25 January 2010

Wii! What is it Good For?

This is a response to "Nintendo is Lazy" that I started writing quite some time ago, but never finished. I was going to simply stow it away when every man and his dog beat me to the cake, but now that the value of the Wii is being so hotly debated, I thought it the perfect opportunity to dust this off in some finished form or other:

Four weeks ago, IGN's Editor-at-Large Matt Casamassina took aim at Nintendo's methodology and to a lesser extent, loyal Nintendo customers in his article "Nintendo is Lazy and You Don't Care"; an article which set the internet ablaze for all the wrong reasons. While I personally disagree with Matt's core argument, it is clear from the overwhelming reader response that this is a discussion worth having, and one that resonates with the gaming community.

The prevailing idea is that the Nintendo of Today is quantifiably different from the Nintendo of Yesterday; and now that they are ruling the roost (again, I might add), they are 'content to cut corners and cash in'. As his first example, Casamassina cites two playable versions of the character Toad in New Super Mario Bros. Wii, in lieu of a playable Princess Peach. (Lest we forget Luigi's genesis as a Player 2 palette-swap in Super Mario Bros.) There is a symmetry inherent in the line-up here that I believe was very much intentional - two plumbers and two anthropomorphic toadstools - Miyamoto himself noted the similarities in physique between the two basic player models. As soon as you disrupt that symmetry and introduce a third player model, you are immediately obliged to devise a fourth player model, and additionally, behavioural and physical quirks (like those vaunted floating dress physics) to differentiate each character in gameplay. The question Casamassina and Nintendo fans need to ask themselves is just how much would a playable Princess Peach with floating-dress-physics really add to the overall experience? Not much, I'd wager. And yet, the entire game would need to be re-balanced to account for its inclusion, or something similar. Yes, this decision was made because it was easier to do, but it was also taken because the drawbacks (time spent rebalancing the gameplay, changing the physics, and possibly even redesigning the levels) absolutely outweigh any benefits that could possibly be gained from it (a playable Princess Peach with a floaty dress). This isn't laziness, this is a conscious design decision. Mario himself looks the way he does because the easiest way to define his bodily form was to give him a cap, moustache, and a pair of overalls. The entire experience was built around it - he's an Italian plumber that eats mushrooms (because Italians like mushrooms) and climbs down pipes (because that's what plumbers do); turtles try to stop him (because they live in the sewers, as any Ninja Turtles fan will tell you). New Super Mario Bros. Wii is built around four people enjoying the same experience in the same room at the same time - simply pick up and play, with no adjustments to be made - and if a feature of the game does not facilitate that, then it's extraneous, pure and simple. By extension, if Peach was playable in the game, she should have been cut. The road to game development is paved with these kinds of decisions; fraught with compromise - ask any developer whether there was anything they'd like to have implemented, but couldn't or didn't, and I'm sure they'd be happy to rattle off a laundry list of ideas and features - but most of the time, they just make sense. Like this one. Next!

Then Casamassina simultaneously applauds and decries Nintendo for effectively rejuvenating their business by bowing out of the hardware arms race. He mentions that he has covered both the Nintendo 64 and Gamecube during his tenure at IGN. It's hard to know where to even start with these remarks. Effectively he is asking for a repeat of the previous hardware generation - three similarly powerful consoles vying for a larger quadrant of the same piece of pie. Because it worked so well for them last time, didn't it? Come to think of it, I can't remember there ever being a time when cutting-edge graphics and audio has 'won' a 'console war', signifying to me and any other logical person that the gamers who demand this are indeed niche. Six million people may have purchased a copy of Modern Warfare 2, but how many more millions have purchased Mario Kart Wii or Wii Fit, and continue to do so month to month, year to year? When Nintendo disengaged themselves from the 'nuclear arms race', they also disengaged themselves from self-destructive business practices. Both Sony and Microsoft can afford to indulge in this, but for every unit they sell, they take a hit to the hip pocket, and more importantly, when one doesn't sell, they take an even greater hit. If the DS was to the Gameboy Advance what the Wii is to the Gamecube, then Nintendo's strategy was simply to extend the hardware lifecycle to whatever was sustainable. We're already seeing Sony and Microsoft grapple with this issue at the moment. We've had Sony banging on about their 'ten year cycle' when we just KNOW their machine doesn't have the legs to pull it off [and while we're here, has anyone noticed there's been virtually no mention of this vaunted cycle since the Slim came out and the console actually started selling?]. Meanwhile, Microsoft has been posturing Natal's release as a system relaunch. Both companies have realised they cannot afford to advance graphically at the pace they have been if they wish to remain (or in some cases, become) profitable. The bottom line is this: if you value cutting-edge graphics and audio, you should invest in a PC and keep your screwdriver handy. Otherwise, get ready for a seriously rough ride over the next few years.

But this isn't about Sony or Microsoft, this is about Nintendo. It wasn't laziness that drove Nintendo to 'redo' the Gamecube and rethink the input mechanism for console gaming - it was brilliance, and it was daring. Yes, it failed to live up to its promise of 'a new way to play', and yes, Wii Sports and WarioWare can now [sadly] be measured as the extent of motion-controlled gaming on the console rather than the potential, but I STILL APPLAUD THE STANCE. What it essentially said to me was this: prettier graphics, online play, and multimedia bullshit just doesn't cut it. The gaming industry has spent the last three hardware generations languishing in hardware upgrades and a well-stocked library of male power fantasies. What its devotees class as 'mature' games are actually insular, self-referential and immature. I agree with all of these statements, and that's why I bought the Wii.

No comments:

Post a Comment