Have Wii Been Had?

One year after the Wii’s release, it can easily be described as an unquestionable success, selling at an astronomical rate that has outpaced both the 360 and the PS3. But now that a year has passed, looking back on the Wii, we might ask if it is really turning out to be all that its customers had hoped for? Despite promises to revolutionize the way people play games, now, one year later, the Wii is looking poised as ever to follow the same tired and typical Nintendo model. Succeeding largely on a series of one-shot first party “mascot games” whose IPs largely remain unchanged since the days of the NES. Ironically enough, perhaps it is the Wii’s innovation that is ultimately to blame for its stagnation.

Remember the first time you saw the Wii’s controller? Perhaps you thought Nintendo had gone completely out of its mind, right up until that glorious ten seconds later, when you realized Nintendo’s plan might be just crazy enough to work. Then some of you may have even fantasized about how big this thing could really be: the Wii’s point&click, motion-sensing controls would be just the thing to bring the industry out of its hardcore-minded slump, breaking new ground with exciting games that don’t simply revolve around an absurd number of sticks and buttons, but real, true, natural movement. The more you think about the company’s history, the less of a shock it seems. Nintendo has always pioneered groundbreaking, innovative control designs while other companies did little more than tweak or apply slight variations to Nintendo’s designs (don’t think the SNES didn’t notice what letters/colors you put on your controller buttons, Microsoft). Nintendo is responsible for a number of innovations, including the NES’s D-pad, The SNES’s shoulder buttons, the N64’s analog stick, and the DS’s touch screen and stylus. Should we really have been shocked that Nintendo was attempting to turn the way we play games on its head again?

Unfortunately, Nintendo also has a history of having a tough time turning third-party developers into believers. Though many studios promised to embrace the Wii’s new technology, somehow, that developer interest never really fully materialized into an array of screen-shooting, stick-waving games over the last year. In the last decade, Nintendo has fallen into a predictable pattern, developing a number of major titles internally which ultimately end up being the best, and frankly, the only titles that make use of the hardware’s unique play control capabilities.

But hey, those games are still good right? No one’s going to deny that Super Mario Galaxy is an excellent game, or that Metroid and Zelda were pure Nintendo fun. But Mario, Zelda, and Samus are also part of the problem. Nintendo’s games are perpetually revisiting the same IPs they’ve been milking since the 8-bit era. That new Metroid title looks appealing, sure, but it’s hard to shake the fact that the game’s premise was developed for an eight year old. Particularly so if you can remember playing the original Metroid when you were eight, and have since grown up and began to notice boobs (and uh…hunks I guess too). As a result, the people who truly love Nintendo’s games and characters tend to be the people who have been loyal to them for years – the hardcore. And believe me, there’s no hardcore fan like a hardcore Nintendo fan. Nintendo’s repeated reliance on its dated IPs has earned what has to be the most rabid, devoted and downright scary fanbase in the industry. There’s something about seeing a grown man defend Mario with all the ferocity of a very large five-year old that qualifies as a truly unique horror. Ironically, this is exactly the kind of market Nintendo is trying to branch out of, yet the majority of their A-list titles seem tied to Nintendo’s traditional canon. In no small part due to a lack of available third party developers producing original titles.

So having no original developers isn’t exactly a new thing for Nintendo right? No biggie, they still have all those giant third parties that are all too eager to port to every system on the market right? Not this time. Nintendo is playing a truly dangerous game with the Wii by bringing dated hardware from last generation into this one. The console game industry is largely a porting industry these days, with exclusives being few and far between. Taking the gamble that functionality can outshine pretty pictures, the Wii ports of games are visually and, for the most part, technically inferior to the higher-end 360 and PS3. Nintendo’s philosophy of putting gameplay over glamour is truly being put to the test. If their competition can always outmatch the Wii visually, then it follows that the Wii must provide a superior control scheme in order to compete. However, based on reviews and player experiences, it looks as though the Wii has been unable to uphold its end of the bargain with multi-platform titles and, more often than not, has produced clunky, awkward controls that would have functioned much better on a gamepad.

OK, so admittedly, these games were designed with the other consoles in mind – the Xbox 360 and the PS3, both of which share a similarly designed gamepad. Still, it is exactly these kinds of games Nintendo should be most worried about, as they invite direct comparison with how a game plays on their Wii with how it plays on the competition. If Lego Star Wars looks and plays better on the Xbox 360 than it does on the Wii, Nintendo has already lost on its main selling point. We can shout all we want for developers to “make more original Wii games” but in the end, making games is expensive, and it looks as though most developers are looking to port whenever possible.

Mii support is also disappointingly underrepresented these days. Wii Sports gave hope to the idea that we’d soon be seeing a slew of Wii-titles that featured the option to use our player-created avatars. Off the top of my head, I can think of maybe three Wii games that support Miis, all of which are little more than minigame collections. Why haven’t we gotten a platformer game that supports our Miis? Why not have a Mii-centered MMO? The level of customization offered with the Mii allows for some truly unique gameplay possibilities. Think of it as a physical, visual representation of your Xbox LIVE Gamertag. And clearly the Miis are a hit – they were a main selling point of the system during its launch. Why haven’t we seen more of them in recent releases? Most new gamers would likely want to play games involving the use of their Miis, and right now there aren’t too many options other than Wii Sports. In fact the number one game most of these “new” gamers seem to be playing these days is Wii Sports, the pack-in game.

Nintendo, who had once so actively been courting these gamers, seems to have left them a bit wanting for unique titles. With limited networking support, thanks to a ludicrously restrictive online system that makes it virtually impossible to meet new people online, the social networking power that these Miis have is also perpetually kept in check. The most we’ve got is the “Everybody Votes” and “Check Mii Out” channels which, while amusing now and then, is hardly the best use I could think of for my Mii.

Another great tragedy is that the Wii’s control scheme is, out of the three consoles on the market, perhaps the best suited for the FPS genre – one that comes closest to mimicking the current gold standard of the mouse/keyboard. What could be easier than moving, with the nunchuck and firing with the remote? Yet the Wii, from a business standpoint, has positioned itself in such a way that focuses on precisely the type of gamer that does not play this type of title. The majority of the most popular FPS titles these days are released for the PS3 or the 360, as these are the systems of choice for the traditional gamer. You won’t find games like Call of Duty 4 or The Orange Box anywhere near the Wii, and while this is also in no small part due to Nintendo’s ludicrously restrictive online policy, it appears as though the top FPS companies seem to be abandoning the Wii as a viable platform in favor of its flashier, and graphically more powerful competitors. It’s unlikely we’ll see a major, serious FPS title on the Wii despite the fact that it has the potential to be one of the best experiences we might have with such a title.

When Nintendo came right out and said they were going to offer a new and unique experience with the Wii, it turns out they meant just that. Nintendo would be offering a unique experience, and all you other n00b developers can either hop on or get out. By taking a bunch of unique features that aren’t really compatible with games that require porting across multiple platforms, Nintendo has painted itself into a bit of a corner. Developers aren’t getting on board and exploring all that the Wii has to offer, but then again, can you blame them? I for one am hoping to see more truly original third-party Wii games in the future that take advantage of everything the Wii is capable of, and don’t require an anthropomorphic fox or Italian stereotype to do it. Here’s hoping No More Heroes lives up to the hype.