In celebration (or at least dutiful acknowledgement) of the Wii U’s release, a look back at Nintendo’s bland, blindingly obvious killer app you can’t help but love.
Wii Sports is important. You’ve heard it before, and you’re sure to hear it again as people slowly peer into the dual screens of Nintendo’s new Wii U console, incredulously checking if the game masters can bottle such lightning twice in a row. (Early reviews answer with a definitive “maybe.”) Yes, it’s important in the way Angry Birds and The Sims and even that gilded palace of game design sin, Farmville, are important, in that six o’clock news report sense that aunts and little sisters and drab co-workers are finally coming around on this whole “video game” thing. (Despite advertising to the contrary, I still can’t picture little old ladies enjoying a rousing round of virtual boxing. If anyone has video evidence to the contrary, please feel free to share.) But that’s only one story, usually tinged with the resentment of having to let in the “norms” or conversely chanted in a Freaks-like chorus of “one of us” now that “games are for everyone.” Both responses marginalize the medium, bullying it into some weird niche instead of allowing people to decide for themselves what they want out of video games.
Nintendo made it easy to take one sideways glance at Wii Sports and declare, “sell-out.” The game’s aesthetic isn’t just boring; it’s non-existent, perhaps one of the ugliest titles ever put out by a major developer and especially shameful for the powerhouse behind such an astronomical percentage of gaming iconography. Its limp pastels and barely decorated locales don’t even jive with the comforting banality of the Wii’s future-chic menus and general style, where the twinkling ambient soundtrack and too-bright whites convey what I imagine in 2006 felt like taking Oxycontin at an Apple Genius Bar that also serves Pinkberry. Perhaps it’s because I could never properly render one in my own image, but I also never warmed up to the Mii avatars. They look like unappealing early CGI characters from a 1990s car dealership commercial, unsettling in their lack of personality. Perhaps what’s most initially disheartening about Wii Sports is seeing the creators of Mario and Link investing in a no-frills, meat-and-potatoes sports simulator, its lack of wacky power-ups and colorful cameos like Santa Claus showing up with an empty burlap sack. But even a universally popular, unexpectedly influential tech demo is still a tech demo, and people responding so strongly to Wii Sports despite its aesthetic limitations must mean the tech is pretty damn good.
Accessibility was certainly a central concern in Wii Sports’ design, but while I’m sure Nintendo’s executives had visions of a Wii under every Christmas tree in the world the winter of its release, it’s misguided to chalk up its inclusiveness entirely to marketing spiel cynicism. Call it stripped-down, dumbed-down, or technically limited, but Nintendo’s grand experiment was an attempt to achieve an unexplored elegance and naturalism in game control. Motion controls – at least how they’re implemented in Wii Sports – are where at least one avenue of video games was destined to end up. All games are approximations of physical reality – ours or another – and how we play those games will likewise always approximate how we move through and interact with our world. (Duh.) So there is great power in moving that simulation one step closer to the real action that inspired it, allowing the swing of a virtual golf club or tennis racket to be a more perfect mirror of its tactile analogue. Wii Sports just feels right; its naturalism is a key to accessibility because this is the digestible, $300 living room version of actually workable virtual reality that we’ve all dreamed about. It’s still perhaps the most convincing argument for motion control (Skyward Sword usually implemented it well, but the package as a whole was tired), one that offers little clue of how to implement it in more traditional gaming experiences but makes you hopeful it will happen nonetheless.
So how is the game itself? Unless you’re some sort of Nintendo prodigy (and if you are, why the hell are you playing Wii Sports?), your mileage will most likely vary from competition to competition. Personally, I can hold my own at bowling, am soul-crushingly awful at the boxing minigame, and rank somewhere between those two in everything else. Tennis is the obvious scene-stealer, the most kinetic of the bunch and the one most likely to create the atmosphere of camaraderie the game strives for. But it doesn’t really matter if you’re good or bad at any particular section of Wii Sports. The goal is not to master this game but to experience it, to nod in admiration when a flick of your wrist causes your avatar to launch the winning tennis serve. Most competitive Nintendo games try to ease tension and eliminate poor sportsmanship by evening the playing field with power-ups and other handicaps. Wii Sports‘ solution to inevitable hurt feelings is trying to make all participants feel like they were part of an event, not a game. The technology is so stupidly intuitive that the player is satisfied simply experiencing it, and it sands down some of the game’s rough edges. Wii Sports may have all the visual personality of a game lining the Wal-Mart bargain bin, and over-examining it runs counter to its pick-up-and-play attitude. Is it a “great” game and a complete package the way Super Mario 64 and Metroid Prime are? Certainly not, but it’s a daring concept that looks simple and plays perfectly, and that’s an experience that is unmistakably Nintendo.
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