Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Tiring the Masses One Waggle at a Time

This is Part One of a two-part series wherein we will discuss the successes and failures of Nintendo's Wii console as it enters its fourth year on the market. Mr. Keeley's contribution will discuss the console from a Nintendo fan's perspective.

As difficult as it may be for some hardcore gamers to admit, the Nintendo Wii has been a massive success in one regard – sales. In fact, the Wii's sales are far higher than they should be for a game console. Sales charts clearly indicate that the system is in its own class, with numbers that generally remain untouchable for the Playstation 3 and Xbox 360. This is often attributed to the idea that the Wii is aimed at a broader, more casual audience – people who are not traditionally considered gamers.

Nintendo maintains that the system's high sales are a blessing for the industry, theoretically introducing more new people to video games than any other system. Yet, the Wii's success as a "casual gamer" system may not prove as beneficial for the whole of video games as one might think.

Many gamers backhandedly comment that the best game on the Wii comes packed in with the system – Wii Sports. While its status as the best game on the system is arguable, its status as the most popular is not. According to VGChartz, Wii Sports has sold more than twice as many copies as the system's second best selling game. Lest people attribute the game's sales to its status as a pack-in, a similar game, Wii Play, is the second best selling. In fact, four of the top five games are in the same vein as Wii Sports – minigame collections designed to showcase one peripheral or another. While the fun factor in these games varies, one point is unavoidable: These games are shallow. As fun as it is to golf with the Wiimote, the novelty wears off rather quickly and, once it does, there is little incentive to keep playing. Basic features like unlockables, medals and leaderboards are missing, as well as any innovations to this end. Wii Sports and its ilk are far more tech demo than full-fledged video game, but they dominate the sales charts.

What is the result? If you suspect that most Wiis in the world today are languishing in a dusty, shadowy corner of their owners' entertainment center, you are correct. Nielsen statistics show that Wii owners play their system far less often than owners of the PS3 or 360. Even extinct systems like the Xbox and GameCube get more playtime than the Wii does. In other words, many people own a Wii, but few of them like the thing enough to play it often.

The shallowness of the average Wii game, however, is not entirely to blame. The quality plays a role as well. A recent Metacritic feature ranked the Wii dead last in terms of average game quality, despite the fact that more new games are released for the system than any other. There are certainly good games for the Wii (Mario Galaxy, Zelda: The Twilight Princess, Okami), but there are hardly enough good games for a system that is three years old (and, hell, two of the games I listed are available on other systems).

The vast majority of Wii games are what is called "shovelware" – software that borders on unplayable. For every quality Mario game, there are a few dozen shameless marketing tie-ins, lazy minigame collections and wildly overpriced puzzle games. It makes browsing the Wii shelf at the electronics store akin to shuffling through the DVD rack at the supermarket – even marked down, none of it is worth the money. This year has been particularly disappointing, with the Wii's only major holiday release being New Super Mario Bros. – a rehash of the same game Nintendo has been making for over twenty years and something that would probably only qualify as a $15 downloadable game on any other console.

Even setting aside the lack of quality games, the fact remains that calling something a "good Wii game" means something very different than calling a game "good" in general. The strides video games have made in terms of artistry, technology and social networking over the past few years simply do not apply to the Wii. A system that contains eight year old hardware, a nonexistent online community and little earnest input from third-party developers cannot hope to convey to the uninitiated what modern gaming is about. The nuanced setting of Assassin's Creed II, the cinematic immersion of Uncharted 2 and the addictive competition of Modern Warfare 2 would literally be impossible to create on the Wii.

Worst of all, Nintendo's stubborn inclination to rely on the same, tired franchises means that there are few feasible ways for Wii owners to grow out of those games and into something better. Motion control may yet be the way to draw inexperienced gamers to the table; upcoming devices from Sony and Microsoft could be far more successful because they will draw people to systems that have the capacity to support gamers who tire of or outgrow such gimmicks. The Wii, on the other hand, is nothing more than a dead end for a budding gamer and, perhaps even worse, it perpetuates the conceptions of those who view video games as a pointless, expensive diversion. Yes, Wii sales remain high for now, and that increases the profile of the game industry, but when one considers this fact closely, it becomes clear that the Wii will not grow the game industry; the Wii may just strangle it.

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