The Play’s the Thing

The Memory Be Green

“Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar.”

It was the last forty-six days of the first year of the new millennium, yet the world was strangely new. Two months prior, it had been melted down and hammered into something  unrecognizable from the world I’d known–unrecognizable, unfamiliar, and wholly unappealing. Without going into too much needlessly reminiscent detail, things blew up, things fell down, and things kind of sucked for a while, but as nature and free markets are wont to prove, nothing sucks forever.

During those forty-six days, two glorious rays of sunshine burst through the clouds at precisely the right time, illuminating the gloom-addled gaming mindscape within three short days of each other; the Xbox was launched on November 15th, and the GameCube on November 18th, and with that, the last two participants in the sixth-generation marathon had arrived. For good or ill, the race was on.

Buried amidst the dross and dreck of the GameCube’s 2001 holiday chart-squatters, there shined a shiny demon. If Halo was the reason most avid gamers bought an Xbox that year, then Rogue Leader, in all its bump-mapped, heat-distorted, what-the-hell’s-a-B-Wing glory, was the reason many of us bought a GameCube. It was all the best of the original trilogy, right there in your living room, on your TV, depicted in a way that we’d never seen before; accurately, beautifully, and without the thousand pounds of unconscionable baggage that games are saddled with today–no ridiculous online-access codes to be punched in, no intrusive cutscenes, no strength taps, no quick-press events, no locked-room missions, and best of all, no fucking gungans. It was everything a launch title should be, and it hinted at great things to come from Nintendo’s pretty purple box.

So here we are, balanced on the cusp of yet another system launch by Nintendo, and in spite of my oft-repeated dislike for the Wii, I must admit to feeling a kind of giddy, childlike, nostalgic anticipation.

What? What’s that you say? Why yes, thanks, I am just that stupid. So kind of you to notice.

How Weary, Stale, Flat, and Unprofitable…

There is no Rogue Leader for the Wii. There is no game that sells the system to geeks like me, someone who grew up with a 2600 controller in one hand and an X-Wing in the other, and whose prepubescent passions consisted entirely of Things To Be Done Indoors™; basically, if it was created by George Lucas or Nolan Bushnell, I was there. Twice.

This seems to contradict Nintendo’s assertion that the Wii is for everyone, as indicated by Iwata’s admission that they tried to go “wide” with its development. If “wide” doesn’t include people who’ve been buying your stuff since they were eleven years old, who does it include? Eight year olds and eighty year olds, apparently, as the Wii Remote was designed to keep grandma from filling her Depends at the daunting prospect of pressing more than one button to make Mario hit a tennis ball.

On Nintendo’s own website, the Wii is being marketed as “more than a game machine. Wii is social and active entertainment that brings the whole family together. Power-up your family game night with the Wii system.” (Emphasis mine.) If there was ever a reason why the formerly-Caspar-Milquetoast-now-dashingly-Steve-Erkel console is regarded as “casual,” this is it; the folks who comprise the elusive demographic known as “core” gamers (meaning people who’ll spend money on games before they’ll buy socks) are not inherently social, they’re not very active, and they could give less than a watery Goomba turd about something as inane as “family game night.” (We had “family game night” while I was growing up, but most of the “games” consisted of such time-honored, wholesome activities as “Pin the Tail on the Passive-Aggressive Jackass” and “Red Rover: Hidden Rake In The Tall Grass Edition.”)

Now before you get your toadstools in a twist and write in to complain about the seemingly inaccurate “social” component of my assessment, realize that online gaming and “social” gaming are not the same thing. Anything that I can do in the comfort of my own living room while wearing nothing but a fine dusting of nacho cheese powder and Code Red stains is not a social activity. Social means: A) other people are in the room, and B) you’ve showered at some point since Bill Clinton left office, albeit reluctantly, and probably only because of A. As anyone who’s actually played a game on Xbox Live can attest, online gaming is about as antisocial as any legal activity can be.

