So everyone’s excited about the frickin' Wii. That’s how I find myself saying the name of Nintendo’s upcoming game console most of the time: with an expletive as a prefix. Yes, I’m sure we’re all slowly getting used to the name. Someday, it will seem completely normal. But that just means it’s a salvageable name; it was never a good name. Wii: handily displacing Dreamcast as the Worst Console Name Ever. Lest we forget!
Moving on. I’ve been thinking a lot about the Wii lately. Although you might not guess it after reading the previous paragraph, I’m a dedicated Nintendophile. While I recognize that Nintendo has stumbled when it comes to appealing to the hardcore gamer, their hardware and software has always been perfectly aligned with my values. Even the lack of titles has aligned with my shrinking amount of free time. (I still have a stack of unfinished GameCube games.)
I’m also technophile. This, too, has historically played into Nintendo’s hands. True, Nintendo has rarely hyped its technology to the degree that, say, Sony currently does, but it’s never been bashful either. I remember a quote from a senior Nintendo executive after the release of the official PlayStation 2 specs that went something like this: “We have seen what the PlayStation 2 is capable of. We are not worried.”
That seemed inconceivable at the peak of the Emotion Engine hype, and with the memory of the cartridge-bound Nintendo 64 still fresh in everyone’s minds. Obviously, there was no way Nintendo could hope to compete with the power of the mighty PS2! As it turned out, that Nintendo executive’s confidence was well placed. Nintendo didn’t just compete, it arguably exceeded the capabilities of the PS2.
In fact, the Dolphin project produced what I believe to be the most perfectly designed piece of gaming hardware ever released. You can debate endlessly about which console was “more powerful,” which had better games, and so on. But in terms of hardware elegance, the GameCube stands alone.
The Nintendo GameCube motherboard: bow down before it!
The board has just four main elements, CPU, GPU, and two memory chips, plus a scant few analog components and tiny support chips. Compare this with the monstrous Xbox motherboard. Granted, that picture is a bit unfair because one heatsink/fan and several connector modules are still attached, but just ignore them and look at the sheer number of components. That board is also about three times the size of the GameCube board, of course.
The PlayStation 2 doesn’t fare much better. In fact, it may be worse. At least Xbox had a much more clear edge in hardware power over the GameCube to partially justify its size and complexity. The PlayStation 2 actually went through several motherboard revisions over its lifetime, eventually getting an entirely new, slim form factor four years after launch. But even that board doesn’t quite match the original (and as far as I know, the only) GameCube motherboard. (Again, apologies for the connectors in the picture; just look at the components. It’s hard to find good mobo porn…)
The GameCube: simple, small, cheap to manufacture, much more powerful than its predecessor, and comfortably inline with the technical prowess of its two competitors—both of which had launch prices that were $100 more expensive, and both of which lost money on each launch unit sold.
It’s easy to dismiss this achievement, especially when it’s wrapped in a purple plastic cube. Hardware design is just one aspect of console success, and far from the most important one. But if I were to travel back in time with the ability to grant a GameCube-like hardware design to any of the big three console makers for this new generation of game machines, they’d fight like rabid badgers over it. Imagine: “I can give you competitive hardware power and a launch price one-third lower than your competitors. You’ll also make money on every hardware sale, and your console will be the smaller than the others. Any takers?”
As it turns out, no one has achieved that balance this time around. The Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 are both incredibly powerful, but also extremely complex and expensive. Then there’s the Wii. It’s small, cheap, easy to manufacture, and makes money from day one…but about that “power” thing…
In an unprecedented move, Nintendo has essentially decided to sit this one out, shipping a previous-generation console in next-generation clothing. This was so inconceivable that we all pretty much ignored Nintendo’s demure proclamations about the hardware power of their upcoming “Revolution” console, preferring instead to continue to imagine a much more reasonable scenario. “Sure, the Revolution will be less powerful, but it’ll still be 'next-gen,' right?”
That theory just would not die. Look at this quote from our own Jon Stokes, analyzing what we’ve since learned were totally bogus rumored specs for the Revolution.
When I originally heard of the device’s form factor, I was pretty down on its performance possibilities because I assumed that it would be going with the Cell/Xenon PPU as a CPU. However, the recent release of a laptop-worthy 970 and the possibility that some derivative of that will go into the Revolution changes the picture and makes the chip look more competitive performance-wise.
Again, at the time this was posted, we already knew that the Revolution would be “the size of three DVD cases stacked.” So yeah, maybe that’ll mean it’ll “only” have a single or dual Cell/Xenon core in there, right? Ha, we should be so lucky!
The worst part of the whole ordeal was that the actual Revolution hardware specs (well, a good approximation, anyway) were posted to the web, and then promptly dismissed as an anti-Nintendo troll! “An up-clocked GameCube with more RAM? Whatever. Go home, troll.”
Unprecedented. We all just refused to see it—every one of us. We just couldn’t imagine why Nintendo wouldn’t partake of at least a little of the fruits of next-generation console R&D. This was doubly inconceivable because Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft all had the same hardware partner for the CPU (IBM), and Nintendo and Microsoft both went with ATI for the GPU. How could Nintendo not end up with a next-gen system?
