The list of frivolous things that have continued to hold my interest since age eight is relatively brief: “The Simpsons,” the Detroit Red Wings and Nintendo. That’s it. Michigan State basketball (I was brainwashed), “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” “Home Improvement,” Sega Game Gear – I’ve moved on from these things. But I’ve held on to the others and likely will for a long time, which is why it’s difficult to admit that one of my nearly lifelong interests has gone astray. Nintendo, I love you, but your latest venture just isn’t doing it for me.

Julie Rowe
The look of a man in need of change. (COURTESY OF NINTENDO)

I know sales figures and an informal poll of soccer moms shopping for birthday presents at Best Buy would suggest otherwise, but the Nintendo Wii is a failure. Sorry, but it is. Not in terms of interest or financial numbers, but the Wii has failed to deliver on its intended purpose. The Wii was supposed to be the anti-video game video game console: Graphics and buttons were out; interactive gameplay was in. The system hasn’t flopped in the sense that Virtual Boy flopped – there are legitimately good, borderline-great games available for it – but the Wii sacrificed HD visuals and a consistently competent controller for one that sometimes works for certain things. Nintendo’s jacked-up TV remote was supposed to revolutionize the industry, but here we are 16 months after it launched, and two things are clear: Third-party developers aren’t interested in learning to develop for the hardware, and Nintendo is slowly inching away from it. Thus, I present to you the case against Nintendo Wii:

Exhibit A: Third-party support. Since Nintendo 64 launched in 1996, Nintendo has had a difficult time coaxing quality games out of third-party software manufacturers. Because producing games on cartridges wasn’t economical and scared developers away, N64’s software library paled in comparison to that of the original Sony PlayStation. A few years later, the Nintendo GameCube came along. With its miniature controllers and CDs, it too failed to draw in many of the titles that Xbox and PS2 did. But with the Wii, it seems things have started to change for the house that Mario built. The Wii library is still substantially smaller than Xbox 360’s or PS3’s, but Nintendo is finally regaining support from most third-party manufacturers. The problem: The games are not good. It’s that simple.

It was clear at the Wii’s launch that developing games that effectively utilized the Wii Remote was going to be difficult. “Wii Sports” was the only launch title able to truly harness Nintendo’s new controller, but it was only a collection of basic mini-games. When the Wii launched, the consensus was that though it would take a little while for developers to figure out the new hardware, eventually non-Nintendo developers would learn how to use the console. Unfortunately, this has not happened. At the moment there are less than five worthwhile Wii games that were developed outside Nintendo’s umbrella. “Guitar Hero III” is solid, but it came with its own hardware, doesn’t offer downloadable content and doesn’t even include stereo sound – and it’s a music game. The “Madden” series has been half-decent, but it’s still not nearly as deep as the PS3 and Xbox 360 builds. And then there’s – shit, that’s about it.

The issue with the other titles is that it seems developers still don’t know how to use Nintendo’s console. Sports games that should be using the Wii Remote to provide 1:1 gameplay are instead porting over GameCube games and swapping out the A button for a shake of the controller to make it “interactive.” Shooters, racing games, action games – nothing has seemed to work that wasn’t birthed by Nintendo.

Exhibit B: Nintendo is inching away from its controller. Since the holiday season, Nintendo has released two major titles that were both undeniably good. “Super Mario Galaxy” and “Super Smash Bros. Brawl” are superior to anything a third-party developer has conjured for the system, and both validate purchasing a Wii for lifelong Nintendo kids. However, both of these games could have been just as good on any other video game console. What made “Super Mario Galaxy” great was its innovative level design, in-game physics and nostalgic appeal. The Remote was used to pick up little items and a few mini-game levels, but it didn’t really enhance the game. “Brawl” doesn’t even use the Wii’s motion-sensing capabilities, but instead utilizes traditional control schemes, basically encouraging players to dig out their GameCube controllers. And on Apr. 27, when “Mario Kart Wii” is released, it will let gamers choose between a movement-based steering configuration and a GameCube controller. From a consumer’s standpoint, it’s positive that Nintendo is offering multiple controller configurations with its new games, but on some level, it’s also an admission of guilt. The Wii’s controls can be useful with certain games, but more often than not, the system ends up holding software back more than pushing the industry forward.

All of this poses an interesting question that isn’t going to make a certain crowd happy, but it still needs to be addressed. Would it be best for gamers – all things considered – if Nintendo abandoned the hardware industry and stuck to making software? After all, software, not hardware, is what the company has always done right. I’ve never met someone who legitimately enjoyed using a GameCube or Nintendo 64 controller, but anyone who grew up with a Nintendo console has some kind of attachment to the franchises the company has generated over the last 20 years. Almost everyone I know who has purchased a Wii has done so because Nintendo’s software is consistently good, yet knowing they’re not going to find much else of interest from other developers. And if “Galaxy” and “Brawl” – and possibly “Mario Kart Wii” – could be just as good on, say, Xbox 360, with the added benefit of HD visuals and more thorough online infrastructure, would it be so bad if Nintendo kids who also like playing other video games only had to invest in one system? Considering how well the Wii has sold, this isn’t going to happen. Still, I’m having a hard time believing the current industry setup – which basically requires gamers to buy a Nintendo system and a more well-rounded system – is hurting everyone but Nintendo.

Sega’s blue hedgehog has been floating around other platforms for years now. Maybe Mario could use a change of scenery, too.

Passman is actually a Microsoft operative. E-mail him at mpass@umich.edu.

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