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Thursday, November 17, 2011

Ranking Nintendo's Systems: Part 5

We continue our look at Nintendo's best and worst systems. Click to read part 1, part 2, part 3 and part 4.

History: The Gamecube was a harsh lesson for Nintendo, which made them rethink what they knew about consoles. They realized they couldn't keep going after the same market that everyone else was going after or they would go the way of Sega. They needed something different.

Nintendo had always experimented with motion controls, with peripherals like the Power Pad and Power Glove representing early (and terrible) forays. Now, though, the technology caught up to the dream, and in 2006 the Wii was unleashed.

Results: The Wii was a runaway success. 89 million units have shipped worldwide, and during the beginning of the Wii's lifespan, it was frequently sold out or unavailable.

Other companies, which derided the Wii's motion controls as a fad and a gimmick, found themselves scrambling to make their own solution. Sony made the Move, which is almost identical to Nintendo's Wii-mote + Nunchuk, and yet more expensive. Microsoft released Kinect, which is actually a surprisingly revolutionary device on its own.

What Went Right: The amazing thing about the Wii is still how simple it is to control. Baseball feels like baseball. Tennis feels like tennis. Golf feels like golf. That alone led to millions of people buying Wiis within the first two years of its existence. It was easy to pick up, understand, and play.

Nintendo also opened up with a flurry of excellent games. Within two years of launch, Zelda: Twilight Princess, Wii Sports, Rayman Raving Rabbids, Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn, Guitar Hero 3, Mario Strikers Charged, No More Heroes, Super Paper Mario, Zack & Wiki, Mario Kart Wii, Rock Band 2, Okami, Mario Super Sluggers, and Super Smash Bros. Brawl all landed. That's not to mention one of the finest games of the generation, Super Mario Galaxy.

The Wii wasn't as powerful as the Playstation 3 or the XBox 360, but that didn't matter at launch. Only about 30% of homes had HDTVs at launch, so the HD boost that the other systems promised was negligible. For most people, the Wii looked good enough, and that's all that mattered.

Nintendo also started selling classic games through the Wii using the Virtual Console. Finally, gamers could play games that they knew and loved from the past, like Super Mario Bros., Sonic the Hedgehog (for the first time on a Nintendo system!), and Super Metroid. It was a fantastic service that reminded people how much they loved Nintendo in the past and rekindled that old flame. Everything seemed to be going great.

What Went Wrong: Nintendo released a game called Wii Play, which had some silly minigames and an extra controller. It sold like hotcakes. Other companies saw this and wanted in. Instead of realizing that the high sales were due to the extra controller included with each purchase, other companies churned out title after title of crappy minigame collections with names like Game Party and Carnival Games.

The problem was that these games sold well, since the people buying the Wii were generally first-time console buyers and didn't know any better. Once the first few collections started selling well, other companies hopped on the minigame bandwagon, and soon everyone was putting out crappy minigame collections for the Wii.

Nintendo didn't help matters, either. After the release of Super Smash Bros. Brawl and Mario Kart Wii in successive months during early 2008, they released almost nothing for a solid year aside from Wii Fit and Wii Music. That left the system entirely in the hands of minigame makers for a solid year, and they did what budget minigame makers will do: Release games until there are no more games to release.

Once Nintendo snapped out of its yearlong funk, the releases continued flowing, but the damage was already done. HDTV adoption made the Wii look like a dinosaur, publishers didn't want to make real games for the system because the audience wasn't there, and without viable options to keep them playing, consumers quickly moved on from the Wii.

It's a shame that Nintendo was caught sleeping on the Wii. One wonders how it would have fared if they would have made some better choices early on.

Lessons Learned: The successor to the Wii, the Wii U, promises to have better graphics while still incorporating the motion controls that made the Wii popular. They're also continuing a history of controller innovation with the Wii U's amazing tablet controller.

Nintendo also learned that while it's important to have buzz around their systems and an exciting hook for consumers, it's also important to release games for it. That's what people buy gaming systems for, after all. They started rectifying this for the Wii with a great lineup of titles, from Punch-Out to New Super Mario Bros. Wii and beyond, although the damage is mostly done.

Still, we won't rightly know what lessons, if any, Nintendo will have learned from the Wii until much further down the road. While they may have sold copious amounts of units and made piles of money, one can only ask the question, "At what cost?"