I don’t play games to be social, and I don’t play games to make friends. I play games because I’m patently unsocial, and because games offer a way for me to escape into a world in which I can talk to the people (NPCs) I want to talk to, and shoot-stab-bludgeon-choke-set fire-to the rest. I play games for the enjoyment of doing something on my own, without the constant need to deal with the vast and unappetizing vagaries of others, which I receive, unbidden, virtually all day long. I play games for my own enjoyment, the disposal of which I do not place in the hands of anyone else, unless the person with whom I’m playing is the standard of why I’m playing. That’s okay from time to time, but if it’s your system’s raison d’être, you’re not going to attract those people who live at the center of your circle of potential customers, who won’t desert you during those times when all you’ve released in the last six months is a Zelda game with more aliasing issues than Jennifer Garner; in other words, the core gamers.

You cannot remove the game from gaming and expect to attract anyone with more than a casual interest in its implementation; selling the prospect of playing with others is going to lead to high hardware sales and a low attach rate, as all of the people who bought a Wii in 2006 and 2007, when it was the flavor of the month, have moved on to Angry Birds and Draw Something. People will come for the hardware, but stay for the games, and there…there’s the rub; like the Wii itself, most of its games are designed for breadth, not depth. As a result, software sales, along with Nintendo’s third-party royalties, drop off considerably.

“That it should come to this!”

Somewhere along the line, Iwata and Nintendo decided to concede the fight for the hardcore gamer (most of my socks have holes in them, how ’bout yours?) to Sony and Microsoft, and go after those who’ve never held a controller before. And that’s fine. What’s not fine is that this shortsighted strategy has landed Nintendo in hot water.

Regardless of what most Wii developers will tell you, the full-body dry heave is not an essential component of good gameplay. I don’t want to slice, dice, wipe, perambulate, slash or sashay my way through any game, regardless of how many professional review outlets exclaim at the sight of the emperor’s stately raiment. I neither need nor want the exercise of swinging a virtual golf club (!), or imitating any of the activities which I’m trying to avoid by, you know, staying the hell inside the house. These might seem like nitpicking complaints, but I actually have a very short list of desires when it comes to designing games for a system like the Wii, along with some hardware preferences, which I’ve enumerated below.

1. We’re all gonna be a lot thinner… Otherwise known as the “don’t make me stand up” rule. Every TV commercial or print advertisement you’ve seen for the Wii, like the one above, shows a bunch of drooling morons gathered around the TV (disconcertingly filmed or photographed from the TV’s point-of-view), each of them grinning as though he just nipped the last vial of Thorazine from Dr. Mario’s medicine cabinet. If this is what “social gaming” does to you, I’ll sit my ass down and wait for the next bus to Stepford while I play my Vita, thanks. Everything worth doing is done sitting down. Seriously.

2. Control, control, you must learn control! This is big. I don’t want to use the large, imprecise muscles in my forearm for tasks which are better suited to the fine motor function of my thumb. I don’t want to swing the Remote in order to run, jump, or slash, and I don’t want to jerk the Nunchuk around the room like a spastic capuchin in order to open a door. Immersion is a product of what occurs on the screen, not what happens in front of it; using the Wii Remote to aim in games like Goldeneye and Conduit 2 is fine, but it would be better if the Wii Remote was shaped a little more like a hand and less like something you’d find at a proctologist’s garage sale.

3. And you said it was pretty here… This has reportedly been addressed in the development of the Wii U, but HD output is essential. It is a deal-breaker. Non-negotiable, even. No questions need to be asked about the desertion of Nintendo by the “core” gamer when my cell phone is capable of displaying images at higher resolution than is the Wii. Those of you who like to look at ugly shit while you’re having fun, go ahead and take pride in the fact that you’re not “graphics whores,” but me, I like pretty pictures, and I’m not going to apologize for it by underselling their importance; graphics cannot redeem an unplayable game, but they sure can screw up an otherwise good one.

