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Nintendo E3 Digital Event preview: A test of faith

With dwindling support and unremarkable sales, will the Wii U still have Nintendo's full backing?

Last year, in the build up to E3 2013, it was obvious that Nintendo was going to face a difficult task standing out from the crowd.

After all, Sony and Microsoft were both preparing to reveal final and crucial details regarding their new consoles; a once-in-a-generation landmark moment that captures the attention of the world's media.

But what was disappointing was the lack of challenge from Nintendo. Here was a company that was short on new ideas, lacking support from third parties and increasingly losing relevance among the masses. Its best bid to turn its fortunes around was a 3D Mario game that, regardless of how dazzling and brilliant it is, turned out to be the slowest selling 3D Mario platformer ever. Wii U sales, meanwhile, lie somewhere between abysmal and catastrophic.

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How Nintendo performs this year will largely be a matter of whether it repeats these mistakes. There should be some concern here already, particularly because three key games shown last time (Bayonetta 2, Smash Bros and Monolith's X) will very likely eat up significant time during this year's edited live stream.

Will these three games, plus possibly a new Zelda, really signify positive change? Nintendo needs to change its deck, not shuffle it.

A long outside bet would be a more drastic revision to Nintendo's hardware set-up, namely the removal of the Wii U GamePad. Such a move, though not without its own obvious complications, would allow Nintendo to dramatically drop the price of the system and likely still sell it at a profit.

Fans will point out that although the GamePad is yet to deliver any gameplay innovations, it is integral to the Wii U's user experience and social functions, in particular Miiverse, where many communities have formed and thrived. But in truth there's little more to it than that, and even Nintendo seems to have lost faith in creating new ideas for its touch-screen.

"The GamePad has perhaps become the biggest problem weighing the Wii U down"

Without new concepts that take full advantage of it, the GamePad has perhaps become the biggest problem weighing the Wii U down. It feels cheap but drives up the price, it's never essential and often distracting. It's touch screen is primitive, failing to inspire developers and confusing customers instead of simplifying, as Nintendo envisioned..

Recent talk of unlocking the GamePad's NFC technology means such a significant change is highly unlikely, but the least Nintendo must do is offer a sign that it is addressing fundamental, structural challenges.

Perhaps a bold new direction will come from Nintendo's new 'Quality of Life' division. The corporation has already confirmed that its ambiguously titled new venture will be revealed before April, but it would be a surprise if E3 is deemed the right time and place. This is, after all, an event for industry types and core gamers.

Another fantastical idea that never seems to materialise, despite the obvious demand and commercial benefits, is a comprehensive digital library of all key Nintendo games released across the past 30 years. The corporation's remarkable history of beautiful, pioneering games is unrivalled, and perhaps still its biggest asset, so a Netflix-style subscription service would carry obvious appeal. Sony is already diving into the catalogue subscription space with PlayStation Now, a bold cross-platform solution, but it can't possibly offer the kind of games Nintendo can.

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However, considering all the bespoke coding required for classic games to run on Wii U, this kind of staggering workload would more likely be lined up for the next home console. That sums up the catch-22 situation the Wii U is in: why continue to place even bigger bets on a console that has achieved so little.

What's most likely is Nintendo will intensify its focus on the 3DS, which has sold a spectacular 40 million units against all the odds, by revealing a string of key new titles for the platform. That's not to say the Wii U is completely out of the picture, not just yet, but with a desperate lack of third-party support and painful sales, Nintendo may have no choice but to shift its focus.

Nintendo's E3 Digital Event takes place on Tuesday, June 10, at 9am Pacific Time (5pm UK) - CVG will be covering the event live with live video, live text and up-to-the-minute news