do not feel like trying the Wii U."
Shigeru Miyamoto, Nintendo's creative powerhouse and the creator of "Super Mario," "Donkey Kong" and other iconic titles, said there was also confusion between the system's tablet-like controller and the flood of tablets that hit the market around the same time.
"I think the assumption is we were trying to create a game machine and a tablet and really what we were trying to do was create a game system that gave you tablet-like functionality for controlling that system," he said last year at E3, the video game industry's annual trade show. "Unfortunately, because tablets, at the time, were adding more and more functionality and becoming more and more prominent, this system and this approach didn't mesh well with the period in which we released it."
Ironically, the Wii U was a hard sell even within Nintendo. The company vigorously debated whether to go in the tablet direction when work began on it in 2008, one year after the Wii's launch.
"Frankly speaking, it was something in the past that we thought we might or might not go ahead with — this additional screen idea," Iwata said in 2012. "In 2008, … we started talking about adding an additional screen, but there was some discussion that adding the additional screen of this size or making it in this shape might cost a lot for production, which might not result in optimal pricing. Ultimately, after many changes, we decided this is the direction we should take."
The company is hoping its next system — current code named NX — will once again turn its fortunes around. Nintendo is expected to unveil NX at this year's E3 in June in Los Angeles. And insiders at game developers and publishers say they're more enthusiastic about the system than they were about Wii U.
The company also seems to have scored a hit with Miitomo, its entry into the app world, which could give it a little air cover. In its first three days, the app signed up 100 million users, Nintendo says.
Since the release of the app on March 17, the company's stock is up 7 percent Tuesday's close.