Cerebral Gamer: It’s in the Games

Cool names and glorious specs are cool, but they’re not what matters.

By Joshua A. Johnston. Posted 06/18/2012 10:00 10 Comments     ShareThis

Cerebral Gamer

This past week, Nintendo finally lifted the veil on Wii U, first with its Nintendo Direct presentation on the system’s hardware capabilities, and then with a few launch window titles at its E3 press conference. For many Nintendophiles, including many here at the Dojo, there was a lot to like. The hardware looks promising, with its versatile tablet and much-appreciated leap into HD, and some of the launch window titles, including Batman Arkham City: Armored Edition, New Super Mario Bros. 2, Pikmin 3, are nothing short of intriguing.

All the pre-launch hoopla is great, but, as history has shown, the test of a system’s greatness lies elsewhere.

In April 2006, Nintendo made a surprise announcement regarding its forthcoming motion-controlling gaming system. The system known to that point as “Revolution” was now called “Wii,” and this disclosure brought howls of laughter (and more than a few crude jokes) from across the gaming universe. I recall watching one GameSpot video where one of the site’s editors paraded from cubicle to cubicle, prodding for reaction from professional gaming journalists and getting the usual guffawing over the oddball name. (Reggie Fils-Aime acknowledged the skepticism when he took the floor at Nintendo’s E3 2006 Press Conference and quipped: “We want to thank everyone who wrote good things about it the day you heard it– both of you.”)

But one of those GameSpot editors took a different tack. He acknowledged that name “Wii” was stupid but added that it doesn’t matter what the name was. “It’s about the games,” he said.

It’s about the games.

Names do not make a system. If that were true, I think the SEGA Nomad would be the most successful portable of all time, every home would contain a fully-stocked Phantom, and no one on earth would touch a “PlayStation” or a geometrically confused “Xbox 360.”

Nor does cutting edge innovation make a system. If that were true, such forward-thinking systems as the internet-enabled Dreamcast, the powerful 3DO, or the 3D experience of Virtual Boy would all be in the gaming hall of fame.

Sadly, even launch titles don’t, in and of themselves, make a system. Notwithstanding the promise of Nintendo’s current candidates, past consoles have never wanted for promising launch titles. Nintendo has actually had a decent track record in this regard, with the likes of Super Mario World (SNES), Super Mario 64 (Nintendo 64), Super Monkey Ball (GameCube), and The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess (Wii) among the better launch titles of all time. But for every great Mario launch title, there are ten other launch titles (Red Steel (Wii), Kameo:Elements of Power (360), Genji: Days of the Blade (PS3)) that get played once by early adopters and before promptly fading into oblivion. I would bet that most current PS3, Xbox 360, DS, or Wii owners haven’t touched or thought about a launch title in years.

(The absence of good launch titles doesn’t doom a system, either. DS’s best launch title was a port of a years-old Mario game, and somehow that system turned out alright.)

At the end of the day, the systems that are revered commercially and critically are the ones that can deliver good games throughout their life cycle. By “good games,” I don’t necessarily mean “beautiful games,” although good looks never hurt. Instead, good games are ones that enthrall a player and bring them back again and again. These are the classics that win players over on their virtues of winning gameplay, great atmosphere, and, in some cases, great story.

PlayStation 2 is one conspicuous example of this formula. When it was first released it was powerful enough that Saddam Hussein apparently tried to import them for military purposes, yet it would clearly end up as the least powerful system of its generation, behind Xbox and GameCube. That did not keep PS2 from cultivating the broadest and deepest gaming library of its day, if not the most beautiful.

Nintendo has also managed this playbook with great success. Game Boy didn’t hold a candle to Game Gear technically, but it had a far superior library. Nintendo DS could never duplicate PSP’s graphics, but the modest touch screen wonder brought arguably the greatest collection of hit titles ever developed on a portable.

In watching the impending release of Wii U, my biggest concern is that it will wind up less like those Nintendo portables and more like its immediate console predecessor. Wii has been one of the biggest gaming teases I’ve ever seen in my life  The system sold in buckets largely on its promise, and while that promise was realized with a handful of awesome titles– Super Mario Galaxy (1 and 2), The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, Metroid Prime 3: Corruption, Super Smash Bros. Brawl, Xenoblade Chronicles— the gaps in quality titles faced by Wii owners was all-too-similar to the days of GameCube, especially in the context of the dry seasons both systems experienced in their last two years. That Wii owners nearly rioted for the campaign of Operation Rainfall is as much an indictment against Wii’s poor late-cycle library as it is the merits of the games in question. One could point a lot of fingers as to why Wii wound up that way, but one thing is clear– Wii has struggled to deliver the same kind of library of its current gen competitors or its portable counterpart, DS. (The jury on 3DS is still, at present, very much out.)

