Thursday, November 12, 2009

#50 - Wii

It was the decade when...

Wii all played Tennis is our living rooms.

Nin-ten-do. Like an incantation, these three syllables cast a spell over me growing up in suburban California during the 1980's. Innumerable hours (and brain cells) were lost for all time to epic Zelda adventures and marathon Mario Brother-ing. For my generation, video games had replaced the need for an actual imagination. Nintendo was, in a word, childhood. I lost interest in the machine not long after I learned to play with my own joystick, a healthy development I think.

Years passed. I followed the video game industry about as closely as I did worldwide Badminton rankings. Like many other former enthusiasts, video games had been regulated to the back corners of my memory, near Hungry Hungry Hippos and the lyrics to the Duck Tales theme song. In early adulthood I brushed video games off for a few reasons: the subject matter of video games seemed chronically adolescent, the time commitment required to complete them increasingly steep, and, most of all, the stigma attached to playing them would label me something other than the pseudo-intellectual bourgeoisie theatre queen persona I was so desperately trying to cultivate. A gamer was an immature philistine; a (straight, always straight) man-boy playing with his childhood Lincoln logs, unaware or uninterested in a larger world of culture, literature and art. I was cognizant enough about the state of video games to know that they had assumed an odor (redolent of flop-sweat mixed with Axe spray) of fan-boy machismo; the games were about bigger and bigger guns and more and more extreme representations of violence, an off-putting development to anyone who didn't want to lock n' load.

And then there was Wii. Nintendo originally planned to name their new console "Revolution," and though Wii was the a smarter marketing decision, the name being both cute (so Japanese), memorable and understandable in any language,
"Revolution" would have been a more accurate moniker. Breaking all the rules of the industry, Nintendo rejected the notion that consumers only wanted more and more technologically advanced consoles - machines containing nuts and bolts processing power to rival NASA mainframes. The still-live-in-their-parents-basement crowd were poised to be disappointed by Nintendo's latest offering, waiting as they were for the next Microsoft and Sony behemoths to launch, systems so graphically advanced the players could pretend they were all but plugged into the Matrix, the ultimate Gamer fantasy. What Nintendo provided instead was an innovation so simple (in use if not in technological reality), radical, and fun, it put the old 80's warhorse back on top, all but ruling the console market for the rest of the decade.

By now we all know about Wii's control system, an intuitive, physical way to interface with your avatar, all but eliminating the need for traditional button-control. The Wii turned what was once a couch-potato activity par excellence into a kinetic, on-your-feet experience that upended peoples prejudices and expectations about the whole nature of gaming. Suddenly, not just kids but EVERYONE wanted to swing a Wiimote and volley with a pal in a game of tennis. Even seniors got in the act, the Wii replacing shuffleboard as the physical activity du jour for the geriatric set.

How popular was the Wii? People would do just about anything to get their hands on one, or die trying. Literally. As fast as Nintendo could produce, the demand snatched up the output. I knew investment bankers with one; not usually your target demographic for gaming consoles. And yes, the Wii sucked me back into the fold, and once again I found myself enraptured playing the little red plumber, jumping in and out of sewage pipes and stomping on strange turd-like enemies. Only now, with the insight of maturity, could I understand how psychedelic and sui generis the universe of the Mario Bros game is. What are they smoking in Kyoto, because I want some!

The Wii is still a red hot home electronics item, though there has been blowback from the "hard-core" (funny how something as intrinsically un-hardcore as video games can nonetheless create a small army of pseudo-serious nerds who describe themselves as such) who complain that the Wii does little for people really interested in the forefront of game design; they accuse the Wii of being a crowd-pleasing machine for the proles with little to offer the "serious gamer." It's like a Bruce Springteen fan calling Billy Joel a pussy. Same dynamic. Nintendo, in response, just keeps laughing all the way to the bank.

Cultural saturation tipping point: Jon Stewart's Wii Tennis Match on the 2008 Oscars. The Wii had become a touchstone; a commodity so recognizable and universal Stewart thought the billion people watching would be able to get the joke. The Wii ruled.

With Microsoft's XBOX team creating a new, entirely control-free motion sensor, The Wii's dominance in the market could be coming to a close. But, for now, Nintendo's newest console remains the greatest thing to happen to video games since the invention of the D-Pad. Now, when are they gonna make a new Power Glove? That's what I wanna know!

You AUGHT to remember...

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