Join GameSpot as we celebrate gaming history and give recognition to the most influential games of the 21st century. These aren’t the best games, and they aren’t necessarily games that you need to rush out and play today, but there’s no question that they left an indelible impact on game developers, players, and in some cases, society at large.
There’s no denying that Nintendo’s current identity is deeply tied to the lasting influence and legacy of the Wii. The innovative motion-control-centric console broke down the restrictive barriers on games with a novelty done right, successfully opening the medium’s floodgates to new audiences. But the Wii would not be the smash hit it was if not for its massively popular pack-in, Wii Sports. A mini-game collection that emphasized simplicity and accessibility above all else, Wii Sports wasn’t about blowing your mind with spectacular high-definition graphics, nor was it keen on being the revolutionary next step in game design. Like the Wii, it focused on one thing: reaching people who had not played video games before. Wii Sports single-handedly drove the success of the motion-control trend while expanding the game industry’s demographic reach. But more importantly, it set the trajectory for how the industry would approach accessibility.
It’s hard to imagine what Nintendo would be like today without the success of the Wii. During the generation prior, the GameCube garnered positive reception but proved to be one of Nintendo’s weakest-performing in sales. Dwindling third-party support, limited online support, and lack of DVD functionality also created a significant disparity between the console and its competitors. Despite Nintendo’s historical influence on the industry, the company was struggling to maintain market relevance for the first time since rising to prominence in the ’80s. This made the Wii’s humble processing power and emphasis on motion-controls all the riskier. In a volatile industry where competitors were constantly trying to one-up the power of each other’s boxes, the Wii felt like an all-or-nothing play.
Based on the technical specifications of the Wii and where the games industry was going in the mid-2000s, it looked like the console was going to end up an ambitious yet short-lived footnote in history. And perhaps it would’ve been if not for Wii Sports. Like the console, it exemplified a philosophy of accessibility that set itself apart from the more complex multiplayer shooters and cinematic adventures both Microsoft and Sony were offering. Wii Sports was easy to understand, basing its motion-controlled mini-games around universally popular sports like tennis, bowling, baseball, and golf. Each game was instantly intuitive where simply observing how the Wii remote’s motion-sensing tech worked was enough to get in on the action. Importing user-created Mii avatars into the proceedings further elevated the inclusive charm of playing alongside family and friends.
Wii Sports was great fun, but it wasn’t the most mechanically complex game out there. Critics were quick to point out how the collection felt more proof-of-concept than anything else. The late Ryan Davis, former GameSpot editor and Giant Bomb co-founder, said in his review: “Though there’s still kind of a tech-demo feel to Wii Sports, it’s a fun, unique package you’ll enjoy so long as you don’t expect too much detail from it.” IGN’s Matt Cassamasina shared a similar sentiment. “Play it for an hour with friends and you’ll love it, but the title sacrifices incredible depth and visuals for an immediately accessible experience.”
It’s true that Wii Sports lacked nuance but its elegant simplicity was more than enough to excite a massive audience both young and old, experienced and inexperienced–the exact demographic Nintendo was looking to attract. Almost immediately after Wii and Wii Sports hit stores, you’d hear stories of parents, who never once expressed interest in games, asking if their kids could set them up to play Wii Sports. The universal appeal spoke for itself, and thanks to a marketing campaign that showcased just that, hundreds of people were lining up to purchase a Wii for Wii Sports alone. The game’s impact even stretched outside the living room in subsequent years; it was used to help the elderly exercise in senior homes, it helped patients recovering in physical therapy, and it even served as a training tool in medical schools to improve surgeon hand-eye coordination during laparoscopic procedures.
Though there were several experiences on the Wii that contributed to its cultural and financial success, it was Wii Sports that became synonymous with the console. The game sparked an oversaturated market of imitators from various developers, which unfortunately served to the console’s detriment. If you entered a games store during that time, you were often met by a sea of Wii Sports clones. None would capture the magic of Nintendo’s pack-in, but it certainly didn’t stop publishers from trying–even Sony and Microsoft. The Wii’s success by way of Wii Sports was unprecedented, which naturally influenced both industry giants to produce their own unique lines of accessible hardware and Wii Sports-like mini-game collections. Sony had its more advanced motion-tracking PlayStation Move controllers, while Microsoft removed controllers from the equation entirely with the Kinect, a webcam-style (though much more advanced) peripheral that made your body the controller. Where both offered intriguing new takes on motion-control tech and design, neither would make the same impact.
No matter which console you’re playing, the legacy of Wii and Wii Sports is present and lasting.
The popularity of Wii and Wii Sports was lightning in a bottle, a pioneering accomplishment that would set the stage for games moving forward. That prosperity reverberated across the industry, emphasizing design that could appeal to a wider market. The Wii recultivated and expanded the audience for games, resulting in an even greater demand for experiences that anyone could pick up and play. Not all companies would strive for the simplicity exhibited by Wii Sports, and subsequent experiments and iterations varied in quality, but the hunger that Nintendo inspired in developers and publishers to pursue game design with universal appeal remained.
Nintendo’s reputation shifted in the industry thanks to the Wii and Wii Sports. Both challenged people’s perception of games and who could play them. While the company’s equally popular DS handheld was also influential in this regard, the innovation of the Wii fully cemented Nintendo as a creative force well-capable of producing brilliant unorthodox games and hardware. It’s why audiences barely batted an eye when Nintendo announced that the Switch would be a similarly underpowered console and that it would focus on portable play. Nintendo proved with the Wii that it’s not all about graphical fidelity and technical power, but about what games can do and how you can play them. On the other hand, Wii Sports’ innovative approach to motion-controls as a natural extension of your will appears today in VR, a platform that’s directly continuing from where the Wii left off. No matter which console you’re playing, the legacy of Wii and Wii Sports is present and lasting.
In the 13 years since the launch of Wii Sports, we continue to reap the benefits of Nintendo’s gamble. Without that industry shaking success, the much-loved company would likely be a very different entity than it is today. Nintendo’s subsequent attempts at iterating upon the formula of Wii Sports never quite received the same fervor, but it did little to discourage the company from reaching into the same outside-the-box thinking that inspired the pack-in. It’s clear now more than ever that Nintendo is a company that continues to attract both new and old audiences with its accessibility and creativity; a quality that truly sets it apart from the technical, more traditional leanings of its competitors. But this reputation would not exist if not for that little white box and the infectious sports mini-game collection it came with.
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Author: Matt Espineli