It almost pains me to admit it, but until a couple of weeks ago, it had been nearly a month since I last turned on my Wii U. It’s not because I haven’t been enjoying the console; rather, between writing for three different gaming outlets, not to mention working at my soul-crushing retail job, I have very little free time to play video games. And when I do, I’d much rather use it to catch up on Xenoblade Chronicles (which I’ve been slowly chipping away at for the better part of a year now) or to delve into Fire Emblem Awakening on my 3DS than to play a few more rounds of Nintendo Land, the only Wii U game in my collection that I’ve yet to exhaust completely.
It’s odd, then, that the thing that would draw me back to the console would be Wii Street U, the system’s enhanced version of Google Maps. I didn’t have anything more than a passing interest in the app when it was first announced; in truth, I had actually forgotten all about it until I visited the eShop to download the Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate demo, when I saw it displayed prominently on the front page. With a few minutes to spare until my download completed, I figured exploring the world would be the best way to kill some time before I could try out Capcom’s epic.
As it happens, those few minutes turned into nearly an hour of virtual globetrotting. I was surprised by just how enjoyable the app was. I had played around with Google Maps on my computer before, but seeing each location splayed across my larger television screen made the experience much more immersive, as did the gyroscopic controls (though I was fortunate enough to be sitting in a swivel chair at the time, which helped in getting a 360-degree view of my surroundings). I typed in my home address and took a virtual tour of my neighborhood first, more as a test of the app’s fidelity than anything else, then moved on to one of the more exotic locations listed in the game’s menu.
There were a number of beautiful and famous cities to choose from, but I was particularly surprised to see Croatia, specifically the city of Dubrovnik, among the list of recommended destinations. If you couldn’t tell by my peculiar last name, I am of Croatian descent. My parents emigrated from the country back in the early 1980s (which was then under the blanket of Yugoslavia), but they had never completely shaken their ties to it, so I was raised with the specter of our Croatian heritage looming in the background. (In fact, Croatian was actually the first language I learned as a child; it wasn’t until I enrolled in elementary school that I began speaking English fluently.)
We visited Croatia a small handful of times throughout my childhood, but the high cost of travel made these trips a rarity for us. It’s now been well over a decade since we’d last vacationed there, with no indication that we’ll be returning to the country any time soon, so Wii Street U came as a nice alternative to traveling there in person. I called my parents into the room to see the app, taking them along the beautiful Dubrovnik harbor where it first drops you off, down the cobblestone alleyways that weave through the city, and around the square where tourists and residents, locked forever in their summer mirth, congregate.
They were immediately intrigued, watching in awe as we took a virtual stroll through the area. Soon they began suggesting other Croatian cities to visit, and we quickly found ourselves in Pula, Labin, and Zupanja– all places they had frequented in their youths (and places we often visited on our vacations there). I could tell the app had brought back plenty of old memories for my parents, watching their expressions as they guided me along the various cities they called out. It’s true that cycling through a series of static images can hardly compare to seeing all of the family members they had left behind (nor can it truly replicate the feeling of walking around a foreign city and being immersed in a different culture), but in its own way, the app allowed them to return home, however briefly, without having to fly there themselves, which they certainly seemed to enjoy.
In retrospect, it seems a little shortsighted now to have dismissed Wii Street U when it was first announced, but this experience with my parents has proven just how entertaining– and how strangely poignant– the app can be. I can’t say I’ll be revisiting it too often beyond my initial test run, especially now that new titles (like LEGO City and the aforementioned Monster Hunter) are finally being released for the console, but the app will always be sitting proudly on my GamePad, which will come in handy any time my parents want to take a quick trip home.