Wii Hardly Knew U

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So, last night, Nintendo pulled the plug on its Miiverse social network. This means I just lost a convenient method to take screenshots of Wii U games. Not only that, I also lost the only method I had to take screenshots of the video feed on the Wii U Gamepad.* I hope the screenshots I’ve saved so far are enough to illustrate any future writing!

Of course, we could ask why players ever needed to connect to a social network to take screenshots of a game in the first place. (Certainly, the ever-reliable twelve seconds required to reach the Miiverse servers was never welcome.)

But, in honor of its passing, let’s cut the Miiverse some slack. The Wii U was, after all, the first console to launch with a built-in screenshot taking mechanism, catching up to Steam’s well-worn “F12” key. And it remained, up until last night, admirably responsive. Despite the network-induced downtime, you were still guaranteed to capture the exact frame up on the screen when your thumb hit the “home” button, with none of the guesswork-inducing delay of the PlayStation 4’s “share” function.

That’s not the only feature the Wii U sported that was demonstrably superior to those of its competitors. It gave the world the first web browser for a home console that didn’t completely suck. To this day, I still curse the Steam and PS4 browsers for not auto-filling your browser search bar with the game you have suspended, a cherished Wii U feature. And the notion that strategy tips posted on Miiverse would transform every game on the console into a pseudo Souls-like was intriguing, even if never got implemented beyond a few choice first-party titles like Super Mario 3D World.

Ah, and now I’m getting all misty-eyed. I missed a prime moment to post a retrospective on the Wii U console, back in March when the Switch launched. But the Miiverse’s death seems like a worthy milestone, so let’s commemorate.

Promises U Couldn’t Keep

Between the Wii and the Wii U, Nintendo got a bad rap for making “gimmicky” consoles. This always struck me as a cheap complaint. Who, after all, holds the authority to draw the line between “gimmick” and “innovation”? We don’t call the Nintendo 64’s analog stick a “gimmick,” because it proved popular and influential enough to shape the future of videogame control schemes. But we can make that judgement only because of the benefit of historical hindsight. When you’re actually designing something new, the line between “gimmick” and “innovation” isn’t quite so clear.

So for me, the primary sin of the Wii U was not the Gamepad, per se. Instead, its primary sin was the fact that, for the most part, game developers steadfastly refused to do anything interesting with its second screen. The Wii U as a piece of hardware upsets me. Not because I found the Gamepad cumbersome to hold, or anything banal like that. It upsets me because here, at the end of its life, I feel robbed of all the imagined games we never got.

We got a Pikmin game, and an Atlus-developed Fire Emblem game. I even rather liked both of them. But neither of them made a strong argument for the possibilities of stylus-based tablet control schemes for tactics or strategy games. I held out hope that a whole generation of touchscreen strategy games would appear on the Wii U, following the delightful blueprint of Plants vs. Zombies (PopCap, 2011). Instead, the Wii U never even saw a port of that essential touchscreen title, despite the fact that it came out for what seems like every other platform ever made.

There were many ports that Nintendo could have courted to show off their system, which I imagined, but which never arrived. We never got the definitive HD version of Ōkami (Clover Studios, 2006), with the motion controls of its prior remakes bested by stylus-on-tablet controls. Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes (Steel Crate Games, 2015), one of the most innovative asymmetrical co-op games even made, skipped over the Wii U, a platform that was supposedly designed with asymmetrical multiplayer in mind. And, in one of the great cosmic ironies of our lifetime, classic second-screen asymmetrical multiplayer Pac-Man Vs. (Nintendo EAD, 2003) is now getting ported to the Switch, having skipped over the Wii U. And that’s something Nintendo developed internally!

But, at this point, there is no use in dwelling on what could have been. We are left with what we have. Below, you’ll find a smattering of my most potent Wii U memories. These aren’t necessarily the “best” Wii U games (I’m omitting Super Mario Maker, for instance, because I already wrote about it in my Games of the Decade feature). But they rank among the most notable uses of the console’s strange hardware. (This post has partly been excuse to boot up some titles and take screenshots of things that were going on on the Gamepad, so expect lots of titles with gamepad-heavy action.)


