There have been a lot of articles on the ‘net lately in regard to the Wii U’s struggles in finding a foothold (and sales) in the market. Of all times for the Wii U to succeed, this is where it needs to shine before the next Xbox and Playstation come out. And when you think about it, this is no different from the initial struggles that the 3DS had when it first came out (and look where that is today). Nintendo should have seen this coming and better prepared for it. Honestly, I saw this coming years ago.

But how could its current issues ever have been a problem? Wasn’t the original Wii one of the highest selling systems of all time? Don’t monumental sales equal “quality”? No, and that’s where a lot of companies in this industry fail, and Nintendo itself isn’t immune to such hubris. That’s where I want to touch on the original Wii, and what set the stage for its current struggles.

When the Wii came out in the Fall of 2006, it was a sales sensation. Everyone wanted one. Stores couldn’t keep them in stock for years, and it drew in a new type of gamer the media referred to as “the casual gamer”, which over the years, I’ve decided is an incorrect use of the term, any more than “the core gamer”. Two labels the media slapped on gamers to cause a divisive rift. The novelty of motion controlled gaming was too good to be true. In effect, the controller would be an extension of our body, allowing us to swing lightsabers or tennis rackets or Link’s sword, or could an accurate pointer in FPS style titles.

It also promised a full backlog of classic titles that would span over 30 years of gaming, as well as new smaller, downloadable games with original ideas and uncreated sequels to beloved classics.

It all sounded so good in theory.

Wii Sports was a media darling. The novelty of a pack-in game with the console, a concept lost over the years. And it was an effective tech demo to show off the system’s capabilities. But that’s all it ever was: A tech demo. Something light and fun to play fresh out of the box before you sunk your teeth in the next Zelda or Metroid.

But the “anyone can play” accessibility of Wii Sports surprised gamers and Nintendo alike. I can’t believe that Nintendo could have ever predicted the popularity of Wii Sports, or that people would buy the system just for that one game. News reports and magazines showed housewives and grandparents playing the game like crazy. It became a whole subsection in itself.

Nintendo launches since the Nintendo 64 games have always had initial droughts, but again, like the Gamecube, there was no Mario title to ride the launch, just a port of Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess to coincide with the Gamecube’s end. While Gamecube lacked Mario, they did offer Luigi’s Mansion, Rogue Squadron, and Super Smash Bros. Melee.

The Wii? It’s first stand-alone hit was Carnival Games. A mini-game collection that also undoubtedly surprised 2K Games by how popular is was, benefiting from a dry market.

There was also Nintendo’s “clever” ploy to remove all Wii Remotes from the market for months, making them utterly impossible to find… unless you bought Wii Play, another mini-game compilation that came packaged with that elusive second controller people didn’t think to buy. And despite average reviews, it sold like crazy to get that remote. This was the first sign of the “new” Nintendo, though none of us realized it at the time.

The traditional gamers had Zelda, the chance to make their own Miis, and the launch of the Virtual Console, a chance to play NES, Super Nintendo, Nintendo 64, Sega Genesis, and Turbografx-16 games, coming out at 3-4 titles a week. It made the “drought” period far more bearable. Not to mention the promise of a new Metroid and Smash Bros., and all of those Nintendo classics.

It all seemed good, and it was. Metroid Prime 3 still remains one of the most intelligent and sensible uses of motion control on the system. And there were some creative ideas offered from Nintendo and third-party titles alike. But nothing sold like the Wii just for consumers to get their hands on Wii Sports, Wii Play, or Carnival Games. And sure there were some poor games on the system. Any console, no matter how good, is going to have a few duds. But certainly, these games that focus less on motion control and more on mindless “waggling” will be more refined or disappear as time goes on and people understand the system better.

What most developers and publishers learned, however was that mini-game compilations are easy to make without any real effort or creative planning, and could sell just as well as the other three mini-game champs. Midway created Game Party, and it sold as well. But it opened the floodgate for endless clones.

That’s not to say that good games didn’t exist on the Wii. Far from it. There were some great and original ideas for titles, some wisely eschewing motion control because it didn’t fit into the game’s overall design without shoehorning it in. Super Mario Galaxy was one of Mario’s finest titles ever, And Super Smash Bros. Brawl took internet hype to unprecedented levels, and it delivered overall.

But looking back on it, with Brawl‘s release, the real “shift” happened. Nintendo took a long break from releasing titles. Mario Kart Wii was released, but tried to capitalize on the “everyone can play” mentality, meaning last place often meant first place, and destroying the competitive nature of the game. It became a free-for-all where the best random power-up trumped any real player skill. Wii Fit was another hit, causing a second rush for the system as next title in the “Wii Whatever” series.

