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Nintenduality: A Conference Of Unknowns

Just this morning, Nintendo pseudo-announced the Wii Mini. I say “pseudo-announced” because Best Buy Canada accidentally listed the product available for pre-order on its website and then Nintendo had to come in with the official announcement to bring everything back under control. Or something along those lines. It’s very much possible that Nintendo was ready to announce the Wii Mini today regardless of any Best Buy snafu.

The Wii Mini itself, though, is perhaps emblematic of something larger, a more pervasive problem within the former number one manufacturer, publisher, and developer of the video game industry. Is it hubris? Has Nintendo’s $13 billion war chest removed its finger so far from the pulse of the world that it no longer understands the difference between need and want? Or maybe it’s just foolishness. Maybe the Kyoto-based company has finally run out of vision and is now running on steam.

To be clear, the Wii Mini isn’t a totally horrible idea. It’s a tad pricey for what it is and somehow manages to remove what little online capabilities the Wii has completely from the realm of possibilities, not to mention the total eradication of GameCube disc support. For about 50 dollars more, you can get a full-featured Wii, albeit not in that boss red and black. There are what I believe to be some overreactions on Twitter this morning, but they’re definitely not without merit either.

The Wii Mini is set to hit Canadian shelves on December 7th, just in time for the holiday buying rush. The problem, of course, is that most kids are just going to simplify the gifting notion for parents to something along the lines of “I want the new Wii.” Well, the new Wii U? Or the Wii Mini? Even with the requisite specificity, there are going to be massive mix-ups. Consider the fact that up until the actual release of the Wii U, even mainstream news outlets merely referred to the new console as a new controller for the original Wii.

The release of the Wii Mini operates under the assumption that the general public is familiar enough with Nintendo products to be able to differentiate between them all with ease when in reality, the majority of Wii owners are likely the same sort of people who called everything before 1983 an Atari and everything afterwards a Nintendo. This is that problem I was talking about before. It could be hubris where they believe that Nintendo is once again the only name that matters, that whatever they put out, the public will buy. Or it could be foolishness to believe that everyone in the world wanting to get into the Nintendo family is savvy enough to parse out the Us from the Minis and the like.

Then again, it could all be brilliant and work out better than anyone expected. Or, at the very least, sell a lot. Nintendo has always been this strange clash of good and bad ideas, like swirling meteorological hot and cold fronts. If you look at the Wii U, for example, you can see where this is true. The hardware itself is a complex concept that is mildly difficult to come to grips with. It is the polar opposite of the Wii in terms of approachability; it has every button of a conventional 360 or PS3 controller plus a touchscreen. However, games like ZombiU and some parts of Nintendo Land have proven it to be a solid idea that can be mined by both Nintendo and third parties.

Most of the games, though, proved to lack vision. While good, New Super Mario Bros. U is almost exactly the same as New Super Mario Bros. Wii. The new additions are largely inconsequential and much of the game progresses the same in the same order (plains, sky, ice, fire, etc.), a notion that can also apply to the Super Mario Galaxy to Super Mario Galaxy 2 increment. And save for those few parts of Nintendo Land that are fundamentally interesting and well executed, the rest of that game is bland and bordering on a repackaging of Wii Sports and Wii Sports Resort.

The Wii U’s system software is equally confounding. Online identity management is a mess and its censoring bewildering, but MiiVerse is genuinely interesting and packed with potential. The broad scope of possibility with asymmetrical multiplayer and improved social hooks combined with the little touches that Nintendo traditionally excels at (just listen to the Nintendo Land music, or do a Wii system transfer) butts heads with the categorically slow loading and clumsy interfaces.

But perhaps this is the eternal struggle of Nintendo, the endless plight of seeing where we need to go and not where we want to go. The N64 controller brought us the analog stick and a true trigger button. The DS and 3DS showed us that dual screens and glasses-free 3D were viable gaming technologies. Did we know we’d want Mario vs. Donkey Kong: Minis March Again! or Mario & Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story before they came out? So maybe it’s a matter of us keeping up with them. Maybe we are the ones that can’t see the reality of the situation, that our minds are so far removed from the mainstream that we can’t even feel the zeitgeist while Nintendo cradles it in its warm embrace.

But what about the Virtual Boy? The decidedly lackluster Paper Mario: Stick Star? The incredibly shortsighted Game Boy Micro? General missteps, sure, but also something more. For better or worse, that hubris, that pride does exist in Nintendo. Decades as the king will do that to you, so it’s not entirely unfounded, but just the same as it has led Nintendo down a path few are willing to brave, the company has also gone down some paths no one should ever travel.

Nintendo has been and always will be a strange contrast of big ideas, small details, and middling faults. They aim high and win big just the same as focus small and crash hard. And no one can predict how they will fallout. Nintendo has and will buck the trend again and again, just as they will fall flat on their faces again and again, and usually all in spite of what pundits and analysts say. So no, I don’t know—nor do I suspect anyone else does—what to make of the Wii Mini. But then again, it’s hard to tell what to make of Nintendo in general.

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