As of 2016, the Nintendo Wii has sold over 100 million units worldwide. That impressive figure makes the Nintendo Wii the fifth best-selling console ever made. It’s even more impressive when you consider that the communal nature of the Nintendo Wii means that well over 100 million people have played the system at some point. Whether they loved it or hated it, it’s safe to say that nearly every one of those users remember the first time they grabbed a Wiimote and started waving it wildly in the air while playing Wii Sports tennis.
I can’t help but smile whenever I think about that image. I’d like to tell you that my joy stems from remembering a time when it felt like the entire world turned into gamers, but that wouldn’t exactly be the truth. The truth is that it has much more to do with my suspicion that those 100+ million people were really wildly waving Nintendo’s middle finger to the video game industry.
Before you write that off as bitter sentiment, consider the Nintendo GameCube. The Nintendo GameCube was everything that people thought a video game console of that era should be. It utilized discs and not cartridges, it incorporated online play, and it even featured several high-profile games intended for a more mature audience.
It’s ironic that the innovations of Sony helped establish many of those design conventions when you consider that Nintendo was supposed to work with Sony on a CD-based console once upon a time. As the story goes, their deal fell apart when Nintendo president Hiroshi Yamauchi became concerned regarding the level of legal control Sony would have had over titles developed for their collaborative console. The details of their split don’t necessarily matter. What matters is that Sony went on to make their own console, which ended up outselling the Nintendo 64 by almost 70 million units worldwide. The PlayStation had given Nintendo their first real taste of market defeat.
The Big N realized that they had to change with the times. Not only was Sony preparing to release the PlayStation 2, but Sega was threatening an imminent comeback with the Dreamcast and financial juggernaut Microsoft was about to enter the console game with the Xbox. They had to design a console that could match their competitors in power.
Yet, every modern day element of the GameCube seemed to come with some quirky Nintendo compromise. The system used discs, but they were so tiny they could have been confused for toys. The GameCube featured a few mature games, but Nintendo refused to pursue popular mature titles such as the Grand Theft Auto franchise. Even the GameCube’s controller looked like a parody of Sony’s DualShock. If the GameCube was Nintendo’s attempt to conform, it was a bitter one. The system’s poor sales (about 22 million units worldwide) reflected the company’s inability to release someone else’s console.
You might already know some of this. Here’s something you probably don’t know. During the early stages of the GameCube’s development, when it was still codenamed “Dolphin,” there was a rumor going around that Nintendo was working on some new motion control prototype for the system. This concept piqued the interests of several industry insiders. In fact, in a 2000 interview with MCV (as reported by Nintendo World Report), Sega’s then vice president of development Greg Thomas had this to say regarding the Dreamcast’s competition:
I don’t care how many polygons Xbox can put out. It’s all about who can deliver the next great gameplay experience. I’m not nervous about Xbox or PlayStation 2 because we think we can make better games. What does worry me is Dolphin’s sensory controllers (which are rumored to include microphones and headphone jacks) because there’s an example of someone thinking about something different.
The concept didn’t just intrigue the competition. Famed game designer Shigeru Miyamoto also felt that the idea of a sensory controller represented the direction Nintendo should be heading in. During a 2006 interview with Business Week (which has since been removed but is summarized here), Miyamoto commented that work on the Wii had begun not long after the GameCube was launched. He implied that it wasn’t his desire to release another powerful, modern video game console: “The consensus was that power isn’t everything for a console. Too many powerful consoles can’t coexist. It’s like having only ferocious dinosaurs. They might fight and hasten their own extinction.”
That motion controller quickly became the basis for a console that the ferocious dinosaurs wouldn’t know what to make of. For that matter, nobody else knew what to make of it, either.
The Wii was known as the “Revolution” during its development phase. Nintendo kept a tight lid on what the Revolution was, but the name led many to speculate that Nintendo was doing something unlike anything the industry had ever seen. As such, the Revolution would surely be the most powerful system yet. A system that emphasized multimedia capabilities, mature games, and third-party support. A system that, as Reggie Fils-Aimé might have put it, was all about “kicking ass.”
Instead, we got the Wii as we know it today. People’s initial reaction to the Wii was a lot like that scene in Blazing Saddles when the sheriff first rides into town. There were a lot of gaping jaws. The popular headline at the time was that Nintendo had gone from being a video game company disguising their products as toys to a toy company disguising their products as video games. At least that’s what the clever ones said. Everyone else just made fun of the name.
Regardless of what people were saying, the point is that they were talking. For the first time in a long time, Nintendo had introduced a console that was generating more buzz than the systems their rivals were putting out. That was part of Nintendo’s Wii revolution. They were done playing catch up by adhering to someone else’s rules.
The other part of their revolution was, of course, the console itself. As Greg Thomas had speculated at a time when people were still fawning over a console that could play DVDs, gamers really did have a desire to embrace something unique. They had spent years paying more and more for consoles that promised things like better graphics for TVs nobody could afford or the ability to play new forms of media that nobody was quite sold on. Some were just scared of a future that emphasized online play and homogenous shooters.
Into that world comes Nintendo with a console that is not only significantly cheaper than the competition but is offering something completely different. The Wii never made you feel worried about the direction of the video game industry because it seemed so far removed from the rest of the industry. It was so different that you felt like you simply needed to try it. When you found out that it was almost impossible to find one at the time of the system’s release due to the system’s incredible popularity, it only fueled your desire to try it even more.
Then, it happened. You finally got a Wii. Or, if you were still hesitant, you heard about someone else that had one. Whatever the circumstances, you managed to finally try one and, at first, it was odd and unlike anything you’d able played before. For the first time in a long time, you were gaming because gaming filled you with an incomparable sense of wonder.
No other console of the time could replicate that sense of wonder. Microsoft and Sony mistakenly thought that the Wii’s revolution was its motion controllers. PS Move and the Kinect came and went. How Nintendo must have laughed as they watched the companies that were supposedly light years ahead of them struggling to reproduce their symbolic middle digits.
Nintendo alone knew that the Wii’s revolution had little to do with motion controls and everything to do with being different. You can argue that the success of the Wii has perhaps inspired the company to think a little too differently in the years since, but Nintendo must also forever be remembered as the company that recognized that plenty of people still wanted to buy video game consoles because gaming is capable of being fun in a way that no other entertainment medium can hope to achieve.
Nintendo’s revolt against the industry was neither bitter nor violent. It came in the form of a now 10-year old system that made us all feel like 10-year-olds again the very first time we played it.
Matthew Byrd is a staff writer.