How Nintendo saved itself from irrelevance and turned everyone into a gamer.
The Wii, once codenamed "The Revolution," could do it. It was, at $249, cheaper than the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, which retailed at $299 and $499 respectively. Its launch titles targeted a variety of audiences, and it came with Wii Sports, a paragon of casual gaming and a powerful demonstration of the Wii's capabilities. Anyone who knew how to play tennis or golf or bowling or basketball could learn how to play Wii Sports. The same could not be said of most of the Xbox 360's launch titles, such as Call of Duty 2, Perfect Dark Zero, and Quake 4. The Wii's crisp, clean, white, Apple-ish appearance rendered it accessible, playful, and futuristic without seeming toylike or cheap.
The Wiimote controller was more important than any of that.
To video game veterans, the Wiimote was cool even before Nintendo released it. Motion-sensor gaming would open up new depths of interactivity and gameplay, while somehow making video games more intuitive and natural. Swordplay meant swinging. Racing meant steering. Shooting meant pointing and pulling a trigger. The Wiimote seemed futuristic but also nostalgic. Turn the Wiimote sideways and it would look and act like a classic Nintendo controller. Pair that with the online store, where you could download decades-old Nintendo games to play on your Wii, and you could take a trip back to a childhood of arcade-style space shooters. If you were too young, you could be retro.
The controller made games intuitive enough to reel in entire cohorts of the uninitiated. Can you see your mom mashing a bunch of buttons on an Xbox controller as she guns down the Covenant in Halo? I can't see my mom doing that. But I could see mine swinging a Wiimote in a game of Wii Tennis—and I have.
The strategy worked. After months of hype, Nintendo delivered that revolution. Reviewers praised Nintendo's focus on gameplay over graphics and exclaimed that Nintendo had brought back a sense of childlike wonder to video games. Media stories abounded about geriatrics playing Nintendo games and doctors using it for therapy. And, of course, millions of people picked them up off the shelves. To date, the Wii has sold nearly 97 million units worldwide, compared with the Xbox 360’s 67 million and the Playstation 3’s 64 million.
While rivals struggled to sell more than a few million copies of their games, Nintendo routinely sold tens of millions. Wii Sports Resort sold 30 million. Wii Play sold 28 million. Wii Fit sold 22 million. Nintendo made some of its traditional games more casual, to great effect. New Super Mario Bros. Wii abandoned its predecessors' focus on precision jumping and instead emphasized simultaneous cooperative play. It sold 26 million copies. Mario Kart Wii simplified the gameplay of its predecessors and sold 32 million copies. The Wii's success had a trickle-down effect, and even unmodified Nintendo franchises went toe-to-toe with brands that once left them in the dust. While Microsoft sold 12 million copies of Halo 3 and Sony sold 7 million copies of Gran Turismo 5, Nintendo sold 11 million copies each of Super Smash Bros. Brawl and Super Mario Galaxy.
The Wii had its problems. The Wiimote didn't seem as responsive as promised, so Nintendo released the Wii MotionPlus, an attachment that eventually came built-in to new Wiimotes. Breakaway Wiimotes left people injured and stuff smashed, so Nintendo outfitted the controllers with a stronger wristband and issued a cushiony plastic controller case. While having a virtual sword fight with my girlfriend, I punched a Wiimote through my mom's paper lamp, suggested that we simply tape it up, and sparked a family feud that persists to this day. But when the Wiimote wasn't wrecking furniture or families, it brought people together in a way that video games had never done before, and in numbers never seen before.
There were some people who didn't like Nintendo’s vision. Look through the comments on any article about Nintendo (including this one, soon enough), and you'll find irate gamers accusing Nintendo of abandoning its fan base to bring soccer moms into the fold. The Wii had plenty of critically acclaimed hardcore games—Skyward Sword, Super Smash Bros. Brawl, and Metroid Prime 3, to name a few—but, as this list reveals, most of them were Nintendo titles. That, I think, is the crux of the frustration some gamers have about the Wii. It's been a problem for Nintendo since the Nintendo 64: There are a lot of great third-party titles that never made it on to the Wii, and it's really, really annoying to hear your friends rave about games you'll never be able to play unless you want to put down hundreds of dollars for another console.
But did Nintendo have much of a choice? Hardcore gaming was Microsoft's and Sony's playground. Nintendo didn't have billions of dollars on hand to make a state-of-the-art machine, but it could, at least, make a fun machine. Nintendo found a niche, stayed there, and outsold its rivals.
Now, Nintendo needs to defend its turf. There's something that happens often when a company makes it to the top by innovating and broadening its appeal. Once they've proven their strategy is successful, other companies will emulate it. That's why a lot of laptops now look like MacBooks and a lot of phones now look like iPhones and a lot of tablets now look like iPads. It's also why Sony released the PlayStation Move and Microsoft released the Kinect. Like Apple, Nintendo has to ensure that if it can't always be revolutionary, it can at least stay innovative. And, as Apple illustrates, that's not an easy thing to do.
I'm skeptical that Nintendo's new console, the Wii U, is a step in the right direction. So are shareholders. With the $299 retail price, and a good mix of casual and hardcore titles, Nintendo appears to be sticking to its strategy of inclusiveness and variety, but the new GamePad controller that comes with the console seems regressive. In an email to me, Scott Moffitt, chief of sales at Nintendo America, described the controller as “the key” to Nintendo’s strategy. That makes me nervous. With two analog sticks, nine buttons, a D-pad, and a touchscreen, the GamePad looks like something that would operate the Curiosity rover, not something that will appeal to casual gamers.
I like Nintendo's inclusive vision, so I hope I'm wrong. If I'm not wrong, though, it could spell bad news for the company and its fans. Apple's disasters are measured in months. For Nintendo, this mistake, if it is a mistake, could endure for years.
But if the Wii, entering the twilight of its life, tells us anything, it's this: Don't underestimate Nintendo. It knows how to play the game.
Chris Kirk is Slate's Interactives Editor.