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Wii? Maybe U… But I’m Not Sold Yet

Date: June 8, 2011
Author(s): Brett Thomas

Nintendo announced its long-awaited Wii successor at E3, called “Wii U”, and so far, its reception has been mixed. While some are calling it the best thing since sliced bread, others are underwhelmed, finding it to be a minor evolution over the original. Whatever your thoughts, one thing does remain clear: we need better games.

Nintendo’s Muddy Waters

Right now, the entirety of the Internet is ablaze with the latest E3 scandal or brilliance (whichever you call it) – the Wii U. Let’s be honest – it’s a fairly polarizing entry back into the console market for Nintendo, after the incredible hype and hit-or-miss features of the original, as-yet-unduplicated Wii.

The new Wii U (I’ll try to refrain from bad puns, as many are simply too easy) is essentially that same take-no-prisoners redefinition of gaming we saw in the Wii – rehashed and given a coat of gloss to update it, with a couple extra nuts and bolts slapped on.

Is this a good thing, or a bad thing? I suppose it depends on if you liked the original – which I did. However, even with my great love of Ninty’s white plastic sex appeal (I think I mean both the Wii AND my DS Lite…), it’s time to look at the new launch with a bit of caution. Sure, there are some nice features, but we’ve seen this “rehash” road before – just look at the DSi and the DSi XL to see that not every new product is a must-buy.

With that being said, what new things that the Wii U does bring to the table follow its mantra of the family-focused system, heavily aimed at people who are casual gamers or who want the fun of a social experience as part of the games.

Let’s talk about that for a minute, because I think a lot of people bust on the Wii simply because they don’t fit that niche. The Wii was never designed to be the fastest console with the prettiest graphics – Call of Duty and gamertags were never a real part of the roadmap. The games, addons and accessories that have been released for the Wii have spoken: If you want 50-inch screens of high-def, grenade-lobbing, body-exploding fun, the Wii simply isn’t the console for that.

Instead, it has refined itself throughout its existence as the bastion of casual, social, pick-up-and-play gaming…and social means “having people over,” not “strap on your headset and frag some n00bs.” The games that sold well and still do sell well (as they are mostly the same games through the console’s whole life) are often smaller, simpler concepts that could involve a lot of people, or are one of Nintendo’s hallmark franchises.

With this in mind, Nintendo’s newest offering is actually a brilliant piece of hardware for its target market – gaming that does not require one person to monopolize the family room while everyone else sits idly by. Honestly, how many people play split-screen Killzone or Medal of Honor? Most of us would rather jump on Xbox Live or PSN and get all 50 inches of screen real-estate to ourselves, talking to our friends over microphones. The original Wii illustrated Nintendo’s realization that not everyone wants that particular version of a “social” gaming experience, and the new Wii U expands on that. It was designed to fit a totally different market than any other console, and as such it shouldn’t be expected to be or compare to them.

For instance, the new controller is a pretty clear message – someone recognizes that not every family wants its main TV commandeered by a high-def war simulation every day. Of course, some say this new controller is clunky and will likely be “gimmicky” – but I really don’t think it’s ever meant to be the day-to-day interface. After all, the whole system will still work fine with the original Wiimotes.

Instead, look at it as a remote desktop for the Wii U – this new controller allows a person who wants to play a game to not have to fight anyone over the TV. Now, a couple kids can still play Mario Kart while Dad can watch the football game, all without having to ALSO buy two handheld systems and two smaller games that can’t interface with the bigger game.

When you look at it as a series of refinements instead of a “next generation,” the new Wii U becomes the sniper rifle to the Wii’s bazooka – It takes better aim at shattering the barrier between being a single person’s gaming console and being a family gaming appliance. Just like you would very rarely need to turn on your oven broiler to make toast when there’s a perfectly good toaster there, the Wii U wants to be your one-stop-shop for day-to-day gaming – accessible, simple to use, and tidy. There’s nothing wrong with this – in fact, it’s a market that’s far underserved, even with the original Wii.

It’s THIS issue – the idea that this market is STILL not filled effectively – that I fear will leave consumers with a bitter taste on the release of the new Wii U, not the rehashing of the Wii’s strongest points. As well as the Wii did at breaking barriers and getting people interested in gaming, it never followed up with worthwhile games that met the console’s goals. As I mentioned above, the games that sold well are either simpler party game concepts, or Nintendo’s own long-term franchises. In fact, I’d dare say that most of the top games even overlap these requirements, with games like Super Mario Wii, the newest Donkey Kong, or Mario Kart all being both great multiplayer games and solely Nintendo first-party releases.

