Road to the Wii U Part 3 – A Nintendo Retrospective

The Nintendo Wii U is nearly upon us, to celebrate Word of the Nerd Online is taking a look back at the road to the Wii U in a Nintendo hardware retrospective. In case you missed the first two episodes, click here to bone up on the history of Nintendo’s first two consoles and here for their first steps into 3D gaming.

At the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) in May 2001 Nintendo revealed the successor to the Nintendo 64 (N64). Nintendo was lagging behind the ill-fated Dreamcast and the PlayStation 2 (PS2), both of which were already on the market with impressive technology to back them up. Nintendo again chose a proprietary format to fend off possible piracy with the console that had been given the codename ‘Dolphin’. The new format were optical discs, most notable for being about 2/3 the physical size of a standard DVD.

Nintendo revealed the new hardware was called GameCube. It was the first console released under the new Nintendo president Satoru Iwata, who continues to lead Nintendo into the release of the Wii U. As such, many of the key points in the GameCube announcement presentation mirror those of the Wii U. Above the stage hung a banner that read “the Nintendo difference” and Iwata emphasised innovation and the game play experience while deemphasising life-like graphics, much like Nintendo does now with the Wii and Wii U.

The controller of the Gamecube switched to a design that was more reminiscent of the PlayStation DualShock while maintaining elements of the N64 controller. The narrow analog stick of the N64 was replaced by a broader PlayStation style stick, which was moved to the upper left side of the controller. The four C directional buttons were replaced with a C-stick, a second analog input, which was slightly smaller than the primary input. Unlike the PlayStation design, the analog sticks were not symmetrical, with the directional pad parallel to the C-stick. The asymmetrical dual analog sticks were also incorporated by Microsoft’s Xbox controller.

While the standard controller was wired, Nintendo was the first major console publisher to also offer an official wireless controller. The controller was called the Wavebird, a play on words in that its wireless technology exploited radio frequency waves and also because Wavebird could be a reference to dolphin, the console’s codename. Up to four Wavebird controllers can be used on one console by adjusting the channel frequency for each controller and radio receivers plugged into the console’s controller ports.

The Gamecube, like the N64 before it, failed to outperform Sony’s competition and even fell behind Microsoft’s new Xbox. While the Gamecube received more support from third party developers like Capcom, EA and Square-Enix, it was maybe too close to the competition. The NES was unlike anything else on the market when it launched, the SNES had mode-7 and the Super FX and even the N64 had its cartridge-based format and analog control from day-one. The Gamecube hardware did not do much differently from the PS2 or Xbox. On top of that, there was Nintendo’s general aversion to online gameplay, something both the PlayStation 2 and Xbox embraced.

The purchase of an internet adaptor was needed to play Gamecube games online. Only three games were released to utilize online play, none of which were published by Nintendo. By contrast, PS2 offered online play for over 80 games while Xbox offered over 50 online games in its first year of service alone.  There was a huge paradigm shift toward online play, which had been largely popular in PC gaming in the past and was only now coming to form for console gaming. This aversion to online interactivity can still be seen in Nintendo. Although Nintendo has promised big changes in allowing players a more open and engaging online experience with the Wii U.

With the Gamecube underperforming, selling just shy of 22 million units worldwide, compared the PS2’s 153 million units, Nintendo was in need of a revolution if they were to survive the coming next generation Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 (PS3). So at E3 on May of 2005 a revolution was just what they brought. Nintendo presented a vague glimpse into their new console they were simply calling the Nintendo Revolution. Only the console itself was shown, no controller or games, with some bare specs to go along with it. Right from the start it was clear that it would not be a machine that could keep up with the powerhouse performance of the newly announced PlayStation and Xbox successors.

“We will show the world what a next-gen system can be,” said Iwata at the E3 conference. “It will not only take home entertainment into another dimension by expanding the definition of video games, but it also will give you access to the great history of gaming.”

It was clear that Nintendo was going in a new direction with the underpowered new console but Nintendo was tight-lipped, not even showing what the controller would look like. It was revealed that the Revolution would be the first Nintendo console to feature backward compatibility, finally fulfilling previous Nintendo president Hiroshi Yamauchi’s wish for backward compatibility in their consoles. In addition to being capable of playing Gamecube discs, Nintendo was also planning to roll out a line of downloadable classic games ranging from the Nintendo Entertainment system to the N64.

The following year Nintendo provided more information about the Revolution. But even more shocking than the new motion-centric controller was the first announcement of the console’s official name: the Nintendo Wii.

“While the codename ‘Revolution’ expressed our direction, Wii represents the answer,” said Nintendo, explaining the new name on their website. “Wii will break down that wall that separates game players from everybody else.”

