In the midst of last week's Black Friday week hubbub, Nintendo launched its new Wii U video game console. To say there was a bit of pent up demand would be an understatement. Originally announced at the E3 show in June 2011, anticipation for first completely new video game console since 2006 had built to the point where the Wii U was sold out through normal retail channels on its release date (November 18), with USA Today adding that a total of 400,000 units were sold in the first week. But despite some predictions of possible months-long Wii U shortages, some retailers, such as ToysRUs.com, were showing that the Wii U Basic set (*Est. $300) was in stock for immediate shipping as of Tuesday afternoon. The better value, we think, Wii U Deluxe set (*Est. $350) looked to be available at some Walmart stores (but only in stores, not on line). That suggests that supplies are loosening up faster than anticipated. That's good news for you as it means you might still be able to score a Wii U console for the holidays -- and without paying the marked up prices some secondary retailers are charging. But it could signal bad news for Nintendo and the future of video game consoles.
Whither video game consoles
Console gaming is definitely in the doldrums. The Consumer Electronics Association predicts that even with the introduction of the Wii U and the recent refresh of the Sony PlayStation 3, sales for the holidays will drop by more than 10 percent compared with last year. Rumors of next-generation Microsoft Xbox and Sony PlayStation consoles remain just that -- rumors. Some are hinting that those next-gen consoles could arrive as soon as next year. On the other hand, Sony UK vice president Fergal Gara recently told the International Business Times that the wait could stretch quite a bit longer than that.
The big trend in gaming is toward playing on smart phones and tablet computers. Neither will satisfy hard-core gamers, of course, but still can provide a satisfying experience for casual gamers. More significant, mobile devices have a distinct advantage when it comes to reaching those casual gamers. The Wall Street Journal cites Gartner research that points out that by 2016, the smart phone market is expected to reach 2.24 billion units, while the tablet market is expected to be some 364 million strong. Both of those dwarf the video game console market, which is expected to be less than 50 million consoles by that same year. Recognizing that reality, both Sony and Microsoft have begun porting games and features from their consoles to run on mobile devices.
So what about the Wii U?
As we discuss in our just updated report on video game consoles, the jury is pretty much still out on the Wii U. We were very impressed by the potential of the hardware when we had a hands-on demo of a pre-production version of the Wii U way back at last January's CES. Most reviewers are just as impressed, or even more so, by the potential they see in the final product released last week.
The key word here, however, is "potential." As of now, the Wii U's potential is not fully realized. As is typical for a new console introduction, the number of available games is very small (though the Wii U will also play Wii titles), and what's there doesn't always take full advantage of what the Wii U's hardware can deliver. Also, some promised features -- such as the TVii service -- are still "to come" at release. That means, for this holiday season at least, the Sony PlayStation 3 remains our top recommended video game console for serious game play -- though only by a whisker over the Microsoft Xbox 360, and that can flip-flop depending on which platform has the exclusive games you have to have. You can check out the full story on all these gaming consoles, as well as the kid-and-family-friendly original Nintendo Wii, in our report.