3b. Give yourself to the dark side… Okay, this is a small thing, but I include it for the sake of aesthetics; if I have to carry it around in my pocket, I’d like it to be white. A white DS, a white iPhone, a white Vita…all good. If it sits next to the TV, though, I’d like it to be black. That’s it. Go ahead and do all the crazy extra Rainbow Brite colors that you want (spice, platinum, indigo, snowball, tarragon, mutton, and Steve), but if there’s not a jet in there somewhere, I’m not interested. When it comes to computers and game consoles, black stuff says “You don’t…know…the power…” while white stuff says “I’m Luke Skywalker, I’m here to rescue you!”  Who would you rather leave with if you had to fight your way out?

The issue that occurred to me after reading and watching this is that of all the things that caused most Wii games to skitter to the periphery of core gamers’ consciousness, only one has changed with the development of the Wii U, and that’s HD support. The unique tablet touchscreen of the Wii U controller is likely to have the same stifling effect on the Wii U software that the Wii Remote did on the Wii software; it’s going to force a mechanic into games that would be better served with traditional control schemes. (Tell me, why is holding the admittedly low-res screen of the Wii U controller in front of my 40-inch HDTV in order to catch a baseball better than manipulating an on-screen avatar?) This is still defining your system by its non-essential elements, which means that you hold the manner in which the end-user interacts with your software in higher regard than you hold the software itself, which results in…anyone?

It results in an artificially high adoption rate, based on the gratuitous, superficial innovation of a controller with a touchscreen, followed by a flood of shitty, unplayable software and the inevitable (though predictable) crash that results from a low attach rate.  This is exactly what happened with the Wii–95 million units shipped and your company lost a billion dollars last year? Something is seriously wrong. Might it have something to do with the fact that no one wants to jump around like a four-year-old on Red Bull and Reese’s Pieces in order to play your games? Or that in your staggering foresight you neglected to include HD support on a system that was released in 2006?

Either way, if Nintendo are to survive, they must change the way they approach the development of their hardware; stop trying to attain the effect without the cause, which means: stop trying to be different for the sake of being different. Nintendo’s difference, the thing which made them stand out from the countless imitators and pretenders, is their software. It’s Mario, Metroid, and Pokemon, Pilotwings and Donkey Kong. They are the destination, yet somewhere this was lost. The how usurped the what, which inverts the proper hierarchy of any creative concern, and always, always rains destruction upon the heads of everyone involved.

As I’ve said before, content–the game, the music, the media–is king, and everything else is but a means to that ultimate, irreplaceable end. Everyone loves to point out that it was the iPod that launched Apple into its parabolic arc of profitability, with a second-stage boost from the iPhone and iPad, but what they neglect to mention is that until the iTunes store went live, the iPod was just another MP3 player. It was music–content–that sold the iPod, and apps that sold the iPhone. It’s not, and never can be, the other way around.

The Rest is Silence

I’ve made no secret of my distaste for the Wii and everything that it represents (false innovation, contrived simplicity, a subjective social standard in game development), so why do I give a shit if Nintendo goes the way of Sega and becomes a software developer, or disappears entirely? For the same reason that I might experience a kind of generic remorse to see a stranger begging in the street, but be moved to flaming outrage if that person were someone I’ve known for twenty-five years. Because I once watched a woman play Super Mario Brothers in her pajamas, and laugh until tears streamed down her face. Because of iNinja and a platinum GameCube. Just…because.

Too many good things have disappeared from the world while I’ve been alive. Too many funny people have died, too many tall buildings have fallen, and too many things have ended that didn’t need to end, either because of stupidity or greed or bad luck or just plain fucking evil. Some things and some people deserve to go away. Some companies deserve to go under. Others don’t.

Nintendo have made mistakes, some of them maddening, and they’re not the same company that they used to be, but they once launched a much-appreciated diversion when a lot of people needed just such a diversion, when people (myself included) needed color and fun and space battles and a reason to think that nothing was quite as bad as it seemed. In an age gone stale with the worship of destruction and decay, Nintendo is an unapologetic purveyor of the hope that things can be better tomorrow.

And in my world, regardless of how much it’s changed, that still counts for a lot.

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