From Spring 2008 to Fall 2009, Nintendo took an unofficial “break”, coasting on the success of its Wii Whatever” series, and an average Mario Kart title to sustain sales. E3 2008, however, was the definite sign of the “new” Nintendo’s attitude. An embarrassment of a presentation, highlights included marketing guru Cammie Dunaway showing slides of her family vacation, and a “presentation” of Wii Music that can only be explained as awkward, uncomfortable and bizarre. Effectively, Nintendo basically showed their middle finger to their longtime fans and in so many words let them know that their services were no longer needed. (Coincidentally, Wii Music failed horribly, Nintendo not counting on the lack of packaged gimmick wouldn’t be enough to get the consumer to buy it on name alone).

This did, however, give a chance for third-parties to show their stuff. WiiWare debuted with original games like World of Goo, Strong Bad’s Cool Game For Attractive People, and the Bit.Trip series to flourish. Sega released the M rated MadWorld and House of the Dead: Overkill. THQ released Deadly Creatures. Beautiful 2D titles like A Boy and His Blob and Muramasa: The Demon Blade were released. Even a cartoony version of Ghostbusters was released, different from the 360/PS3 crowd, but utilized motion control well, as did the hidden Pinball Hall of Fame: The Williams Collection. Despite being quality titles, none of these games sold well enough to put a dent in the mini-game market, usually forcing Nintendo Power and other online sites to create lists of “You Should Really Play These Wii Games” on a regular basis. Risks and creativity simply didn’t pay off.

But this was also the beginning where the Virtual Console began to suffer. With WiiWare’s debut, VC games became more and more rare, with gaps in releases that lasted weeks to months. Even WiiWare was not immune to the “casual” game, with new released falling victim to titles that no self-respecting publisher should have ever released. The restrictive file size kept titles like Super Meat Boy from being released, and instead moved over to the 360.

Granted, someone apparently came to their senses at Nintendo, having realized that turning away the traditional gamer for a near-exclusive world of cheap plastic accessories, mini-game compilations and dance sims (Dance Central), returned in late 2009 with Punch-Out!! and New Super Mario Bros. Wii. For the most part, all was forgiven. But the “Wii Whatever” experience was here to stay, with Wii Sports Resort came out with a Motion Control+ attachment that was supposed to improve the accuracy experience, and an upgrade to Wii Fit, giving people a reason to (like with any exercise equipment that starts with good intentions and gets shelved) pull the accessory out of the closet one more time (outside of some publishers trying to shoehorn the accessory into almost every gaming experience).

2010 was a new shift for Nintendo, “new” being “old”. They announced a sequel to Donkey Kong Country, Kirby, Legend of Zelda, and the 3DS with Kid Icarus and Pilotwings. Third party publishers went for one final hurrah with sequels to Goldeneye, NBA Jam, and a new Mickey Mouse platformer. I consider this to be the “last” year for the Wii as a console. The Virtual Console was pretty much dead at this point, despite adding new systems like Sega Master System, Commodore 64, Neo Geo, and arcade titles. Releases were few and far between.

Flagship character Mario “celebrated” with 25th anniversary with a quick and dirty ROM dump of the SNES Super Mario All-Stars title in an average retail package, though Link and Kirby fared better after another fan outcry.

At this point, Nintendo’s new system was on the horizon. The name “Wii U” popped up from time to time, but it wasn’t set in stone. Meanwhile, Nintendo had a trio of role-playing games (Last Story, Xenoblade, and Pandora’s Tower), that were receiving critically-acclaimed reviews, and weren’t going to release them in the United States. I can understand that logic. If it wasn’t about dancing, mini-games, or had “Wii” in the title, it didn’t sell, and Nintendo of America had created their own issue. Traditional gaming fans had enough, and the “Operation Rainfall” movement was created to get the games released in the States. Opinion may vary on the movement’s success, but Last Story and Xenoblade have been released under conditional circumstances, and Pandora’s Tower will be out later this year. However it happened, and whoever was responsible, the movement was a success.

Looking back on these events, it’s obvious what happened, and where Nintendo went “wrong”. The Gamecube was a decent system, but just couldn’t compete against Playstation 2 and Xbox, so they went “different”, and it paid off, and I applaud them for trying something new. I doubt anyone could have anticipated the reception that motion based gaming would create. And seven years later, the feature is still not perfect from any company. The 3DS didn’t meet with instant success, but in reaching out with beloved, previously neglected franchises, a higher acceptance of online activity that made the system more “alive”, nice sentimental touches of Nintendo’s long storied history that coupled with better third-party content…. It helped. Nintendo found a balance, and instead of taking these new ideas and moving forward, Nintendo clung to the past successes (and inherent failures) of the Wii, capitalizing on the name alone to make lightning strike twice. But the Wii had too much of a divide, and the following issues:

* Limited focus on genre: Mini-games, dance/exercise titles, and titles that focused on plastic accessory gimmicks to fill closet space. Fighting games were largely ignored. Shooters could have been capitalized on more. Point and click adventure games made excellent use of the Wii Remote but were rare, and RPGs which fans literally had to beg for. “Casual” games should have been more World of Goo or Endless Ocean, not Wii Sports clone #4,786.

* Limited use of online: Nintendo never really hyped or educated the virtues of being online with a virtual store to buy classic games and new titles 24/7. Not nearly enough games utilized online play. New channels introduced in Japan and Europe were never brought here. Today, the strength of online lies in movie services, which came very late to the console’s lifespan.

