I will not speak ill of the Nintendo Wii, even though others have done so for years.
My Wii was a very good gaming console. A weird one, yes. It somehow managed to be popular while remaining niche. Its games were fun, but, often a bit ugly. Its best games came out in the middle of its lifespan, not at the end. And it failed to do many of the things it was supposed to do, due to limits of technology or imagination or both.
The Wii is, nevertheless, the console that ran some of my favorite games, including excellent versions of Mario, Zelda and Metroid. Its weird games were among the best oddball titles any gaming console has had. And it remains an innovator whose imitators have yet to improve upon it.
The system is nearly dead. Its last announced Nintendo-published game came out this week (there could be more, but... why?). Its successor, the Wii U, will be re-introduced to the world during a big pre-launch event in New York City on Thursday. What was born as a machine code-named the Revolution will soon officially be retro.
It deserves a proper send-off.
I had two Wiis in the last six years, both supplied by Nintendo. The first arrived in the back of a police car in the middle of Times Square in the fall of 2006. I worked there at the time, and Nintendo public relations was ever in search of a good new promotional stunt (they still were that day). I'd played the Wii before at press events and even dabbled with the machine's signature motion-sensitive remote-shaped controller back in the fall of 2005. None of that blunted the pleasure of finally having a Wii. I played some Wii Sports first, then dove deeply into The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess.
The Wii had excellent versions of Mario, Zelda and Metroid. Its weird games were among the best oddball titles any gaming console has had.
One of my first and favorite discoveries of the Wii was that I could take it with me. The thing was small: just three DVD-cases thick, Nintendo used to proudly hype. I would toss it in my messenger bag so I could plug it in at work or at home and play more. I'd never carried a console around before. This was great, but it also killed my launch Wii in less time than it took my Xbox 360 to red ring. Quarters also fit in my messenger bag, and one of those quarters turned out to also be capable of fitting in my system's disc drive, never to be seen again. The machine died. Nintendo graciously sent me a new one.
The Wii was the first video game console that anyone plugged into my parent's TV since the Odyssey 2, the console my brother and I played in the Totilo household in the early 80s. We would plug an NES and then a SNES in a different room, where my my brother and I kept our toys. When we left the nest, so did game consoles. But in late 2006 the Wii was something my parents had to see. My father liked the bowling. We dabbled with tennis. I eventually bought my parents a Wii, their first—and probably last—game console. My dad liked it for Netflix.
My second Wii never collected dust. A game journalist receives many games in the mail, and the curious one could find plenty to play. I played many, many games on it, despite the ample distractions of my Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. I have proof that I played many Wii games. The system captured the name of every game I played and counted the hours and minutes. It left me with a record of what I'd done with the machine. Here's that record:
My career Wii playing stats, minus the games I played on my original four-month-old, quarter-eating Wii. (Special guest vocals by my cat)
My top entry was the Nintendo Channel (81 hours, 32 minutes; 60 times), which I used to pull stats just like these for a monthly check on how much play time various Wii games were getting by the online-connected player base.
My top three games, in terms of play time, were The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword (55 hours, 52 minutes; 12 times), Fire Emblem Radiant Dawn (48 hours, 47 minutes; 21 times), and Little King's Story (42 hours, 12 minutes; 12 times). The fourth entry, 38 hours in No More Heroes (!) must have been a fluke. Surely I left the game paused overnight or something.
My three least-played games were Madden NFL 08 (4 minutes; 1 time), Super Turrican (1 minute; 1 time), and Blazing Lasers (1 minute; 1 time).
I'm not a hoarder, and, despite the implications of this essay, I'm not nostalgic about video games. While some gamers enjoy amassing large game collections, I prefer to obtain, play and cull. I used to fancy that I could contain all of my video games on one shelf, a shelf that would only contain the best games. These days, I've spread my games across at least three shelves. My Wii games, at least, just fit one row, after many, many re-cullings:
Caveat: I haven't tried to make room for these yet, mainly because I haven't played much of them.
For the purposes of this reminiscence, I tried to come up with my top five. I failed.
Settle for my top seven?
And here's my top 1.
