Wii 2010 Year in Review

Best year yet, or the beginning of the end?

In what many are predicting to be the Wii’s last year of console market dominance, 2010 turned out to be a year of stellar game releases for Nintendo’s little white box–perhaps it’s best year yet. While competitors played catch-up with gesture-based gaming solutions of their own to capture the ever elusive “casual” market, it was mainly a back to basics year for Wii that will be remembered for nostalgia-driven releases and surprising third-party successes.

And of course, it’s worth mentioning that all of this occurred in the shadow of what is shaping up to be Nintendo’s most eagerly anticipated product yet, the glasses-free Nintendo 3DS. 2011 will pose some challenges for Wii with even Nintendo’s most devoted fans finding themselves having to spend their hard eared dollars wisely when 3DS launches in early Spring along with a slew of exciting launch window titles from some of gaming’s most celebrated franchises (both first and third party).

But it’s easy for game enthusiasts who ride the bleeding edge of the industry to lose sight of just how well positioned Nintendo’s console is, going into the the twilight of it’s lifespan. If history is any indication, year five has represented a time of robust sales for gaming’s most popular consoles such as the NES and the PS2, with aggressive price cuts making game consoles accessible to even the most casually interested consumers. And for a console who made it’s name for catering to the unique needs of that type of demographic, the prospect of a $99 Wii brings with it some pretty remarkable possibilities for just how big the Wii install base can become before the final bell rings.

Case in point: although many industry pundits described Wii’s entry into the streaming video space via Netflix as hampered by lack of high definition output, Neilson recently reported that Wii owners spend 20% of their time on the console watching movies and television shows via streaming video–this compared to PS3’s 9% and 360’s 10%. Netflix’s success on Wii (enhanced by the recent update that no longer requires a disc for the service), makes the idea of a $99 Wii even more attractive to prospective late-adopters pairing this generation’s most popular video game console with on-demand video at an approachable price.

And just how do you make the leap from today’s $199 Wii to a $99 one? Well, we’re kind of already half way there. The 2010 holiday season has seen dozens of deals from some of the most popular online and brick-and-mortar retailers. For starters, earlier this year Nintendo introduced new bundles priced at the same $199 price point that now included Wii Sports Resort and a Wii Motion Plus adapter bundled in. By bundling in a game that most Wii owners were eventually purchasing anyway, this essentially brought the cost of the original Wii console (console, wii remote, nunchuck and Wii Sports) to $150. Most retailers further emphasized this value by clearing out remaining stock of the original Wii console at $149.99.

Later in the year as the holidays approached, retailers such as Walmart, Amazon.com, Target, and Best Buy began offering rebates in the form of gift cards ranging from $25 to $50 with the purchase of a new $199 Wii bundle, further increasing the value of picking up a new Wii. At the time that I’m writing this about a week before Christmas, Walmart is offering a weekend in-store deal pairing a $199 Wii (all colors) with a $75 gift card. It’s not that far of a stretch to expect a $99 Wii to debut in time for the holidays in 2011. Don’t listen to Reggie or Mr. Iwata when they tell you price cuts aren’t coming soon–it would directly hamper current sales of the console today if they made any type of announcement alluding to an imminent decrease in price for the console. They’d be foolish to tip their cards.

And what else should we expect for Wii in 2011? Many are using history as an indicator that Nintendo could announce it’s next home console in 2011, probably at E3 in the summer. After all, every Nintendo console’s successor since the original Super Nintendo succeeded the NES has been announced within the fifth year of it’s predecessor’s launch. That certainly is a compelling reason for Nintendo fans to expect an announcement in 2011.

What do I think? I feel that recent economic conditions call for a longer console cycle as Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo have indicated at various times this generation. Add to that the rate at which the space has changed this year: Apple’s rise to gaming relevance, Sony’s ongoing recovery from one of the worst starts in console history, and finally Microsoft’s sudden success with it’s Kinect peripheral. Whatever ideas Nintendo may have had in mind for Wii’s successor at the beginning of 2010 would almost certainly be outdated by now if they expect to draw gamer attention away from all of the available choices of unique experiences now available. And while this isn’t the right article for a deep-dive on Wii 2 speculation, Nintendo will need to do something really special this time around. Wii’s success may have been unpredictable at the time, but in hindsight it was fairly easy to differentiate yourself when your competitors were offering outdated experiences that offered nothing new outside of pixels and prohibitive pricing. Now that every competitor has followed Nintendo’s lead with unique and approachable games at affordable price points, Nintendo will need to once again “zig” when everyone else is “zagging”, or else risk going dormant another generation as it did with the GameCube.