* Limited community. “MiiVerse” looks nice, but Wii involved adding an excessive friend code to connect gamers (that’s not even including a long code for each individual game), no built -in chat feature (which was also incredibly limited and late), no messaging system…. You could have friends, but couldn’t really interact with them. And frankly, not everyone online is a child predator that can only be deterred by 16-digit codes for systems and games.

* System locked memory. During a botched repair job, Nintendo wiped and replaced my Wii. Because I couldn’t save anything, everything was wiped from my system, and I had to start everything over from scratch. If you account hadn’t been linked to Club Nintendo, I would have been even more screwed. When my 360 died, a year later, I took off the storage unit, slapped it on the new unit, and it was like nothing happened. That same memory also kept games released for XBLA and PSN from being put on WiiWare.

* Failure to support their online services. Virtual Console started out great… and then it just stopped completely. New systems were added, and not supported. And then games started getting removed. WiiWare also started very promising, before it delved into mediocre games and demos. I think Retro City Rampage only came out as an obligation to the fans. 3DS is still going strong, but gets periodically spotty, and is massively unorganized.

* Lack of quality control – Hundreds upon hundreds of games were released for the Wii. Many from developers and publishers never heard of. Bargain bins were filled with mini-game compilations, animal and baby sims, kart racer clones, and games that were actually playable and quality, but unfortunately lost in a sea of shovelware that lined the Wii’s retail shelves. The “Nintendo Seal of Quality” once seemed to stand for something. But the meaning was lost with an uncontrolled amount of garbage that rivaled even the worst Atari 2600 games. I often wondered if the Wii would bring about another game crash, what with its “anything can be published” attitude.

* No support for third-party publishers – Third parties should be able to promote their own games, but it’s not uncommon for a console manufacturer to make a big deal about interesting or anticipated games from their supporters. Nintendo didn’t. But this isn’t new. They’ve had troubles from the Nintendo 64 era when they chose to stick with cartridges instead of discs. And they lost third-party support for it, which carried to the Gamecube, which carried to the Wii. After three systems, there’s more of a focus on traditional gaming experiences again, but Nintendo consoles don’t have the NES/SNES reputation like they used to, which has made games like this a tougher sell. Nintendo has to make sure 3rd party games don’t get lost again, or risk having publishers give up on making games for them.

* Nintendo’s former divisive attitude – I’m sure the most die-hard of fans and apologists can and will make excuses for Nintendo’s “master plan”, but Nintendo’s attitude during E3 2008 and the following year was loud and clear. They burned their fanbase. They were already on soft ground with the smaller stable of third-party developers, but brushing off the fans from the days of the first four consoles and portables was juvenile and costly to sales and reputation. Nintendo seemed to understand this once they reached a sales cap with systems sold and the realization that only a handful of games, out of their hundreds of titles available, were sales juggernauts. 2010’s line-up seems more like an apology, as does the content found on the 3DS, but you have to wonder if it may have come too late to win back some of the old fans.

The “Wii” name is far too divisive: Traditional gamers grew tired of shovelware and lack of genre diversity, the limited external support, and the approach to online/community features (that have been around for over a decade) as something “new” and untested. And Wii U’s initial line-up of games are generally ports of year old titles. Good titles, sure, but not the “hot” and “now”, or beloved retro classics.

The casual crowd that loved the Wii so much already have a Wii Sports and Wii Fit. Why pay $300 when their current system has all they need? That’s assuming they still play the Wii at all, of course. It’s doubtful they stay up for midnight launches or pour over gaming sites. If they still game, it’s on Facebook or mobile phones. Netflix and Hulu can be accessed practically anywhere now.

There’s also the matter that Nintendo just exclusively hyped the Wii U’s controller for months. I personally struggled with what does the system do, exactly? The hype for the controller overshadowed the games, and a system is only as strong as the games on it. Even now, Nintendo is struggling on how to point out that Wii U is NOT a Wii. But they did this to themselves, same as creating the rift between their audience, same as sitting on their laurels instead of innovating.

The Wii U is suffering backlash from perception, which is unfortunate as I think they’ve started finding a balance between gaming genres again. One look at the 3DS proves they’ve “got” the idea again. But I don’t think they’ve convinced the public that they can offer more, both in gaming content and in new experiences. Nintendo exclusive hyped the new controller for months, keeping people wonder about what do the system do, exactly? Is this yet another plastic accessory eventually bound for the closet? What about the games? A system is only as good as its games, and right now, Nintendo has to prove to both fans and publishers that it’s serious again about being an “all access” console.

Time will fix perception. Depending on how Nintendo handles E3 this year will factor heavily. They unfortunately stuck themselves with the “Wii” name and a system that looks far too similar to its predecessor. And while the new system has a rocky start, the 3DS’s success shows that it can also overcome. It just needs to be its own system instead of living in the shadow of past success.

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Filed under: wii gaming