Nintendo is not infallible. An obvious truth, it would seem at first, but a disturbing trend is emerging among certain industry professionals and Nintendo fans, a train of thought that places the Kyoto based company upon an untouchable pillar. The Wii is a runaway hit, it sells out as soon as new stock arrives, and it is the current game industry media darling. Wii Sports is becoming a pop culture icon, and once again non-gamers are coming out of their GTA stereotype induced fear and trying something new.
So what’s the problem?
The recent Game Developer’s Conference made me realize three things: Playstation Home is a very, very cool idea. Little Big Planet is more than a cool idea. And, Nintendo is disturbingly silent in the face of such opposition. Sure they were in a silent period but they could have at least given us something small. These are the types of innovations that Nintendo has been bragging about since the Wii was unveiled as the Revolution, and once again Sony is upstaging them. It’s no secret that Sony makes a habit of ripping off competing ideas and improving upon then, and there’s no real shame in it either—it’s been a legitimate business practice in capitalism since the beginning. Sony has gone to ludicrous speed in terms of PR nonsense, and they’ve gone plaid and overshot Nintendo by a week in the foolish boasting department. But they’re turning around, understanding their follies and repairing the bridges they damaged with their fans. Nintendo only continues to brag about its past accomplishments.
Nintendo doesn’t necessarily need to compete with Sony to succeed. Playstation Home looks to be a cleaner, more organized Second Life. I’m sure sooner than later it will fall prey to the same aristocratic caste system that plagues Linden’s attempted metaverse, and it’ll be interesting to see how Sony feigns fairness and equality in their virtual world. But Nintendo doesn’t need to build their own digital metropolis to stay afloat, they just need to maintain quality.
Nintendo continued to stress that they are not competing with Sony or Microsoft anymore, and gamers are finally coming to terms with that. The Wii is far and away different, the inexpensive “and”console that truly offers something gamers can’t get anywhere else. What Nintendo has to sustain, is that “different” aspect. They have to make sure that the Wii stays enticing and viable years down the road, so that the people who pick up a PS3 for Home, or a 360 for Live, will spend the extra cash on a Wii for the controller. And right now Nintendo is doing a piss poor job of that.
Nintendo speaks of simplicity as a way to reach the casual crowd, but where they indicate simplicity, I see laziness. They talk of uncluttered interfaces, of a console that is attractive to non-gamers. I see PR doubletalk and a company that is ignoring its core audience. In all honesty it’s a smart, proven business decision, to give as little as possible and get as much money for it as you can. The Wii is doing this beautifully right now and unlike Sony and Microsoft, Nintendo is actually making a profit on every console sold and bringing in cash hand over fist.
But it can’t last. The novelty will fade, the public adoration will fade and consumers will realize that their shiny white box is filled with half-baked features and watered down ideas. It’s time for Nintendo to step up to plate and cut through on the PR smoke-blowing they’ve been doing for the past year. It’ll take time and a lot of money, but considering the Wii’s strong launch and the DS’s continued success, I’m sure Nintendo can spare a good amount of both. It’s time to go the extra mile. Nintendo has to make the Wii a quality, option rich product that stands on its own and uses its abilities to the fullest. Its various features must be capitalized on so that gamers and non gamers alike feel comfortable with them, but also feel that they’re getting their money’s worth.
You may recall an editorial I did last year about the Wii’s possible failure. Well, I’m back to gripe some more, to call out Nintendo on their inconsistencies, take them to task on their promises and offer some constructive (if surly) criticism. I’ve outlined below several areas that require drastic improvement.
Now, let’s make the Wii a real new generation game console.
Problem #1: Online service
It’s been promised since before last year’s E3, and yet all we have of the Wii’s online service are a few anemic channels and a web browser beta. At E3, we were told we’d be getting actual online-enabled games in “early 2007,” and I foolishly believed it. If Nintendo was referring to the stunted map-sharing abilities of Elebits, then they’ve reached a new low in “information management” (lying). In truth we won’t be getting online games until mid-year, and that’s only in regards to first party offerings. Third party developers won’t have full access to Wii’s online capabilities until next year.
