The Royal Wii?

by Ryan Smith

5 October 2006

Nintendo may not have said it outright during their big announcement about the price and release date of the Wii, but the video game console war taking center stage this holiday season has as much to do with philosophy as it does Mario and the Master Chief.

Nintendo may not have said it outright during their big announcement about the price and release date of the Wii, but the video game console war taking center stage this holiday season has as much to do with philosophy as it does Mario and the Master Chief. It doesn’t involve the Nietzsche or Kant textbook kind necessarily, but rather a change in the philosophy of what a video game console looks like and who should want to play it.

In a particularly funny Ali G skit from the HBO show, Sasha Baron Cohen’s character tells an ad exec that his girlfriend leaked his idea of the Playstation 2 to Sony years before it came out. Ali G’s top secret proposal for the PS2? A “better” version of the original Playstation. As funny and ridiculous as this sounds, this is exactly the approach Sony, Microsoft, and to a lesser extent, Nintendo have taken to new consoles—a virtual “arms race” of bigger, faster, and better machines. The console war of the past decade has consistently boiled down to choosing one brand name over a similar brand name, the video equivalent of Pepsi versus Coke. The only real way each system differentiated itself from the others was through making certain games exclusive to a particular system. Much to the frustration of many gamers, if you wanted Halo, you had to buy an Xbox. If you wanted to avoid waiting six months for Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, you had to have a Playstation 2.

This same status quo is basically true for the Xbox 360 and the Playstation 3. The PS3 has Blu-Ray technology, and the Xbox has its user-friendly Live online going for it, but they are still basically different sides to the same coin. Nintendo, though, has other plans. By releasing a cheap (at $250, half as much as the PS3), underpowered (the lackluster specs are causing some to call it GameCube 2.0) and innovative system to compete with the hardware beasts that are the PS3 and Xbox 360, Nintendo appears to be abandoning the “more is more” philosophy. Instead, Nintendo is beating the populist drum and desperately wanting the Wii to be everything to everyone.

The first major sign of these intentions actually occurred several months ago, when Nintendo changed the name of the system from the generically cool sounding “Revolution” to the tragically unhip “Wii” (pronounced “we”), already the butt of countless sarcastic jokes on the internet. The name is just part of Nintendo’s less than subtle marketing plan to attract casual gamers and people who don’t normally play video games at all.

More evidence comes in Nintendo’s slick five-minute trailer for the Wii, in which an average middle aged woman one might see in a Sears catalog ad or offering Sunny Delight to sweaty teenagers in a television commercial celebrates with her husband after drilling a 20-foot putt in a low-fi golf game. In another clip, an attractive young woman smiles while smacking a home run immediately after her male counterpart strikes out swinging in a clunky looking baseball game. Later, an elderly man artfully waves the Wii controller to conduct a virtual orchestra while his family watches in admiration.

The first thing that comes to mind after seeing this ad (aside from the goofiness of people flailing and overemoting while playing with the wand style controller) is that many of the simplistic, cartoony games featured aren’t the Grand Theft Autos, John Madden Footballs, or Need for Speeds—that is, the typical games with flashy graphics people normally associate with modern next-gen consoles. Secondly, out of the dozen or so gamers pictured, only a few are of the teen or twentysomething testosterone set overwhelmingly targeted and marketed to by video game companies.  Actually, it’s probably not unintentional that the Wii itself looks very much like an Apple product; Nintendo would no doubt love the Wii to be the video game console version of the ubiquitous iPod.

Looking at the list of launch titles, the Wii will still have some of the same intense and violent shoot-everything-that-moves games typical of the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3, like Call of Duty 3 and Red Steel. But there are also titles like WarioWare and WiiSports, the latter of which will come packed with the system, are stripped down, uncomplicated games meant for short easy spurts of zen-like gaming.

This comes as good news to the average gamer, who is now, according to recent statistics from the Entertainment Software Association, 33 years old—an age at which full time jobs and family take precedence over beating the last boss in Metal Gear. Many of today’s games are obscenely long and complex. The average gamer may never reach the end of Grand Theft Auto or Elder Scrolls: Oblivion, but does have 15 minutes to play a game of Tetris.

What really sets the Wii apart from the Big 2 though is the controller, something that has historically evolved little, considering it’s been two decades since the original NES gamepad.  Instead of slamming on a set of static buttons, Wii users will be waving, thrusting, and swinging with the motion-sensored “Wii-mote”, which looks akin to a television remote. Nintendo thinks it is more intuitive for gamers yank a controller towards their body to simulate pulling a fish out of water while fishing, or swinging a controller like a tennis racket in a tennis game instead of pushing a B button to simulate the same thing.  This control scheme may not always work well in practice, but it will undoubtedly cause programmers to be more creative and have to think of brand new gameplay paradigms other than settling for the sequelitis and unoriginal established genre titles that plague the surprisingly conservative video game universe.

The Wii will also feature basic multimedia capabilities such as web-browsing via its Opera Browser (which will unfortunately cost extra), photo editing, news updates, even a weather channel, though this seems like the part of the Wii that is most unnecessary. Past failed devices like WebTV are evidence that people don’t really care about web browsing on their TV.

Critics have called the Wii gimmicky, which is probably a true statement. And considering Nintendo finished a distant third in the most recent generation of the console competition, it would be easy to write off the Wii as a last-gasp desperation measure for a company still pining for the glory days of the ‘80s.

Well, easy that is, if you don’t consider the funny thing that has happened in the portable market. Destroying its modest expectations, the budget-priced, dual-screened Nintendo DS has outsold the sleek high-powered Sony PSP by a high margin since the second half of 2005. The DS’s unique features and game titles like Brain Age, which analysts say have reached new demographics such as women and people over 30, has won out over Sony’s portable system which has disappointingly relied mostly on PS2 ports.

Could the awkwardly named, charming, but flawed little Console That Could do the same and outsell the Playstation 3 and Xbox 360? It’s doubtful, but possible. Many consumers will likely either be loyal to their name brands, or will be more interested in higher quality graphics and better technology than the unique gameplay the Wii has to offer. In the end, it’s not up to Wii.  It’s up to us.


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