The Nintendo Wii is dead. Well, not dead as in extinct: there are 101 million units still kicking around the world. But the era of the Wii is officially over, as Nintendo just announced it would discontinue online support for the Wii Store, essentially killing the online connective tissue that tied all Wii’s together. The Wii is also out of our cultural discourse. It is buried beneath countless Battlefields, Call of Duties, Minecraft realms, VR goggle sets and that awkward Pokemon Go craze. The final nail in the coffin was its little sibling, the Nintendo Switch which sold 20 million copies in 2018. The Wii has met its cultural end. As with the ends of most great eras, we here at Convicts are thinking about the beginning, the winter of 2006.
There were a handful of hot Christmas presents in 2006. Children went nuts for clingy and colorful “moon sand”, swollen-headed Bratz Dolls, and dancing plush toys from the new movie Happy Feet. By December, Pluto was no longer a planet, Borat had just been released, and Saddam Hussein would be hanged before the new year. This sounds sort of grim, but remember this was also pre-Facebook, pre-recession, and pre-Trump. Well, sort of: 11 million people watched him crown British contestant Sean Yazbeck the winner of season 5 of The Apprentice. He was there, but at least you could turn him off, right?
In Christmas of 2006, the Wii was the hottest new tech item. People lined up outside of Target in the early morning hours, clutching entrance tickets in the snow. Those early buyers knew the Wii was special. People coveted its point-and-click remote system, a revolutionary amenity. Sure, the Xbox 360 thought it was huge because its controllers ran on batteries and not easily-knotted controller plugs. But the Wii remote felt like a magic wand. By pointing it at the tv, a discreet black sensor bar would read the gesture and a skittish little hand would appear on screen. The Wii was compact, discreet and monochrome: a little white CD-swallowing angel, the size of a bento box. We loved it and returned to it for years. It was one of the most active marketplaces and consoles, steadily selling years after other devices and fads came and went.
In celebrating the life of a game console, we are forced to consider the life of the gamer. At the dawn of console gamings’ seventh generation, ushered in by the 360, the Wii stepped out of its competitors’ shadows with a brave old idea. Like the Ataris of yesteryear, the Wii would be for everyone. It would be for boys and girls, for young and old. By emphasizing party games and split-screen play, the Wii demanded an audience. The gamble worked: my fondest memories are teaching my 86 year old grandfather Wii Bowling, or thrashing my girlfriend’s mom in Wii Tennis. When I think of my PS2 or my unloved PS3, I think of sitting alone in a dark room. The memories are of the games and not the players beside me. The Wii had the power to turn everyone into a gamer.
Wii Sports shipped with the original Wii, making it the go-to for many first time gamers. It featured bowling, boxing, baseball, tennis, and golf. I enjoyed tennis the most because I was addicted to the sound of the ball connecting with the racket. A little bit of haptic feedback and a tiny speaker in the remote made everything feel so real. I even enjoyed the stadium culture. Whenever you’d ace a serve, the spectators jumped and twirled to celebrate.
All of this was heightened by the fact that it really was you in the game. Wii demanded we create avatars, Mii’s, in our own images. They were simple and flattering, every one a 3D digital character from the Charlie Brown mold. My Mii was a lanky tween with an oval head, pointy brown hair and unblinking ice blue eyes. I am less lanky now and have since learned to blink, but I would still love to go back to those days. At least that version of me, my Mii, could play five sports. Now, that I’m older and lazier, I even avoid some curbs because they are just too steep. I spent so much time on my Mii’s face, spacing his eyes, begrudgingly growing his nose for the sake of accuracy. This was wasted time because all I’d really end up doing is staring the back of his head while he stared up at the tennis net, making the two of us look like patient subjects of a forgotten Magritte painting.
The Wii was iconic and original, but as a Nintendo product, it had to be home to the crimson plumber Mario and the whole Smash Bro’s world. New Super Mario Bros, Mario Party and Super Smash Bros Brawl all found happy homes on the Wii, selling over ten million units apiece. But none of those had the staying power of Mario Kart on Wii’s 31 million copies, especially if you shelled out for the Wii Wheel. However, the Wii party games still remain the most played. Wii Sports, Wii Sports Resorts, Wii Party and Wii Fit collectively outsold the world of Mario. Mostly, these games were popular because they often came in the box on delivery. They were great and they were free, which felt like stealing: the best, most immersive games were included in the sticker price. It was as if, for the first time since man invented the joystick, a company wanted you to have fun.
Before online play became the norm, the Wii brought the party together. Nintendo had a master plan: keep split-screen gaming alive, even if it meant splitting the screen into quarters. They believed there would be enough fun for everyone. Like the N64 and all the group-gaming systems that preceded it, the Wii banked on one thing: being together is better. On January 30th, the lights will go out on 100 million enabled devices, leaving the many surviving Wii’s to contend again with an earthly world of the plug and the remote. That’s alright by me. In Christmas of 2006, that’s all we needed.
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