I have a habit of buying consoles either when they are on their way out of their useful lifespan or after the fact: as it was with my PlayStation 2, it was with my Xbox; as it was with my Megadrive, it was with my NES. The most recent belated gear acquisition I have made was that of a Nintendo Wii – a purchase surprising even to myself given my past of being sceptical of the appeal of the Wii, in spite of Nintendo’s design of the time that it sought to get “new people playing games.”
My reasons for dismissing the Wii were manifold, with the most profound objection coming from the revisionary design of the controller: something that is not to be held in two hands, something for which buttons are not the primary method of input. Given Nintendo’s history with “innovation” regarding input devices (the travesty that was the Power Glove is indicative of what I’m getting at here), I expected imprecision, a lack of developers actually taking up the Wiimote as a primary input and instead using the console’s GameCube controller ports to provide control for the games, or even worse, just using the buttons on the Wiimote, with some tacked-on motion-sensitive gestures to control some superfluous function. The launch titles did little to convince me otherwise: many of the games just pointed to the use of the motion sensitivity as a gimmick. Wii Sports and Wii Play are good examples of this: rather than, in the case of Wii Sports’ tennis, the motion control being used to increase the level of immersion in a game corresponding to “real-world” activity, it seemed more to me that it was a case of saying “look, look what we can do now!” – technology for the sake of technology. As well as this, the fears of imprecision I had turned out to be well founded until the introduction of Wii MotionPlus as an add-on for the Wiimote: the console seemed to be agnostic as to the details of movement and just captured the general direction of motion. On a system premised upon natural movement, it was unacceptable to have such a cavalier attitude the representation of motion. The Wii also had the problem of looking like a poor relation to Microsoft’s and Sony’s next-generation offerings: both the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 promised high-quality graphics at either 720p or 1080p and greater online content, while the Wii only offered Nintendo’s online ecosystem and standard definition resolutions which were, at this point, definitely things of yesteryear.
Time was to show that I was wrong about developers only casually using the motion detection and reverting to traditional methods of control: Ubisoft’sRed Steel demonstrated that the Wiimote was apt for controlling fast-paced action games and did so intuitively – you move your arm, you move your aim; sword combat was achieved by the use of the Wiimote as if it were a sword. This degree of control was further improved with the aforementioned development of the Wii MotionPlus. I personally started playing a lot of previous-generation games and realised that the graphical fidelity of the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 did little to cover up a certain lack of ingenuity in new video games – brown and bloom looks the same in any resolution. Having heard much of innovation on the Wii, it had come time to swallow my pride and perhaps accept that I was wrong more generally about the notion of motion control: the controller paradigm is approaching thirty years old, in an industry approximately that age – it may have been that times were changing, especially with even Sony and Microsoft releasing motion controllers for their platforms.
The innovation I had read about, however, was not happening in the larger development houses, outside of Nintendo and Grasshopper Manufacture, it was in the homebrew community. This is hardly surprising: a new toy like the Wiimote would be loved in the circles of bedroom hackers anxious just to see what they can do with the technology. The novelty here is that the access to homebrew (admittedly, not mandated by Nintendo) is not solely being used to develop emulators for older consoles or for piracy, as was the case with the PlayStation Portable – there is genuine game development happening here. Helium Boy is a deceptively simple game, aping the Game Boy game Balloon Kid, but it feels so wonderful to play with the Wiimote – not necessarily original idea, but it is executed with the charm that only a bedroom developer could manage. Equally, Portii, a 2D homage to Portal, manages to excel the already charming original purely by virtue of its rudimentary, back-to-basics nature.
Of course, aside from homebrew gems, there are plenty of fantastic games to choose from on the console. As always, the first-party Nintendo games are solid and the Wiimote does lend surprisingly well to controlling both Mario and Link in the Zelda series. Okami, though not a Wii original, is better on the platform by virtue of the motion controls: the mechanic of the celestial brush becomes far more accessible when one is able to actually control the brush as a brush. While my misgivings about third-party developer support were proven to be mistaken, I still think that you look more of an idiot playing a Wii game than using a controller and pressing buttons to control a game. My dignity is something I’m not quite ready to give up.