Continued; Final Thoughts

What games hold any lasting value and are not released by Nintendo? Not too many – at least not that you’d choose to play on the Wii instead of the PS3, Xbox 360 or PC. There’s an occasional rare title here and there from a third-party dev, mostly along the lines of Rock Band, Guitar Hero or (my personal favorite) EA’s Jenga-on-Crack, Boom Blox (If you haven’t played it, you should). Note that only one of these is even exclusive to the Wii.

I wish I could say that I could go on with that list, but the truth is the truth: that wraps up most of what I, or any of my friends for that matter, play on the Wii outside of nostalgia-ware and Ninty’s own occasional single-player fit of brilliance (Paper Mario, anyone?). We just don’t pick up the Wiimote for games like Call of Duty or Rainbow Six – the console was not designed to play those games, and we almost all have at least one other system that is.

Despite this obvious shortage of titles for the Wii’s actual purpose, there is a plethora of Wii games – most of which aren’t worth the $10 price ticket in the bargain bin. Sadly, many of these are even blockbuster third-party games, which still have large amounts of players on other systems. This poor matching of titles to the console is going to greatly harm the brand – it’s the exact opposite of the 1980s bedroom games, where Nintendo had to consolidate its publishing and QA to make sure games were of sufficient quality.

Today, we have publishers producing the same game on 6 different platforms, and not releasing a lot of platform specific-titles that make the best use of the Wii’s “black sheep” mentality. The consolidated gamehouses of EA, Activision and the like are simply not going to spend much money to develop for only one console, even if it’s outsold the others by two-to-one. At least, not when they can release the same thing that they did on those other consoles – and feel like they haven’t left any market unserved.

Nintendo originally took on these blockbuster ports to attract a few of the more hardcore gamers with the original Wii, in an attempt to sway their purchase when it had to compete against the consumer buying a PS3 or Xbox 360 instead. However, this time, the Wii U is releasing with no viable competition – and it’s well past high-time to put an end to accepting anything because it’s a big brand title.

Many of the games are great – on the PS3, Xbox 360 or PC, where they were designed. But who wants to play Assassin’s Creed on the Wii when they can have it on the PS3? And yet, here it sits as a launch title for the Wii U, along with a whole host of other big-name games that I’d rather play on other systems. What’s notably missing is anything that is exclusive, or that would even benefit from the Wii’s input.

Nintendo’s constant courting of these blockbuster games has pushed the Wii further and further back in people’s gaming thoughts. Many people now relegate it to a novelty item, something that comes out occasionally after a couple drinks with some friends, in the hopes of some entertaining event to occur. This isn’t because the Wii was a bad console or a bad idea – it’s because there are so few things that actually play to its strengths. Nintendo released a completely unique market-mover, and then never did anything different than the rest of the market.

Worse, sales show that consumers not only wanted this different gaming type, but put their money where their mouths were – the console sales alone illustrated how hungry some of us were for change. Now, those people either have to buy the few crappy minigame titles that still come out as “party games,” or be resigned to the feeling that they were left out in the cold and not even bother to turn it on anymore. Does Ninty really think it can do this a second time, with launch titles as they are?

The company’s message is clear as mud, and I’m quite sure that it will see its launch sales reinforce the consumer confusion and indifference. Unfortunately, big companies tend to have a very poor track record of understanding our message as purchasers – Nintendo’s poor software choices will be reflected in poor hardware sales. I think there are good odds that the company will instead see this as being taken to task over the system not being powerful enough or flashy enough to compete with other consoles, or not different enough from the original Wii to make a compelling sale. Each of these things would lead Nintendo to going back into the fold of the industry as others define it, leaving casual gamers (or parents who want their TV back) to find something else to do entirely.

So, for any Nintendev who may read this one day, here’s the consumer message before you even press the “launch” button:

We wanted more support. We wanted you to beg, borrow or steal if you had to in order to lock in promising indie developers and big publisher exclusives that play to what the Wii was always supposed to be. Games like Rock Band should never have even hit the PS3 or Xbox 360 – there was just one beautiful example of a game that was perfectly tailored to your system, but you let it go and now give us FPS games we won’t play – at least not on the Wii. We wanted something different, and the hardcore gamers of us already own a competing product, so we don’t want the same damn games they have.

Nintendo, the Wii came in like a lion and your (frankly piss-) poor matching of games support let it die with a whimper. If you want our money a second time, you’d better start giving us a reason.

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