Game & Wario

Developer: Nintendo SPD / Intelligent Systems
Released: 2013

WarioWare games used to have a reliable formula. They gave you seconds-long minigames, deliberately simple and deliberately stupid. Player bafflement about objectives and controls forms the basis of the games’ challenge, as well as their humor.

As the series went on, though, WarioWare games took on the additional duty of being tech demos for Nintendo hardware. WarioWare: Smooth Moves (Nintendo SPD Group No. 1 / Intelligent Systems, 2006) is build around the same logic as Wii Sports (Nintendo EAD, 2006). Both are sample platters of what motion controls can do. The minigames in Smooth Moves still took mere seconds to play, and were still governed by a logic of wanton silliness. (Smooth Moves makes me laugh aloud as few games do, and its longevity as a social game has far outstripped Wii Sports.) But it carries an additional burden, acting as a highlight reel of the Wii’s possibilities. One gets the sense that it is a template for third-party developers, as much as it is a “game.”

With Game & Wario, the “tech demo” logic finally took over completely. Its minigames are much longer, and much more full-featured. Despite the WarioWare branding, they would have fit well alongside the minigame offerings of Nintendo Land (Nintendo EAD, 2012). (In fact, I suspect that Nintendo Land would have been a much better introduction to the console if Nintendo had let it gestate a bit longer, allowing its various subsidiary development arms to collaborate, possibly sacrificing Game & Wario in the process.)

I mourn the lost frivolousness of WarioWare. But I also can’t deny that Game & Wario is as close as any game to being the Wii U’s raison d’être. The “Gamer” minigame (pictured above) may be little more than a mod for classic WarioWare, but it nevertheless sells the Wii U hardware as few games did before or since. The tense splitting of attention, as players flick their eyes up to the main screen whenever they hear an ambiguous sound cue, all in an effort to not let their mother catch them playing videogames on the Gamepad screen, was a masterclass in second-screen game design.

The “Gamer” minigame was a mission statement on the Wii U hardware that the other minigames in Game & Wario don’t quite live up to. Some, I have to admit, are downright horrid. But there are other flashes of inspiration here and there, as well. During the heyday of the DS, some developers were experimenting with new ways to frame cutscenes, and cutscenes in Game & Wario admirably continue this trend. In cutscenes for the “Photographer” minigame, for instance, pictured above, standard shot/reverse-shot staging is split across the console’s dual screen, meaning that the player directs the editing themselves, by shifting their eyes from one screen to the other at will. Game & Wario is a silly party game, so I don’t go into it looking for bold experiments in video installation design, or visual narrative. But it’s nice to see innovations creeping in on the margins, just as a way of playing with the hardware in front of you.


The Wonderful 101

Developer: PlatinumGames
Released: 2013

Above, I lamented the fact that the Wii U never got a port of Ōkami, and that the Pikmin game it did get wasn’t genuinely built around the possibilities of the Gamepad. Enter PlatinumGames—which, lest we forget, is made up partially of former members of Clover Studio, which originally developed Ōkami. The Wonderful 101 is basically Pikmin, if Pikmin controlled like Ōkami. As in Pikmin, you control a small army. As in Ōkami, combat is built around the activity of quickly sketching basic shapes, to switch between weapon types. In short, it’s everything I wanted from a Wii U game. And it really is a rollicking good time. I was even willing to look past the fact that its bright, day-glo color scheme literally hurt my eyes during long play sessions.

In addition to being the mash-up Ōkami and Pikmin that I didn’t know I wanted but that the platform definitely deserved, The Wondeful 101 also took some cues from the delirious genre mash-up Knights in the Nightmare (Sting Entertainment, 2008). Like Knights in the NightmareThe Wonderful 101 is hard, but also unusually generous in how it handles continues. In both games, dying has essentially no effect: you die, you revive, and the health bar of the boss you were fighting against is right where it was. The only penalty is to your score, and your pride. In both games, you can just brute force your way through lengthy boss fights with some patience, and a shrug.

