The Ryan Lambie column: Thanks for the memory, Nintendo

WiiWare is here! This is good news. The Wii has nowhere near enough storage capacity to handle it! That's the not-so-good news...

Mr Ryan Lambie's amazing joypad.

Finally, after several false starts and much anticipation (from me, at least), WiiWare has finally arrived in Europe. For those of you that haven’t heard of it (and it must be said that Nintendo’s fanfare has been unusually muted), WiiWare is essentially the big N’s version of XBox Live Arcade, with games and software available to download in exchange for points.

As I mentioned at the end of my last column, the great thing about WiiWare is that it allows developers, freed from the shackles of marketing and distribution, the opportunity to be a little more creative with their ideas. Oddball concepts and scenarios that would never see the light of day in today’s highly competitive video game climate can be tested out with minimum risk. One of WiiWare’s launch titles, the rather wonderful LostWinds, is a prime example: not only is it stunning to look at, it also happens to make proper, imaginative use of the Wiimote – a feat disappointingly rare in most Wii games released so far.

So given that WiiWare is an all-round Good Thing, you’d think I’d be a happy gamer this week – or at least, a little less grumpy than usual. Predictably though, there’s a problem, and if you download games to your Wii regularly you’ll probably know what it is.

In their infinite wisdom, Nintendo decided not to give the Wii an internal hard drive – instead, it has a pitifully small 512MB of flash memory, much of which is filled with the Wii’s OS.

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Unless you’re absolutely obsessed with downloading retro games from Nintendo’s Virtual Console shop, this probably won’t have posed much of a problem for you up to now – most games from the 80s/90s era of cartridges are very small anyway – but the average file on WiiWare is going to be much bigger (LostWinds, for example, weighs in at around 300 blocks, or roughly 38MB), meaning that your Wii’s memory will be filled up after downloading a few games.

Nintendo’s rather glib answer to this problem is to simply delete any games you’ve finished, since you’re free to download files you’ve already purchased if you change your mind. As Nintendo of America’s PR guru Eric Walter put it:

“When you buy a game, it’s yours forever, so you can delete it and go back and get it at any time you want. In a way, we liken it to putting music on your iPod; you listen to it for a while, and then you get tired of it, and you pull it off, and you put some new stuff on.”

This statement may be true for virtual console titles of 1MB or less, but downloading larger files is a pain in the posterior, especially if you have a slow web connection.

The other solution is to shift your games onto a removable SD memory card, but there are problems here too – not only is the transfer rate shockingly slow, you’ll have to copy the games back over onto the Wii to be able to play them.

So far, Nintendo have remained curiously reluctant to come up with a solution to the memory problem, despite growing rumbles of discontent among owners – net forums are full of disgruntled gamers complaining about their overstuffed Wii consoles. Surely, Nintendo are actually limiting their sales potential by not listening to their customers?

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At a press meeting last month, Nintendo’s president Satoru Iwata hinted that a solution could be on its way:

“Statistically speaking, it is true that there are a small number of customers who feel that the flash memory is too small, while many others find that they have plenty of memory […] however, because this small number of people are none other than the most avid players, we know we have to review the best possible solution to eliminate their inconvenience.”

It’s a start, but it’s still extremely vague. With the Wii’s USB facility, surely an aftermarket external hard drive would be the most obvious answer?

At the very least, Nintendo need to make a downloadable patch available so that games can be played from SD cards – but thanks to Nintendo’s ‘no prisoners’ policy on piracy, that’s unlikely to happen, since data saved to such a card is encrypted (hence the slow transfer speed).

There are rumours circulating that Nintendo will dramatically unveil their solution at the E3 trade show in July – let’s hope so, otherwise Nintendo could end up with a geek mutiny on their hands.

Ryan writes a new column every Thursday at Den Of Geek. 

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