Now I know some of you are reading this and thinking that I’ve jumped the gun. “Hey, we don’t even know the Wii specs yet, right? Not really. All we know is that it plays GameCube games and is 'about two times as powerful as a GameCube.' It could be all next-gen-y in there, with multiple PPE-based cores and a modern programmable GPU. The GameCube compatibility could be emulated! We don’t know anything for sure yet, right?"
You’re right, we don’t know definitively—or at least I don’t. But I’m ready to call this one. I was convinced months ago, and everything I’ve seen and read since has reinforced it. Here’s just one more example, a quote from a recent interview with the team at Nintendo that created the Wii.
Normally when you decide to use new semiconductor technology, you do so solely for the sake of more extravagance and higher performance. […] Sophisticated semiconductor technology is required to realise this goal. While you could use such cutting-edge semiconductor technology in order to facilitate this kind of extravagance, you can choose to apply this technology in other ways, such as making chips smaller. We have utilised the technology in this way so that we could minimise the power consumption of Wii. If the chip becomes smaller, we can make the size of the console smaller. With a smaller chip and minimised power consumption, Wii can be left on 24 hours a day. This is what I meant when I said that the way Wii makes use of state-of-the-art technologies is completely different from the way in which they are used in other devices.
The Wii is a die-shrink-job, if not literally then at least functionally. It’s a faster GameCube with more RAM. It’s previous-gen hardware with a next-gen control scheme. It’s time to move on to stage five: acceptance.
If you’re a Nintendo fan, you’re probably still mad. “Previous-gen? What does that even mean?” Yada yada, I’m familiar with the debate. We can go in circles for hours. The bottom line is that we all pretty much know what it means. It means that the difference in power between the GameCube and the Wii is smaller than the difference in power between, well, any two previous sequential console generations. It’s a smaller jump than the Xbox to the Xbox 360; it’s smaller than PS2 to PS3; it’s smaller than N64 to GameCube; smaller than NES to SNES; and on and on. We all know what it means.
But what does it mean for gamers? As I tried to establish earlier, there’s a hell of a lot more to success in the console business than hardware power. In the case of the Wii, there’s this whole giant X-factor of the control scheme. I’m not ready to pass any judgement on that right now. But the hardware power itself is a factor, and the nature of its effect on the gaming experience is pretty clear, even if the magnitude is not.
That “next-gen hardware experience” that I’ve come to expect as a birthright of console gaming will be missing from the Wii. Things that were graphically and computationally unthinkable in the previous generation will not suddenly become possible with the Wii. Draw distances, texture detail, and polygon counts will increase, sure, but they will not explode. The resolution will stay about the same—480p, at best.
I’m not the only one who thinks of hardware-powered, knock-your-socks-off moments as a next-gen birthright. Gamers want them so badly that they’ll manufacture them, if necessary. Just look at all the gushing about the “amazing,” “gorgeous” screenshots for The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, a Wii launch title. Think about this. Zelda:TP is a launch title for the “next-gen” Nintendo console. This is a GameCube game, people! There are no substantial graphical enhancements for the Wii version.
And yet the mantle of next-gen Nintendo glory has been thrust upon Zelda:TP. This GameCube game with Wiimote integration has become the must-have launch title for a system that, by all rights and expectations, was supposed to make games like Zelda:TP seem dated and oh-so last-gen.
Ah, but you persist. “Twilight Princess looks awesome! What are you talking about?” Let’s try a thought experiment. Imagine that the premiere GameCube launch title was Majora’s Mask. “Yeah, well it still would have been better than Luigi’s Mansion!” some of you exclaim. You know what? I agree with you. But I also would have been sorely disappointed if the GameCube not only didn’t launch with, but was simply not capable of handling a game like Rogue Leader, with its vastly increased size, scope, and detail over its predecessor.
Let’s continue the thought experiment. What’s the consequence of continuing the Wii strategy for several generations? What will the Wii’s successor look like? An even further up-clocked, die-shrunk Wii? Will a Nintendo console ever have a hard drive, high-def video, and a programmable GPU? Maybe Nintendo’s on an every-other-generation technology ramp: shrink, update, shrink, update. Or perhaps the next Nintendo console will be a portable Wii with two screens and a stylus? That actually doesn’t sound too bad to a lot of you, I’m sure. But I have needs.
I need that next-gen “wow” factor. I don’t think hardware power is the be-all, end-all, but I do think it’s an essential enabler. I love what Nintendo does with its first-party titles. I want to see what those same developers can do with next-gen hardware. What would the next Zelda title be like if given three times the RAM and polygon budget supported by the Wii? What would Wave Race be like with seven cores to compute wave action?
And physics—my God, physics! If ever there was an enabling technology perfectly suited to Nintendo’s special brand of gameplay innovation, it’s physics! What would a new Mario game be like running on hardware capable of much more advanced physics simulation? Imagine the possibilities for new Metroid beam weapons and destructible environments.