The Wii was an extraordinary machine and, still, the top-selling console of its generation. It popularized motion-control gaming and reminded society that simple games-the likes of which we really hadn't seen since Pac-Man and Tetris—were the games capable of the broadest appeal. The simple Wii Sports sparked or re-sparked the love of playing a video game in millions of people.
The stealth innovation of the Wii was the Mii, the simplified avatar that anyone who touched the Wii would sculpt for themselves. Before Miis, people rarely saw themselves in video games. With the Miis, in a simple but enchanting way, they did. Miis spawned the creation of player avatars on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, but the Miis remained the most charming and the most useful. They could star in game after game and thanks to the Mii parade feature, march their way into friends' consoles. The Wii made us all video game characters. The consequences of that are still unfolding.
The Wii also was the first major console to clearly track its users' stats, a feature buried so deeply that most users probably never saw it. The tracking was limited, just logging the game names, the time played and the number of sessions experienced. But even that tiny bit began to provide the kind of feedback we now enjoy from so many gaming-based activities that tabulate our experience. These days, it seems like every device we have is tabulating something that we do. The Wii may not have been the first system to do any type of counting—the Xbox 360 was tallying achievements a year before the Wii was on sale—but it did so with a thoroughness and clarity that is as modern as it is illuminating.
The Wii also popularized the digital sale of using a new console to play the classics. Before the Wii, Nintendo, Sony, Sega and Microsoft systems were mainly for the games of the generation they were in and maybe, through backwards compatibility, the one from before. The Wii's Virtual Console allowed players to re-buy and re-play games from many cycles before that. It turned back the idea that old games would become literally unplayable unless gamers kept a hold of old consoles that were otherwise obsolete. It helped keep the old games relevant. This concept is so commonplace now that it's hard to remember how unusual it was that Nintendo first let it happen.
Perhaps the best Wii idea of all, and one too little copied in other consumer electronics, was that the device itself lit up when something important had happened to it. If a friend sent you a message or if a game needed an update, the system would start emitting a blue glow from its disc drive. You didn't have to turn the Wii on to know something was ready for your attention; the device's light pattern showed it. Most inert consumer electronics do nothing like this, which is a pity. What a disappointing failure that we don't have more electronics that make themselves useful even while they are more or less turned off.
Motion control was supposed to be better than the Wii allowed it to be. Even the 2009 Wii controller upgrade Motion Plus offered less than the 1:1 association between character and a player's hand movements that early Wii trailers implied we'd get. The subsequent PlayStation Move motion-control wand for the PS3 did a better job of tracking player movement, but the Wii never managed to let players feel like their motions were truly and finely being tracked. It always felt like the system was guessing about how you just moved, or, in the case of Motion Plus games, guessing a little better. But real, fine motion control that could rival the precision of pressing a button? The Wii never delivered that.
The Wii also failed in some ways users may have not realized. The system was supposed to be as quickly-responsive as a light switch. Nintendo president Satoru Iwata, wanted games to partially install into the system so that they'd load faster. The Wii cached a tiny bit of data for each game, but that barely speeded boot-up. He also wanted the Wii's weather, news and other channels to flick by with the speed of changing channels on TV. He figured people could flick the Wii on, zip through its channels as they would a TV and get whatever info or entertainment they needed. This didn't happen, not without pauses that lasted longer than deep breaths between each channel transition.
Metroid Prime 3: Corruption is my favorite Wii game. I love the Metroid series, so I'm compromised here. Like all the best Metroids it is a hybrid of sci-fi action and archaeological adventure. Its level design was tight, its art direction masterful.
But let's remember the little games too. Or hear about them here for the first time. There was Cubello, the strange, abstract download-only game that played like omni-directional Tetris. Or there was You, Me and the Cubes (above), a warped download only game that challenged players to flick pairs of characters at a cluster of cubes without knocking off the other characters standing on those cubes.