Unfortunately, no one can predict where Wii U will wind up in the annals of gaming history. Innovation and launch titles are not a clear predictor of system success one way or another; it will be a few years before we can begin to grasp the destiny of Nintendo’s new system. I can say this: Nintendo will deliver the first party goods– it always does– but how successfully Nintendo courts third party titles will define the system. This is a very old argument, given the relative dearth of third party support on GameCube and Wii, but that does not make it less true. We’ve seen this firsthand with PlayStation 3, a system seemingly imperiled in 2007 that has nevertheless clawed its way into respectability alongside Xbox 360. PS3’s success is partly in its Blu-ray capabilities and its more competitive price point, but Sony’s ability to bring Xbox 360 third party hits to multiplatform status on their system is a major, major driver of the console’s recent renaissance.

The question then remains: can Wii U finally cultivate the deep and broad library, especially at the third party level, that remained elusive for GameCube and Wii? Even as the dust settles on E3, that remains the biggest question for me.

10 Responses to “Cerebral Gamer: It’s in the Games”

  • 360 points
    M. Noah Ward says...

    Wii U definitely needs third party support– particularly, LASTING third party support. We’ll surely see hardcore ports the first year or two, but when PS4 and 720 come out, will third party support remain? That’s my biggest concern.

    And while it’s easiest to remember the most recent developments in Wii’s library, whenever I doubt it I remember my surprise when I stopped to look, a few months ago, at my Wii library as compared to my GameCube library. I only held on to less than a dozen GameCube titles, whereas I have dozens of Wii titles that I really like and don’t want to give up. “How can this be? The system’s library has been stagnating!” I thought to myself, but the games there reiterated Wii had a better library than I remembered. No doubt I still got a 360 and, later, PS3 for exclusives and third party games that never showed up on Wii, but Wii still had a lot to love.

    Not every attempt was great, but Wii had a lot of creative and risky third party games its first few years thanks to its marketplace dominance, and Wii also had the strongest first party support a Nintendo console has had in generations. I’m still skeptical about Wii U even getting the first party support you believe will come if the system doesn’t do comparatively as well. We’ll inevitably see at least one iteration of most of Nintendo’s popular franchises– but far fewer if Nintendo feels it needs to scramble all forces on the successor to Wii U and/or 3DS instead.

    • 225 points
      wombatguy880 says...

      I don’t think we ever saw hardcore 3rd party support on any nintendo system like we do on the WiiU. Sure we saw red steel on wii from ubisoft but they were already simultaneously hyping Assassins Creed. I hate how everyone is acting like this is the same when it’s nothing alike. Wii launched a year after the 360 and with the PS3. There was no future high powered console rumored. Wii was launching with them and still managed to outsell them. I know the second part of this rant is no “hardcores” bought them but that too is a lie. Red Steel sold over a million copies. RE4 sold well as well. The problem was then what? Then we hope that Nintendo selling better than any one console would bring us some better stuff but the fact that it could never outsell both consoles combined hurt us. This also isn’t the same. Nintendo no longer needs to outsell them for third party titles that would require massive restructuring to make it to this other system that is not like the rest, just sell enough units to make third party ports viable. They would have shot themselves in the foot if they refined the hardware in such a way that games released today on 360 and PS3 weren’t the goals. They are the goals. Nintendo doesn’t need the power. They proved power is overrated. They proved it with the n64 which was 3x the processing power of the psx and twice the ram. They proved it again with the gamecube. They put any doubts to rest when consumers by the boatload picked up the Wii. They do however need ports. This is why they are launching first. This is why they aren’t shooting for some supreme power angle that has never mattered and was not a factor in this generation either. Noone wants to hear that the reason Ubisoft didn’t put AC on the original Wii was a financial decision but that is the truth of the situation. Hitman, Prince Of Persia, Zelda, and even Tomb Raider could be done on past hardware but somehow now this game that shares so many similarities with these games couldn’t possibly have been done is a crock. It wasn’t done because Nintendo launched late against 2 HD systems which were both made by companies who outsold Nintendos last venture and that’s where they put their biggest titles. It was just business. The business has changed though.

      • 393 points
        James Stank says...

