The Power of the Nintendo Wii

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By Eric Ashley (@flapjackashley)
 
Not to toot my own horn, but I have rarely been wrong when it comes to predicting technology trends and what will be successful when something new comes out. I correctly saw Netflix putting places like Blockbuster Video out of business back when they first started out before they focused on streaming and actually sent you DVDs in the mail. I was right when I said that the cell phones would grow to become a near essential part of everyday life. I was correct when I said Blu-ray (and HD DVD at the time) would have a much slower adaption rate than DVD had when it was introduced for a variety of reasons – not the least of which because of all the different ways to watch movies at home, and that the jump from SD DVD to high definition isn’t as great and jaw dropping as it was from VHS to DVD.
 
But there were two things I got wrong. Really wrong. One of the compact disc. I didn’t think what I called a “fragile, miniature record” would last long because it was not very portable and, at the time, you couldn’t record onto disc like you could cassette tape. While I thought compact disc was the way of the future for gaming and computers, I thought as a simple music medium, it would fail pretty fast.
 

The other thing I was wrong about was the Nintendo Wii.

 
Nintendo, at the time, was licking its wounds from being knocked from first place in the 16-bit race to second place (behind the PlayStation) in the next generation, all the way to last place in the most recent cycle, well behind the PlayStation 2 and Microsoft Xbox in the lucrative North America. Nintendo needed to do something that would prove themselves relevant, and bring attention back to their badly damaged brand. As a long suffering Nintendo fan, I was anxious to see what they would come up with.
 
But instead, when I saw pictures of what would become known as the Wii Remote (“Wiimote”), I thought Nintendo had just thrown in the towel. It looked like a TV remote and nothing like a traditional controller. And hearing that the next console would have graphics that would barely be better than that of the third-place GameCube was like a punch in the gut. Hearing the bizarre name of the system, along with the fact that this underpowered system would come out a year after the more advanced Xbox 360 and around the same time as the PlayStation 3, it felt like I was watching an old friend suffer a slow and painful death that they were in denial about.
 
E3 2006 changed that for me. When word began to get out about the way Nintendo’s Wii was “revolutionizing” gaming, almost in a near Virtual Reality way with its motion controls, I was intrigued. When I saw the lineup of games that they touted, including a jaw dropper that would become Super Mario Galaxy, I thought maybe Nintendo hadn’t lost it after all. There are YouTube videos from E3 2006 of people literally racing from the convention center to get in line to demo the Wii, and vids of people standing in lines that stretched over four hours long. They were frantic, mind boggling scenes that haven’t been seen since at an E3, even with the launches of three new consoles since then. Nintendo took the ball and ran with it at the show – when many people thought it was Sony’s to lose (and lose they did with one of the worst E3 performances ever).
 
But what even made it clear that I was dead wrong about the Wii was the reaction it got upon release. It’s very affordable $250 price point was helpful, but word got out that it’s pack-in game Wii Sports was something that had to be experienced. In what was nothing more than a glorified tech demo of how to use motion controls, Wii Sports set the game world ablaze. People were having Wii parties. When you heard someone had a Wii, you wanted to be their best friend so you could try it for yourself. The addictive nature of the simplistic games – particularly, for me, Wii Bowling – propelled the Wii to be the most have item that Christmas. Consoles selling out during their first holiday season is not uncommon, but what made the Wii a phenomenon was that it was sold out seemingly everywhere for over a year after release. I didn’t start seeing the Wii on store shelves with any kind of regularity until almost a full year and a half after it was out, and even then they were in very very small quantities. The rate at which it outsold the higher powered 360 and PS3 were astounding.
 
When I finally bought a Wii, it was like I hit the jackpot. I bought it from a friend who happened to find a couple in 2007 and bought them right away to possible resell – and they were going for up to twice the cost on eBay at the time, so who can blame him? But I still felt lucky! I strapped that puppy in a seat belt for the ride home.
 
Some games for the Wii were equally impossible to find. 2007’s Wii Fit was constantly sold out for months. One of my friends relayed a story to me about being in a mall and seeing the UPS guy arrive… and she stalked him all the way to the GameStop in hopes that a Wii Fit was in that shipment. And if one didn’t do that, you didn’t get one for quite a long time. Wii Fit was the second best selling game for the Wii that wasn’t packaged with the console during the Wii’s primary lifespan, placing it above Super Mario Galaxy and Super Smash Bros Brawl.
 
I remember playing the Wii for the first time. It was something special. And anyone who claims unimpressed with the Wii the first time they played it with friends is probably not telling the truth. The graphics were simplistic, but I will never forget the fun I had with friends playing Wii Bowling and Wii Baseball. It was magic. It was fun a level that I hadn’t experienced before in quite awhile. It was a social gaming machine.
 
But that is precisely made the Wii not a Gamer’s Machine, but a niche novelty item, even though I didn’t realize it at the time. Gaming on the Wii was worlds more fun than playing as a single player. The online system they had with the Wii was ridiculous (with ridiculous “Friend Codes” and very very limited chatting options, no online friends lists, etc) and outdated even before the Wii hit the market. And shovelware? The Wii practically introduced that term to the world as there was literally hundreds and hundreds of cheap knock off games looking to cash in on the Wii’s immense popularity. M&M Kart Racers anyone? Didn’t think so.
 
And as with any niche item that hits the market, the Wii flamed out pretty quickly. It had solid sales through 2010, but sales continued to edge downward. When Nintendo felt pressured to announce their next system, the Wii U, prematurely at E3 2011 (which was a year and a half before the system’s actual release date), the sales and any momentum the original Wii had bottomed out. Sales slowed to a crawl, publishers other than Nintendo basically stopped supporting it, allowing for the large lead it had over the 360 in North America to dwindle away. While the Wii was the phenom upon release, the 360 eventually ended up winning North America in that console cycle, overtaking the Wii in 2012. So even Nintendo’s best efforts to finish back on top domestically fell short – although it should be noted that it did win the global market.
 
I still like the Wii. There are games I still play on it. As hip as it is to get on your high horse and write off that system as a flash in the pan (which, to some extent, it was), that is selling the Wii short. The Wii brought millions of more people into the video game fold – some would say that is also a negative, but I disagree. It was home to the aforementioned Super Mario Galaxy, which many consider to be one of the absolute best in the Mario franchise. And the Wii, in no small part, inspired its competitors to try and emulate it, with the Kinect and the PlayStation Move. Those Xbox Avatars? Yup, they came after Nintendo had their own “Mii” characters that could be used in some games.
 
The sheer awe one felt when they moved and had their motions be mimicked on screen is something people tend to forget as they pile on the poor Wii. The novelty of the Wii no doubt wears off, but, for a few fleeting moments (read: years) it was the revolutionary game system that everyone sets out to try and create. And that is why I will never count Nintendo out, no matter how bleak things seem to get. Because they are more than capable of changing the gaming world again.
 
I just hope the next big thing they come up with has more staying power.


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