Sunday, 13 March 2016

Wii Memories


It feels a bit...wrong to be typing up a post with the word 'memories' in the title for a console that was released in the relatively recent year of 2006 but pause for a moment and consider that 2006 was ten years ago. A lot has changed since then (not least Nintendo's own fortunes) and gamers have had the oppurtunity to decide how good Nintendo's Wii really was now that we are well clear of the unforseen wordlwide craze that the motion-control machine inspired. I've wanted to make this post for a while now but laziness (evident from the gap between this update and the previous post) and other things have took precedence. Partly-inspired by Red Parsley's exploration of the Wii and partly by my own irritation at people claiming that the Wii "has no games", these are my memories of the system.

To go back to the past, I have to begin in the present and with the recent purchase of the shiny new PS4 underneath my TV. There are now enough 'essential' games on the system that I'm interested in playing so adding the fourth Playstation machine to my set-up was bordering on necessary. However, I didn't ever feel that magical kind of hype or excitement in the run-up to the PS4's release and I can say exactly the same for the Wii-U and PS3 before that. As much as love these consoles and the large collection of fantastic games that I've truly adored across them, they are still simply pieces of hardware that allow me to play said games. The Wii was the last console that I was genuinely excited for. The possibilities were immense and I would hungrily absorb any new info from the Nintendo-centric magazines of the time, watch every demo or preview video of the games multiple times over and so on. There was one particular magazine DVD from the last E3 before the Wii's launch that featured the ill-fated Project H.A.M.M.E.R (amongst many other games) and loads of show floor footage from the expo and this disc took a battering.

Ultimately, the potential of motion-control was never fully realised thanks to a slew of games that were simply harder or too fiddly to play when using gestures. Motion+ eventually allowed for the sorts of games that we had been expecting from the very start (Wii Sports Resort, EA's Grandslam Tennis and Red Steel 2) but it was too late. Simple party, dance and fitness games that didn't challenge the remote too much ensured a mass-market appeal that got a Wii into the most unlikely of homes around the world while 'core' gamers either quietly got on with traditional titles or fled to the familiar safety net of the 360 and PS3. Many such as myself remained faithful though and were rewarded with some truly enjoyable and original games that often went below the radar but more on that later.

Likely abadoned for being repetitive but it could have been great...

Back to 2006 though and I was a loyal Gamecube owner (eventually owning it in tandem with a PS2) looking forward to Nintendo's new machine. The final 'Wii' name was originally a pain to use in serious conversation about videogames (I much preferred 'Revolution') but that didn't matter and I ended up with a console of my own sometime after the initial sell-out phase when standard bundles were trading hands for many times the £179.99 RRP. My first memory of using the console was of discovering that the accelerometer functions in the remote didn't work. That meant playing a brand-new one-armed version of Wii Sports boxing and being able to shoot in Red Steel but not swing a sword around. One replacement from the shop later and I was up and running for real. Wii Sports is often considered a party or dreaded 'casual' game these days but I've always considered it a fantastic piece of software and easily one of the best all-time pack-in products to get people talking. All of the included sports were great fun to play alone or with others and I have fond memories of relaxing golf sessions, furious boxing bouts (which doubled as genuine exercise in long stints) and challenging baseball matches.

The first 'proper' game I played was Ubisoft's Red Steel, an FPS that garnered some high review scores at the time but has subsequently come to be regarded as awful. Obviously the sensation of being able to freely aim your shooter with the remote and fire with the underside 'B' trigger button was a revolutionary way of going about a console FPS and once acclimatised to the controls, reviewers were happy to slap a 90% rating on the game. There were - admittedly - a lot of control inconsistencies at times, rigid first-person sword battles with strict commands and highly linear progression which meant that the initial gloss quickly wore away once Red Steel was no longer new. Personally I loved the game. There were some nice touches such as being able to turn a pistol on its side, gangsta style and it had a classic, uncomplicated shooter feel. I can completely see why the game is scorned today but back then it was incredible. Would I be so enamoured if I had only just purchased the game yesterday? Perhaps not but you don't forget your first love on a console fresh from its packaging. The later Red Steel 2 was higly superior on a technical level and compatibility with M+ remotes/expansions ensured that truly free sword fighting was at last included. I highly recommend the sequel to anybody looking for 'real' games on the Wii but for me, the desert-located steampunk world wasn't as endearing as the offices and docks that I shot up in the original. I only kept one of the two Red Steel games and if you take a look at the opening photograph, you should be able to spot which one I prefer to return to.