        Uh, yeah, I’d say GameCube’s third party support is just as good as, if not better than the third party support that Wii U is getting. But oh yeah, the third party games that GameCube got (save for a few like RE2 and 3) weren’t last gen ports. Wii U? Check. No Nintendo didn’t prove that power wasn’t important. It proved that they make bad decisions. If the n64 used CDs, would PlayStation even exist today? Maybe not. But it was CHEAPER for third party games to be on PS, that’s why n64 lost. GameCube had the third party support, but no online play and no DVD player. That’s why it lost. Yes Wii sold a crap ton, but let’s not forget that it can also be considered a failure on Nintendo’s part. Why? Because it was Wii that helped Nintendo post their first EVER loses as a company. Why did Wii stop selling? Because the motion control fad had died down, and because it wasn’t POWERFUL enough for the third party games that PS3 and 360 owners enjoyed. You say Nintendo is launching first. I don’t think that’s correct. They are launching LAST because just as Wii was a last gen console when it came out, so is Wii U. And when the next gen Xbox comes out (from the leaked documents that Microsoft lawyers had pulled), which was said to be 6 times the power of the 360. Wii U is going to be “Wii too” all over again. Because it doesn’t have the POWER.

        • 225 points
          wombatguy880 says...

          I find flaw with this logic too. Gamecubes 3rd party support was port friendly because they were a me-too system that generation so why avoid them completely but the problem is me-too systems don’t generally sell and once you don’t sell you miss important titles like GTA or some FPS titles. The gamecube was actually the worst selling Nintendo system ever. This is actually the same threat MS and Sony face when they finally announce their new consoles. They will be me-too systems coming out later than the WiiU. There seems to be this false belief however that all developers just jump for joy when new hardware shows up when in reality game development today is a business and this business isn’t really looking to get more expensive with fewer customers which if you watch the trend is what this traditional power struggle leads to for them.

          My larger issue though is with this opinion that CD was why Sony did so much better than N64. Here’s the thing though we have seen tg16cd, sega cd, neogeo cd, jaguar cd, saturn, 3Do, cdi, and countless cd systems fail. What Sony had was not just because of the fact that Nintendo didn’t use cds. This concept comes up a lot but it has no basis in fact. Nintendo made a complex machine that could do things the psx could never hope to do but it cost a little more for entry and this is what cost us some very big games. A cd based Nintendo system would have been the same disaster Nintendo experienced when they tried to enter with a me-too machine that couldn’t differentiate itself in meaningful ways even though it too was also more powerful than the best selling platform that generation.

          It’s never one thing though. I think we have to always consider all the factors but in the end “Power” just isn’t a good thing to compete on. Despite the naysayers it really didn’t work out even this generation.

        • 393 points
          James Stank says...

          No basis for fact? I guess in the world you live in, cost doesn’t mean anything. It would be cool to live there. A 64 MB cartridge for the Nintendo 64 could cost $20 or more to make. A 600 MB CD would cost pennies. A 4 disc game like FFVIII would cost at least $20 less than an n64 cartridge. And you don’t honestly believe that all of those systems you mentioned failed for the same reason do you? I mean come on, the Saturn launched at $100 more than the PlayStation, and was tough to program for. Different reasons for a lot of those platforms. Why was FFVII development moved from the n64 to PlayStation? Storage capacity and cost.

          No those other systems aren’t going to be “me too” when they are 6 times more powerful than current gen consoles. But they will make Wii U an “Oh” console in much the same way Wii was. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Nintendo should only make games, not consoles.

        • 225 points
          wombatguy880 says...

          There’s no basis in fact. PSX would never have seen FF7 if it wasn’t for Nintendo placing Sony and Square and multiple other developers together when this PSX was still the SNES CD. Your first argument was good though. CDs cost less than Cartridges. The problem is that instead of then imagining that these imagined next next systems are going to drive development cost beyond what they already are this generation, you believe somehow they are the same as a cheaper media which is actually the opposite of what you propose. Several CD systems failed horribly. The CD was not the primary reason the PSX did well.There were several factors that aided it. It launched first was actually a significant one and it being easier to develop a 2D Castlevania or stream cutscenes rather than require you program/create each 3D scene in realtime. Nintendo sees this, do you? Developers weren’t pushing power but ease of creation and better profitability because they actually do care about things like sales.

          The n64 was 3x the processing speed. The ram was 2x greater and was later pushed to 4x.The cartridges could stream much faster. The n64 could handle perspective correct texture mapping through hardware.It launched late and it required you to do more work. It has never been about power and yes it took even Nintendo two generations to know this.

          The Gamecube was a great system. It was a “me-too” console and that was its issue. We couldn’t push any real difference. It could however push more polygons than the PS2. It’s most beautiful 3rd party game (Resident Evil 4) was ported to the much better selling PS2 however. It’s hard to drive a difference when the difference isn’t real. Sure we might have been a little less jaggy and maybe that rock was more detailed but that isn’t the reason professional developers make games.