I’m of two minds about this design decision. On the one hand, it’s a nice way to reward skill (via a high score), while simultaneously keeping things accessible for everyone. On the other hand, in both Knights in the Nightmare and The Wonderful 101, its inclusion seems to partly stem from the designers throwing up their hands, and acknowledging that that their weird game has a steep learning curve, and that they’re not entirely sure how to manage its difficulty. The Wonderful 101 is full of positive feedback loops, in which small mistakes in timing can having a cascade effect. (It is very easy to get utterly trapped in a cycle of collecting your immobilized units at every moment you should be attacking the boss.) The lack of consequences for failure meant that I was always able to muddle my way through each boss fight, but I also at times wondered if the game’s generosity was a concession to a design failure. These are, I suppose, the tolls we pay to innovation.


Year Walk

Developer: Simogo
Released: 2015 (port of a 2013 iOS game)

I must confess that I never played Year Walk on its original platform of iOS. I also skipped it when it was ported to the PC. It wasn’t until it came out on Wii U that I finally picked it up and played it. So I cannot say, with any authority, that the Wii U port stands as the definitive version of Year Walk. But it feels like it does. If nothing else, it is the definitive version of what an art/adventure/horror game like Year Walk could be on the Wii U. It really is a fantastic port, one that makes me sad that the Wii U’s roster of high-quality mobile ports was so lackluster.

One moment in particular: I had searched high and low for the final Mylingen (dead baby ghost), to complete a set of four to present to the Bäckahästen (Brook Horse). And suddenly I realized that it wasn’t in the game world, as represented on my television, at all. Instead, it was in the compendium of lore seated on my lap. I scroll down and, yes, there it was: peering at me from the screen I held in my hands. It seems like a small thing, but I found it to be an exceptionally unnerving experience. As I poked at the dead thing and it dissolved out of my lap and onto my TV, I felt vaguely violated, queasy that the macabre world until now confined to my television screen had found a way to invade my personal space. Horror has been one of the few genres where developers genuinely experimented with the Wii U’s possibilitiesYear Walk demonstrated that, despite the high-concept innovations flying around in the console’s horror titles, some of the best payoffs come from decidedly simple twists.

Also, its sound design is nothing short of superb—one of the few titles in the console’s library that really justifies keeping the volume on the Gamepad’s internal speakers up.


Affordable Space Adventures

Developer: KnapNok Games
Released: 2015

I wrote about this game just a few days back, where I spent ample time talking about how it effectively leverages the inherent awkwardness of the Wii U’s second screen. So I won’t rehash that here.

What I will say is that, in addition to making ample use of the Wii U’s hardware quicks, Affordable Space Adventures also integrates Miiverse posts into its comically dystopian universe. At a certain point in the game, players are encouraged to send out a “distress signal” through the social network, signals which are then elaborately woven in to the graphical rendering of the game’s fiction, printed out as forgotten faxes spilling into the headquarters of an indifferent corporation.

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Over the past several weeks, many of these posts have become lamentations for the Miiverse itself. These posts, as much as the ones that play with the game’s fictional conceit, are screams out into the void, begging for the mercy of an indifferent corporate entity …

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Xenoblade Chronicles X

Developer: Monolith Soft
Released: 2015

Xenoblade Chronicles X is one of those games that I feel like I don’t have to write about, because so many of my feelings were already summed up so well by Matt Margini at Kill Screen. (Well, Margini didn’t write about the game’s cat, but I got that covered.) Basically: the game is technologically impressive, and sports some wonderful visual design. But it has little to offer besides bigness. (Is that oxymoronic?) It jettisons all of the twisty and allegorical narrative reveals of Xenoblade Chronicles in favor of bland and pointless dumps of sci-fi exposition, with far too many dead ends and red herrings. And all the while, it just slathers on more, collapsing under the burden of being a tech demo, proof positive that the Wii U could power vast and meticulously detailed worlds, if only developers had interest in doing so.

The only unqualified praise I can offer to is this: It knew how to use the Gamepad. It provided an admirable blueprint for other Wii U exclusives: remember that the Gamepad is there. Don’t overthink it, and don’t over-design for it. But remember that it is there, and that it can subtract a couple of button presses from the fast travel process. Think through how you’re using it, and only use it if it can make tasks more efficient, rather than less. In this regard, at least, it remains a triumph. Too bad about the bloat that drags down the rest of it.


