A Retrospective Look at the Nintendo Wii U, Part One: Video Gaming in (Wii)Motion

Last month, Nintendo finally released details about its next gaming console, the Switch. Previously referred to by the press as the NX, the Nintendo Switch will replace the Wii U as Nintendo's flagship home console when it becomes available for purchase in March.

By now, I've lost track of how many times magazines, newspapers, blogs and fan posts have declared the Wii U to be a failure as a console, both in terms of total sales and entertainment value. Yet as a long-time video game geek, I'm happy to say that the Wii U is the best console that I've ever had in terms of providing satisfying and memorable video game experiences. Sure, Nintendo dropped the ball in terms of marketing the Wii U and it should have provided more games that effectively utilized its main feature--the GamePad controller--but overall I can't complain about it one bit (no pun intended).

As a sequel system to the Wii, Wii U took everything that worked about its immediate predecessor and added to it in order to create a unique console that does things that others can't. Click below to the first part of this retrospective, which traces the strengths of the Wii U back to the era of arcade coin-ops. Part two will look at the best of what the Wii U had to offer with its unique GamePad controller and what will hopefully be transitioned from Wii U to Switch.

I can list a number of reasons as to why I love the Wii U, but I think my interest in it lies in my long life as a video gamer. I grew up during coin-op arcade era of gaming, which coincided with the first generation of home consoles. Most of the arcade cabinets were straightforward in their control features, which usually consisted of joysticks and one or more buttons.

However, some arcade cabinets came with unique control schemes that made the gaming experience more distinct and engrossing than the average game. For example, rail shooter games would include guns that could shoot digital targets, driving games would include steering wheels to drive digital cars, and so on. The first Star Wars arcade game in 1983 put players into the cockpit of an X-Wing Fighter; thus, the Star Wars arcade cabinet came with a yoke controller that had trigger and thumb buttons in order to re-create details from the X-Wing Fighter battles that were seen in the movies. In the case of the classic Paperboy, the arcade cabinet included a set of bicycle handlebars so that players could better control the bike-riding paperboy on the screen.

Left to right: The arcade cabinets for Star Wars and Paperboy.

Because of their attempts to bring the arcade experience into the living room, home consoles from that era such as the Atari 2600 and ColecoVision also supported additional controllers such as keypads, gun turrets and steering wheels. Yet as the home consoles became the dominant platform for video games during the late '80s and '90s and the arcades began to decline, atypical game controllers largely disappeared. With the exception of an occasional light gun, each of the later generation home consoles only provided controllers that consisted of d-pads, buttons and thumbsticks.

Additional controllers for the Atari 2600 (above) and ColecoVision (below).

Likewise, many vintage arcade games have been ported over to PC platforms and consoles in the years since the heyday of coin-ops and their control schemes have been mapped to standard home gaming interfaces. As a result, the ports of the games with the unique controllers inevitably lose a key aspect of what made those games so memorable in the first place. I still enjoy the vintage Star Wars arcade games and Paperboy, but they just don't feel the same without their unique controllers.

Things changed for the home console controllers when Nintendo released the Wii in 2006. The Wiimotes and nunchuks, the dominant combo control pair for the Wii, also featured d-pads, buttons and thumbsticks; however, because they were motion-based controls, they were versatile enough to accommodate a broad variety of game play and interaction. The Wiimote could be used as a light gun, a steering wheel, a flashlight, a bowling ball, a cell phone, or any number of objects that were part of the game.

I've read many gamers complain that the Wiimote was nothing but a hokey gimmick, but I saw it as Nintendo continuing a tradition that started with the coin-op arcade games decades before: attempting to engage players in games in ways that routine controls simply cannot do. As such, I found many of the Wii games to be much more fun and interesting than what competing consoles were offering. Having the Wiimote and nunchuk provide unique control schemes for games such as Red Steel 2, Silent Hill: Shattered Memories and The Sky Crawlers: Innocent Aces added to their enjoyment and stirred the imagination more than standard controllers could. (By the way, this is also the reason why I'm still supremely miffed that Star Wars Rogue Squadron: Rogue Leaders was never released for the Wii.)

The Wii U has frequently been criticized for not doing enough to differentiate itself from the Wii, which is probably true. However, given how the Wii U's GamePad controller works alongside the Wiimotes, the Wii U was clearly intended to capture the same sense of creative play as the Wii. The GamePad has the same amount of flexibility as the Wiimote; even though its dominant feature is a built-in touch screen, its motion control capabilities and microphone and camera features allow for more opportunities for play. As such, in games such as Lego City Undercover, ZombiU and Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water, the GamePad itself becomes a tool to use within the games' virtual environments.

The Wii U GamePad, as it interacts with the worlds of Lego City Undercover (above) and
Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water (below).

To put things in another perspective, video games can be looked at as games, but they can also be looked at as interactive toys. Where the Wii and Wii U excelled is that they allowed gamers to play with the controllers as if they were toys--not just controllers. Many gamers may balk at the idea of video games being toys but I think this approach is what has kept Nintendo so entertaining and charming for so long, even when its consoles under-perform financially. Games need to provide creative and imaginative challenges in order to get people interested in them, but the spirit of play--to play with something and to be playful in spirit--is just as important. Microsoft and Sony may not get that, but Nintendo sure does.

Stay tuned for part two of my Wii U retrospective. Oh, Wii U ... wii hardly knew ye.


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