"We saw a kind of motion-controls 'gold rush' on the Wii where many, many companies integrated the feature in a crass, thoughtless, or nominal way. [...] 3D is no different, and just as it was before, Nintendo has to show people how to do this stuff."
So wrote Penny Arcade's Tycho recently on the subject of Super Mario 3D Land, and that brought back to mind a thought I had when Nintendo revealed the Wii U: In the post-GameCube era, Nintendo no longer designs hardware; it designs puzzles.
And most developers fail them.
The first test came with the Nintendo DS, and to be sure, most were baffled by what was, at the time of its reveal, only a nebulous collection of seemingly arbitrary ideas. Two screens…because why the hell not! One of them is a touch pad but only one for some reason! Also, there's a microphone, but we're not really sure why yet; we'll get back to you on that! It's not hard to see why developers didn't know what the hell to do with it — even for years after its release.
Nor did it help that Nintendo didn't much lead by example, with Super Mario 64 DS being just a Nintendo 64 game with crummy touch-screen controls padded on. What followed was an extended period of game development experimentation to figure out just exactly what the DS was but also the beginning of an unlikely success story. Nintendo gambled big with the bizarre DS, and when they started to prove its concept with their own games, it paid off. Who could have guessed so many people wanted to scratch the shit out of virtual puppies with a stylus? That made the path for Nintendo clear: double-down.
…Okay, that's a pretty adorable puppy.
The Wii, of course, was almost exactly a DS repeat: weird, new motion controller without a lot of concrete examples of how developers should actually use it, with Nintendo's major launch game being The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess…a GameCube game with waggle controls padded on. And then came the 3DS, which took a handheld that developers had only barely begun to understand and added a third visual dimension just to make it that much more difficult to make awesome games on it. This is almost literally applicable to a "Spock playing 3D chess" metaphor.
And now the Wii U is the purest manifestation of this new design philosophy-to-date.
Here was a console reveal where the console itself wasn't even revealed. Rather, the main attraction at the Wii U's announcement was a sizzle-reel of multiple potential uses for the tablet controller as if to suggest to developers, "OK, folks, put on your thinking caps, take some peyote, and throw on 'Dark Side of the Moon' — it's time for right-brain thinking."
Although, perhaps to say "right-brain thinking" is misleading because the Wii U also serves as a reminder that video games are the ultimate medium where science and art (left and right brain) must converge to create great entertainment. It's not enough to come up with a cool new technology that allows new forms of video-game interaction. The artists in the industry must now create meaningful uses that justify its existence.
The Wii U isn't a new platform option to game makers, it's a challenge: Here are unique, new types of functionality. Now show us your best attempts to prove it's worth a damn.
Alas, game makers are failing. Five years after its launch, you'll still be hard-pressed to make a list of third-party Wii games that used the system's unique features in truly inventive ways (and even fewer that didn't, to a degree, copy ideas Nintendo thought of first). And as the Penny Arcade quote above notes, the same is happening on the 3DS. (Although, I would argue that stereoscopic 3D is a feature with fundamentally limited worth, but that's a topic for another day.)
What the DS, 3DS, and Wii (and soon Wii U) have done, if you'll excuse a lapse into overly dramatic rhetoric, is introduce into the gaming industry a new Darwinian paradigm. Success on the Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3 tends to go, as it mostly should, to games with the prettiest graphics and most rock-solid executions of classic game design. But success on Nintendo's turf is, for the most part, now ordered by madcap creativity — the gauntlet is thrown, and to the most inspired marshaling of these batshit-crazy ideas go the spoils.
And so far, third-party developers have been found wanting, answering with brainless ports and lazy attempts at cash-ins. This is no surprise — lazy is easy. But when the Wii U comes out next year, hopefully more third-party developers will start seeing Nintendo's new console for what it really is: a challenge to galvanize what should be a creative industry into being more creative.