In my previous three editorials I wrote about the GameCube, Xbox 360, and PlayStation 3 and my experiences with the systems as well as some choice examples of games I enjoyed. This week I wrap up what is (officially now) the previous console generation by writing about the Wii. Yes, the Wii, the console that “won” its generation if units sold is to be the determiner of victory. But how did it get in that position? Well, it was all thanks to the Wii’s front-loaded early successes mixed with a strong advertising campaign in foreign markets (i.e., outside Japan) as well as the novelty of motion controls. The motion control gimmick is commonly given most of the credit for the Wii’s success, and equally given the blame for most of its problems, but I think there was a more crucial factor in the Wii’s rolling success. Certainly its launch was wildly successful, the system was near impossible to obtain without a preorder during the Christmas season in which it released, but the continuing success of the Wii hinged upon something Nintendo seems to have forgotten: software that appealed to the core consumer, and plenty of it. And not just from Nintendo, core targeted games rolled out with some regularity from third parties all throughout the Wii’s early days, and beyond its launch period. This is what got the Wii truly off the ground. Dedicated core fans who adopted the system early and essentially played the roll of in-house tech demonstrators to all the moms, dads, grandmas and girlfriends who then later bought the system to play that bowling game they were shown when they drove down the aunt Sandy’s house for Christmas in 2006. And from there the system experienced continuing success, long after the initial boom of its launch. Compared to the competition, the Wii’s hardware simply did not measure up, its tech specs only being marginally more improved over the GameCube whereas Sony and Microsoft’s consoles were leaps ahead of their previous efforts. A lack of HD support or DVD playback (never mind Blu-ray) set the console apart from the other two of its generation, and yet the low production cost of the system likely meant that Nintendo was able to generate a small profit on the console from day one.
Despite those shortcomings, the Wii indeed came with the promise of amazing software and began delivering on that promise. One of my most anticipated games for the Wii was the much delayed Super Smash Bros. Brawl. Being a tremendous fan of this series previous iteration, Melee, I would look forward to Brawl like few other games before it. The daily drip feed of info from the official website, which revealed one thing about the game every weekday, kept my thoughts continually on the game. Even more appealing was the promise of full GameCube controller compatibility. By Brawl‘s early 2008 release, I had already grown a bit leery of the Wii’s motion controls with unflattering words like “gimmick” already being attributed to their addition to games despite the console’s then continued success, so the ability to stick with Melee‘s control scheme had me quite pleased. Upon playing the game I was very satisfied. The game was new, shiny, and played differently but not necessarily worse than its predecessor. Yet the more time my friends and I spent with Brawl the more those initial opinions shifted into doubt. It became clear, over time, that the game had very deliberately eschewed many of the things that made Melee the very fast and competitive game that it became. Various advanced mechanics once built into the game were removed, characters no longer suffered significant hit-stun from attacks which eliminated the potential for combos, nearly all were capable of recovering from off the screen, and I would be foolish to leave out “tripping”. Tripping was an inane idea to punish players for not jumping enough, which sounds about as dumb as it is. Players would, any time they took a step forward, potentially trip and leave themselves vulnerable to attack. This was a purely random event, and not predictable or controllable in any way. There are few ways to keep a game from being competitive than by adding elements of random chance. I believe Nintendo and the game’s director, Masahiro Sakurai, knew this full well. Their reasons for wanting the competitiveness of Smash toned down are never fully expressed, but I assume it is something to do with a misguided attempt at not scaring off less dedicated players. Be that as it may, I still find Brawl a fun game to play, and its additions of stage creators and an online mode make for good distractions, but has been deliberately hobbled and prevented from being something it could have been.
Less sad, though maybe not less divisive, is another of my Wii favorites: Super Mario Galaxy. Unlike Brawl, Galaxy does require use of the Wii’s motion controls but thankfully they work fairly well here. There is minimal pointing required for most of the gameplay, and Mario responds quite readily to the simple shakes and waggles needed to get him to spin-jump or shoot through those little star warp points. The game is also among the most beautiful on the Wii. It truly showcases that, despite not being as beefy as the other guys, the Wii is still a console that can pack a visual punch (albeit in standard definition). The main dynamic, or gimmick for those who found it less compelling, of Galaxy is right in its name. The player shoots around outer space on small planetoids and other objects that are often fully traversable in 360 degrees. This makes for some clever world design and devious puzzles or bosses throughout the game. When making Galaxy it seems as if Nintendo took inspiration from the challenge worlds of the previous Mario game, Super Mario Sunshine, which featured straightforward jumping puzzles and environmental hazards without assistance from the water jet pack normally equipped to Mario throughout that game. Some of those levels even share an outer space aesthetic with Galaxy, though many of Sunshine‘s challenges were considerably more difficult that most of what is presented in Galaxy. As impressive as the game’s bright visuals (especially in a world of browns and brown-greys) is Galaxy‘s orchestrated soundtrack. Though I tend to find orchestral game soundtracks to be overblown and forgettable, I still hum some of the better tracks from Galaxy all these years later. In a way it seemed especially appropriate to have such a grand soundtrack for when Mario is exploring and shooting around literal galaxies in outer space. Some are wholly original pieces but there are other tracks inspired by more classic Mario tunes from his previous adventures, and hearing those scaled up to orchestrated-size is often stunning.
A classic reborn and given new life could almost be considered a theme for the Wii thanks to its mostly valiant efforts with the Virtual Console. It is as if Nintendo collectively looked behind them and remembered that they have a back catalog that absolutely no one else can rival. And so, stepping curiously early into a new and rising business model, Nintendo offered a continually increasing selection of games for download from all of their previous home consoles. And they did not stop at Nintendo consoles, but older competitor’s devices as well, like Sega’s Master System and Genesis. Though at times the release schedule for games made available on the service would leave something to be desired, the Virtual Console would be another integral part of Nintendo’s early push to appeal to core gamers with the Wii. And for me, that appeal held strong until about 2009 when the dearth of core targeted content, and the waning novelty of the Virtual Console, had made me migrate almost entirely to my PS3, 360 and eventually my newly built gaming PC in 2010. Many developers, as well as Nintendo, had by then figured out that it is cheaper and simpler to made content for the casual market than the core market. Shorter, simpler, less graphically intense games could be shot onto store shelves and easily make a quick buck thanks to the Wii’s insane market saturation. However, the short-term gain of the casual appeal would catch up the Nintendo, as they began reporting rare financial losses in the latter years of the Wii’s life cycle. By then, very few games anyone was interested were hitting the market (causal or no). And the stagnation seems to have bled into the following generation for Nintendo, as their successor to the Wii, the confusingly named WiiU, would sit on the market for nearly a year with little to draw in customers of any stripe. Thankfully things look to be turning a new leaf, if only slightly, for the WiiU’s second holiday season and of course I have not mentioned the very strong market presence of Nintendo’s 3DS. But for a time, at least, it seemed as if the Nintendo Drought that has famously afflicted their consoles since the Nintendo 64 had actually caught up to the company.
My apologies dearest readers, I let this one run long. There is just SO much to say about this tiny white waggle machine. And there is much more I could say. Doubtless most of you have owned a Wii at some point. I find it harder to find a household that did not own one at some point, than did. If so, what did you think of it? Have you, too, long since left it to collect dust? Maybe you keep it plugged in to play some old classics? Maybe you have been reading this on the toilet and your butt cheeks have fallen asleep? Add your experiences in the comments!