This week I packed up my Nintendo Wii and handed it over to her majesty’s Royal Mail, entrusting them to deliver it safely to my nephews 400 miles away. It’ll be their first console, care of Saint Nick.
It felt odd dusting it off and testing it all worked, but most of all deleting all my save data. Let’s be clear; bar a covid cameo to pass the lockdown hours it’s been up in the loft with its 90’s console brethren for years now. Still, the data purge brought an anxiety similar to when I consider deleting my Twitter account to escape the misery, madness and hatred. Although it’s almost entirely superfluous, isn’t part of it somehow part of me?
It got me thinking back to what a moment the Wii’s release was, and how it felt like a new dawn for gaming. A dawn that ultimately feels false now, certainly in terms of a mainstream understanding of what games are, what they do and how they work as entertainment and within wider culture, but still… it was something.
The Wii was released for Christmas 2006. Around that time, I visited a work colleague who had bought up 4 or 5 in anticipation of them becoming a much sought after item. She was right and they started selling at vastly inflated prices on eBay. After a drunken night of playing the bowling game that formed part of Wii Sports, the game pre-packaged with every console, she sold me one at cost price – that was how I spent my one and only Christmas bonus.
As someone of the generation brought up on the built-in simplicity of N64 and Gamecube multiplayer as opposed to the alien world of modems, LANs and QuakeNet, this core pick-up-and-play-in-the-same-room approach chimed instantly. The key difference in terms of the wider engagement was the additional simplicity and intuitiveness of the control method. As a medium, gaming suffers as there has to be an element of learning undertaken to play most modern games. You don’t have to learn a new language to read a book, or learn how to watch Theatre – at least, up until really advanced forms of those media. Every game needs you to learn the controls and how you interact with the world.
The Wii and Wii Sports removed that barrier. If a friend calls round, they can be playing in less than five minutes. In fact, it took longer to make their personalised Mii than learn the games.
This was huge in terms of the Wii being a focal point for friend and family units engaging with gaming. To the point where even my Dad – a man without an email address and only begrudgingly carrying a phone around with him – got into it and borrowed it for my parents New Year’s Eve parties.
I wonder now though if the moment was smaller than the Wii, and simply boiled down to that game and that controller. The success of Wii Sports led to many, many mini-game packs attempting to build on its strengths. But where Wii Sports carefully balanced accessibility with at least some elements of depth, these were as shallow as games come and felt like the equivalent of the rush of 3D horror films that only used the technique for jump-scares; turning an exciting advancement into a novelty, then wearing it out as quickly as possible.
Wii Sports was like the perfect debut album that says everything an artist needs to say, but it’s success dictates they must carry on trying to re-invent a wheel they already perfected.
I got mileage out of my Wii. The Mario games, especially Super Mario Galaxy 1 and 2, were excellent. But as I think back now, there aren’t any real standouts – and certainly none of a multiplayer variety. A quick check of the “best Wii Games” online-only brings a range of titles I barely remember or have never heard of.
The Nintendo Wii is regarded as a hugely successful and innovative console. But as I consider it today, in a world where gaming is the largest form of entertainment and culture when measured by almost any parameter, I’m surprised by its lack of influence.
Gaming still largely remains a medium where you get it or you don’t. Where you do it or you don’t. And it’s a thing I can’t really explain to someone who doesn’t do it, or even to someone who played games in an era before ‘gamer’ was a term. Where their knowledge is Resident Evil 1 on the Playstation or all night Goldeneye sessions – it’s somehow become one of the largest aspects of our culture whilst remaining conceptually out of touch for so many people.
Instead of the Wii being a turning point where the mainstream came to accept gaming, it instead feels like a point where it diverged. Perhaps the legacy of the Wii, or those millions of experiences had on Wii Sports, was the rise of mobile gaming; free to play, easy to understand, shallow experiences. Or perhaps it was Fortnite, Apex Legends and the rest; games that take the place of social spaces in the real world and the language of access and control is just something that most of my generation or older have missed the boat on. Things progress, they live happily on the shore.
I’m excited to hear how my nephews get on with the Wii. It’s a great thing and I adore Nintendo’s creative genius in its approach to its products. I hope this slightly battered console is a doorway to a medium that is full of wonder and endless possibilities and not a flash in the pan moment of novelty that passes, like some new app, viral challenge or Instagram filter.