At least we have a clear answer on when the Wii online system will kick off: June 25th, with Pokemon Battle Revolution. The game has already hit Japan, and to the infinite dismay of gamers everywhere, it requires the reviled friend codes. It has been speculated that this restriction comes from the fact that PBR connects to the DS Pokemon Diamond and Pearl. It makes sense as a theory; if the DS game has the friend code limit, then its bigger Wii brother has to follow suit to enable connectivity.
According to Gamespy, however, all Wii games will use friend codes. There you have it, straight from Gamespy themselves, the folks managing the Wii’s online service. The Wii will have the same counter-intuitive, exclusionary setup as the DS. You and your friends will have to swap codes for every online game you want to play a new together.
This is so idiotic and redundant that I can barely fit it in my head. The Wii already has an address book for swapping Miis, messages and emails, why not use it for online games across the board? Inputting my friends’ individual Wii numbers was irritating enough, why oh why do I have to use the damned friend codes?!!
I’m probably jumping the gun a bit—after all, we still don’t have any online games in the US. Still, those delays are a big part of the problem, and the sense of Nintendo’s lack of readiness and half-hearted effort are the writing on the wall. I think it’s clear, at least for now, that Nintendo is anything but serious about making the Wii a true online console. There is no community to be found here, people, just a list of confusing 12-digit codes. Until Nintendo implements some honest-to-god matchmaking and ditches their ultra-paranoid code system, gamers looking for some real online play should save their cash for a 360.
Problem #2: Severely limited storage options
I recently discovered the handiness of that little slot on the front of the Wii, the SD card docking slot that theoretically lets you expand the console’s storage capacity beyond the 512 MB limit. The issue here is the “theoretical” nature of that capacity. Yes, it is quite possible to copy your save games onto any compatible SD card, and even back up your Wii channels and Virtual Console games onto portable memory, but accessing them is another thing entirely.
For example, say I have a VC copy of Super Mario World saved to my SD card, but not on my Wii’s 512 MB of system memory. To play Mario World, it is necessary that I copy the game back onto my Wii’s system memory.
This isn’t a huge problem, but it takes time and seems to be an overly-complicated process on a console sold on its simplicity. I’m sure that with a firmware upgrade the Wii could access the VC games from SD cards as easily as from system memory. The problem deepens as we look at the hypotheticals.
Say I’ve filled that 512 MG of internal memory with channels and VC games, but Majora’s Mask, one of my favorite N64 games, becomes available for download. It’s a big game, but could easily fit onto a 2 GB flash card. With current limitations in place, however, the only way to play Majora’s Mask is to delete some of the games on my system memory, and then download Majora. All of this could be simplified by letting me download and play more VC games straight from an SD card.
It is nice that deleted games can be re-downloaded as many times as I want at no extra charge, but what about save files on those games? Should I sacrifice a long, difficult quest on, say, Chrono Trigger just so I can download and play Majora’s Mask?
The reason for this limitation is clear: Nintendo doesn’t want people swapping their SD cards among their friends and distributing free VC games onto an infinite number of Wiis. There are already restrictions in place that keep games downloaded to one Wii from being copied to another, so I couldn’t just fill up my SD card with VC titles and let my friend dump a load of free games onto his Wii. But can’t Nintendo just take the next logical step? I’m sure they could tighten up the DRM on the SD cards, or stamp each VC game with that individual Wii console code they love so much.
Problem #3: Virtual Console Prices
While we’re on the subject of the Virtual Console, let’s look at its most obvious shortcoming. Aside from the counter-intuitive storage system discussed above, I think we can all agree that the price for VC games is just a little too high. Nintendo reps have repeatedly sidestepped the issue, with Perrin Kaplan comparing it to the price of Starbucks lattes in one interview, and how people are willing to pay for those on a daily basis.