The reality on an announcement of some kind is likely somewhere in between. As we saw with 3DS, an “announcement” can be something as nebulous and unexpected as a short, generic memo from Nintendo of Japan revealing that “it’s coming”. Heck, when Wii was first unveiled as codename “Revolution”, neither the controller nor the fact that the system would feature motion-based games was revealed. I think we can expect similar secrecy leading up to a formal announcement of Wii’s successor, particularly in light of the competition’s unapologetic and shameless copying of just about everything Nintendo has done in this generation.

One thing is for certain, and that’s that 2011 will start off with a bang early on. As we’ve seen the past two years, you don’t get a true picture of Wii’s sales for any one year until you factor in the holiday shopping season which is still underway. Last year game journalists had all but dug the hole and placed the tombstone in October when holiday sales resulted in Wii sweeping in and making up most of it’s sales in the final two months of the year–once again leaving competing consoles in the dust. And of course, January will also kick off with the long anticipated Zelda franchise release, Skyward Sword. Aside from a certain Italian plumber who shall remain nameless, no one moves more software (and hardware by extension) than Link.

So before closing the books on 2010, I’d like to share my thoughts as to the year’s “hits and misses” for Nintendo Wii.

Wii’s 2010 Hits:

First-Party: Super Mario Galaxy 2, Sin & Punishment: Star Successor, Kirby’s Epic Yarn, and Donkey Kong Country Returns. All were fantastic, top-shelf titles that were both critically acclaimed and enjoyed retail success. Each capitalized on the typical Wii gamer’s penchant for nostalga-gaming by bringing fresh experiences to treasured franchises. Any publisher would kill for a year with at least one A+ retail hit for each quarter.

Third-Party: Sky Crawlers: Innocent Aces, Fragile Dreams: Farewell Ruins of the Moon, No More Heroes 2: Desperate Struggle, Tatsunoku vs. Capcom: Ultimate Stars, Red Steel 2, Monster Hunter Tri, Trauma Team, Ivy the Kiwi, New Carnival Games, Disney’s Guilty Party, NBA JAM, Epic Mickey, Sonic Colors, Just Dance 2, Goldeneye 007, and Call of Duty: Black Ops. 2010 further erased the notion that third-party game makers can’t find success on Wii. Each title found (varying degrees of) success either critical, retail or both. I can with confidence recommend any of these games to anyone looking for a great Wii game to play.

WiiWare: Rage of the Gladiator, Cave Story, WarioWare DIY Showcase, Zombie Panic in Wonderland, BIT.TRIP.RUNNER, Art Style: light trax, Art Style: Rotozoa, Jett Rocket, HoopWorld, Heavy Fire Special Operations, Mega Man 10, Dive: The Medes Islands Secret, And Yet It Moves, BIT.TRIP.FATE, and Fluidity. Although WiiWare has lost mindshare among gamers who’s digital gaming needs are arguably being more effectively fulfilled by portable devices, it wasn’t for lack of great games on the service. Pricing along with the antiquated (and annoyingly unfair) practice of not allowing gamers to move their games to a new console have been the biggest factors hindering the service from meeting it’s potential. With so many Wii’s in so many homes, the stage was set for success and not capitalized on. The recent addition of demos is a step in the right direction, but these issues need to be addressed just to get to a starting point if Nintendo expects to have any success in the downloadable games space next generation. In the meantime, for those masochists among us who still indulge in what WiiWare has to offer, the games listed here represent the best of 2010’s offerings and are more than worthy of your Nintendo Points.

Also Noteworthy: THQ’s uDraw Gametablet. Originally written off by many as just another Wii add-on, early indications are that THQ’s $70 drawing tablet bundle has seen surprisingly brisk sales over the holiday shopping season. With a little better game support (there are only two rather forgettable titles available outside the box), THQ could have a sleeper hit on their hands to take exclusive advantage of Wii’s large install base.

