Third parties missed some major opportunities
By the end of 2014, Xbox 360 had slid past Wii to become the best-selling seventh generation console in the US. While a fantastic achievement for Microsoft, this event also punctuates the drastic shift in Nintendo’s market dominance. Where once Wii was on track to become the best-selling dedicated gaming console of all time, it’s now all but forgotten.
There are various reasons why history played out the way it did, but at the end of the day, it’s all about the games, and Wii’s library had some pretty glaring holes. To be fair, there were a lot of fantastic games on Wii — Nintendo itself published some of the most critically acclaimed and commercially successful titles in company history, while several third parties were able to ride the wave to good fortune.
Sadly, the industry at large didn’t support Wii in a manner befitting of a market leader, resulting in a legacy of wasted potential. Had these publishers done a better job in leveraging their biggest brands on the little white box, the current gaming landscape could have been much different.
In a 2009 interview with Kotaku’s Stephen Totilo, Nintendo of America President Reggie Fils-Aime expressed frustration regarding why the biggest third-party titles were skipping Wii:
“I’ve had this conversation with every publisher who makes content that is not available on my platform. The conversation goes like this: ‘We have a 22-million unit installed base. We have a very diverse audience… We have active gamers that hunger for this type of content. And why isn’t it available?'”
The unfortunate reason was that, prior to Wii’s launch, most publishers didn’t have faith in Nintendo’s unconventional strategy, especially coming off of GameCube’s lukewarm performance. By the time they realized that Wii mania was real, they were too entrenched in HD development to easily shift gears. When support did come, it was in the form of minigame collections and low-priority efforts farmed out to C-team studios, most of which seemed to target the stereotypical “casual” gamer while ignoring the rest of the audience.
The Wii wasn’t conceived as a “casual machine,” but rather a low-risk development option that could ideally satisfy everyone — with a focus on videogame newbies, true, but not an exclusive focus. From the beginning, there was enormous interest among the enthusiast crowd for more substantial software, but as the years slipped away and their needs weren’t met, they simply turned their attention elsewhere.
There were sporadic attempts to appeal to enthusiasts, though most typically fell into the mid-tier category — the types of games that, on a well-served platform, would help round out the library. But without headliners to attract an audience in the first place, the MadWorlds and Little King’s Storys of the world were stuck playing an empty venue.
It’s clear that the Wii was no powerhouse and wouldn’t have been able to realize many of the eventual HD hits in a satisfactory fashion. However, you can’t tell me that publishers weren’t sitting on golden preexisting properties that could have easily been adapted to the hardware — properties that had a near guaranteed chance of finding success, which would in turn have led to a greater influx of auxiliary Wii software and a healthier third-party ecosystem overall.
Just to name a few examples…
Remember the rumors years ago that Kingdom Hearts III on Wii might be happening? A series whose chief draw is allowing you to visit famous Disney worlds and battle alongside famous Disney heroes seemed like the obvious choice for a Nintendo platform, where family-friendly entertainment is the order of the day.
Square Enix thought so too, just not in the manner we had hoped. Following Kingdom Hearts II in 2005, numerous word-building side stories and interquels were released on portables, with the bulk appearing on Nintendo machines. One in particular, Dream Drop Distance for 3DS, was even billed as a lead-in to the eventual Kingdom Hearts III.
Meanwhile, the series was completely absent on home consoles. This would have been a perfect opportunity for Square Enix to port KHI and II onto Wii in their “Final Mix” forms. That way, those who followed the series on PS2 would be able to transition smoothly, while others with little exposure to the games would have the perfect entry point. And with all these returning and newly minted fans on Wii, maybe the PSP-exclusive Birth By Sleep would have had another platform on which to score sales, which were otherwise soft in Western territories.
When Super Smash Bros. Melee was brought out West, it introduced players to Marth and Roy, two unknown characters from a Japan-exclusive franchise called Fire Emblem. The warm reception these fresh faces received gave Nintendo the incentive to start localizing future installments in the tactical RPG saga. I had hoped that Solid Snake’s appearance in Super Smash Bros. Brawl would have led to a similar decision regarding Metal Gear, but no dice.
Why was Snake in Brawl to begin with? Definitely not because of his rich history on Nintendo platforms — Metal Gear did more for PlayStation than it ever did for NES. No, it’s because Hideo Kojima practically begged Masahiro Sakurai to put him in. Regardless of how the arrangement came about, Snake was a welcome addition to the Smash roster, quickly rising to the top of many players’ lists of favorite fighters. A smart publisher would have tried to capitalize on that kind of exposure.