There was Trauma Team, which took the motion-control surgery of the Trauma Center games, and added co-op as well as a whole soap opera's worth of different characters and game types. There was a character who did diagnoses whose missions played out more like a quiz. There was a coroner whose crime-scene investigations were more adventure game-y, and there was an emergency responder whose missions were a more of a time-rushed arcade game. This game's co-op surgery option, which allowed players to divide a single-player task to two players, letting them divide a controller's worth of inputs across two controls, however they wished to divide it up, was so innovative and interesting that I e-mailed a top game developer, recommending he check the mode out.
Endless Ocean and its sequel, Endless Ocean: Blue Word pushed the idea that games could really just be relaxing simulations of swimming underwater while gawking at cool-looking fish and whales. Red Steel 2 was arguably the most fun and tightest-controlling motion game for hardcore gamers ever made. (If you never stabbed a video game bad guy behind your back in Red Steel 2, you haven't sampled the best of motion-control gaming). House of the Dead: Overkill helped the Wii bring the light-gun shooter genre back—the system deserves a thanks for this genre revival—and wound up being, along with MadWorld, one of the most profane and violently outrageous games ever sold on a major console.
Kirby's Epic Yarn was the Wii's Wind Waker, a game so gorgeous and so distinct in art style—in this case, one involving drawing the world with yarn—that it is likely to only be fully appreciated a generation or two hence. The Wii's Silent Hill, Shattered Memories, was an exceptional game about escape and psychological tricks (on the player!) that ended with a marvelous twist. People stopped talking about Deadly Creatures well before they should have ceased discussion about a realistic (!) game starring a scorpion and a spider. Did they ever catch on to the excellent audio of Mushroom Men? Hell, did they ever watch the generation's best cut-scenes in Little King's Story or witness that game's you'll-never-see-it-coming finale?
Champions of indie games might adore the pure minimalist perfection of line-racing game Art Style Light Trax (above). And if they didn't, they messed up.
The biggest games for Wii were the likes of Wii Fit and Super Smash Bros. Brawl. Both were fine and as distinct from each other as possible. One was a workout trainer; the other a piece of software that doubled as a fighting game and as the most impressive museum of Nintendo characters and lore ever made. Our gaming lives are richer for these having been made.
We were supposed to get great motion-control games from the Wii. We did, even if people forget that Bonsai Barber existed (well, Wii Sports Resort was pretty good, too). It also gave us games with great story, such as Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn (above).
People scoffed at how bad the Wii's worst games were. Ninja Breadman, anyone? They sighed at how long Nintendo waited to put out new games following a very busy launch. But Nintendo hit the mark often and missed it badly very few times (remember Wii Music? Or the unexceptional Animal Crossing: City Folk?). The extraordinary Super Mario Galaxy 2 made up for those.
The Wii was more or less done two years ago. Short of the lovely but slow-starting The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, Nintendo ceased to produce Wii games of major consequence in 2011 or 2012. While many systems enjoy a fine twilight, when top development teams are comfortable with the hardware and wring out the best-looking, best-designed games they can, the Wii just faded. Third-party developers were never that enthused about the system anyway, and most of them bailed just as soon as they arrived late to the party. They were barely there.
As the Wii nears its end, it leaves behind a legacy of bowling grandmas and wrist-shaking Zelda players. It also leaves behind heaps of plastic: the wheel that came with Mario Kart, the speaker that came with Animal Crossing, the gun shell that came with Link's Crossbow Training and the huge Balance Board that was packed with Wii Fit. None of this paraphernalia is likely to earn the Wii much hindsight respect, but the system's library of software should. Month by month, the Wii was not the machine for many of us to own. But as an extra—as an accouterment to my life as a gamer or to my dad's life as a non-gamer—it had just enough to make it a boon.
The Wii could be condemned for having stuck around too long or for having failed to match its hype. So what? It was a jump and a risk. It was a bold attempt at change and, stealthily, the appliance that powered some of the best video games ever to run on a Nintendo platform. It made the old people happy; it made me happy, too. That's a good legacy, I think.
The Wii U will be able to do everything the Wii did—including playing Wii games—and more. But it didn't do the hard work. The Wii did. The Wii was wonderful and deserves better than a rep as fad or a dust collector. It was an engine of fun, sometimes revved up by waves of the hand, sometimes powered simply by some great video games.
It was, all things considered, better than a hula hoop.