Personally, I found it to be an inappropriate analogy—games are not coffee, and I only buy one every couple of weeks, but that’s beside the point. Here’s a better analogy: for Nintendo, the VC is like a little box that prints money. Aside from the costs of hosting the content and licensing games from third parties, there are probably no significant expenditures. Development costs are practically nonexistent, and porting and emulating the games is also probably very cheap—I would think that once the Wii’s commercial emulator was implemented, it could run just about any converted ROM that Nintendo enables for the VC.
You can be sure, with well over 1.5 million VC games bought and downloaded, that Nintendo is reaping a massive profit from the VC. Aside from being an iTunes like download service, the VC serves as a cheap way for Nintendo to alleviate drought. So why continue to gouge loyal customers with slightly disproportionate prices? Simple: the same old why, and again we can’t fault Nintendo for practicing good business. But they don’t need to milk us for 20 year old software.
Here’s how I’d scale the prices back to decidedly more fair rates: $2 for NES, $4 for SNES/Genesis/Turbografx-16, and at most $8 for N64. If I can grab a used N64 cartridge for 10 bucks or less at my local hole-in-the-wall game store, I’m sure as hell not paying that much for a VC game, convenience and re-download ability notwithstanding.
Problem #4: Use them USB ports!
The universal serial bus is one of mankind’s greatest inventions. It is so ubiquitous and handy, that my friends and I joke that our grandchildren will be born with them somewhere on their bodies. The Wii has two USB 2.0 ports, and they’re just itching to be used. The big question is, why hasn’t Nintendo put them to use yet?
Their importance to the overall Wii experience hasn’t been terribly apparent as of yet, so immediate uses for them aren’t too obvious. That is about to change, however, within a very short period of time. Say, a month. Remember that browser we were promised, the one that was supposed to be ready in March but was conveniently pushed back to late April? Yes, the Opera browser beta has been idle fun in the time being, seeing web pages appear on your Wii, with Flash and Java and the whole shebang. But do you know anyone who actually uses the Wii Opera browser as their primary means of surfing the net?
I didn’t think so, and I also don’t think that will change for many people, even when the full version is ready in a month. The only way that will change is through ease of use, something the Wii browser is severely lacking. It’s a relatively easy problem to fix, with a product that everyone will be willing to buy: a first-party USB keyboard. There’s no way to IM with the tedious onscreen keyboard we have now, and sniping an Ebay auction would be all but impossible. A wireless USB keyboard would make surfing from the couch even more comfortable for the whole family, and isn’t that the warm, fuzzy picture Nintendo has been conveying through press releases?
But what about other uses? The flexibility of USB is something Nintendo should take full advantage of. USB chargers for the Wii remotes would be ideal, third party USB hard drives would open up the possibility of MMOs, and let’s not forget other mass storage solutions like USB thumb drives. The real kicker is that USB compatibility is so simple to implement. The only impasse is that the Wii doesn’t recognize USB hardware yet when you plug in a keyboard, flash drive or other device. A quick firmware update could solve that problem. Nintendo gave the Wii a virtually infinite potential for expandability, and six months from launch, I expect them to use it.
Problem #5, the BIG ONE: Drought
Nintendo told us it wouldn’t happen, but in the dark skeptical recesses of our minds, we knew it was coming anyway: the unstoppable drought. Other platforms, like the 360 and PS3 have experienced it, but for Nintendo it is practically a way of life. Its immediate symptoms may be boredom or discontent, but its far reaching consequences are much more insidious and could literally spell doom for the Wii.
Remember launch? Remember who had the most games ready? It wasn’t Nintendo, or even EA, it was Ubisoft. And out of the glut of content they unceremoniously dumped onto Nintendo’s new console, maybe one or two games were worth buying. Rayman Raving Rabbids was the only standalone hit, because some decent effort was put into distinguishing it from other platform versions. Red Steel was the only original title, and it was too experimental and rushed to be enjoyable. The rest were rehashed ports, with barely improved graphics and tacked-on Wii controls.
