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6

The Age of Wii

The Wii was meant to be invisible, to blend in with our daily lives and routines. With the release of its successor, the Wii U, it’s time to look again at Nintendo’s little white box.

The man was hovering over a box, looking awkwardly in at its jumbled contents. “It’s a videogame thing, is it?” he asked.

“Yeah, it’s a Nintendo Wii,” replied the young girl behind the stall. She looked about 16. “It’s $60 for all of it.” There were several controllers and game cases all stuffed into the box with the console.

“And I just plug it into my TV?”

“Yeah, it’s got this sensor thing, too,” she said, digging into the jumbled mess to produce the Wii’s black sensor bar. “You have to put that in front, but it’s pretty easy.”

“Well, okay. The kids will figure that out. $60?” He got out his wallet.

The girl was visibly excited, and began to fish the shoe box out from underneath the collection of Barbie dolls, tennis balls, and other childhood ephemera at the garage sale.

“Thank you so much,” she said. He gave her the money.

“Thank you so much,” she repeated.

I put my own Wii into a box in a cupboard several weeks ago. It was time, after what must have quite literally been years of denial, to admit that I was never going to play it again. The fact of the matter was that I, like many I know, hadn’t touched it for more than a few days since sometime in 2008.

This isn’t necessarily an indictment on the console. The fact that many Wiis lived out their lives unloved and unpowered next to television sets tells us relatively little. With the recent release of the Wii’s successor, the Wii U, maybe we can start to think about the life and death of the Wii a little more seriously.

*

More so than any game, it’s the Wii’s little white plastic remote that entered pop culture.

The enduring image of the Wii is not of Link soaring above the clouds on a bird in The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, and it’s not of Samus narrating to herself in Metroid: Other M. It’s not even of four Miis trading shots across a tennis court, though that must surely come close.

The enduring image of the Wii is of photogenic people holding Wii remotes and smiling, looking into an imagined television set. Gazing outward onto these advertising scenes, we note the diverse selection of players and just how non-traditional the scene is. The Wii was nothing if not an excuse for the feigned discovery that people other than young men could love videogames.

But the console-point-of-view also has the effect of leaving the Wii unseen. The very thing that is being advertised is actually not present at all in these scenes. It’s easy to forget that this is what Nintendo wanted—to regain a place in living rooms by erasing the console itself.

Herein lies the great paradox of the Wii’s lifetime, and perhaps the explanation for why most Wii consoles eked out a slow death of unused existence. In the process of erasing the console, they multiplied it. Nintendo made the invisible, visible.

The Wii remote was supposed to disappear. It was supposed to let players into the game world in a way they’d never experienced before, by translating their physical thrusts and swings and flails into digital commands. It was supposed to be natural, empowering those who were otherwise intimidated by the plethora of buttons on a standard controller. If you know how to play tennis, so the line went, you know how to play tennis for Wii. Out were the intimidating thorns-of-buttons of old; in was the new play.

Beyond the mind of the player, the controller was supposed to be invisible, designed to look at home alongside television remotes—a kind of urban camouflage for the living room. Here was a videogame controller in disguise, concealed in plain view.

It is easy to forget that there was once a time where Nintendo imagined that the Wii would slot into the rhythms of daily life. Users would get up in the morning, have their cup of coffee, switch over to the Wii, and check the weather and the news. These things were sold as channels, and in this light the Wii itself became an extension of the television set. Here was your new remote, and here was your new set of channels to navigate. It was not the aim of the Wii to redesign life, but to extend it through a set of casual metaphors that would melt away once the Wii gained traction. The television was not replaced. It was upgraded.

Is it any surprise, then, that it was the little white remote that became the icon, rather than any images on screen?

There it was, next to my television remote and my DVD player controller, blending in, comfortably at home.

There it was, in my mind’s eye, being held by four attractive young people as they looked at the console-point-of-view, smiling, enjoying their own company as much as the Wii’s.

There it stayed, virtually unplayed for four years.

