How the Japanese industry titan is risking a comfortable position in both the market and our collective cultural soul with their major switch-up.
For the past decade Nintendo has been tied to the Wii branding. Both the Wii and the Wii U were... different. They weren't like other consoles and that was a doubled edged sword. The luster and novelty of the motion gaming mechanic that drew so many to the Wii did not carry over as effectively to the Wii U, especially considering the apparent trade-off between that and other hardware capabilities. After a disappointing sequel to their groundbreaking console that extended the motion gaming gimmick model with a clever 5th player gamepad function, Nintendo managed to break the six-month sales figures for Wii U with their NES Classic Edition in a matter of weeks. Now after tasting the bitter-pill of playing it safe in the most competitive gaming market in history, Nintendo is taking a big risk and trying to leap out of the rut they've created for themselves in many ways by borrowing from the playbook of Sony and Microsoft. But is the fate they're trying to avoid really such a bad one?
Kings of Casual
While the Wii U was less successful than its predecessor, it's still served a vital role in gaming culture: being home to the best local multiplayer and casual games on the whole damn market. One of the things that was seriously lacking in the endlessly ascending editions of Call of Duties and Halos was proper support for and innovation in the field of local multiplayer.
With its cheap controllers (thank Miyamoto-san for those gamecube controller slots) and incredibly accessible games, the Wii and Wii U were some of the most genuinely social consoles. I don't mean to thumb my nose at those gamers who prefer XBOX Live parties to crowded couches, I've definitely had my fair share of TeamSpeak buddies, but there's something delightful about being able to share your passion for gaming with those closest to you even if they're not FPS-capable or necessarily interested.
Think about the titles that dutifully fulfilled this role: Mario Party, Mario Kart, Smash Bros, and even games like Wii Sports. These are some of the most exciting games to play with friends and just about anyone can (and is usually willing) to jump head-first into a couple hours of Baby Park drag races or Corneria smack-downs.
But at what cost?
Being casual-gaming kings came at a cost, and not even necessarily one that was interestingly related to the benefits. It was clear that the Wii traded off one hardware capability with another. In order to have the motion controls ahead of industry schedule, Nintendo made a deal with the devil to sacrifice the hardware power to render graphics like the XBOX 360 and PS3 were capable of. While more Western-centric or "hardcore" gamers were enjoying the jawdropping swordplay of Oblivion, Nintendo customers were waving their wonky wands through the half-assed Red Steel. To be honest, the technology to make a worthwhile motion-tracking sword game might not even be ready in 2016, let alone a decade before that.
Perhaps in 2005, this made sense. Nintendo was the family fun company. It was entertainment in its literally purest form. Motion-based gaming like Wii Tennis and Wii Boxing was fun that "even Mom" could get behind. It was practically playing sports! For gamers! They were way ahead of Michelle Obama on the childhood obesity epidemic. But instead of being a valid competitor in graphics they kept the cost of the system as low as they could. What could third-party developers do? They could either scale down their graphics and control schemes to meet the Wii standards and consequently under-perform on the more heavy-duty XBOX or PS consoles or they could make some sort of janky Wii-version of the game that people wouldn't even end up buying. And why's that?
Because somehow, people bought the Wii and Wii U anyway...
It was cheaper. Wii consoles were fifty to a hundred dollars cheaper than their competitors, especially considering launch prices. And that meant people (and parents) were willing to shell for a console that they could buy a few casual games for, use their old GC controllers on, and keep for the very social circumstances I described above. Plus they needed to get their Zelda jollies somewhere.
The Wii was the cheaper, secondary console for so many gamers for this last decade. It was the updated version of their Game Cubes. It could play some of their all time favorite games and had a few hits of its own. It was the quirky, Standard Definition device that was home to drunk matches of Wii Tennis or late-night Mii creation catastrophes. It didn't demand the same money or attention that other consoles did and that's how it survived with its obviously lesser ability.
Now Nintendo's willing to give up its soft-spot in our collective cultural soul that's largely built on the success of its second gen console in attempt to run, not walk, with the big dogs once again. Can they stop capitalizing on consoles that are essentially hardware updates of their phenomenal cube? Can they make people pay big money to be fulltime Nintendo gamers? Who knows? Good luck, Nintendo. You're gonna need it.