This is a serious problem, and it isn’t just confined to launch. Nintendo’s lack of solid first party support is seen as an excuse for third party laziness. Rumors circulated that Ubisoft was readying a new Prince of Persia title for the Wii; we even got some slick looking concept art. In the end, however, the only Prince of Persia to grace the Wii was a neutered port of 2005’s Two Thrones—the new game is rumored to be heading to the 360 instead.
The third chapter in the Sands Trilogy was a good game, but good on last generation’s consoles, and without the unnecessary censorship or weak controls the Wii version has. In Nintendo Power’s review, even they told Ubisoft, “enough with the half-assed ports already.” With travesties like Splinter Cell Double Agent and the execrable FarCry Vengeance, it doesn’t look like Ubisoft’s deluge of shovelware will give way to quality original efforts, at least not any time soon.
Ubisoft isn’t the only culprit, either. The uncomfortable habit of developers porting new PS2 games over to the Wii is growing. Because of their graphical inferiority to 360 or PS3 games, PS2 games run on the Wii with no hassles, and the only essential work in porting them is bolting on some botched Wii controls. So, we’re getting Heatseeker, Manhunt 2, and The Godfather. I want to say that there’s still hope, but do we have any solid release dates for something that isn’t a port? How can third party developers take the Wii seriously, as a platform for innovation and fresh ideas, when Nintendo is slow in pioneering their own console?
When Reggie Fils-Aime made his “read my lips” statement, he promised no drought. He promised us flagship Nintendo software in early 2007. He referred to Metroid Prime 3 as launching in early 2007. Well, guess what, we’re in one hell of a drought.
The only real first party game we have so far that was specifically built for the Wii is Wii Sports. Aside from that rather shallow pack-in game, and the pitiful mishmash of tech demos known as Wii Play, we have no substantial game that holds a killer-app pedigree. Wario Ware Smooth Moves wasn’t an oasis in this drought; it was a warm, half-empty canteen.
I’m being honest when I say that Super Paper Mario looks quite awesome, and I’m getting more and more excited as its launch inches nearer. But, like Zelda Twilight Princess, Super Paper Mario is a co-opted GameCube title, and therefore it will have improvised Wii functionality at best. We know we won’t see Mario Galaxy or Samus until after July at the soonest, and Smash Bros. Brawl is a distant promise that might make it in time for the holidays. I know these games are going to really strut the Wii’s stuff in style, shows us just what this amazing new controller can accomplish. But by the end of this year, when the hype train has rumbled off into the distance, will it be too late? And will the mythical, original third party games we’ve been salivating for be there, to sate us in the meantime?
Not likely. With any luck, we might get Resident Evil Umbrella Chronicles or Sadness before 2009 (and yes, I am exaggerating a bit here).
There is a solution to this unfortunate trend of delays and excuses, but it is multipart and will involve some significant effort from Nintendo.
First of all, they need to release real games.
Nintendo has implied that they’re somehow redefining what a video game is, by releasing content that appeals to the casual crowd, and to older audiences. That’s fine, but that shouldn’t be their only product, and it sure as hell shouldn’t be their primary one. Wii Play was a sickening collection of near-empty tech demos. Some of them, like the shamefully flat fishing game, were shown as early proof of concept over two years ago at the “Revolution” controller’s unveiling. Packing a Wii remote in with this sordid lineup of microgames barely made it worth the price.
If Nintendo continues to push their “less for more” approach, the middle aged demographics they’re touting so much now will move on to other, “more important” things. The 40+ crowd already perceives video games as a waste of time, and when the luster of the controller and half-assed minigame compos wears off, they’ll drop the Wii like an embarrassing fad. When that happens, the Wii will be nothing but a sexier GameCube with a weird, failed experiment as a controller. And Sony will be waiting there to pick the carcass clean.
Nintendo’s already tired mantra of “simpler” games should come in the form of presentation, not overall content. If the older crowd likes what they see, they’ll dig deeper, they’ll want more. And when they do, some real meat should be waiting for them, to keep the experience coming. The middle aged group and the seniors are loving Wii Sports, and it’s a family activity every Saturday in my house (and my Mom hates those “damned video games”). As I’ve repeated ad nauseam, the glow of Wii Sports will not last. But I have a great idea on how to keep and hold that casual, older demographic.