And no matter how individual players felt about Nintendo’s new approach with the Wii, there is no denying that breaking down these walls between game players and everyone else was key to the console’s success. Video games were no longer something just for kids or hardcore fans; it was a form of entertainment accessible to everyone.

The Wii stood out from the competing machines in just about every way. The processing power of the console was severely limited compared to the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, barely out-performing the Gamecube.  Much like the Wii U now, Nintendo was quick to emphasize the importance of the new controller and how it would impact the game experience.

The controller itself was unlike anything before it. It’s long, narrow design resembled that of a television remote, hence it being named the Wii remote by Nintendo. At the top was the classic style directional pad with a large round A-button directly below it. The centre of the controller had a home button, a first for a Nintendo console, with the plus and minus button on either side, replacing the start and select of olde. At the bottom of the controller were the 1 and 2 buttons and finally a B-trigger button on the reverse of the remote. What really made the controller stand out were the innards. At the front tip of the remote was an inferred lens that could be pointed at the television for pinpoint precision controls or simply to move an on-screen cursor. The controller also came loaded with motion sensors thanks to an accelerometer. This gave the controller a unique input in the form of motion controls. Players could interact with games by swinging, tilting and thrusting the remote.

Even more unusual was that the controller came with a second half that was supported in games that required analog controls. The nunchuk attachment, named for the cable that made it look like a pair of nunchuks when attached, added an analog stick and two additional buttons. It was used for more traditional style games like The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess and Super Mario Galaxy.

While Mario games typically were the main attraction on a new Nintendo console, the Wii’s first big hit was a collection of simple sports games. Wii Sports came packaged in with every Wii console for the majority of the system’s life. Through simplified versions of baseball, tennis, golf and bowling it showed how the motion controls of the remote could be utilized and was intuitive enough that even someone who never touched a video game in the past could play with a gaming veteran.

The Wii was just the revolution that Nintendo needed it to be, almost to its determent. For an agonizing two and a half years the console suffered from massive shortages. When the system launched in November 2006 it met frothing demand and Nintendo struggled to meet it. It was not until March of 2009 that major video game retailer Game Stop had sufficient stock. There were many theories on what exactly caused the shortages ranging from supply limitations on the custom-made Broadway CPU from IBM to conspiracy theories involving Nintendo creating false shortages to drive up demand.

“The level of demand we are facing complicates all of our future business planning,” said Reggie Fils-Aime, the president of Nintendo of America, during an interview in December of 2007 with Reuters. Officially, Nintendo’s stance on the subject was they were simply underprepared to meet the enormous demand for the console. It got to the point that the company even started pulling advertising during the 2007 holiday season, knowing they would be unable to facilitate the Christmas rush. Already there is talk that the soon to be released Wii U may have the same shortages, although likely not to quite the extreme of the Wii.

“…on opening week we will have more systems on hand for the Wii U than we did for the launch of Wii. And, second, our replenishments will be more frequent this holiday time than during the Wii launch,” says Scott Moffatt, executive vice president of sales and marketing at Nintendo of America, in an interview with GamesIndustry.Biz last week. “But, having said all that; it’s impossible to exactly predict demand, and so I can’t say that we won’t have some shortages out there.”

Despite the troublesome shortages, Nintendo was on top of the industry for the first time in decades. However, even with the mainstream appeal of the Wii there were still troubles with the console. Many of Nintendo’s most hardcore fans felt abandoned as the company looked to attracting more casual players with games like Wii Fit and Wii Music. And the underwhelming power of the machine meant developers interested in making more complex or mature games were drawn to developing on the more powerful PS3 or Xbox 360. The Wii also saw a lot of lower budget games and ports of older titles from the previous console generation from third party developers. This meant that a lot of the biggest selling games on the Wii, much like the N64, were developed by Nintendo themselves.

In addition, while the Wii was Nintendo’s boldest move into the online space, it was still fairly modest. For a long time there was no method of talking to other players online since the Wii had no headset for online interaction. Even when Nintendo did eventually release a voice chat device, a boom mic-like device that allowed the entire room to talk at once, use of the device was limited to only playing with players on the user’s friend list. This drove more serious competitive players to the high definition consoles.

Nintendo has always been a benchmark on the video game industry through targeting unconventional markets and using more unusual ideas when designing their hardware. They have proven that technology is not what sells hardware, it is more important to give players a reason to play, a hook or gimmick that gives an experience that cannot be found elsewhere. But the Wii U still has a lot to prove, only time will tell if the new approach of the Wii U will keep players interest.

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