It seems as though it’s been longer at this point, but it was a mere year and a half ago that Nintendo captured the world’s imagination via Wii Sports, a glorified tech demo that ended up everywhere from late night TV to Ellen to the Oscars. It was one of the rare experiences where watching people play was nearly as fun as playing, and those who did play it, particularly the Wii Sports iteration of tennis, truly came away feeling as though they were part of something special; as if the “virtual reality” we’d been hearing about since the early ‘90s might now be closer than we imagined. So what if there was no running involved? So what if the direction of the hit basically came down to timing? You could swing that remote and it was just like swinging a real tennis racket! You can drive and putt just like real golf! You can put some english on that bowling ball and curve it right in there for a strike!
Experiencing Wii Sports for the first time is something that an awful lot of people will never forget, people who either hadn’t picked up a game in years or who had forgotten how to have fun in their games without bloody body parts and chainsaws being involved.
US: 13 May 2008
So why has it been so hard to recapture that magic?
I touched on this a bit in my preview of Hudson’s new attempt to do just that, and unfortunately, most of the conclusions that I came to in that writeup remain true now. Perhaps the most obvious and unavoidable failing of Deca Sports is the simple fact that it is not a Nintendo title, and as a not-Nintendo title that happens to be an awful lot like an actual Nintendo title, Nintendo feels slightly threatened by it, thus ensuring that it will absolutely not be one of the magic few third party games for which Nintendo will give the closely guarded code that unlocks the power of the Mii. That is to say, you’re never going to be able to figure skate as yourself in Deca Sports. Instead, you have to settle for one of a whole bunch of generic teams (the speedy team! the beefy team! the well-rounded (read: utterly average) team!) and choose from that team’s predefined members. If you can find one that looks like you, fantastic. If not, tough cookies.
This may seem like a minor failing in the face of things like game mechanics and challenge, but the truth is, the mere presence of the Miis playing the games is a huge part of the Wii Sports formula for success. A televised showing of Serena Williams vs. Jon Stewart in Wii Sports would lose its appeal if, say, Jon Stewart’s avatar was simply “generic skinny white guy #2”, rather than a little figure that was customized to look just like him to the extent that the software will allow. There’s a psychological advantage to a game that allows you to play as yourself, or at least as someone created by yourself, as opposed to someone who simply looks a little like you.
The other problem, then, is that Nintendo went and stole the good sports right out from under everyone else before anyone had a chance to challenge it. The best sports for the Wii Remote (and, by proxy, the accompanying Nunchuck) to simulate are ones that use your hands and arms in extremely well-defined ways. Tennis? Good. Bowling? Perfect. Golf? Outstanding. Boxing? Of course.
Figure skating? Umm…
Now, to be fair, figure skating is actually implemented fairly well, as far as these things go. However, the reason figure skating retains some degree of fun is because Hudson did not try to fit any kind of simulation in as part of the mini-game that figure skating ultimately is; you simply use the thumbstick to move around the skating arena in a predetermined pattern, flicking the Wii Remote every time you’re supposed to do a trick. Never, ever do you feel like you’re really skating, and while you have to hand it to Hudson for not trying to actually make you do jumps and spins (because let’s face it, nobody wants to see that), it does remove you from the experience of the game a little bit.
Take a quick look at the list of ten games that Deca Sports covers: Archery, Badminton, Basketball, Beach Volleyball, Curling(!), Figure Skating, Soccer, Kart Racing, Snowboard Cross, and Supercross. None of those, apart from perhaps Badminton, are going to get you any closer to the real thing than Wii Sports did to baseball.
Among what Deca Sports gives you, however, a few of the games are remarkably fun. Supercross, with its big jumps and frantic jockeying for position, is a fantastic bit of multiplayer mayhem that, expanded into a full game by itself, might actually be worth the price of admission for Deca Sports. When compared with Supercross, Kart Racing (which features a similar control scheme) positively suffers; the game’s proximity to Mario Kart Wii doesn’t help the Karts’ appeal. Archery is fun, but too basic to keep you occupied for more than 10 minutes, and Badminton is a servicable stand-in for Wii Tennis, even if the controls feel more than a little bit inconsistent while you’re playing.
The worst of the bunch are perhaps rendered so by the amount of potential that the real-life versions of these games have to offer. Basketball is rendered annoying at best by the overly simplistic parrying that leads to an uncomfortable little wave of the Wii Remote that, theoretically, simulates what you’re hand is doing when you make a shot. Again, the inconsistency of the mechanic kills it—once you stop feeling as though you can get better, there’s really very little reason to play. Soccer finds itself in a similar boat, while curling—my precious curling—becomes a game of timing, chance, and waggle-as-fast-as-you-can. Of all the games here, I was looking forward to curling the most, if only because it’s been a television curiosity for so long that getting a chance to try it, even in severely limited video game form, seemed quite appealing. As it turns out, I’d rather be racing bikes.
There’s certainly a place for Deca Sports in the marketplace, given that people like getting a lot of game for their money, and at $3 per minigame, there’s value to be had here, even if the minigames themselves aren’t the greatest out there. If there’s one thing that’s been proven time and again, it’s that Wii owners love their minigames. Still, Deca Sports simply lacks any of the personal connection that would make these particular games go beyond mere curiosity, and is only truly recommended to those who have already worn holes in their copies of Wii Sports. Anyone else would be advised to pick a sport and stick with it.