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Computer Games Rants Technology

“Red Wizard needs food, badly” *

Nintendo

This Christmas, I received a single video-gaming related item: Prince or Persia, on the Xbox 360. Actually, I can’t remember the last game I bought for the Wii… it may have been Super Smash Bros. Brawl. Why this (not so) sudden apathy for the saviour of the games console? Because after a dream start to a console which has stratospherically exceeded even their own expectations (and perhaps herein lie the seeds of the problem), Nintendo have failed to capitalise on their lead at almost every juncture.

Take their Christmas line-up this year: Wii Music is overpriced and, although I’ve not played it, any software for a games console whose box loudly declares “This is not a game” is already on shaky ground. Animal Crossing probably has it’s fans – but since there’s been little apparent change since the DS version of a couple of years ago, I’d imagine that most potential players will already have moved on. Indeed, the real draw of this game appears to be the Wii Speak microphone peripheral which comes with it… and also requires the download of a software update locked with a single-use code supplied with the hardware.

This really cools my enthusiasm for this device: If my Wii ever breaks, I have to go begging to Nintendo cap in hand for a new unlock code (although, since many saved games and channels are still allowed to be locked to the particular console with no option to create an SD backup, even though these are themselves hardware-locked it would probably be the least of my worries) – but, more to the point, I can’t ever take the device around to a friend’s house to use it there. For a peripheral which claims to allow the entire room to speak and be heard clearly on the other side, this appears to be miserly in the extreme.

But it seems to highlight Nintendo’s entire attitude to gamers who are choosing to invest in their games system: The Star Points, earned over many years since the launch of the GameCube, now expire – and I’ve only just over 1000 left from a high of over 6000. You can now exchange Star Points for Wii points – but rather than converting all Star Point to Wii Points when the service launched, which they should have done, Nintendo decided to instead trickle-feed their fans with a very limited number of Wii Points cards, of which there are never any left except for the top-price 1000 Wii Point card, which costs 4000 Star Points. There are, unsurprisingly, over 200 of these left still. My carefully gathered Star Points have all ebbed away simply whilst waiting for more Wii Points to become available – for someone who has spent a considerable amount of hard-earned cash on Nintendo products and games, this comes as a real kick in the teeth.

And finally, I’ve stopped using the WIi for the same reason that I stopped playing games on PCs: It’s become too much like hard work. Since Nintendo utterly failed to anticipate the storage requirements of the Wii (which is understandable) and have since done nothing at all to address the problem (which isn’t) I now have a Wii with almost no storage space left. Despite having an SD card with several times the storage of the console itself inserted, and (as mentioned) everything on the SD card being locked to the console in any case, Nintendo have not allowed any of this space to be usefully used. This means that I’m not buying Virtual Console games, as I have no space for them. I’m not buying WiiWare games, as I have no space for them. I could delete an existing game that I’ve already paid for, but they I’d have to redownload if I want to play it again – by which point I’d probably have got bored and moved on to something else. I might be able to copy it to the SD card – but given the glacial access speeds, it’s probably actually quicker to redownload anyway. The more people have invested in their console, the more Nintendo is inadvertently punishing them.

Nintendo’s other major failing it their utter incomprehension of the attractions of online gaming. Existing online games, with the possible exception of Mario Kart (now there’d be a great game to upgrade to work with the Wii Speak microphone… it’s a shame that Nintendo seems to have no mechanism to patch games after release) differ little from playing against the computer – there’s so little interaction with other players which is the lifeblood of online gaming. At a more basic level, even, Microsoft’s Achievements system is a stroke of genius – people will go to great lengths to get that last achievement in a game, and enjoy the challenge of so doing. On the Xbox (and now on Windows too) this is standard, integrated and just works. Since Nintendo didn’t have the foresight to include anything like this, any game wishing to include online features must constantly reinvent the wheel, meaning that no two mechanisms are alike. Even Nintendo’s much-hated Friend Code system (the least friendly way of sharing friends’ details I’ve ever encountered) isn’t used consistently – some games are happy to share simply with the console’s UID, some need per-player Friend Codes… which are different for every player with every game.

What could Nintendo possibly do to remedy this? It’s noteworthy that Microsoft’s latest and much-admired Dashboard update, which completely overhauled the Xbox 360’s menu system and added Mii-like Avatars, was still available to Xbox owners without a hard-drive, so long as they had 128Mb free on a memory card.

What Nintendo really has to do to remain relevant as the Xbox and even PS3 (with the forthcoming Home service) is to rethink its approach from the ground up: Start off by updating the Wii firmware to allow fast access to an installed SD card. It a hardware deficiency means that SD access isn’t acceptably fast, bite the bullet and release a Wii hard disc peripheral… I’m sure the markup would more than justify the development work. Whilst products such as the ill-fated MegaCD demonstrate that games publishers don’t target optional hardware, the approach of the XBox 360 does show that this can be handled properly. At the same time, remove the limitations on what content can be copied to external devices – the re-imagined console must be able to run from external storage.

With this in place, announce a well thought out and cohesive online strategy, hopefully tying in to both a Mii-based global achievements system and perhaps even Wii Points/Star Points. To support this, game patches and updates much be able to launch from the external storage and overlay the original games. Nintendo should lead the way in this, adapting its most popular titles (I’m thinking Kart and Brawl to start with) to use the new online achievement system, the Wii Speak device, and hopefully Friend Code-less multiplayer.

With these changes, the Wii might just be able to remain relevant for enough time to see Nintendo into the next iteration of consoles… and then it’ll really be time to see whether the stroke of genius that was the Wii was just a flash in the pan, or whether Nintendo really does have its finger on the pulse to make a jump from the Wii as radical as the Wii was from the GameCube.

* Gauntlet, especially the four-player version, was undoubtedly one of the best arcade machines of the mid-eighties. The fact that it actually had real, digitised speech was, at the time, incredible!

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