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Human Resource Machine

Developer: Tomorrow Corporation
Released: 2015

The latest in a so-far unbroken line of games developed by Tomorrow Corporation that yeah, I suppose I could play on PC, but just feel great to play on Nintendo hardware. From World of Goo on, Tomorrow Corporation have proven time and again that if they’re going to port their game to a Nintendo console, they’re going to do it right, in a way that absolutely nails game-feel. There’s just something so satisfying about tapping on commands with a stylus and sliding them around to a different position on the touchscreen that I can’t imagine feeling with a mouse.

In addition to their usually high standards of user experience design, Human Resource Machine reveals Kyle Gabler, Allan Blomquist, and Kyle Gray to be exceptionally good pedagogues. A few indie developers got together and achieved the holy grail of neoliberal technocratic society: they made learning programming fun. As in, actually, for-real fun. And not “fun” in the desperate sense of “edutainment” gaming of old, in which gamey external rewards are awkwardly welded onto lesson plans. No: instead, they reached the pinnacle that every educator grasps for, and amplified the inherent intrinsic rewards of the activity itself. Writing efficient code is satisfying. It can be truly thrilling to go from “how am I going to write this program at all?” to “can I slice this down by just one more line, just for kicks?” Human Resource Machine‘s design lets novices in on this thrill. It instills a love of learning, because it so potently introduces you to what is rewarding about the subject being learned. And it does it all so effortlessly.

The programming you’re doing in Human Resources Machine is so basic and close-to-the-metal that you’re more or less working in a simplified version of assembly. But if Tomorrow Corporation could put together a sequel that teaches something higher-level like Ruby, Javascript, or C++? Pair with a textbook company to create a programming environment in which assignments are graded by the same mixture of line-efficiency and step-efficiency, and in which errors are so easy to investigate? They could make a lot more money than they currently do making indie games for Nintendo. In fact, the Democratic National Committee might want to have a word with them.

Also: Human Resources Machine is one of the only games that you can find walkthroughs for on GitHub. That’s gotta be worth something.


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Tokyo Mirage Sessions ♯FE

Developer: Atlus
Released: 2015 (North American release 2016)

I already mentioned this above, but Tokyo Mirage Sessions ♯FE was not what I imagined it would be, back when it was first announced as Shin Megami Tensei X Fire Emblem. I expected it to be a turn-based tactics game in the mold of Fire Emblem, perhaps leveraging the Gamepad’s touchscreen, and presumably borrowing some systems from the Shin Megami Tensei franchise. What we got instead was a fairly standard Shin Megami Tensei JRPG, with a few stats, characters, and rock-paper-scissors weapon logic from Fire Emblem layered on top.

Oh, and also it’s about young J-Pop stars, making their way in the hyper-competitive and psychologically demanding world of Japanese pop idol image-maintenance. Yeah … definitely didn’t see that coming, at all.

But what a wonderful surprise! Tokyo Mirage Sessions barrels unashamedly into over-the-top kitsch, to the point where it transcends that kitschiness, arriving at some sort of giddy nirvana. On top of this, the combat is some of the most gratifying that I have ever encountered in an Atlus game—and that includes Persona 5. The more you level up your characters’ relationships and the better you get at pinpointing enemy weaknesses, the more the game plays itself. Normally, a game “playing itself” would be a bad thing, but the spectacle Tokyo Mirage Sessions puts on while playing itself is so goofy and joyous that I never felt a need to complain.

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The combat of Tokyo Mirage Sessions didn’t scratch my itch for touchscreen-intensive gameplay. But I will give credit where credit is due: out of the two games Atlus released back-to-back that use texting as a way to move the story forward, I much prefer Tokyo Mirage Sessions‘ UI to that of Persona 5Persona 5‘s text interface is in keeping with the game’s stylized look, but the Gamepad in Tokyo Mirage Sessions nailed the user experience of texting so much better, drawing me in to a startlingly specific relationship with these characters. Even seemingly small things, like the fact that I was walking around Shibuya Crossing looking down at a screen, rather than up at the world around me (rendered, of course, on a larger screen—but no matter), made me feel intimately connected with these characters. The question of how to integrate texting into visual narratives has been a pressing one in moving-image media. Atlus made a surprisingly good case that an under-utilized second-screen feature on a chronically un-loved game console might point the way forward.

