[Out of the Box] How Wii's Waggling Changed the World

In the religion of videogames, Nintendo is Shiva - the destroyer and the creator, the omega and the alpha. But is it in that order? Great Scott!
Author: Daniel Hemsath
Published: January 1, 2011

Out of the Box is a recurring feature that allows the TotalPlayStation editors a chance to examine what is happening outside of Sony's magical boxes in the greater, wider world. Is Nintendo the destroyer of worlds or the harbinger of a brighter (if shallower) future? And what does both Burger King and Back to the Future have to do with the multi-colored varieties of gamers?

Here’s a red-letter date in the history of gaming: November 19, 2006. Apologies to Dr. Emmett Brown of Back to the Future on appropriating his line, but, while we’re at it, let’s rewind time to the aforementioned date and see how it changed everything we would know about gaming forever.

Sure, I could preface this by citing that Nintendo’s DS handheld system introduced revolutionary interactive capabilities with the touch screen, or that the Xbox was the first truly online-ready, multimedia-savvy system, or even that I didn’t buy my first DVD until I bought a PS2. But all of these things are the kinds of things that only really appeal to gamers. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the operative word: gamers. Why the Wii mattered more than anything else – with regards to the interactive entertainment medium – is that the definition of what a “gamer” is would never be the same.

Picture this – and, yes, it will be difficult, as we are probably all gamers, in the traditional sense: it’s New Year’s Eve, 2006, and your buddy’s throwing a party. (Okay, that’s probably not hard to picture, but bear with me.) You go over, planning on hanging out with your friends, some you haven’t seen for a long time, maybe meet some new ones, maybe have a little too much to drink, and maybe even score some digits. What you are hoping for is that your buddy hasn’t just turned on Guitar Hero on his PS2 as a means of “entertainment”; nothing killed your love of that game quicker than failing out of your favorite song.

You pull into the driveway, ring the doorbell. Your friend answers, greets you warmly, and invites you in. In the background, you see someone clutching something that looks like the TV remote, swinging her arm back, then forward – like she’s throwing an invisible bowling ball – as your other friends, seated on the edge of the couch, cheer her on.

“Oh, man,” your friend says, “you gotta check this out! Look what I got for Christmas!” Your friend has a reputation as a gamer; most of his other friends do not. A short time later, as you and every person in the house are crowded around this magical device, simulating boxing, or bowling, or other “Wii sports,” reenacted by strange Weeble-like representations of yourselves, all playing with such fervor and enthusiasm, not debating what button does what beyond “press the big A button,” a question crosses your mind: Am I a “gamer” now?

You and everyone else, and this is only the beginning.

The power, the appeal of gaming consoles in the 20th century was – in part – “how many bits” it was, if it had Mario or Sonic, or Final Fantasy, Grand Theft Auto, or Halo. This still exists, to some extent, among what is now known as the “core audience.” (That’s marketing buzz-talk for the Doritos-and-Mountain-Dew-in-Mom’s-basement kind of crowd.) The core audience values processing power, frame rate, precision control, and 1-ups. They have been raised with Mega Man as a babysitter, clearly defined objectives, and are trained in the ability to take interactive entertainment seriously. In a way, the “core audience” is visionaries; but, as history has shown, visionaries are rarely taken seriously at first.

So, what’s the connection?

Did you ever try to go into a videogame store – or a big-box store that sells videogames, to be fair – and try to purchase a Wii one, two, or even three Christmas seasons after the launch of the system? Hard to find, weren’t they? Why? Everybody had conspiracy theories. “Nintendo is intentionally shortchanging America,” or “They’re going to come out with a better version next year,” or “Nintendo hates Christmas.” (In light of the very limited release of Super Mario All-stars 25th Anniversary Edition, I’m inclined to give the last one special consideration.)

The truth? It was a cultural explosion. For the first time, grandmas were playing with their grandsons, sophisticated dinner parties for forty-somethings ended with Wii tennis, and getting that white box on Christmas morning was the difference between “there is a Santa” or not. (During the time I’ve worked in videogame retail, I literally had a little old woman break down into tears when she finally found the coveted Wii for her grandchildren, like she found the Holy Grail.) It was enough that I contemplated making a website called “WiisForKidneys.com”; if you wanted a Wii this Christmas, all you had to do was send us one of your kidneys – in a sealable Igloo cooler, please – and we would send you a Wii (limit one per customer). Fortunately, common sense got the better of me; I wish it would have for those responsible for the unfortunate victim of the “Hold Your Wee for a Wii” contest.

But for all its popularity, scarcity, and appeal, the Wii was a system behind the times, from a purely technical standpoint. Compare it with today’s consoles: no HD, no DVD (or Blu-ray) player built-in, no hard drive, expensive controllers (comes in two pieces), limited internet capabilities, and some strange design choices (why make a classic controller you have to plug into another controller?). For all intents and purposes, in a side-by-side comparison with the Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3, the Wii should’ve been dead last. Why, then, have recent reports put the number of Wiis in America at 30 million – one in ten Americans?