Gah, it breaks my heart just thinking about all the experiences that simply won’t be possible on the Wii. It’s the kind of pain that I imagine Sony felt—or should have felt, anyway—after realizing they’d shipped a portable gaming system without a touch screen in a post-DS world.
And yes, it’s the same pain Sony and Microsoft should feel after seeing what Nintendo’s doing with the Wiimote. I will once again acknowledge that Nintendo is indeed continuing to innovate in the area of control schemes. That’s good. I expect that. Maybe it’ll be awesome and transcendent, like the d-pad and, later, the N64’s move to an analog stick as the primary means of control. Maybe it’ll be an awkward experiment, like the “versatile” three-pronged N64 controller, and it’ll take another generation to sort out the good from the bad. But I’m not talking about that now.
Nintendo fans, put it aside, I implore you! Stop bargaining (stage three!) with your desires. “Yeah, so maybe the hardware isn’t as capable, but the wonders of the Wiimote will make up for it! Gameplay, not technology!” That’s nonsensical; it’s a false choice.
On an even more pragmatic level, setting aside all Wiimote-inspired visions of the future, I still crave the traditional experience of sitting down with a certain kind of next-gen title that benefits from the huge leap in hardware capabilities while retaining a more traditional style of gameplay. Fighting game fans can relate, I’m sure. Where is even that unambitious experience on the Wii?
Sadly, I’m trapped. As much as I crave that next-gen goodness, I need my Mario and Zelda. Until Nintendo drops the ball on its flagship franchise games, how can I leave the fold? I thought for sure Metroid as a first-person shooter meant the beginning of a slide into mediocrity for Nintendo, but damned if it wasn’t actually an awesome game. In truth, Nintendo could keep producing GameCube games of the same caliber as Wind Waker and Double Dash and I’d keep buying and enjoying them for years to come.
But that still leaves a big hole in my gamer’s heart—a next-gen shaped hole. Who can fill it? I’m essentially forced to buy a PlayStation 3 at some point in the distant future, if only to play the next game from the team that made Ico and Shadow of the Colossus. That’s potentially just one game that’s going to drive me to buy what will, by then (hopefully) be a ~$400 purchase. That’s the kind of gamer needs I’m faced with here.
But for my broader next-gen fix, the PS3 isn’t the answer. Sony has committed The Sin of the Wii™ across not just two, but three consecutive console generations by failing to improve their controller. Sorry, I’ll wrestle that archaic thing into submission for Fumito Ueda, but for everything else, it’s just not going to cut it.
That leaves…exasperated sigh…Microsoft. Yes, Microsoft, the company I swore I’d never give my gaming money to, lest they do to my precious pastime what they did to the personal computer software market. Monopoly, mediocrity, stagnation. Must…resist!
And yet it’s Microsoft, amazingly, that’s closest to the GameCube hardware ideal in this generation. The Xbox was an ugly, brutish machine, in addition to being expensive, complex, and huge (LOL!). The 360 is everything the original Xbox was not. It’s a purpose-built, clever, elegant piece of hardware. And don’t forget the best-of-breed online service, a moderate price (in light of the $600 PS3), and—it needs to be said—a controller that actually expresses some recognition of both the reality of modern gaming control systems and the shape of the human hand.
After reading all this, you may think I’m being too hard on the Wii. In fact, I do plan to buy one, and always have. As I said, I will keep buying Nintendo’s consoles first in each generation for much the same reason I keep paying to see Pixar movies. They consistently make a quality product that I enjoy. And you bet your rupees I’m looking forward to Twilight Princess. But I think I’ll be buying the GameCube version, just to give the old control style one last hurrah.
As for the next-gen thing, I don’t know what I’m going to do. For now, I’ll try to wait it out. The Wiimote stuff is sure to distract me for at least six months. After that, UT2007 on a stacked Mac Pro will keep me occupied for a while. But eventually, I’m going to yearn to see Link running through vast, procedurally rendered forests, hiding in the realtime soft shadows to avoid the gaze of runtime-animated minions of evil hunting in AI-driven packs. Sigh.
The path of the innovator is not an easy one. It’s hindered by the myopia of the installed base on one side, and the tyranny of the market leaders on the other. It’s the true gamers that shepherd the most unique and daring projects through the gauntlet of retail.
That’s been my thinking for years, and I never really questioned who filled which roles. But the Wii has made me think twice. Yes, it could be that Sony and Microsoft are the tyranny of the market leaders and Nintendo is the innovator. It could be that I’m the true gamer, trying to protect the legacy of Mario and Zelda by being open to dual-screen, touch-sensitive portables and controllers shaped like TV remotes. Yeah, I’d like that.
But maybe that’s not the truth. Maybe Sony and Microsoft are the innovators, and Nintendo is subject to its own form of myopia when it comes to the role of advanced technology in enhancing gameplay. How much am I willing to give up to play the next Zelda? I see the kinds of things the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 are capable of and I consider jumping ship. The truth is that I’m feeling weak; Nintendo’s top-tier franchises are their own form of tyranny.
But I’m trying. I’m trying real hard to be the shepherd.
This article originally appeared at Ars Technica. It is reproduced here with permission.