Konami could have tested the waters with a Wii reprint of The Twin Snakes, which had become quite rare in its original GameCube format. Follow that up with with MGS2 and 3 ports, possibly an up-port of Peace Walker as well. MGS4 was never going to come over for obvious reasons, but hey, 360 didn’t get it either, and Xbox and Metal Gear are good buddies these days.
Instead, the only Metal Gear to appear on a Nintendo platform post-Brawl was Snake Eater 3D, which was made redundant a few months later with the release of HD Collection on Vita. One of the most popular characters in Nintendo’s all-star roundup wound up being nothing more than advertisement for competing platforms, even though he didn’t have to be.
Did you know, if we disregard the combined-SKU Resident Evil 5, that the original Street Fighter II for Super Nintendo is the single best-selling game in Capcom’s history at 6.3 million copies? It also happens to be the best-selling third-party game in the SNES library — and that’s before we even factor in the various updates!
Among Wii owners were a fair number of lapsed gamers — people who may have gamed in the arcades or on an NES or SNES back in the day but have since lost interest. I guarantee a significant cross section of that group were former SFII players itching for a proper follow-up. And since the goal of the Street Fighter IV project was to make the series accessible again to the widest possible audience, it would have behooved Capcom to include in its multi-platform plans the console built entirely around the concept of accessibility.
You can’t tell me that SFIV was dependent on high-end hardware — it was designed to be a traditional 2D fighter with 3D window dressing. The fact that a spot-on port was later developed for 3DS, with static backgrounds as the sole concession, should be all the proof that a Wii version could have looked and played just fine.
If you want to argue that SFIV was ill-suited to Wii because the Wii Remote was an inappropriate fighting game controller, I think you’re overestimating the general game-playing public’s need for the “perfect gaming controller.” Besides, anyone who desired a more traditional pad would have made the effort to buy one — such as with Tatsunoko vs. Capcom.
Speaking of TvC, there’s a game that strikes a fine balance between technical skill and accessibility. Although I appreciate the effort it took to localize such a licensing nightmare, that seahorse in the logo was the kiss of death — only hardcore anime aficionados had the slightest inkling who these strange new characters were. It’s odd that Capcom would invest in TvC yet couldn’t be bothered to hammer out an adequate SFIV port, which would have had a significantly larger shot at finding a receptive audience on Wii.
Atlus has enjoyed a wonderful working relationship with Nintendo since the former’s founding in 1986, and that relationship thrives to this day. In fact, over the past generation, the bulk of Atlus’ in-house productions have found an exclusive home on Nintendo platforms, including new IPs like Etrian Odyssey, Trauma Center, and Radiant Historia.
Of important note is how Atlus has gradually been shifting the entire Megami Tensei franchise back into the Nintendo camp, beginning with Devil Survivor on DS and culminating with Shin Megami Tensei IV on 3DS. One particular MegaTen sub-series, however, has remained with Sony: Persona.
It’s apparent that Atlus was reluctant to jump into HD development right away. Releasing Persona 3 as a late-gen PlayStation 2 title was one thing, but sticking to PS2 for Persona 4 as well? That earned the company quite a few stares. But if Atlus was insistent on squeezing out every last ounce from legacy hardware, why not prep those Personas for simultaneous release on the low-spec Wii as well? Atlus already had a Wii development pipeline in place, so the financial risk would have been extremely minimal. Wii versions could have only added to those games’ success.
The series has finally come to Nintendo in the form of Persona Q on 3DS, although the game’s main selling point — the crossover of P3 and P4 characters — would feel more appropriate had those two titles actually appeared on a Nintendo platform prior.
Grand Theft Auto
“Nintendo has done all it can to persuade Take-Two Interactive Software to bring the Grand Theft Auto franchise to Nintendo consoles, and it is now up to the third-party publisher to decide whether Rockstar Games’ immensely popular series will appear on Wii.”
Reggie Fils-Aime shared this nugget in December 2006, shortly after the Wii’s launch, to let the world know that Nintendo desired the violent crime series on its hardware (those Game Boy Color and Advance titles don’t count). Sadly, Take-Two didn’t seem to want to play ball and even laughed at the notion just one year later, when then-executive chairman Strauss Zelnick asserted, “[T]here are other titles better suited to the Wii than Grand Theft Auto.”