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Star Fox Guard

Developer: PlatinumGames / Nintendo EDP
Released: 2016

I love action-heavy tower defense games. Back when I introduced my list of games of the decade, I acknowledged that the decade was full of games that give me immense enjoyment, but that didn’t quite fit the rubric of that particular list. Sanctum (Coffee Stain Studios, 2011) and Iron Brigade (Double Fine, 2011) rank highly among those. Both of those games tap into an elemental pleasure that I can’t help but think of as highly gendered: the pleasure of setting up your fort (whether in the medium of snow or Legos) and then imagining defending it against an onslaught. For all that videogames have long been stereotyped as pandering to adolescent males, few of them express that primordial little-boy fantasy quite as well as Sanctum or Iron Brigade.

Star Fox Guard falls into this same lineage. It takes what works those other games, and then adds the anxious split attention that the Wii U’s dual-screen setup is so good for. Tension builds as you scan the security cameras, keeping your stylus hand on the ready for quickly switching between turrets on the map, re-grouping and re-organizing as they slowly get disabled. It is a potent mix, and it is frankly a brilliant game. It is exactly the sort of exclusive that the Wii U needed early in its life, to sell the idea that its unique hardware could lead to genuinely fun gameplay innovations. Instead, it appeared late in the console’s life cycle, tethered to a higher-profile game that was, by all reports, a rather janky affair. (I was extremely curious as to how Star Fox Zero‘s Gamepad-heady control scheme would work in practice, but in the end I decided that curiosity wasn’t worth $60. I bought the standalone eShop version of Star Fox Guard, and never looked back.)

The only complaint I have about Star Fox Guard is that large chunks of it are too easy. Early in my playthrough, I was worried about how many levels I was beating on my first try. It struck me as perhaps symptomatic of a lack of confidence on Nintendo and Platinum’s part about the game’s innovations: Were they being overly cautious in their design, over-correcting for the learning curve in the game’s use of the hardware? Were they going too light on the skin-of-your teeth onslaught and repeated failure that characterizes the likes of Sanctum?

Thankfully, the later levels got harder. And, what’s more, the user-generated levels by players who have put in the time to reach level 50 can be truly devious. I died dozens of times attempting to survive a level crafted by one anonymous internet denizen, cursing them at the top of my lungs, while also genuinely thanking them for giving Star Fox Guard some genuine challenge and longevity.


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The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

Developer: Nintendo EDP
Released: 2017

Yeah, it’s a great game. But … really, Nintendo? You expect me to play 60 hours of it with the above image sitting there, illuminating my lap? At least give me the option to turn the Gamepad screen off entirely, to conserve battery power.

Also, come on. A gamepad map would have been a fantastic addition to Breath of the Wild. So, so many times during my playthrough I looked down, ready to tap at my screen to fast-travel somewhere, only to sigh, “oh, right … this isn’t Xenoblade Chronicles X.”

And don’t tell me this is some sort of technological limitation. The aforementioned Xenoblade Chronicles X gave us a giant, lovingly-detailed open world, and had no problem also spitting out a rudimentary map onto the Gamepad screen. And the Sheikah Slate was so obviously meant to be a Gamepad stand-in, from an earlier build of the game that was a proud Wii U game, before you had to go and make it a Switch launch title (and therefore systematically strip out all of the hardware features that might run the risk of making the Wii U version seem “better”). Don’t give me an in-game device I can take selfies with, and then tell me I can’t control it with the tablet I’m holding in my hands.

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And, there you have it. A few standout memories from a console that no one ever seemed to know what to do with. Goodbye, Wii U. You were too quirky for this world.

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*And the 3DS. This post was about the Wii U specifically, and I didn’t want to muck up the main body with that detail. But yeah … that sucks, too.

 

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