As holiday shopping madness hits full stride, one longstanding entertainment powerhouse seems to have taken a backseat. Since launching in North America on Nov. 18, marking the release of Nintendo’s sixth home console, the Wii U has sold some 700,000 units. That's a far cry from the gaming giant's goal of moving 3.5 million Wii consoles, including the last of the six-year old Wii, by year's end. What gives?
With the arrival of the Nintendo Wii in 2006, the system's simple interface and the appeal of packed-in software hit Wii Sports, the legendary videogame company struck a chord with audiences the world over. With one fell swoop, Nintendo undid years of complexity that had scared so many away from gaming, replaced with intuitive motion controls and an interface that was easy to recognize and understand. This was in no small part thanks to simplified bowling and tennis mini-games.
Finally, games had come out of the basement to sit with the rest of the family. It was fun. Families across the world gathered to play Wii, which became synonymous with Wii Sports the way “Nintendo” became synonymous with Super Mario Bros.--26 years ago.
Despite all of the Wii’s success, its biggest failure was that it never took the bowling masses and gave them a meatier experience that they would actually purchase or play. This new casual audience was subjected to a motion gaming smorgasbord, where Wii Fit and Wii Play slid into your disc tray while Nintendo smuggled plastic bathroom scales into your home, all under the guise of revolutionary gameplay.
Sony and Microsoft jumped in with HD equivalents. Apple continued its relentless march from Cupertino armed with touchscreens and Angry Birds. The “revolution” had become true, and then wistfully forgotten by Nintendo.
Case in point being 2011’s Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword. Heralded to be the swansong of the Wii, it took all of the new ways of playing created by Wii Sports and the like and plucked them into a full traditional action-adventure epic. You bowled the bombs. You lobbed your sword. You shook your fist to raise your shield? It was arguably a bit of a mess, but more importantly: No one gave a shit.
It sold 3.46 million copies, noticeably lower than even its Zelda Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) predecessors, but barely a notch in the Wii’s install base, with about 3.5 percent (of the 97.21 percent of Wii systems sold) of Wii owners having Skyward Sword in their library. While some of the blame could be attributed to Robin Williams, Nintendo waged too much, too late in the Wii’s console cycle.
Nintendo waited until the last possible moment to merge their now divergent audiences, on hallowed ground to boot. The traditional core and the Wii-born casual were wed in holy matrimony through Skyward Sword’s perfect application of motion-control gameplay.
It was an arranged marriage. Zelda fans caught their second glimpse of tarnished gold, as the franchise continues its slow decline. Nintendo seems to be attempting to recapture 1998’s Ocarina of Time by continuously reiterating the game’s “epicness”.
Has Nintendo accepted that 2000’s Majora’s Mask and 2003’s Wind Waker were wrongful experiments? Eiji Aonuma appears to struggle at the helm of the Zelda franchise. Wherein his first two efforts were triumphant, Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword feel somewhat like a three-way compromise between appealing to the noisy hardcore fans crying about how un-Ocarina the last entry was, “look at the figures” pressure from Nintendo execs, and Aonuma’s own vision for the series. All parties seemed to have left a bit disappointed after Skyward Sword.
As Nintendo prepares to have lightning strike again, the Wii U needs to bring some software that has some real universal appeal, like Wii Sports. They might point to their launch lineup, but it seems an unlikely offering. Nintendo Land isn’t the answer for one important reason--namely, they never got the new Wii audiences interested in their flagship franchises. This has resulted in motion mini-games based on Pokemon, Zelda, and Metroid having little to no appeal outside the traditional Nintendo fan, who in turn has little interest in motion controls.
An effort placed on bringing those casual audiences deeper into the world of games is due, for the sake of the future of videogames. Wii Sports, Wii Fit, and Wii Play franchises were all missed opportunities when it came to incorporating traditional game elements. Meanwhile, core audiences quickly grew tired of them.
Had Nintendo used their enormous install base for a more substantive motion experience, new audiences might have had more interest in the stories and characters that made Nintendo a household name in the first place. Instead, all the inertia from these motion controls were poured into a botched experiment in Skyward Sword, which failed to merge the now rapidly spinning plates of a half-baked motion revolution and the loyal traditional gaming hardcore.
Follow Colin at @scallopdelion.