Yet few other consoles have been as defined by their sense of touch. The Wii remote is a slightly stubby, almost plain little device, but it is perfectly sculpted for most hands. It is a pleasurable thing to hold, and in this way, what was intended to be invisible becomes visible—we think as much about this thing in our hand as we do our in-game gestures.

So the era of the Wii was not one of Boom Blox, of de Blob or of Super Mario Galaxy.

It was the era of your middle finger on ‘B’ underneath, your thumb on top of the ‘A’. It was the sharp clack of a wristband colliding with hard plastic. It was the satisfying density of the protective sheathes that later Wii remotes were provided with.

It was the conduit-like remote, too, a connection for nunchucks, for classic controllers, and for the dumpy little Wii Motion Plus box, a reminder that the basic task for which the remote was designed—capturing gestures—could only be properly fulfilled three years after the fact. And it was a conduit for movement, too, some kind of weird promise for the future.

It was the era of four people laughing and smiling and pointing their little white remotes at the us, the console, the thing that was supposed to be invisible that ended up being at the forefront of everything. It is for this reason that the Wii U is an interesting change in tack for Nintendo—it is not another gesture towards (failed) invisibility, but a conscious multiplication of visibility, with its use of Wii remotes and a very present touch screen device.

In the end, it was the very idea of the Wii that captured the public imagination so fluently. No game and no amount of hours spent with the console could ever hope to compete with that.

6

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  • 1
    Posted December 10, 2012 at 5:06 pm | Permalink

    So Dan, why did they all end up in cupboards?
    (genuinely interested in your answer)

  • 2
    Posted December 10, 2012 at 5:57 pm | Permalink

    …was supposed to let players into the game world in a way they’d never experienced before, by translating their physical thrusts and swings and flails into digital commands. It was supposed to be natural…

    It was a great idea, but the problem with this was two fold:

    1) The hardware wasn’t up to the task. Point your remote away from the screen and you lose fidelity. And as someone who worked on a Wii Star Wars game, you can understand our frustration – what should have been a PERFECT match to sell games and consoles fell drastically short of expectation because you couldn’t hold the wiimote like a lightsaber.

    2) Nintendo enforced unnatural movement into games which didn’t need it. Not only was the Wiimote necessary to operate ALL games, the “waggle” was required on ALL games. This meant, in games like Indiana Jones for example, instead of having simple timed button presses, you had to do ridiculous movements of the controller (which, again, were severely lacking in fidelity) so what should have been an incredibly fun game came out as one of the worst on the console.

  • 3
    (the other) HR Nicholls
    Posted December 10, 2012 at 8:37 pm | Permalink

    Yes, the vagueness of the Wiimote killed it for me when using a friend’s one – OK for Wii bowling but I just haaaaated Mario Kart and the lack of precision.

  • 4
    Mr Ak
    Posted December 11, 2012 at 9:23 pm | Permalink

    Nice piece, and an interesting point regarding the imagery.

    But I’ve got another view of the Wii, which I’ve only just realised. The Wii’s a lavalamp. Slightly nifty, but ultimately merely emblematic of a very specific time and culture, separated from the broader continuity of culture. Maaybe.

    You watch. In thirty years time, the sczhwipsters will be buying wiis to ironically decorate their college dorm rooms.

    (And yes, “college dorm rooms” is semiotically identical in both Australian and US context, albeit by a different process.)

  • 5
    Ruprecht
    Posted December 12, 2012 at 4:27 pm | Permalink

    I’ve never played a Wii, but my opinion is …

    jokes. nice piece. I feel justified never having played one now.

  • 6
    Joel Bateman
    Posted December 14, 2012 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

    FunkyJ:

    You’re not wrong about those two problems, but I think that the third one, which maybe is more important than your second one, was the shortage of decent software.

    Other than the most-prominent Nintendo games (things with Mario, Wario, Zelda or Donkey Kong in the title, plus a few others), there was really not many great Wii games. Certainly some (including Boom Blox & de Blob, as mentioned), but to own a Wii was knowing that there would only be a couple of decent games each year – and even that slowed down badly in the last couple of years.

    And, like handhelds, the Wii probably suffered more from the rise in iphones/ipads than other consoles.

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