Exactly Who Is Going to Play Nintendo's Sequel to the Wii?

Jeff Ryan, author of Super Mario: How Nintendo Conquered America, talks about what to make of Nintendo's new console, Wii U.

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Nintendo's Wii U GamePad and console are unveiled in September. (AP Images)

Jeff Ryan knows Nintendo. His Super Mario: How Nintendo Conquered America tells the story of the century-old company as a video game seller in this country, from its start as the peddler of mediocre arcade games to its current status as an industry behemoth whose name is synonymous with first-party quality. We asked Jeff for his thoughts on Nintendo's new console, the Wii U, which launches Sunday.


How does Wii U fit into the context of Nintendo as a business?

For about 20 years Nintendo were going back and forth between thinking of themselves as a toy company and thinking of themselves as an entertainment company. They tried to become an electronics company; every Nintedo console from the Famicom on had some kind of modem capability. They tried to set up AOL-style walled gardens. They had a huge install base, but their install base wasn't interested.

At some point right after N64 they realized that they weren't going to be an electronics company. They were going to be the company that gives us Mario and Link. They embraced that with the GameCube by saying it wouldn't have a DVD player and it wouldn't play CDs—the things that you could do on the Xbox and the PlayStation 2.

That was to their detriment; the GameCube came in third and rightfully so, even though it was the cheapest console in that generation. They went back to their amusement roots for the Wii, and they developed hardware that you couldn't play unless you had a Wii.

But the rest of the industry has caught up. The Kinect is doing things that you can't do with the Wii. With the Wii U, Nintendo was looking for another kind of hardware that you can't play on 360 or PS3. On that level, it continues Nintendo's trend of offering hardware limitation. If it's good enough, people will buy it, and other game companies will copy them.

Do you see the strategy of imposing hardware limitations as a contrivance purely for Nintendo to stay competitive with the big boys or a genuine dedication to innovating new ways of playing?

Both sides of that are right, though I really do think they lean more towards wanting to offer a new style of gameplay than to freezing other people out. Nintendo has yet to make a standard shooter. The closest thing they've done over the past three decades was to make Metroid a first person game, and even then it was a first person exploration game, not a standard shooter. It would be the easiest thing in the world for Nintendo to make a military shooter that would sell five million copies, but they won't because they couldn't make it sufficiently different. The ultimate proof of their innovation is that people copy them down the road.

The Wii had a very obvious and elegant elevator pitch that I could give cogently to my grandmother. I'm not sure the Wii U has that; I've been reading about it for more than a year and I'm still not sure I totally understand the nugget. How do you think this will effect the new system?

I think it will hurt. People didn't quite get the 3DS because a "3D game" doesn't mean the same thing to everyone. They need to come up with a better elevator pitch because "asymmetrical gameplay" doesn't sound like something eight-year-olds will be bragging to each other about on the playground.

It's also asking a lot of developers. You could probably develop a fantastic two-person football game, for example, but that takes a lot of work and then you can't just port over the PS3 version of the new Madden and expect it to work that way. I'm not sure developers will jump onboard to make a games like that. The art doesn't come first too much in the video game world.

I have this feeling, and it's not backed up by too much evidence, that the Wii U is kind of a stopgap effort. When the Virtual Boy came out the idea was that it was Nintendo's way of not putting out a true 32-bit system. They were going to wait out the 32-bit cycle and put out the N64 first. I think they don't have a true successor to the Wii so they've taken a Wii and are offering HD graphics and a new controller, but not a radical change to gaming. Other than the controller, it's like, you're just joining the 21st century when it comes to computing power.

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