The small, casual-friendly games should come primarily from the independent developers—not as repackaged, ancient tech demos culled from past E3s. The Wii was promoted as a developer platform like the DS. It’s time for Satoru Iwata’s inspirational talk of “small budgets, big ideas” to become a reality. So why are Wii devkits so scarce? At $2000, they’re dirt cheap compared to other current-gen console SDKs, and therefore the perfect tool for a small start-up developer.
GDC 07 came and went without so much as a mention of an indie developer channel. Considering it was the game DEVELOPER conference, you’d think Nintendo would reach out to the crowd that was there. Indie developers are less concerned with big budgets and more likely to take risks—that’s where gold like Alien Hominid and Brain Age were born. Indie devs have the unorthodox ideas that turn into cult hits and even mainstream classics. Nintendo should stop being so paranoid and enigmatic and nourish the teeming community of fresh young developers, who undoubtedly are Nintendo fans in the first place.
A steady stream of lower budget, high concept games are perfect for the casual crowd, the people who don’t want a game that plays like a calculus final. Adults are preoccupied with families and jobs—it’s hard for a 40-something dad to get his Elf avatar to level 56 while he’s paying the mortgage. The beauty of it all is that Nintendo already has the perfect venue for these original, simple-yet-addictive games: the Virtual Console.
The VC shouldn’t be exclusive to Nintendo’s age old library; rather, it should be a thriving marketplace for creativity. Nintendo needs only to look at Geometry Wars Evolved on Xbox Live Arcade to see the potential profit and exposure. Valve’s Steam is also a prime example—it has exploded with bizarre little titles that are becoming cult favorites. Direct download fits perfectly into Nintendo’s philosophy of simplicity.
Streaming smaller games works wonderfully for both developer and consumer. There’s no hassle of going to the store or arguing with the obnoxious Gamestop clerk, just a quick online transaction—besides the adults, not the kids, are the ones holding the credit cards. Cutting out the middleman (EB, Gamestop, Wal-Mart) will result in significantly less expensive games. The faster, simpler, cheaper distribution benefits the indie developers too, who don’t need to wade through a web of red tape and publisher proposals to get their innovative ideas into the hands of gamers. It’s a win-win solution, and Nintendo could take huge royalties from the whole deal.
The VC has been called the game version of iTunes, but it could be so much more than a roster of my Dad’s favorite oldies; it could be a window to ever more complex games. I hate to put it this way, but a “gateway” game of sorts. So Nintendo, save the quirky experiments for the VC, instead of mashing them together and bundling them with a Wii remote. Put stuff like Electroplankton on there, where the risk and cost are minimal. Don’t be taking up shelf space with these things. That’s big kid gamer territory, for people who are serious about gaming (perhaps a little too serious, but I digress).
If Nintendo keeps up the good work on its first party titles, the rest will take care of itself. They simply need to get on task, and release the deep franchise games the hardcore gamers have come to expect, and maybe a few new IPs that appeal directly to the hardcore market. Once some killer-app Nintendo developed games are released for the Wii, third party developers will get the message, and hopefully the Wii’s release list will become more robust and interesting. The same happened to the DS about two years ago—first came cheap ports and tech demos, then quality product.
Meanwhile, with original content being released on the VC on a regular basis, droughts will be much less severe and the casual audience will be satisfied and even hooked. Nintendo doesn’t need to abandon its work with unorthodox ideas; Miyamoto still needs his room to experiment, as his experiments invariably turn to gold. Rather, balance must be achieved. The hardcore will always need our Mario, Metroid, Zelda and Starfox. Our dollars made Nintendo into the gaming giant it is today, and deserting us for some brave new untouched audience is unwise. We were made to wait years for the revolution, and for the most part, we are still waiting. Do not try our patience, Nintendo, for it is wearing thin.
I do know one thing: if the Wii is as drought ridden as its predecessor, the revolution will never see enough life to survive.