Will Donkey Kong and Zelda get you to buy a Wii U?

Jason Gilbert
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Reggie Fils-Aime, President and chief operating officer of Nintendo of America, addresses the media at the Nintendo Wii U software showcase during the E3 game show in Los Angeles, Tuesday, June 11, 2013. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

by Jason Gilbert | @YahooTech

For a gamer of a certain age and temperament, Nintendo has long been the domain of a dynasty of character-kings: Donkey Kong, Mario, Luigi and Link. Now, in 2013, Nintendo is turning to those old reliable figures once again, in the hopes that they can save – with furry paw, Master Sword and flower power – the flagging Wii U.

Though Nintendo’s Wii U – launched in 2012 to mixed reviews and lower-than-expected sales – has underperformed thus far, Nintendo representatives betrayed nothing but optimism for the console’s future at this year’s E3 here in Los Angeles. The Japanese gaming giant has set up a large, consistently crowded booth for gamers to test out those new titles with familiar stars: A new Donkey Kong; a new Super Mario 3D; the long-awaited followup to the last Pikmin game; a new Zelda; a new Mario Kart; and, soon, a new Super Smash Brothers.

Can these throwback games entice reluctant buyers to purchase a Wii U in its second year of availability? Or has the fate of the Wii U been sealed – both by the imminent launches of breathlessly hyped new consoles and by the early hiccups that hamstrung the system upon its own release?

Nintendo people are predicting a renaissance, a rebirth. Their reference point is the Nintendo 3DS, a handheld gaming device that sold slowly when it was released but picked up steam the following year after a price cut and the availability of games like Luigi's Mansion and New Super Mario Bros 2. 2013 and the availability of Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze and Mario Kart 8 will be the unofficial sequel to that story, they promise.

There is reason to be skeptical of that optimism. First, Nintendo is not discussing any type of price cut to the Wii U despite its slow sales; the basic Wii U costs $299, which is less than the expected price of $399 for the PlayStation 4 and $499 for the Xbox One.

And second – well, the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One are coming out later this year, perhaps siphoning off potential Wii U sales. The emergence of those two competitors is something the 3DS really didn’t have to reckon with on a comparable scale in 2012.

Still, Nintendo has attracted an impressive amount of attention for an old-hat system. This year’s E3 gaming conference was supposed to be dominated by Sony and Microsoft. Those were the two companies with new gaming consoles to launch – the PlayStation 4 and the Xbox One, respectively – and the ones who had rented out cavernous, pyrotechnic-enabled arenas to host thousands of journalists and live-stream to millions of gamers viewing on laggy video players around the world. This E3 was supposed to exist for them to make their case, to convince those gaming nerds torn apart from esophagus to kidney by an inner turmoil over whether to purchase the One or the Four this Christmas. This was supposed to be a launchpad for one of those two machines to rocket off into the glory of space, leaving its poor competitor to choke on its contrails. The Wii U was not even part of the conversation when E3 began.

That Nintendo has made headlines and attracted winding lines of gamers to its booth represents at least a sign of hope for the Wii U. The marketing team and game designers have done their job; now we’ll wait to see if Donkey Kong, Zelda and Megaman can still do theirs.