It’s no secret that Nintendo’s Wii U console has struggled to find its footing, particularly in an industry crowded with more high-tech next-gen gadgets from companies like Microsoft and Sony.
The generally lackluster software lineup is one of the main factors that's brought up by critics and fans alike for why the Japanese gaming company’s hardware sales have been so sluggish in the past two years. With little in the way of third-party support, and great first-party titles appearing too infrequently, the Wii U can be a hard sell for anyone other than diehard Nintendo junkies or families with young kids.
Speaking to investors last May (via My Nintendo News), Nintendo president Satoru Iwata reminded them that, “The fate of a video game system is often influenced greatly by the introduction of a single title.”
Iwata went on to illustrate with an example from Nintendo’s own history.
“As many of you probably remember before the release of the Pokémon game (in 1996), Game Boy had been showing slow growth, and many people wondered whether it was the end of Game Boy," he told My Nintendo News. "But the Pokémon game single-handedly changed the landscape of the system, which then started to show the strongest sales in the life cycle of the system.”
In computer jargon, that’s called a “killer app.” And the Wii U might have found one with “Mario Kart 8.”
Within four days of its release May 30, the long-awaited "Kart" racing game had sold 1.2 million copies and, less than a month later, sales had reportedly exceeded two million, according to Nintendo that confirmed the figure to IGN.
Considering the fact that Nintendo had only sold around six million Wii U consoles — period — by the end of the last fiscal year in March, that’s pretty significant.
It has yet to be seen if the initial success of "Mario Kart 8" will carry over into substantially increased hardware sales. So far, though, the answer seems to be a big yes. In the weeks immediately following the game's release, Wii U sales have increased dramatically.
According to Geekwire, reporting at the end of June, "Mario Kart 8" helped move an additional 207,000 units since it hit store shelves. That's more than double what recent Sony and Microsoft exclusives "Infamous: Second Son" and "Titanfall" managed to do for their respective consoles.
If any game can give Nintendo the boost it needs, "Mario Kart" would be it, if only because of how enormously popular the franchise has become since its inception on the Super Nintendo in 1992.
Its predecessor, “Mario Kart Wii,” outsold the first three Halo games combined with a staggering 35.5 million copies in its lifetime.
The other question is whether or not the Wii U’s upcoming software lineup will be able to take advantage of any momentum Nintendo might gain from “Mario Kart 8.”
Going by the company’s recent appearance at the annual Electronic Entertainment Expo in June where it showed off footage from a handful of highly anticipated games, including a new “Super Smash Bros.” and an open world “Legend of Zelda” with a jaw-dropping, painterly visual style, things are starting to look up for the house that Mario built.
In fact, to the surprise of nearly everyone, according to numerous video game news sites like Gamespot, Eurogamer and even the Huffington Post (not a game site, but still), Nintendo actually might have come out the overall “winner” of this year’s Expo thanks to the innovative, engaging games on display.
It may have taken two years, but with “Mario Kart 8” attracting more than just diehard Nintendo fans and the right kind of software to make use of the Wii U's hardware, the company might have finally gotten back on track.
Jeff Peterson is a native of Utah Valley and studied humanities and history at Brigham Young University.