Gangsta style shootin' fo' real...and all that stuff.

The following years saw the creation of a software library full of excellent Nintendo sequels, some great third-party games, several outstanding RPG's and a lot of quirky or niche releases. Backed up by Nintendo's first version of the e-shop - selling digital-only games and a fat selection of retro re-releases - and the reassuringly enormous install base, it was a great time to own a Nintendo machine. From a personal perspective, I loved the arcade lightgun conversions (House of the Dead 2&3 Return, Ghost Squad, Gunblade NY/LA Machineguns), unique stylish games (House of the Dead Overkill, No More Heroes, Madworld), the RPG's (Xenoblade Chronicles, The Last Story) and of course, some killer Nintendo first-party releases. There were a few dark times of course. We didn't get Fatal Frame IV at all, several adult games were severely criticised by the irritating and mis-informed "won't somebody think of the children" brigade and a large number of Wii units had to be repaired due to their inability to deal with dual layer discs but overall it was a highly enjoyable time. While I will fiercely champion the Wii's more than reasonable range of 'gamer's' games in the face of ignorant criticism, even I will admit that the monster sales and exposure were a complete fluke. Nintendo inadvertedly tapped into a huge new market of females and the older generation that weren't previously involved in gaming but subsequently only stuck around to ride the wave of the Wii's popularity and this is harshly reflected in the Wii-U's dismal performance and mass-market appeal.

The facts and figures don't really matter though (or else I wouldn't be a content Wii-U owner). What matters is the memory of the Wii being the last console to get me eagerly anticipated for a release date and I have a disappointing suspicion that I might not feel the same way again. After all, it promised to be different and fresh - not something you can say about the PS4 and Xbox One which have the same aims and software direction as their predecessors - while also hosting the same Mario and Zelda (amongst others) titles that had made Nintendo's past consoles so worth owning. Maybe it's being slightly older (and cynical) or perhaps there's a feeling of "been there, seen that" about modern gaming. Having a large backlog of games to play and buy for previous consoles probably dampens the appetite for another new platform as well. Whatever the reasons, I am sure about one thing though: The Wii...one hell of a special console.

My Top 5 Wii Games...

This one is actually difficult to call because while my Playstation collections are quite large (even after getting rid of stuff I'd never replay), my Wii collection is notably smaller yet more concentrated in terms of enjoyable experiences. To that end, I've decided to list a few honourable mentions that were very close to making the Top 5:
  • Kirby's Epic Yarn (very easy game but ludicrously charming and artistically fascinating)
  • Super Paper Mario (can't top the Gamecube Paper Mario but is almost up there...almost)
  • Resident Evil 4 (the best-looking, most complete and must intuitive edition of one of the greatest games of all time. Absolutely definitive)
  • Tatsunoko Vs Capcom (completely unexpected but worthy of the 'Vs' heritage)
  • Geometry Wars Galaxies (a twin stick shooter that seems like it was in fact made for the Wii remote/nunchuck)
  • No More Heroes 2 (classic Suda51: offensive, crude, weird, stylish, artistic...and much more besides.
I could keep listing but that would be silly. Instead, let's jump straight into the REAL top five. In no particular order...

1. Super Mario Galaxy


Predictable? Perhaps but then again, Mario Galaxy is exactly the kind of game that should be in everybody's Wii Top 5. I'll freely admit that I've never been as fanatical about Mario's 2D adventures in the same way that NES and SNES owners tend to be but the 3D games are a favourite of mine. Super Mario Galaxy took the tired 3D platforming blueprints and stomped all over them with great big mucky plumber's boots. Gone were traditional flat levels and in were worlds constructed of collections of spherical planetoids to blast between. Gravity played a central part in the core platforming and simply running and jumping around the entire surface of the first tiny planetoid was a thrill in itself. Throw in the action-packed set-pieces, staple Mario enemies and themes, some devilish challenges and we had one hell of a special platformer. A stunning, catchy orchestral score (that remained faithful to the familiar Mario tunes) and sumptuous visuals that took a dump all over the notion of an "out of date" non-HD machine meaning crap graphics topped off an essential package. The sequel was bigger and arguably better but the original Galaxy will always be my favourite of the two for the impact it made.

