Nintendo proves it doesn't "get" the Web with the Wii Mini
Almost 20 years later, Nintendo seems to have never left the Mushroom Kingdom. Days after releasing its Wii U console, a tablet and videogame console hybrid that sold like hot cakes on Black Friday, the company has announced the Wii Mini, a $99 console for people who didn't purchase a Wii during its six years on the market. Customers will be able to play the Wii's back catalog of games with a new, red-lined housing, a smaller form factor, and no Internet connectivity. Wait, what?
Both Microsoft and Sony beat Nintendo to the online gaming market – Microsoft beating both companies despite its late entry into the videogame console race, actually – and Nintendo has never quite caught up to either system.
Instead of implementing subscription-based services, like Microsoft and Sony did for their Xbox and PlayStation consoles, the company has used an odd "friend code" system that generates new codes for each and every game. Imagine that instead of having to remember your friend's cellphone number, you had to remember a number pre-assigned to cover any possible topic. Want to talk about your new girlfriend? That's a number. Need to let him know that the zombie apocalypse has finally come? Different number.
This is when users were able to connect to the Internet in the first place. While this wasn't quite so horrible with the Wii console, venturing online with a Nintendo DS was a lesson in frustration. The device would only connect to WEP- or non-encrypted networks, so anyone using WPA or WPA2 encryption was shit out of luck. Try explaining the difference to a child who just wants to play a game of "Pokémon" online, and you'll understand just why this is an issue.
Now the company is shipping a console without an Internet connection. In 2012.
While I don't doubt that the Wii Mini will help Nintendo print some more money – "Nintendo console" may as well be synonymous with "making bank" – the fact that Nintendo thinks this is okay shows just how little the company understands modern gaming, an odd position for the company that brought videogames into the mainstream to be in.
Nintendo has always taken an Apple-like approach to its hardware development. Rather than throwing everything and the kitchen sink into each new device, the company focuses on what it believes to be the new key features and works to perfect them above all else. The original Wii didn't ship with the ultra-powerful processing cores or graphics chips that the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 did, but Nintendo was the company that spurred the motion-controlled gaming revolution.
This focus on motion-controlled gaming, combined with the power of the Nintendo brand and a comparatively-low starting price, made the Wii a hit. Unfortunately, this focus came at a cost: While Nintendo was refining its new interaction scheme, the company neglected to build a powerful online system to rival Microsoft and Sony.
People want to play games with their friends. The obviousness of this statement is near-deafening, but the concept seems to elude Nintendo's grasp. Games like "Call of Duty," the "Halo" series, and dozens more stake their success on delivering a powerful multiplayer experience. The days of having to untangle controllers and arguing who got to be Player 1 are over, and the age of Xbox Live, the PlayStation Network, and Valve's Steam platform is in full swing.
Perhaps the worst part of all this is that Nintendo makes some of the best multiplayer games in the business. "Mario Kart" is romping good fun, the "Mario Party" games are built specifically for multiple gamers, and even the latest "Super Mario Bros." games have featured a multiplayer element. People want to play Nintendo's games online, which is why they've (barely) managed to tolerate the current system. By removing even this bare acknowledgement of the online world with the Wii Mini, Nintendo has severely handicapped many of its games.
Then there's Nintendo's Virtual Console, a living museum that offers access to games from forgotten consoles like the Sega Genesis, the SNES, the Atari, etc. I, and several people I have spoken with, purchased the original Wii with the express intent of re-playing these classic games. (The first thing I did when I purchased my Wii was spend another $30 or so to acquire "Super Mario Bros.," "Super Mario Bros. 3," and "The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past," and I've yet to purchase more than one Wii-specific game.)
No Internet means no Virtual Console. No Virtual Console means no money rolling in from people eager to relive the days when a game couldn't be played before blowing into the cartridge (not that that worked) – and, indeed, when games were played on a cartridge. No Internet means no multiplayer support for games best played with friends, a segment that continues to grow with each new release.
Wanting to release a low-end console that repurposes some old parts that were lying around and gives those who can't afford a Wii U (or its expensive GamePad controller, which will become available in the US next year) is fine. But the truth is that without the Internet, a $99 console isn't quite the steal that it seems to be at first glance. If Nintendo doesn't understand this sooner rather than later, it will go the way of ultra-permed hair and Bret Michaels, other relics from the 80s that pop up every now and again but have clearly left their prime.