          If Nintendo left hardware while I’d still support their games, I find it hard to believe that people would think this a good idea though. Nintendo has been the popularizing force and creator of every major innovation in hardware. Without Nintendos project reality, Sony may have never tried their emotion engine. We also have things like dpads, analog sticks, rumble, and motion. I’d hate to see what other companies would try to skimp on if Nintendo wasn’t innovating. Sony and MS seemed more than content to change nothing but processing power as they entered this generation and that is just not enough.

  • 393 points
    James Stank says...

    Wow, I know people like to bash the GameCube, but you too Noah? Anyone that thinks that the GameCube didn’t have good third party support should do some more research. It got pretty much every third party game out there. Beyond Good and Evil, all the Call of Dutys, the Prince of Persias etc, and those are just the multiplatform games. Not even mentioning the likes of Rogue Leader and SA2:B. Wii’s third party support doesn’t even come close to touching that. And neither will Wii U’s if it is on par with PS3 and 360. Yes, power DOES matter. Especially to third parties. You disagree, then think about Wii’s terrible third party support. If Wii had more power, the support would have been better. It’s like Matt Casamassina said, “Why, though, should innovation come at the expense of presentation? Because it’s easier and cheaper.” Here’s the awesome article he wrote in 2009 and surprise surprise, everything still holds true for Wii U.

    • 198 points
      Evan Campbell says...

      You do realize that Nintendo’s losses are the result of 3DS sales and the price drop, right? Wii actually had very little to do with that. And you do realize that Prince of Persia and Call of Dutys are available on Wii as well? (Plus the fact Call of Duty didn’t explode until this generation.) And you do realize Wii received more exclusive Sonic games than GameCube, right?

      Oh, and regarding exclusives, Noah probably is even leaving out third-party games through WiiWare (not to mention Virtual Console). World of Goo, LostWinds, Cave Story, MegaMan 9, Strong Bad and the like are better than lots of GameCube games.

      While everyone loves to look through rose-tinted glasses at the GameCube, it floundered. Yes, I loved it because I’m a huge Nintendo fan. But it’s easily the weakest home console from Nintendo.

      • 393 points
        James Stank says...

        You’re right, Wii got three exclusive Sonic games. Sonic and the Secret Rings, Sonic and the Black Knight, and Sonic Colors. None of those are as good as Sonic Adventure DX or Sonic Adventure 2: Battle. Plus if we count the Sonic games that Wii and GameCube got that weren’t exclusive, GameCube fares better there too with Sonic Heroes and Sonic Mega Collection.

        Yes Evan, I know that the lower quality Prince of Persias and Call of Dutys were on Wii, but man, I guess I just can’t settle for lower quality these days. “Why should presentation be sacrificed for innovation?” It shouldn’t. Wii used to outsell the PS3 and 360 like crazy during the fad storm. Now? Oh it gets outsold 2 to 1 by nearly both consoles every week. Wii ran out of steam because the fad died, and that’s all it ever was.

        Saying that Wii was a success is something that those drinking Nintendo’s kool-aid would say. It had worse third party support than the GameCube and arguably worse first party support as well. I love the Galaxy games, Epic Yarn and DKCR, but does that hold up to Prime 1&2, The Wind Waker, Four Swords Adventures, F-Zero GX, Pikmin 1&2, Super Mario Sunshine, Luigi’s Mansion, Eternal Darkness, Paper Mario: TTYD, Star Fox Adventures and Assault. I could go on, but I think I’ve listed enough. Both systems got some gems from first and third parties, but GameCube got more.

        • 225 points
          wombatguy880 says...

          No system outselling its competitor for 3 straight years can be a fad. I agree with some of your comments though just not where they lead you. The Wii didn’t get a whole lot of great 3rd party games. It didn’t get Modern Warfare until two years after the other consoles. The Black Ops release was better but people had moved on by then. Do you believe however that if Nintendo got new titles of the caliber of Soul Reaver, Jet Grind Radio, GTA, RE4, God Of War, Halo, or Hitman which are all games done on systems weaker than the Wii that this would have been a bad thing. Wii would have needed to sell twice as much as either console to win such support though because as I’ve said many times now developers/publishers are trying to make a profit. Nintendo has the advantage here. They are a system that is portable to. They are releasing first. They have 3rd party support at launch. They aren’t pushing some ridiculous new standard for gaming entertainment that will be much more costly.

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