2. Disaster: Day of Crisis


If ever there was a sleeper hit that deserved a little more exposure than it received then Disaster: Day of Crisis - a game that was shown before the Wii's release then disappeared for a long time before miraculously returning - would surely win the trophy. Here was a game that played out like a cheesy Hollywood disaster movie with the hero getting caught up in a series of natural catastrophes one after the other in a completely unrealistic way. The set pieces are dramatic and frequent and each stage includes a number of enjoyable cover-based lightgun shooting sections that feel as if they have been ripped right out of a Time Crisis game. More impressive was how Disaster utilised the unique Wii controls in every way possible to provide a highly interactive experience that genuinely worked, utterly embarrassing the games which either didn't bother or featured tacked-on, unresponsive motion controls. You shook the remote and nunchuck to flee walls of water, twisted the remote to simulate turning the key in a truck's ignition and used the power of motion to administer CPR to unconscious victims of disasters. You drove a car, lifted rubble from trapped civilians and leapt across gaps. It looked great, successfully catered itself to the host hardware and was a rollercoaster ride of action yet very few gamers seemed interested. I urge anybody who hasn't to give Disaster: Day of Crisis a go.

3. Muramasa: The Demon Blade


Nobody does 2D in the modern age like Vanillaware and this mastery of jaw-dropping art is showcased in all of their releases. Muramasa was a welcome surprise on the Wii, even more so when Western publishers took a punt and actually released it over here. Killer old-school 2D hack 'n slash platforming met backgrounds and characters that were achingly beautiful to behold within their traditional, historic Japanese setting. It was best played with the Classic Controller Pro so this isn't a game that showcases the Wii's special assets but there was absolutely no grounds for complaining on this one occasion. If you gravitate towards retro 2D gaming or have a strong interest in games with a strong emphasis on flaunting art then Muramasa is something you have to experience. If you don't own a Wii or Wii-U to run the disc on then it was later re-released in an expanded form for the Playstation Vita handheld.

4. Wii Sports


I've already spoken about this fantastic pack-in title in the main article above so I won't ramble on any further here. Clean-cut fun distilled into its simplest, endlessly playable form.

5. The Last Story


Ask most gamers what their favourite JRPG' are and they will likely reel off the same 16 and 32bit classics that deserve their legendary status' but also serve to remind us that the bulk of modern day JRPG's don't have those same endearing qualities that remain with us long after the credits have rolled. Today, the JRPG is usually either a forgettable Square Enix effort or a zany anime-styled game leaking innuendos and questionable fan service at the seams so for an original game to capture my attention and stand amongst my favourites is a bit of a feat. On paper, The Last Story should always have been a recipe for success. The former Final Fantasy writer Hironubu Sakaguchi's Mistwalker studio teamed up with celebrated FF composer Nobuo Uematsu to bring a beautiful new JRPG to our Wii's near the end of the white box's lifespan. The game was quite easy (it doesn't demand a lot of level/stat grinding to beat) and not a 100+ hour saga that takes an age to beat (not necessarily a bad thing) but it featured an enjoyable real-time battle system that would have made the former easy to swallow anyway.

More importantly, TLS takes place in a vibrant and living (if limited) world and it was certainly no chore to roam the city streets and drink in its quaint charm while listening to the soothing soundtrack. New, believable British voice-overs were recorded for the Western version which is a nice touch especially when you're in the tavern, surrounded by various, familiar regional dialects that are 100% authentic and not put on. It's easy to grow attached to these guys - northern lass Seren for example - and it quickly became a game that I didn't want to end. For this one, I ended up with the limited edition boxset and (imported) 4-disc CD sountrack collection.

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