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Nintendo at E3 2014: Fighting from behind

The 3DS might be successful, but the Wii U certainly isn't. What will it take for Nintendo to find some extra life?

Sarah Tew/CNET

A whole year ago, expectations for Nintendo were low. This year, as we head towards E3 2014, they're even lower.

How long can that sustain itself? The proud company that once was the darling of the game industry -- circa 2006-2009 -- is in a worse place than a year ago, in nearly every way. The Wii U is a sales failure. The Nintendo 3DS is still successful, but it's starting to show its age. How can Nintendo get the good times rolling again? For now, it might have to be through software alone.

Speaking to the people

E3 will mark the second consecutive year Nintendo has skipped a formal press conference, opting for live streams and game tournaments. On Tuesday, June 9, at 9 a.m. PT, a Nintendo Digital Event will be live-streamed to announce and demo new games. There's also a live-streaming Super Smash Bros. tournament that will happen later the same day at 4 p.m. And throughout the show, Nintendo will be streaming all the game events from the show floor. For Nintendo fans, it's pretty close to virtually attending the show.

Nintendo has been an increasingly direct-stream company, making many announcements throughout the year via Nintendo Direct pop-up streams. So, it's hard to judge the importance of E3, because Nintendo really isn't about E3 anymore as a stage to debut its latest news.


Wii U: Last chance?

The Wii U only debuted a little over 19 months ago, but it already feels like time is running out for Nintendo's new console. Sales have flatlined. Games, however, have been really good...if few and far between. Mario Kart 8 , Super Mario 3D World , Pikmin 3 , and Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze are excellent games, but follow in a familiar mold. Third-party games remain sparse. Nintendo's upcoming game lineup, unfortunately, sounds thin: Super Smash Bros. is the major headliner, with both 3DS and Wii U games expected this summer and over the winter. It's a long-anticipated and well-loved game franchise, but what else will we see? Metroid, or a new Zelda, would help, but Nintendo's game-release cycle is a pattern that's getting stale...even if the games usually tend to be far better than expected. More, more, more, and more still: the Wii U needs good games as fast as Nintendo can make them.

Nintendo 3DS: Still fighting tablets and phones

There are phenomenal games on the Nintendo 3DS , but the 2014 crop of titles has been a little less impressive than 2013's was. And with every year the 3DS ages, phone and tablet gaming gets even more impressive. The pressure's been on Nintendo to make aggressively priced games and find new ways to attract players. Titles like Tomodatchi Life, which has been a lightning rod for controversy for its lack of same-sex marriages, are also attempts at mining the same territory as Animal Crossing, last year's mega-hit. Could Nintendo offer new services and ways to make the 3DS even better? New hardware might be needed the most, but the 3DS/2DS line already has three products since 2011, and it's unlikely we'll see another soon.

More smartphone apps, more freemium games?

There have been shifts in Nintendo's strategy. Mario Kart 8 has YouTube video uploading and, soon, a phone app for watching other players' highlights. Future games could get similarly connected, competing with what the PS4 and Xbox One already offer. And there are some free Nintendo games already: Steel Diver, and the odd freemium Rusty's Real Deal Baseball, which lets you haggle for in-game pricing. Maybe Nintendo will explore other ways of pricing games beyond the older, expensive standards.

What's really needed: A way to fuse 3DS and Wii U

Sony's PlayStation Vita and PS4 tie together in lots of ways: for remote play of games, via cross-play titles that work on both systems, and by sharing a common PS Plus account for discounted and free monthly games. The 3DS and Wii U platforms, in comparison, are completely divided. I'd love a future 3DS that doubled as a Wii U GamePad, but in the meantime it would be great to see more cross-platform games that you can buy once and play in both places. Maybe, even, a subscription service for Nintendo games, like a Netflix for older Virtual Console content. I still stand by my year-old recommendations for how to fix Nintendo. Sadly, most of my wishes are still unfulfilled.

For the kids

One thing's still true: Nintendo's the most family-friendly game company next to Apple. That remains a strength of both the 3DS and even the Wii U. Can Nintendo make the most of it? We'll see how E3 unfolds.