Should I buy a Wii? Lessons from the Gamecube on the future of Nintendo's runaway console
Despite massive initial skepticism from the gaming press and industry figures, the Nintendo Wii has so far dominated in this generation’s round of console wars. Many observers believed that Nintendo would go the way of Sony, reduced to producing games for its former rivals, but the notoriously secretive Kyoto-based company looks like having the last laugh. Its sales figures, shown here in graph form in relation to its competitors suggest this is the case. However, is the picture really so rosy, and is the Nintendo Wii a truly wise choice for consumers?
The Gamecube was Nintendo’s rather unsuccessful forerunner to the Wii. In just one year, sales of the Wii surpassed the Gamecube’s total sales (the latter being produced for around five years). Nintendo branded the console totally inappropriately, giving it the look of a child’s toy. In its PR, the company emphasized game-play over graphics to such an extent that many consumers considered it a low-tech product, despite the fact that its processing power was greater than that of the Playstation 2, and many of its games were in fact graphically superior.
Nintendo has learnt from its previous branding errors, partly by producing a more stylish product, partly by emphasizing casual gamers, and partly by appealing to both adults and kids without alienating either. However, there are other important lessons from the Gamecube that I am not sure have been fully internalized. For a console to prosper in the long-term, it needs to retain the interest beyond casual gamers. As gaming blogger Mark Dolittle argued back in 2007:
A lot of people seem skeptical of the Wii's long-term success, and it's precisely because of the challenge Nintendo faces of turning those casual gamers into people who play and purchase software on a regular basis.
To achieve this, Nintendo needs to keep producing high quality games across the full product cycle of its console. This is what Nintendo failed to achieve with the Game cube, and, based on my analysis using figures from www.gamerankings.com, are yet to demonstrate with the Nintendo Wii. This website collates game review scores from dozens of reputable gaming sources to give each game a “metascore,” which is basically an average review score out of 100. According to these statistics, the number of high quality Gamecube games peaked in 2003, two years after the console’s release. Then they petered out quickly, leaving discerning gamers with nothing to spend their money on. The graph “Top 20 Gamecube games by year” shows the highest 20 scoring titles by year of release.
To compare the Wii and Gamecube, the graph “Number of games with average scores over 90%” shows the number of top-quality titles and release dates for each console. The Gamecube was released in November 2001. The Wii was released in December 2006. Although it is too early to judge where the Wii is likely to go from here, the obvious point is that, according to the critics, the Gamecube produced more first rate games in its first few years than the Wii has. The Wii is, of course, only half way through what I’ve perhaps misleadingly called its fourth year. Nevertheless, it is worth mentioning that it is yet to achieve a 90% game in 2009.
It is true that reviewers are often prejudiced against Nintendo games. Most videogames journalists seem to have been Sega fans in their youths, and Nintendo’s belligerence with the press and secretive nature has helped to alienate them further. However, the Gamecube was one of the most ridiculed consoles in gaming history, so any prejudice would have affected its reviews too.
For casual gamers, the lack of regular high quality releases may not be a problem. Wii Sports never gets old and there are plenty of other fun multiplayer games for families. There are also some terrible titles like Game Party (2007), The Incredible Maze (2008) and Looney Toons; Acme Arsenal (2007). Casual gamers, since they don’t read the gaming press or review websites and often rely on the staff of videogames stores, are particularly vulnerable to these kinds of duds.
If you are considering buying a Wii, then I would recommend it without hesitation, particularly if you are likely to play it on a social, occasional basis. However, if you’re looking for a console with a steady stream of high quality, immersive games into which you’ll be able to disappear for hours at a time, then you will probably tire of the Wii in less than a year - unless, of course, Nintendo is ready to surprise us all once again.