Reflections on Wii

The Way Games Were Meant To Be Played

So, I’ve had my Wii now for over a month. I’ve had a chance to play several games, and feel like I’ve pretty much broken it in.

From the first moment that you play it, it’s very clear that the Nintendo Wii is something very special. It’s a completely new gaming experience. You play games in ways you’ve never played before, and everything feels just so surprisingly natural. Like, shouldn’t this be what playing games was always like?

Shooters, and games with shooter components to them, have you actually pointing at what you want to shoot, and pulling a trigger. Flying a spacecraft or feathered mount or what have you, consists of holding your remote sideways, and tilting it to be oriented just as you want your craft to be oriented. The same for the cow-racing game in WiiPlay: the whole game is controlled by the orientation of the remote: you never press a single button. Tilt the remote to the sides to turn the cow, tilt it forward and the cow puts her head down and runs faster, tilt it back and she slows. Jerk it upwards, and the cow will jump! It’s a very natural and fluid way to control things.

In Rayman: Raving Rabbids, one of the first challenges you face is cow-hurling, where you swing a cow around on a chain, letting go at just the right moment, to send the cow flying as far as possible. This is achieved by swinging the remote around in circles above your head. Another has you conking rabbits on the head as if with a hammer, by pointing at them with the remote with your right hand, and swinging the Nunchuk attachment down to conk them with your left.

The Wii is such a great way to play games, in fact, that I’m not sure I’d be able to enjoy games on the next “next generation” platforms, unless the Wii’s control paradigms have become an established part of how games are played on all systems. I’m not sure how likely that is, since I imagine Nintendo has patents up the wazoo for all this.

Games, Unworthy of Their Medium

Having said that, though, I’ve had a steadily growing sense of disappointment since I bought my Wii, and it shows no signs of abating. The problem is, that as terrific and amazing a gaming platform the Wii may be, I’ve yet to find any actual games that I can really sink my teeth into.

The games that I’ve enjoyed playing the very most so far, are WiiPlay, Raving Rabbids and WarioWare. and none of these are actually games so much as they are collections of minigames. That gives them tremendous freedom to really get down and explore the Wii control paradigms in fun, novel, and amazing ways; but you can’t very well play just minigames all the time.

Super Mario Galaxy is great. Super Paper Mario, Metroid Prime 3 and Zelda: The Twilight Princess are merely okay. What all of these have in common, though, is that they feel like their controls have been contrived to be Wii-like, rather than really “made with the Wii in mind.” Of course, in point of fact, some of them weren’t—Super Paper Mario and Zelda are both available for GameCube as well.

Sure, I may be swinging my sword/remote to make Zelda attack, but it doesn’t have the same direct immersion factor that, say, swinging your tennis racket in WiiSports has. Sure, Super Mario Galaxy may make heavy use of the “spin” move, which requires you to flick your remote, but no one can tell me they couldn’t just as easily have made that be a button press. There are levels and spots that take more direct advantage of the Wii controls, but they’re really not part of the core gameplay (despite all of that, Super Mario Galaxy is a gorgeous and fun game, and would be gorgeous and fun on any platform it was created on).

Similarly, the game No More Heroes, which features a protagonist with a friggin’ light saber, doesn’t have you actually swinging your remote around for most of the attacks: you press the “A” button. You do swing the remote for Fatality-style final blows, and swing the remote and nunchuk in unison to execute various wrestling throws, and the game play is, all in all, really great (if you completely ignore the incredibly boring and poorly done GTA-style gameplay of the intermissions between the actual fights). But it still feels like the Wii controls have been tacked on, rather than being a core part of the gameplay.

I picked up the brand-new release of Ōkami for Wii. I loved this game for PS2. It came out around the end of the PS2’s lifetime, though, when 360 had already been out, and everyone was talking about how great the Wii was going to be, and the question in everyone’s mind who played that game, I think, was why didn’t these guys wait and release this for Wii? It’s perfect for Wii! This is due to the fact that one of the core gameplay elements is the use of a “divine paintbrush”, where different strokes with the brush achieve various results. However, I’ve been disappointed to find that using the Wii to play Ōkami, has been less enjoyable so far than it had been on the PS2. It actaully feels harder to paint with the remote than it did to use the analog stick, which seems strange. I don’t think it’s that the Wii wasn’t as natural for it as we thought, but I suspect that the team that did the porting may have botched it a little: it feels like it could be more responsive than it is. And, the main attack is performed by flicking the remote, but somehow it seems not to register my flicks all the time; and even when it does, it doesn’t have the speed and agility that a simple button-press would have had.

I feel like the Wii is a terrific gaming platform that’s still looking for the right games, which is a real shame. This split between traditional-genre games which could really have been done on any platform, and these exotic and fun, but light minigame collections, makes me think that maybe Wii developers should be more adventurous in how they design the larger games. We live in an age when the accepted genres have long been established, nothing at all like the glorious 80s, when they were still trying to figure out just what the hell they were trying to make, anyway. Publishers perceive nowadays that any departure from the norm is a grave financial risk. But the Wii’s best bet, I think, will be in radically different, out-of-the-box game design. The minigames obviously recognize this, and maybe some of the better minigames could become springboards to larger, deeper games. But I think it’ll be a while.

Even Traditional Games, Finally Done Right

One thing that has struck me, though, about playing even “traditional” games on the Wii, is that even when you’re playing the sorts of games that could’ve been done on the GameCube or PS2, it still feels more natural on the Wii than it would elsewhere. As I already mentioned, Super Mario Galaxy isn’t, at it’s core, a “Wii game”: you’re still moving mario with an analog stick, and pressing buttons (or swinging the remote in a way that could easily be replaced by a button). But, when I’m playing it, my hands are sitting relaxed at my side, or on the legs of my lap: they’ve been freed. If I were playing this on any other system, my hands would be forced together, both grasping the same controller, less than inches apart. And forced into a position so that the thumbs are pointing toward me (to grasp the analog sticks).

But, since the Wii has split the control across two controller components, my left hand, while manipulating an analog stick and a couple trigger-like buttons, can still be laying with the back of the hand up, the thumb and analog stick resting on the side, in total comfort. The right hand, likewise, can be in pretty much any position I want it to be, since it’s not forced to share cramped space with the left. Hell, I can even just lay lazily on the couch, with my left hand laying on the floor, and still deftly manipulate my digital avatar in complete, as I lay in maximum comfort. It’s such a subtle thing, but it feels so right.

It makes me think of the controller revolution that the original NES brought about. Before then, controllers were like Atari’s paddles and joysticks, where you basically used one hand to do the actual controlling, and the other hand was just to hold the friggin’ thing in place; or you had the Colecovision/Intellivision controllers, with awkward an difficult (even painful!) buttons on the sides, and actual numeric keypads on the front. Nobody did things that way anymore after NES demonstrated the obviously right way to do it. Everything that’s come after that has been a copy of, or an improvement upon, Nintendo’s original controller design (though, sadly, I wouldn’t call Nintendo’s hideous N64 or GameCube controllers “improvements”). I sincerely hope that the same will be true for the Wii’s control designs: it should be the foundation for everything that comes after it.

At this point, the Wii has lost it’s “glow factor” for me, and I’m able to spend my evenings doing more important things, with occasional breaks to play Wii (as opposed to Wii monopolizing my spare moments). I’m still looking for the game that will excite me, but expect it may take a while. I’m still glad I bought it, glad I have it; but it hasn’t abated my hunger for the truly great game, that these days seem to come about once or twice per year (last year’s were Aquaria and Portal, and probably BioShock), and last only days.