Nintendo’s Niceness Problem

[4 June 2009]

By Mike Schiller

Nintendo's Wii Music

Nintendo’s Wii Music

Wii Music is where it started, I think.

Somewhere along the way—sometime in the first year during which Wii Sports was starting to show up in retirement homes, schools, and libraries across the nation (not to mention more homes than any game, like, ever), Nintendo came up with a strategy to try and maintain their new constituency, an audience that defied easily-formed generalizations.  Namely, they decided that it was in their best interest to not offend anybody with their first-party software.

Wii Music was derided, and rightly so, for being a joke of an entrance to the world of music.  As a little toy for me and my kids to fire up when we were bored, it was fine, but even in that context, its replay value was terribly limited.  The point of Wii Music was to be as inclusive as possible, to give anyone the opportunity to pantomime—and, in effect, “play”—any instrument pretty much immediately.  “Playing” the violin was easy as moving the Wii remote like a bow, “playing” the drums involved flailing around with the Wii remote and nunchuck (and, optionally, the balance board), “playing” a trumpet involved holding the Wii remote up toward the player’s mouth and alternating the ‘1’ and ‘2’ buttons.  It was all terribly easy to “master”, if “mastering” it was the goal, and those looking for some sort of challenge—some sort of game—were left disappointed.

It would have been easy to believe that this was some sort of one-off, a case of Nintendo’s pandering teaching a valuable lesson, but the recent beginnings of the coming flood of Fitness apps for the Nintendo systems is telling a different story:

Nintendo’s too nice.

Nintendo's Wii Fit

Nintendo’s Wii Fit

Look at Wii Fit, the one that started it all.  It starts off well enough, by measuring your weight and turning your Mii into a distorted, roly-poly version of itself if you’re in the overweight or obese categories, and it allows you to set a goal for yourself, to lose (or gain) however many pounds you like in a certain amount of time.  And after that…what?

On my second day, I gained weight.  Wii Fit was still being nice to me.

On my third day, ashamed as I am to say it, I gained a bit more weight.  Wii Fit was still being nice to me.

On the fourth day, when I held constant to the previous day’s weight, Wii Fit‘s only admonition was the acknowledgement that maybe, just maybe, I might not meet my weight loss goal.  And then I was free to keep doing as many (or as few) of Wii Fit‘s “exercises” as I wanted. 

Nintendo's Personal Trainer: Walking

Nintendo’s Personal Trainer: Walking

Personal Trainer: Walking, on the DS, suffers from the same problem.  It sets a goal for you, records your progress, and is full of encouraging words.  If you meet the daily goal (which starts at 3,000 steps, which is actually obscenely easy to reach if your ass hasn’t grown roots in your sofa yet), it says “hooray for you!” and your Mii does a little dance.  If you miss the goal, the shortcoming is barely even acknowledged, and the game just moves on.  The only penalty?  A red stamp on your calendar instead of a green one and slower progress toward unlocking the little treasures in the game’s cutely-designed “Walk the World” and “Space Walk” (the latter of which owes a tip of the hat to Noby Noby Boy if I do say so myself) diversions.  Other than that, it just moves on.  No “what happened?” or “what the hell is wrong with you?” or “what, you didn’t even have it in you to pretend to want to get in shape today?”  Just a “hey, whatever!” and the game goes on.

Now, these games are not meant as standalone weight-loss tools; I can respect that.  They’re tools, guides to help you along the way, but not full-fledged plans.  Fine.  This seems all well and good until you start up with something like EA Sports Active, whose goal seems to be to kick you in the ass and get you into shape if it kills you.

Electronic Arts' EA Sports Active

Electronic Arts’ EA Sports Active

EA Sports Active will, on your first workout with it, very likely make you sweat, huff, and puff more than all of your “workouts” with Wii Fit combined.  It places particular emphasis on the upper legs toward the beginning, building muscles that are going to make running long distances seem like much more feasible an activity.  It does this by telling you it’s going to put you on a program based on your current weight, giving you a set of 20 or so workouts to do back-to-back, and making sure you do them in a manner that will maximize the return on your investment, as measured by muscle mass (not to mention the ache you’ll have the next day).

The point is that by not being afraid to crack the whip a bit, EA Sports Active feels like far more effective a “tool” toward fitness than Wii Fit‘s software component ever could.  It offers a lesson that Nintendo might do well to learn: stop pandering to us.  Most of us are mature enough to take a little criticism, to be offered a challenge.  In fact, we crave a challenge, and without being challenged, all we’ll take your products for are disposable toys.  While they’re very slick, very well-designed toys, they can’t help but leave a bad taste in our mouths when our expectations are so dramatically better fulfilled by third-party entries into the same arena.

Oh, and since I started the 30-day program in EA Sports Active?  Four pounds down and counting.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/post/94424-nintendos-niceness-problem/