Speak Up! A Brief History of Nintendo Voice Systems

Is Nintendo’s Wii U voice chat options too reminiscent of the dreaded Wii Speak?

By Bradly Halestorm. Posted 11/14/2012 15:00 Comment on this     ShareThis

Prior to Wii U, Nintendo has been behind the ball in the area of online multiplayer and social features on its home consoles. It was the last to pick up on the significance of connected gaming by way of the Internet, and even when it finally arrived at the big dance, it found itself without a partner, as everyone else– in this case the gamers– had found their much needed companions long before it showed up. Even when Nintendo managed to coerce the ugly Betty sitting alone on the gym bleachers, it demonstrated that it was unable to lead the dance, and often times proved that it hadn’t taken any lessons in gracefulness at all. Meaning to say, even when Nintendo finally caught on to the obvious fact that people want to play their games online with friends, it implemented a system that was shoddy, unintuitive, and mostly broken. Friend Codes, Wii Speak, lack of leaderboards or universal profiles… It’s been pretty bad. Nintendo stuck to archaic conventions in this regard, and ultimately it hurt them.

That’s changed, however, particularly with Wii U. Finally seeing the light, the Big N has taken notice of the importance of online gaming, and plans to put an emphasis on it with the launch of its upcoming system. The Miiverse immediately comes to mind when I think of Nintendo taking a stab at this online thing, and while Wii U’s online capabilities have seemed perfectly adequate up and to this point, Nintendo’s announcement last week of its intention to not use the GamePad’s microphone as a way to communicate with players while playing online seemed like a giant missed opportunity. This felt like Nintendo, yet again, dropping the ball on a feature that is a given on all other systems.

Wii U GamePad microphone

As alluded to, Nintendo has never approached gaming from a by-the-numbers perspective. Though it often gravitates towards orthodox game design, it is also an innovator and probably the only company out there right now taking genuine risks (see: DS, Wii, and 3DS). Yet, for all their creativity, it fails to keep up with some of the industry’s most basic standards of practice. At this point, voice chat in games is commonplace. It’s so ordinary that we mostly take it for granted, and are often befuddled or even infuriated when a game doesn’t allow for such a rudimentary feature.

Nintendo’s decision to not allow its GamePad to act as a communication device for online gaming is strange. Considering that the GamePad is Wii U’s prized possession, one would think gamers are going to want to use it to do a good chunk of their gaming. Randy Pitchford, founder, CEO and president of Gearbox Software, has even recently gone on the record to say that the GamePad presents gamers with the ideal and best way to play FPS games. Coincidentally enough, first person shooters are one of the most played games online. Thus, one would think that the GamePad would be the natural choice for all your communicating needs– especially considering it has a microphone on it– after all, putting together the supposed king of FPS controllers and one of the most played type of online games would make a whole lot of sense. Apparently not to Nintendo.

Now, there is redemption in all of this, and it’s the fact that third party headsets will be usable when plugged into the GamePad. So, in the end, there is voice chat. The problem with this, however, is: what happens if you don’t want to use the GamePad to play? After all, one of Wii U’s most tantalizing aspects is its encouragement to play games in a variety of ways. Like motion controls? You got the Wii Remote. Like fancy, tablet-touching? You got the GamePad. Like traditional gaming controls? You’ve got that with the snazzy Pro Controller.

So where’s the issue, Bradly? That’s what you’re asking, right? Well, the issue is to use a microphone/headset, it HAS to be plugged into the GamePad, even if you don’t want to actually use the GamePad. So, in other words, if you want to use the Pro Controller, you will need your GamePad, as it’s the only device the headset can be plugged into. While this isn’t a huge deal-breaker, it certainly means your GamePad has to be within your immediate vicinity if you plan to use a headset and a control style that isn’t the Pad.

turtle beach headsets wii u

This is what I meant by Nintendo taking to bizarre ways of doing stuff other companies are doing in the most basic, logical, accessible way possible. Play 360? You just plug the headset into the controller. Play PS3? You can do the same thing, or use Bluetooth– no wires attached! The same goes for handhelds and gaming PCs. I mean, this is so straightforward and uncomplicated, it hurts.

Perhaps there needed to be a sacrifice somewhere for the Pro Controller… Perhaps Nintendo believed that 80-hour battery life was more important than being able to plug a headset into it. And maybe it is, but that doesn’t negate the fact that this manner of using a headset, which is almost a necessity if you plan to play Wii U online in any competitive manner, is unnecessarily cumbersome.

wii speak

What scares me the most is seeing a repeat of history. GameCube made communication very difficult in the handful of games it offered online (Phantasy Star Online had keyboard support, while the Xbox version supported voice chat), and Wii Speak for Wii did not help further Nintendo’s online gaming cause either. In fact, it may have contributed to the community’s overall lack of sincere involvement in the online gaming scene on the system. It was just such a clumsy way to increase interactivity on the part of the gamer, that it just wasn’t used at all. Wii Speak showed– if nothing else– that Nintendo can sometimes be a little clueless in this area. It makes things more convoluted than they need to be. The company can be like a really bad JRPG. Fortunately, the 3DS voice chat options have been a step in the right direction, but even it isn’t exactly ideal, as there can be some clarity issues and voice-lag to name a few.

Regardless, perhaps my concerns will be moot upon Wii U’s arrival. Maybe the whole headset fiasco won’t be much of an issue. I earnestly hope that’s the case. Regardless of the outcome, though, the message is still the same: Nintendo simply refuses to make playing online with friends easy. Now, I’ll get over all this, and I’ll still play games online with my Wii U. In fact, I’m looking forward to it. But I’m just not all that pumped to have to lug my GamePad around with me every time I want to chat with friends while playing Black Ops 2 online.

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