Posted on May 10, 2011, Jim Sterling Why Talk Of a HD Nintendo Console Almost Makes Me Sad
Whether you like it or not, the Wii has had a positive impact on gaming, and not in the strictly financial sense. Although it’s true that third party games haven’t had a great time on the system, and it’s largely become a dumpster for lazy ports and cash-in waggle games, there is something very special about the Wii that ensured my support – the fact that it was technically inferior to the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. Seriously, I think its lack of horsepower was an inherently good thing.
This is why I am almost sorry to see that the system’s end has begun, with talk of Project Cafe dominating all Nintendo-related headlines.
I’ve had a theory for quite some time that the graphical setbacks of the Wii breed an environment for better crafted games. As much as I love some graphical pornography with high definition visuals and surround sound, there’s no escaping the fact that intense graphics can actually restrict a game‘s development. The pressure for higher and higher visual quality has seen budgets skyrocket, to the point where many games need to sell a million copies just to break even. There is an aesthetic standard that one expects on the Xbox 360 and PS3, where anything less than stellar can quickly be written off — quite childishly — as looking like a PS2 game.
On the Wii, there’s no such pressure. A lot of games do look like PS2-era titles, but because we expect that on the Wii, studios aren’t required quite so much to focus on the graphics. With that much energy, time and cash saved, what can they do? They can pour the extra resources into making some damn good games!
I offer Final Fantasy XIII as an example. Here’s a game that is rivaled by only a very few games in the graphical department, yet its story is dull as ditchwater and the gameplay is nowhere near as robust as past titles. Furthermore, Square Enix confirmed that it had to cut significant amounts of content (a whole game’s worth) from a title that already provided a shorter experience than PS2 and PSX-era Final Fantasy titles. Is it surprising that the game was more shallow and featured less content, though? How could they focus on anything else when they were building an entirely new engine to support those eye-shagging visuals?
In my opinion, the graphical focus led to Final Fantasy XIII being a worse game. In some ways, it’s not Square Enix’s fault — you simply cannot have a huge open world, eighty hours of content and tons of secret areas in a game that looks as good as Final Fantasy XIII does. It’s not logistically possible without more development and tons more money.
What I admire about the Wii was that it sorted this problem out for those developers without massive budgets or an obsessive need to let the art department masturbate for five years. Developers simply aren’t able to make stunning HD games on the Wii, so they’re forced to bring something else to the table with which to impress gamers. Not only that, but roleplaying games are able to provide what we used to expect of them, without the constraints that Final Fantasy XIII faced. In fact, the Wii has become a kind of sanctuary for Japanese roleplaying games, with the likes of Earth Seeker, Xenoblade, Arc Rise Fantasia and The Last Story all finding homes there. That’s the kind of lineup you’d expect to see on the PlayStation 2, and I think that’s always been a very positive aspect of the Wii.
Without HD graphics hogging development time, money and disc space, studios can make their games longer, larger and deeper. That’s why I still hold a torch for the potential release of games like Last Story and Earth Seeker, because I expect robust and satisfying gameplay as a direct result of the developer being under less pressure in the tech department. People have complained that the JRPG genre has sagged recently, and I think that’s certainly true on the 360 and PS3. I don’t, however, believe this is the case on the Wii and Nintendo DS. Some fantastic RPGs have hit those systems this generation, and there’s got to be a good reason for it.
I also believe that the lack of HD encourages the creation of games that look better artistically. It’s a common complaint this generation that titles have become grey, brown and dreary, due to an increased focus on “photorealism.” While I like grey and dreary for various aesthetic reasons, there’s no denying that many 360 and PS3 games look the same. It’s hard to distinguish Call of Duty from Medal of Honor, or Gears from Killzone, at least on an artistic level. Again, the Wii does not let you get away with that, because your “photorealistic” game will look like sludge. The answer? Kirby’s Epic Yarn. Donkey Kong Country Returns. No More Heroes. Super Mario Galaxy. Bright, colorful, unique, easily distinguishable titles that don’t boast the raw power of a PS3 game, but remain beautiful to behold in their own charming way.
So it is with a heavy heart that I consider Project Cafe and the various rumors that surround it. Some claim it’s as powerful as a PS3, others say it’s even more powerful. Nintendo is clearly aiming to compete in the visual arms race this time around, and while I am excited to see Zelda, Metroid and Mario in HD, I can’t help but feel a slight twinge of melancholy as well. I fear that it’s truly the end of an era — that the Wii’s “crappy” visuals were an underrated boon, encouraging interesting art styles and a focus on gameplay over graphics. No, it wasn’t fully taken advantage of by many developers, but there were some studios out there who understood what could be done on the Wii, and how to take advantage of that lowered visual expectancy. Where will they go now? What will they do?
I’m as excited about Project Cafe as the next guy, but I’m going to miss the Wii when it finally gets thrown on the scrapheap. I just hope The Last Story does indeed get localized before that happens, so I can experience one last hurrah.