Nonetheless, talks continued, and Take-Two and Rockstar Games eventually decided to give Nintendo a shot… with a DS game. That’s not what fans were asking for, but baby steps, we figured. Take-Two CEO Ben Feder did state that Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars was an important step in the company’s relations with Nintendo and suggested that this new title could pave the way for future developments.
The rest is sick, sad history. Chinatown Wars earned rave reviews, becoming the highest-ranked DS title on Metacritic, yet sold just under 90,000 copies in the US in its launch month. Not willing to take any chances, Rockstar quickly announced PSP and mobile ports. Mature games were reaffirmed as poison on DS, and all hopes of another GTA on a Nintendo platform vanished.
Let’s try to understand why Chinatown Wars failed. First, GTA is not a handheld series. Some brands are simply better suited to home consoles than handhelds or vice versa — Monster Hunter, for instance. Yeah, both Liberty City Stories and Vice City Stories on PSP were million sellers, but those sales were a drop in the bucket compared to what the console installments regularly pull in. Those were ported to PS2 months later too, so it’s not like Rockstar had full confidence in them either.
Still, both LCS and VCS sold much better than Chinatown Wars, which brings me to my second point: GTA only became a phenomenon with GTAIII and the leap into the third dimension. Taking the series back to its top-down roots was never going to appeal to all the same people who fell in love with the real-world atmosphere and fully voiced and acted cutscenes, no matter what kind of review scores it earned.
Need further proof? Although you can find copious news bites around the web lamenting the poor sales of Chinatown Wars on DS, you’d be hard-pressed to find any mention of sales of the PSP port. It’s safe to surmise that it tanked even worse than on DS, because Take-Two would have said something otherwise. The mobile ports likely outsold those two combined, though it’s difficult to draw a solid conclusion there when sales were aided by rock-bottom mobile pricing.
Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars was the wrong game for the wrong platform. From day one, Rockstar should have been working on a Wii game in the desired 3D style as Nintendo had originally intended. It would have been more expensive to produce, though I doubt anywhere in the range of GTAIV‘s $100 million price tag. If Rockstar didn’t want to take that gamble, it could have assembled a PS2 trilogy collection, or ported the PSP games, or anything! We’re talking about the biggest home console of all time, after all!
If you still doubt the viability of GTA on Wii, consider Call of Duty: World at War, which sold over a million copies on Wii. Big deal, you figure, since sales of the PS3 and 360 versions vastly outstripped it. But also consider that Activision has repeatedly withheld information regarding the Wii versions of Call of Duty installments up to and sometimes even after release, limiting awareness to those who had prior knowledge or had seen one of the rare TV commercials. Somehow, the game still broke a million — can you imagine how much better it could have performed had Activision given it exposure comparable to the HD builds?
How could Take-Two wholeheartedly say, during a period when Wii was selling faster than any other home console before or since, that the audience wasn’t there? Grand Theft Auto is one of the biggest gaming brands of all time! Its most recent entry has shipped 45 million units across all platforms! Its consumer base includes every type of gamer, from kids to adults, from the hardest of the hardcore to those whose only other gaming purchase in a year is the latest Madden!
If Take-Two honestly believed that there was little to no chance of success in adapting Grand Theft Auto to Wii, it means that either its marketing department is completely clueless as to what makes GTA so appealing, thereby attributing each record-breaking achievement to blind luck, or everyone in management simply didn’t give a shit.
As you can see, I’m not suggesting that publishers should have thrown millions at unproven concepts. All it would have taken to get the ball rolling was some low-risk ports based on established, popular brands. Even if some of these franchises wound up not resonating with the Wii audience, most are powerful enough that they would have been accepted without question.
Had key third-party tentpoles been established and found success on Wii early on, smaller studios would have felt comfortable in producing Wii content. Instead of the sudden decline as casual players lost interest, Wii could have maintained a steady momentum by serving the enthusiast crowd low-tech yet feature-rich software, in turn extending its life. By the time Nintendo introduced a follow-up console, publishers would have been far more willing to offer support than they wound up being with Wii U.
Though we can only speculate precisely how such a movement would have affected Wii and the industry overall, it could only have been a net positive — for Nintendo as well as third parties that struggled to stay in the black or simply wanted to grow their consumer base. You can blame Nintendo for certain Wii shortcomings, but third parties are at fault for letting painfully obvious opportunities slip through the canyon-sized cracks.