Getting Serious About the Wii
Review by: Hairball (hairball@sm128c.com)

Editorial Posted: January 1, 2010

To my surprise, the Wii is the top selling video game system for this generation. Considering the less than stellar reception the GameCube got in the previous generation, this is quite a bounce back for Nintendo, which had been facing rumours that it could get out of the console business altogether, and be a game developer just like how Sega did.

Initially, I was a little skeptical about the Wii, the fancy motion controls seemed to be a bit of a gimmick, and I wasn't sure how this would turn out. People seemed fairly excited about the Wii when it was shown at E3 in 2006, which was the E3 show before the release of the system. Wii Sports, which was a packaged game with the system, brought significant hype for Nintendo.

The Wii was technically weaker than its competition, the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3, which boast HD graphics, and have a stronger multimedia system. However the Wii can only output at 480p, which is a very low resolution considering that HDTVs are quickly becoming standard household equipment.

To make up for the lesser technology, Nintendo focused on innovation, and trying to target the casual gaming market, which wasn't as interested in video games previously. Traditionally the gaming landscape was towards teenagers, and those in their early 20s who have always been gamers. But it turns out there are a lot of people that didn't play games before, and now the Wii captured that market.

Simple, easy to pick up games such as Wii Sports, Wii Play, Wii Fit, cooking games, puzzle games, among others have become the flavours of the day. These games are often easier for new gamers to learn, and the use of the Wii motion controls make play much more intuitive. Compared to past games which involve using a traditional gamepad with lots of button combinations, I can see how this can make a difference.

I've always been someone that has been into video games since owning the Super NES in 1991 at the age of 6. I've seen the gaming scene evolve over the years. I wasn't sure how the Wii was going to be received because I always figured that people that don't like video games, well they don't like video games, not much you can change about that.

Nintendo has always been known for their great franchises such as Mario, Donkey Kong, Zelda and Metroid. Most of these are developed in house at their EAD group in Japan, and some are made by their contracted second-party partners.

But evolution with controls and clever marketing have made gamers out of people that didn't fit the traditional young male market segment. Increasingly there are more females, and older adults getting into video games. I have friends that don't normally play games buying the Wii, so Nintendo is definitely doing something right in reaching out to that underserved market. These non-gamers weren't exactly looking to play Mario or Zelda. Nope, they're looking to play those new casual titles that have become the norm now.

I lined up outside Wal-Mart for a few hours in to buy a Wii in November 2006. I didn't get any extra launch games as nothing interested me. Yes, not even Zelda which was a launch title. I've never been a fan of the Zelda series, although I have played some of those games in the past. Wii Sports was pretty fun because it was so different than what I played in the past. But after playing it a few more times, it got pretty old because it became unchallenging. Eventually I only found it fun to play as a party game when friends are over.

Until Super Mario Galaxy came out in late 2007, my Wii had mostly sat around as an expensive paperweight because there really wasn't much that I liked. When SMG came out, it was amazing to play, much like playing Super Mario 64, but the motion controls were very well done and combined with the traditional controls, it gave a great overall experience.

My point is that for the last several years, I believe Nintendo has more or less ditched the traditional gaming market to reach the casual gamers. Third party developer support has improved compared to the GameCube days, but is still weak compared to the competition. In addition, highly polished titles like Super Mario Galaxy are far and few between.

2008 was a better year in terms of Wii games. Two staples from the N64 and GameCube era, the Smash Bros. and Mario Kart series made their Wii debut. Both Super Smash Bros. Brawl and Mario Kart Wii feature online capability that enhance the value of the games. No longer is it necessary to invite your friends over when you can challenge each other online.

But still, there aren't many games like those. What about the more traditional video game player? Where are the more serious games?

I am also the owner of a PlayStation 3, which I mainly got as a Blu-ray player before the prices of such players fell. The PS3 was massively hyped during its initial release, with ridiculous lines and jacked up re-sale prices on places like eBay. Despite its superior hardware capabilities, Sony has failed to continue its lead in the console gaming market with the PS3. In a way it is kind of funny because the original PlayStation was competing with the Nintendo 64, and the N64 was more technically powerful, but now the tables are turned between Sony and Nintendo. The market has surely evolved.

The PS3 and also the XBox 360 have extensive third party support, something the Wii just does not have much of. They have an abundance of sports games. Also well-known series such as Metal Gear Solid, Street Fighter, Soulcalibur, Call of Duty, the list goes on. Interestingly even the long awaited Final Fantasy XIII, is going to be on both PS3 and 360. Despite for a time, Square only released its main titles on Sony systems. Square and Nintendo used to be strong partners, I guess they still haven't totally made up yet.

Perhaps with its unique controls, the Wii needs special attention to develop for. There's no HD, and the graphical capabilities are also not as strong. There are probably long lists of reasons why third party developers aren't making many Wii games. Maybe it's also the demographics of the Wii user base; many "hardcore" gamers have gone over to the Xbox 360 and PS3.

Granted I have always been a fan of Nintendo video games, and probably always will be, as it was what I grew up playing. Although Nintendo has been successful in this generation, I think it's likely due to the novelty factor. The motion controls are indeed very neat and fun when you first play the Wii, but after awhile it's not really that special, and you find that the controls aren't really that precise, and the capabilities are a bit overblown. I have not tried the MotionPlus add-on yet, maybe that'll be an improvement. Those simple games that popularized the Wii are nice to play for awhile, but they do get boring quickly.

My point is that I think that while Nintendo is very successful right now, the Wii is being marketed too much as a "gimmick" device. It's so cool and neat that everyone has to have one. But like all overhyped things, the hype will die out. They aren't doing enough to build their brand. So many people that have a Wii know nothing about video games, and think it's almost like a fashionable device, and that it's cool to play.

For the next generation of video games, their competitors will be catching up. Indeed, Microsoft has announced "Project Natal", which is a device that can capture motion, without even a controller! Nintendo needs to do more to reach out to the serious gamer.

Nintendo has been printing money with the Wii for the last three years, but if they don't start to move in a different direction, it'll have a tough road ahead. Being a fad isn't a long term business strategy.

-- Hairball (hairball@sm128c.com)