Wii’s 2010 Misses:

First-Party: Metroid: Other M, Super Mario Bros. All-Stars 25th Anniversary Edition, and FlingSmash. Let’s face it, there were a lot of crappy Wii games this year that aren’t even worth mentioning in an article in the first place, so I’ll focus on the ones that should have been great but were not. As much as I wanted to like Metroid: Other M, neither the pedigree of it’s developer not the storied franchise the game is based on could save the game from it’s own identity crisis. The game is a mish-mash of playstyles that clumsily transition to and from each other, paired with a storyline no one asked for or even wanted. And while it’s not a completely horrible experience (there are far worse games on the platform), this game was simply incapable of meeting the kind of expectations the Metroid franchise calls for. The folks at Retro Studios have reason to pat themselves on the back for setting the bar so high with the Prime series, especially in light of how well Donkey Kong Country Returns turned out. Being awarded the Donkey Kong franchise as a consolation prize after three successful Metroid games must have been a tough pill to swallow.

While attractive as a collectible to the Nintendo faithful, many gamers felt that the included book, soundtrack, and shiny red box that contained Super Mario Bros. All-Stars 25th Anniversary Edition didn’t make up for the barebones approach Nintendo took to the game disc. And while a re-imagining of those classics would likely have inspired outrage among the same crowd (some people just enjoy complaining), $29.99 does seem like a steep price to pay for something that obviously involved very little cost to produce. It would have made for a much cooler Club Nintendo Elite reward than the statuette we received, but then those same complainers would have thrown tantrums at the thought of not having the opportunity to purchase the game. Because we all know Wii’s biggest critics don’t buy Wii games anyway, making Club Nintendo rewards inaccessible, right? That’s okay, they enjoy complaining about those too hehe.

As far as Flingshash goes, it’s hardly the best game to showcase the abilities of the new integrated Wii Motion Plus remote, and it’s bundling in with the controller seems like an afterthought at best. It’s worth a snag if you need or want the controller, but it never would have been published as a standalone retail disc.

Third-Party: Raving Rabbids: Travel in Time, Sonic and Sega’s All-Star Racing, and Shiren the Wanderer. Same deal here–there were many games on the platform in 2010 that weren’t worth playing, but I’ll focus on the ones that never met their potential. Among this group the latest Rabbids game was most disappointing, particularly considering what a fantastic game the previous installment (Rabbids Go Home) turned out to be. Travel in Time brought the series back to mediocrity without even the fun party elements to redeem it. Sega’s Sonic MarioKart rip-off turned out to be just that–in usual Sega fashion the colorful and impressive visuals were hampered by uninspired game mechanics and sloppy controls. Shiren the Wanderer turned out to be a poor attempt to bring the popular mystery dungeon series from handled to console. Dull, washed-out textures and way too much reading for a console game doomed the game to being tolerated by only the most faithful fans of the series.

WiiWare: Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, Ghostslayer, Military Madness: Nectaris, and Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 1. Capcom’s straight-up ports from DS to WiiWare of the Phoenix Wright series games were just plain embarrassing–those games have no business being played on a television without (perhaps) a complete overhaul. Ghostslayer had potential with it’s use of Motion Plus, but never properly used the additional range of motion control to make it anything other than a short and forgettable adventure game. Nectaris was a rare lazy outing from Hudson and didn’t give the Military Madness franchise nearly the amount of attention it deserves. And there’s really nothing else I can say about Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 1 that hasn’t been stated repeatedly by anyone who’s played it. It’s the poster child for slapping a fresh coat of pixels on a game franchise as a priority rather than focusing on game mechanics. The fact that it’s name includes an episode number clearly indicates that Sega expects gamers to line up for seconds of this heaping pile of dog poo. Without a complete overhaul, you’ll want to skip Episode 2 as well.

Also Noteworthy: Wii Remote Plus: While the Wii Motion Plus add-on adapter itself sold millions, it was always an obvious and much needed step for Nintendo to take in bringing an integrated Wii Remote/Motion Plus solution to gamers. Whether or not it was a story of too little too late, the real missed opportunity here was in marketing the new integrated controller to help Wii’s casual audience get their heads around exactly why they need to replace their old Wii remotes. Now that there are other players in the gesture-based gaming space, I would have expected to have seen new Wii kiosks along side all those Playstation Move and Xbox Kinect displays in malls and electronics stores. It’s possible that the lack of a great first party game to showcase Motion Plus drove the move (or lack of move) to push the marketing on the new controller, with Wii Sports Resort looking way too much like Wii Sports for the average consumer and The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword having been pushed back to 2011. It would not have been “Nintendo-like” to push Ubisoft’s Red Steel 2 as the premiere Motion Plus game, although it is (in my opinion) without a doubt.