When Nintendo unveiled the Wii in 2006 the console was a shock to the video game industry. Motion controls had long been a dream of gamers and the Big N’s console seemed poised to open the gateway into a new future. The underside of the reveal was the console’s underwhelming technical specifications, especially compared to Sony’s powerhouse: the PlayStation 3. Where Sony’s console pushed the limits of graphical fidelity, Nintendo pursued an ambitious attempt to change the way we interact with games, trumpeting what has become their consistent motto: gameplay first, graphics second. If you were like me at the time, then you supported this philosophy. After all, what was a few hundred extra polygons and sleek shaders compared to the feeling of actually physically interacting with a virtual world? In truth, this decision to prioritize the Wii’s unique controller design over technical prowess would have farther reaching consequences than any could have predicted, seriously hindering Nintendo’s ability to pursue what they actually claimed to be championing: industry defining innovations.
SD to HD
Do you remember a time when Xbox 360’s didn’t have an HDMI output? It feels like the dark ages now, but back in 2006 the HD-era of gaming was just beginning and the leap in power was so significant that studios actually struggled developing for the new hardware. New possibilities were opened up by the technology, but this also meant that entirely new engines, processes, and techniques had to be created, essentially from the ground up, in order to take advantage of the opportunities. As a Bungie engineer working on Halo 3 put it, “When you’re working in high definition it’s a very unforgiving environment.” It took years for developers to truly adapt to the newly available technologies. Once they did, however, the worlds they were capable of crafting were so much richer and clearer that the difference could hardly be understood by the quantifiable increase to polygons and draw distances. There was something intangible that resulted from the upgrade to all those little details like draw distance and texture detailing. Game worlds were now more dynamic, capable of a new range of design that was similar to the change from 2D to 3D, but more subtle. HD gaming’s true leap forward was the unconscious ease with which players could believe, wholeheartedly, in the reality of the virtual environment around them.
Nintendo was forced to go through this transition as well, but, rather than experience it with the rest of the industry in the middle of the 2000’s, they started the learning curve half a decade later with the Wii U. One would think that, with all the accrued information on HD development, Nintendo would be able to learn from other developers’ pitfalls and handle the transition smoothly. Yet this was not the case. Shigeru Miyamoto even admitted this, saying in 2013 that Nintendo had underestimated how difficult the transition would be, and that this had delayed many of their most promising Wii U titles. This dearth of software was what hurt the Wii U most and it was a result of Nintendo struggling through a transition the rest of the industry had already gone through. It is only now, with Breath of the Wild and the Switch, that we are seeing Nintendo fully in command of high definition technologies.
The real crux of the problem for Nintendo was that, in a sense, they bet on the wrong innovation. They assumed they could create more lasting, visceral, and innovative experiences with a new controller rather than a powerful machine, and that the high-end technology would wait for them while they did this. What they didn’t seem to consider was how a console’s power doesn’t just correlate to the quality of graphics it can produce, but also to the freedom with which developers are able to design games.
Given that Nintendo sacrificed high definition to focus on motion controls, it’s important to ask what we got in return. The answer is not much. The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword was supposed to be Nintendo’s crowning achievement on the Wii, a game inseparable from the console it was made for and utterly in harmony with motion controls. This was the game we had been waiting for. Yet despite initial favorable reviews, the game received significant criticism in the following years for imprecise motion controls and the increased linearity the game brought to the series. The motion controls that were supposed to elevate the series, and theoretically gaming, have made it feel dated, and the low-end technology that was not supposed to be an issue has revealed itself as a massive limiting factor.
The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword came out in 2011, the same year as the open-world phenomenon Skyrim. All you really have to do is compare those two games to understand the significance of Nintendo’s gamble. Where one is called dated and imprecise, the other is one of modern gaming’s most popular and lauded achievements. While Skyward Sword is mostly forgotten, Skyrim is still the standard against which RPG and open-world games are compared. The distinction between the games is so significant that Nintendo itself invoked Bethesda’s towering monument when discussing their inspiration for Breath of the Wild six years later.
And that’s where the most telling comparison comes into play. Could you imagine Breath of the Wild running on a standard definition console? I can’t. Skyward Sword was a very linear game because it had to be. The Wii wasn’t capable of presenting the kind of worlds that Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 owners were getting to explore with Skyrim. When Nintendo finally had access to this kind of power, however, they created one of the richest, most intricately designed game worlds ever. Breath of the Wild will surely have a significant influence on the future of game design not because its control scheme fundamentally alters how we interact with the game world, but because its gameplay and design are so subtle. What if Nintendo had the technology capable of making this game back in 2011? Would open world games look different? Would it have been such a breath of fresh air? It is impossible to know, but I think it’s worth considering how drastically different the gaming landscape could look if just one business decision was changed.
This issue is, of course, a bit more complicated than simply saying blankly, “Nintendo made a mistake picking motion controls over graphical power.” The Wii was a much cheaper console compared to its competition and the biggest reason for this was its low-end specs. From a business, and even cultural perspective, this was a smart move as it enabled the console to proliferate into the mainstream in a way Microsoft and Sony’s machines simply couldn’t. Yet it also came with significant drawbacks. Nintendo has only just made the transition into being a truly modern developer. It’s actually quite spectacular to see their development practices evolve as they start to win back the “industry pioneer” label they lost in recent years. However, with Nintendo continuing their famous “gameplay first” chant, I feel it is important to remind them that powerful technology has the capacity to elevate and inform gameplay in ways they might be overlooking.