Consider the “non-gamers’” first experiences with gaming – as “gamers,” we’re all achingly familiar with this scenario, be it with a parent, significant other, or buddy. The non-gamer comes over to your house/apartment/dorm room to hang out, and you invite them to play your Nintendo/Genesis/PlayStation/whatever. You hand them a controller, and they stare at it, like you handed them something like a tricorder or some other mysterious device from a sci-fi movie. You tell them what each button does, under certain criteria, and why to initiate said commands. (God help you if you’re trying to teach them Street Fighter for the first time.) They hold the controller, stare at the screen, then the controller, then the screen, then sheepishly mutter, “Uh…okay…” I’m betting that about ten to fifteen minutes later, most of them wanted to do “something else.”

And there’s the difference. This didn’t happen with the Wii; or, at least, it happened far less frequently. Somehow, be it the motion-based controller, the intuitive interface, or the pretty light blue colors, it eliminated the ubiquitous barrier that the “controller” presented. Nobody at a party wants to “learn” a controller. For all of the virtues we put on education, it’s not as practical to sit down with the manual when you’re more interested in catching up with your friends at a gathering and then performing a Shinku Hadoken for a super combo finish. But, of course, like everything, this comes with a price…

Now, let’s go back, to the future (again, apologies).

In the wake of the Nintendo revolution – the war of the Wii – fell the casualties. “Shovelware,” a wryly descriptive word for so many garbage games that would be spewed on the masses, desperate for another Wii-waggling fix, became more common than the quality gems on the system by a significant margin. “Casual Games” became the reality TV of the interactive entertainment industry. “Avatars” are commonplace on consoles, some of which offer “clothing” you can purchase for your virtual “you” (justify that). Zynga has made hundreds of millions of dollars on games you can play for free. Even Microsoft and Sony have recently released their own “motion-based” or “controller-free” gaming accessories, with the predictable sports, kart, and boxing titles to match. And who is the audience of this “entertainment”? How did the addiction take hold? (Hint, hint: “It’s-a me!”)

But, seriously, even the bean counters behind Microsoft’s Kinect and PlayStation’s Move are not capitalizing on the “casual gamer” as much as they are satisfying a desire for a burgeoning demographic, a new generation of gamers tired of feeling like outsiders, strangers in a strange land, eager to experience a new kind of 21st century entertainment long held in the covetous, Cheetos-stained hands of a select few. But even in the era of the casual gamer, there is a fruitful tree thriving in the shoveled-in manure: accessibility to creating these games with programs like Flash or the XNA Creators Club has opened a new world of inexpensive, enjoyable entertainment for developers looking to get off the ground or simply be able to produce many games not on a multi-year cycle. Games like Peggle, Bejeweled, and others published by Pop Cap have the same charm and elegance that has immortalized Tetris as one of the greatest videogames ever made. And the sophisticated, user-friendly interface of the Wii’s dashboard has enhanced the accessibility of all consoles as multimedia entertainment centers.

Today, gaming is a different beast, not only because of online headshots, not only because the “graphics are crazy,” but because of the people playing them. It would be inaccurate to say that “gone are the days of Adventures of Lolo and Dragon Warrior.” They’re still there (or similar incarnations); there’s simply more kinds of gaming. The old guard hasn’t gone; it’s simply been reinforced by the young guard, fighting side-by-side – formerly shattered factions, now united under the banner of a new love of “gaming.” So, is it better together, learning to meet new people on common ground, even if that ground requires more footwork to traverse? Is it okay for a mother of three to play Farmville (for free – please, think of the kids), at the same time a high-school-graduate home from a split shift at Burger King plays a co-op campaign in Gears of War 2 online as Dom? Why not? Even retro fans – or gamers who simply missed the boat on the classics -- can reignite the spark of nostalgia via the oft-forgotten Virtual Console on the Wii.

This year, Mario celebrates his 25th Anniversary (1985 was a pretty sweet year, wasn’t it? Mario and DeLoreans…) and with it, the Wii strides triumphantly into its fourth year. “Experts” cite that sales have slowed for the little white giant, and rumors abound about a Wii 2. If these rumors are to be taken seriously, will it be as powerful of a cultural fulcrum as its predecessor? Nintendo’s own umpteenth reinvention of its portable system – now to be the 3DS – prepares to launch in Japan, now seeking to define the individual 3D gaming experience; can another Nintendo console be so far behind? And if it isn’t, what future-tech does Nintendo plan to bombard us with this time? 3D? Biometrics? Who knows? Maybe its very own flux capacitor?

Great Scott!

Previous Out of the Box installments:

Halo: Videogame or Murderer?
Q4 2010