This month marks ten years since the release of the Nintendo Wii in the UK.
The console – and its innovative controller – opened up new markets for Nintendo and the industry at large, but it was also a device that was ridiculed and eventually shunned by some quarters of the traditional gaming audience. As such, the Wii’s legacy is a tough one to unpick.
The Wii – and the DS – were the fruits of Nintendo’s Blue Ocean strategy; a deliberate attempt to attract an audience previously hesitant to engage with electronic entertainment. With the benefit of hindsight – and in the context of today’s connected and mobile games landscape – it’s easy to view their success as a given, an important but inevitable chapter in the evolution of an industry that now sees billions spent every year on casual mobile games.
However, prior to its release in late 2006 many doubted that the Wii had the potential to make much of an impact. It was viewed as a niche product, and one that would very likely be propped up by Nintendo’s handheld business. A report from Michael Pachter and Edward Woo – analysts at Wedbush Morgan Securities – suggested that the Wii would do well to gain a market share of 20%. And that was the broad consensus.
The Wii’s competition – the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 – were pitched as state-of-the-art experiences that were centred around high-definition graphics, online play and mature games. And although no one expected Nintendo to follow suit with a console strategy purely based on hardware power, the Wii was still a surprising direction to take. It was one thing to get your grandma playing brain games or looking after a virtual pooch on a DS, but something else entirely to expect them to buy a home console.
Nintendo designed the Wii to be accessible and family friendly from the beginning. Its inclusive message was less about the specifics of the box itself – which, as Iwata had promised, was small, quiet and affordable – and more about the use of its curious new controller and the enjoyment of shared gaming experiences.
It was a message that went against the grain of traditional videogame marketing. The Wii’s TV promos of the time were striking in that the camera pointed out of the TV and towards the player, rather than primarily focusing on game graphics and action. They also emphasised multiplayer, pitching the Wii as a console that could bring the family together.
This approach, combined with its low price and appealing Wii Sports pack-in, made the Wii impossible to ignore. The result, as we know, was an almighty success.
However, despite the Wii’s popularity the platform struggled on the software front for much of its lifespan. There were games aplenty but a large proportion were shovel-ware and many third-party efforts felt rushed or lacking in features. They neither lived up to the standards set by Wii Sports nor appealed to the core market. Nonetheless, the console remained hugely popular and was in high demand right through to holiday 2008.
Nintendo’s first-party line-up was as spectacular as you would expect. Titles like Mario Kart Wii, New Super Mario Bros. Wii, Metroid Prime 3, and The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword were all compelling experiences, but despite their quality the Wii’s lack of processing power, standard definition output and “waggle” controls didn’t appeal to players who were enjoying the likes of Bioshock and Burnout Paradise elsewhere.
With Nintendo never shy to make an extra buck or two from ancillary products, the Wii also introduced a flood of peripherals to the market. They ranged from the ridiculous – Wii Speak and numerous Wii Remote attachments – to the inspired. The Wii Balance Board, one of the best, became a phenomenon all of its own. Nintendo even managed to pull off a successful mid-cycle upgrade with the Wii Remote Plus, an enhanced motion controller developed in the face of competition from Sony’s Move and Microsoft’s Kinect.
Although these devices were also popular – particularly Kinect – they always felt like copycat products and their games lacked the innate Nintendo charm exhibited by the best Wii titles. This difference was best illustrated, perhaps, by the Wii’s Mii characters. On the surface Microsoft’s Xbox Avatars are a better product. They are much more customisable but they are also less successful at representing the personality of a player in the digital world. And, frankly, they are just not as amusing. The limitations of Nintendo’s approach often made its products more distinctive.
A decade later, much of the audience that Nintendo courted with the Wii has moved on. The computer we carry in our pockets keeps casual players occupied with match-three puzzle games and auto-runners. It’s somewhat appropriate that as we celebrate ten years of the Wii, Nintendo is poised to make its next assault on the casual market with the release of Super Mario Run on smartphones.
The Wii is a console that was a huge success or a huge failure depending on who you ask. It was flawed device, absolutely, but as I queued up at 6am on a cold December morning in 2006 it felt like the start of something amazing. In those early days the Wii held a lot of promise. Immersive games and a ‘virtual console of old titles’ being the two aspects that directly appealed to me. And despite some misgivings I think the Wii delivered on Nintendo’s promise.
I won’t remember the Wii for the shelves full of shovel-ware, that’s for sure. Instead, I’ll remember it for the hilarity of my sister’s Mii on the bowling lane. I’ll remember it for the range of app-like channels that made the mundane interesting. I’ll remember the truly outstanding first-party games like Super Mario Galaxy 2 and The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword. And I’ll also remember the great third-party games that got it right. Games like BoomBlox and Dead Space: Extraction.
The Wii was a console with a lot of faults but it should also be celebrated for what it did right. And Nintendo should be praised too. Has a games company ever been bolder, braver or more experimental? And to think they did all this with a machine that had a name so ridiculous many said it was game over before it even hit the shelves.