As Alan Ismail proved last month by suggesting it was time for Shigeru Miyamoto to leave Nintendo, it’s nigh on impossible to even hint at the idea of criticizing the gaming superpower without inviting a torrent of abuse from Mario fans who assume you’re a Sony sycophant or one of Bill’s buddies. It could simply be that nostalgia takes over. In America the Entertainment Software Association stated in a 2010 report that the average gamer was 35 years old and neither Sony nor Microsoft have the gaming pedigree of Nintendo. The first PlayStation was only released in 1994 and Microsoft didn’t jump in the market until 2001. By contrast, Nintendo have been producing consoles since the 70s and we’ve all seen the NES controller T-shirts emblazoned with, ‘know your roots’ about. It’s hard to compete with history particularly when we’re living in one of the most unimaginative times in years. Whether it be The A-Team, Conan, Total Recall, Doctor Who, Battlestar Galactica or Metal Gear Rising, companies are making money by looking to the past and rebooting. The Amazing Spider-man to be released next year is a remake of a film less than 10 years old. When Christopher Nolan is finished with Dark Knight Rises his next job is as producer on the revamp of the franchise. Retro is cool, remakes are popular and production is lazy. It could be argued that based on Super Mario Bros., Mario Kart and Zelda, Nintendo have been living off remakes for decades, only spicing things up in the last five years by encouraging Team America impersonations.
Personally I used to love the House of Nintendo. Weighing the same as an Irish Wolfhound and requiring a small nuclear power plant to run for more than three hours in a row, the original Game Boy (with more than a little help from Tetris) revolutionised the gaming world. Cheaper than an Atari Lynx or a Sega Game Gear, it didn’t matter that it didn’t have a colour screen because it was all about the games; a mentality Nintendo continues to espouse today. The Super Nintendo controller with four face buttons and the introduction of two shoulder buttons is still emulated today, so successful was its implementation. Modern hits like Call of Duty and Halo would be nothing if Goldeneye on the N64 hadn’t brought multi-player to the fore.
But then I used to like Asterix, Horrible Histories and wearing a football shirt in public and yet at some point in my teens, I went off all these things and it’s the same with Nintendo. Making a fat Italian jump on toadstools just wasn’t the same after I’d saved the world in Final Fantasy VIII or snapped a grown man’s neck in Metal Gear Solid.
There’s no question of Nintendo’s success with the Wii. It’s outsold the PS3 and 360 by over 30 million units, but the question is whether it’s really in competition with these two systems anymore.
There’s no question of Nintendo’s success with the Wii. It’s outsold the PS3 and 360 by over 30 million units, but the question is whether it’s really in competition with these two systems anymore. It’s the family console with deliberately child-like graphics and a vaguely amusing name for your niece to giggle at. The Game Critics Award for best console game hasn’t gone to something playable on a Nintendo device since 2005 when Zelda took it home for the GameCube. Critical and sales successes like Modern Warfare, Metal Gear Solid, Mass Effect, Grand Theft Auto and Bioshock are simply too advanced for the little white box. This is to say nothing of the fact that Wii Fit appeals to an entirely different type of person than Assassin’s Creed or Hitman do.
And yet neither the PlayStation 3 nor the Xbox 360 enjoy such fervent support outside of specialist online forums or secondary schools. It doesn’t appear to be an age gap issue. According to Nintendo, the average Wii player is 29 putting paid to the idea that it’s simply immature teenagers that are drawn to it. Certainly it’s not that players put more time and effort into Just Dance than they do Skyrim. So what’s the difference?
Put simply Nintendo is no longer simply a games or console developer, but a cult. Sony’s most famous product may well be the PlayStation but they’re a multi-national company that sells televisions, sound systems and MP3 players. Microsoft is a by-word for corporate, synonymous with the digestive biscuit of operating systems and a search engine no one can remember the name of without googling it. Nintendo is of course no different. With a market value over £55 billion it’s Japan’s third biggest company with corporate offices in nine markets around the globe and has been regularly sniped at by Greenpeace for having appalling environmental practices. But like Macs are cooler than PCs, Nintendo is cooler and thus more acceptable than its competitors. You can tell your new girlfriend you’ve got a Wii without fear of loss but tell her you enjoy marathon CoD sessions or have a level 70 mage on World of Warcraft and despite the growing number of female gamers, there’s a good chance you’ll have damaged your reputation with her.
Then there’s the controllers. Undoubtedly the idea of Dad looking like an idiot in the living room on Boxing Day ships a lot of Wiis which is of course what led Sony and Microsoft to try and emulate the format for business reasons, but the technology isn’t applicable to the biggest hits and the average gamer would still rather sit in their pants on the couch than gear up in the middle of the room hoping housemates, spouses or parents don’t walk in. Even if Wii was capable of supporting Skyrim, it’d need a new controller to ship with it.
You can tell your new girlfriend you’ve got a Wii without fear of loss but tell her you enjoy marathon CoD sessions or have a level 70 mage on World of Warcraft and despite the growing number of female gamers, there’s a good chance you’ll have damaged your reputation with her.
When it comes to games though, Wii players have something of a bunker mentality going on. Sony might have Uncharted and Microsoft can tout Halo but the majority of hits are available on both the PS3 and 360. Thinking objectively on it, there’s very little practical difference between the two consoles. Compare this to the top 5 selling games on the Wii. Wii Sports, Mario Kart Wii, Wii Sports Resort, Wii Play and Wii Fit. Look down the list and it’s not until you hit Guitar Hero III at #25 that you can find a game available on one of the other two consoles. In fact of the top fifty selling games on the console, only 5 can be played on a PlayStation or Xbox. This exclusivity won’t bother owners of the other two consoles either. Above Guitar Hero the word Mario appears 8 times (9 if you count Super Smash Bros. Brawl) and ‘Wii’ appears 10 times; these are the types of games that Gears of War fans will go out of their way to avoid.
The result of this is that among (for lack of a better term) ‘real gamers’, the Wii, its games and gamers are the subject of derision. Just like Jeremy Paxman looks down on people who only know Dvorak’s New World Symphony as ‘the Hovis music’ and bibliophiles are instantly suspiscious of people who use the phrase, ‘I don’t read books’, real gamers display a certain superiority when it comes to Wii players. When it comes to the 360 and PS3 systems, looking at the man in his thirties who owns an Xbox whilst his friend has a PS3, it’s not an issue because for the most part they will end up playing the exact same games. Ironically given its unprecedented width of appeal among the masses, the Wii is seen to cater to a niche market in gaming. Playing a Wii is arguably more like Monopoly than it is playing an Xbox or a PlayStation. It’s largely pointless on your own and an annual event with the family. There’s nothing wrong with that. Wiis are tremendously good fun with friends, but it simply isn’t gaming at the cutting edge. The level design, character development, script quality, score writing… none are at the same level as they are with the hits of the competitors. That’s a simple fact and the unfortunate truth is that far too often it can’t be separated by the recipient from the (usually absent) statement that the Wii itself is bad technology. It’s not and most commentators don’t suggest that it is. It just isn’t anything special.
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