When Nintendo unveiled their new upcoming console they said it was a culmination of everything they had done before it. So, a few weeks before the Switch is unleashed on the masses I figured I take a look at those things that came before.
Basically, this is a combination of several things I’ve been wanting to write about. As is common courtesy, I wanted to write a eulogy for the departing console, the Wii U in this case. But I’ve also been wanting to write about why I like the Wiimote while many have discarded it as a gimmick. While the Switch does incorporate more than just their two latest generations I do think that those two generations have been most influential for the system (roughly the only thing the Switch apparently is dropping, is double screen gaming). So I will be focussing on the Wii(mote) and the Wii U.
Let me start with the Wii and specifically the Wiimote. The Wii was an unprecedented commercial success. The main reason for this was the Wiimote. It introduced a new form of controlling games that was so intuitive it expanded its audience well beyond the gaming audience that was out there at the time. Everyone and their grandmother (literally) had a Wii. So, why isn’t the Wiimote the defacto standard of gaming control right now?
I think this is due to two main reasons. First, the Wiimote wasn’t perfect, it was ultimately a flawed device. Its (motion) sensors weren’t capable enough to do what it seemingly promised. That promise to provide an accurate registration of the device in 3D space and provide that as input to the software. While the Wii Motion Plus improved on this by adding a gyroscope it’s dependency on calibration still held it back.
The other aspect was how developers didn’t know how to use the Wiimote. For some reason the focus was on motion controls, which resulted in the horrible “waggle” gameplay, where developers would replace the action of a button and assign it to shaking (or waggling) the controller. In most cases, this added very little or even detracted from the experience. Even things like first person pointer controls took several attempts to get right. And when developers did get it right, the gamers interested in these kind of games were looking elsewhere. Without the Wii’s unique controls to make a significant difference the system’s lack of power resulted in most developers putting their serious efforts in other consoles.
What saddens me most is that not only developers struggled to figure out the Wiimote, gamers seemingly did so too. The Wii was the premier battleground for the horrible “hardcore vs casual gamer” discussion. The “hardcore” gamers were the gamers that were already playing games and took it seriously. The casual gamers were your grandmother who enjoyed Wii Sports and played games casually but never really invested themselves in a game. What specifically struck a cord with me was that the “hardcore” gamers were bashing the new controls the Wiimote provided. They weren’t even criticizing its implementation but just the fact they were different. Apparently, an old school controller was the only way to play. Replacing a button with a more life-like motion was deemed cumbersome. To me, this reasoning completely undermined their claim to being “hardcore gamers”. The reasoning that things became harder to do contradicted with what playing games is about for me. Let me clarify this with an example. In a fighter like Street Fighter II, it’s about the gamer’s skill to perform special moves that will make him progress through the game. Replacing a special move with a single button would be regarded blasphemous. So in this instance making it harder is a good thing but when it comes to alternate controls that rule apparently doesn’t apply. Adding a more life-like or realistic action might make games a little harder, but they can also make games a bit more immersive.
What I like about the Wiimote is how is made gaming control a lot more accessible. Not only because of examples like Wii Sports and Mario Kart, where you hand someone a controller and they would already know what to do. But also because it was the first controller that gave equal rights to left- and right-handed people. Through its motion sensors, it also allowed you to do more things at the same time, at least it did for me. When playing a first-person shooter I felt it was much easier to lean around a corner by tilting the controller then it was to push yet another button. In these kind of scenarios, a motion was easier to combine than yet another button to push. The same applies to controlling where to fire your items in Mario Kart, by using motion to steer firing in a certain direction becomes as easy as pressing that direction. Finally, for me, using a pointer is the only way to properly play first person games. I have never been able to get used to dual analog controls and I probably never will.
The Wiimote was a bold step in a direction to play games differently. An experiment, if you will, that ultimately failed. But an experiment that has resulted in many attempts to copy it and an experiment that seems to be making its way into VR. After the Wii, Nintendo seemingly didn’t want to explore it further and instead went with a whole new experiment.
This brings me to the Wii U. The system the Switch will be replacing. The Wii U’s main appeal supposedly was asynchronous gameplay. Something Nintendo had been dabbling with since the Gamecube. But the Wii U’s defining feature proved to be something else, something Nintendo would capitalize on with the Switch. The Wii U introduced console gaming away from your TV. For households that share a TV, this was a godsend.
Asynchronous gameplay never took off. Nintendoland showed it had some promise but apart from ZombiU there are next to no examples of the feature. Nintendo tried to change this near the end of the Wii U’s life with Star Fox Zero and Star Fox Guard but ultimately failed in doing so. Because of this, the Gamepad was mostly used as an always present menu or map. Useful, but hardly game changing.
Apart from the second screen the Wii U was surprisingly conservative. It relied mostly on classic control schemes. The system’s Pro controller even lacked motion controls. Unfortunately, like the Wii, the system was underpowered when compared to its competition. With no worthwhile unique aspects and less power, third parties dropped the Wii U from multi-platform releases. What remained was a system for Nintendo games only.
Luckily, this hardly turned out to be a bad thing. Arguably, Nintendo games is the main reason most people buy a Nintendo console. Even better, Nintendo did not disappoint. While the Wii U’s library might be small, it is quite stellar. For me, Super Mario 3D World is the best Mario to date, Splatoon was genre defining and Mario Kart 8 was the highlight of the series in almost every aspect (except for battle mode!). Not only were the games released of (very) high quality, they also ranged a vast range of genres, often genres hard to find on other consoles or anywhere else for that matter.
What the Wii U turned out to be was a console not limited by it’s (failed) unique selling point, but a console that has produced some of the best titles of its generation. It even showcased an early version of the defining feature of its successor. If Nintendo was working towards the Switch all along the Wii U was definitely a way to test the waters.
Like I’ve said before, I am very happy to see the Switch isn’t continuing the Wii U’s trend to embrace classic controls. But I’m also happy that Nintendo hasn’t forced it either, as they did with the Wii. They seem to have taken a good look at both the strengths and the flaws of their previous two systems and focussed on the strengths. Obviously, they doubled down on the off-TV play of the Wii U but they also incorporated alternative means of control with every system. This means developers can now pick the means of control they find best suited and not be forced to include something they do not (yet) understand or care about. As for the games, I hope Nintendo continues to raise the bar the way they have with the Wii U (and all their systems before it).
Looking back at the Wii U it’s a shame so few got to experience its games. While playing those games on the Switch is highly unlikely they should pop up on a virtual console in the future. Perhaps by then, the Wii U’s games will get the audience they so rightfully deserve. For now, we have a new console to look forward too.