We've been playing the same old Wii since 2006, which makes the calls for Nintendo to create a new Wii - Wii HD! Wii 2? Wii-As-Powerful-As-The-Xbox-360!?! - about... four years old. As recently as last November, Nintendo of America president Reggie Fils-Aime was telling Kotaku that it wasn't time to talk about a new Wii yet.
Now, it is time to talk about a new Wii.
We've got a Wii U coming, a machine we finally saw and played at E3 last week. It's an odd, intriguing system with unspecified horsepower and a controller that contains a screen. Why was it time to show off this new Wii and plan it for a 2012 release? Fils-Aime and one of Nintendo's top creators don't cite the slowing sales of the 86-million-selling Wii. They have other reasons.
"The way we approach hardware development," Fils-Aime told me last week, "is that when there are experiences that our internal development teams bring to bear that can't be executed with the current systems, that's a signal to us that it's time for exploration of new systems. And, Stephen, specifically in this case, our development teams were bringing forward two-screen ideas, two-separate-screen ideas. Ideas that leveraged the big 10-feet-away interface and the one-foot-away smaller-screen interface. That was the signal for not only a new system but one that took advantage of two separate screens."
In the abstract, that does sound like the way Nintendo does things, always trying to zig when other people are zagging. That explanation skips the business concerns, of course, but it begs the question of what the creative people at Nintendo were cooking up and what kind of push they were giving Nintendo's powers-that-be that produced not just a more powerful Wii but something so, well, odd.
Long-time Animal Crossing developer Katsuya Eguchi, a Nintendo veteran and producer on upcoming Wii U projects, told me that prettier graphics were one of the pushes.
"More and more people have access to high definition televisions, so the timing is right for a next-generation Wii that takes advantage of that technology and the access to it," he said. The 2006 Wii could send a 480p signal to a TV, at best. The new one can run games in 1080p, the same high-def standard hit by the 360 and PlayStation 3. "The Wii only supported SD and at that time HD was not as common and readily available. But now, as more people have access to HD, we think the time is right to release an HD version of the Wii."
Nintendo creators sometimes create beautiful games. The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker, for example, has a timeless cartoony style. But they're not known for pushing graphics to the technical limit, of rendering their Zeldas and Marios with the graphical fidelity of a Gears of War or LittleBigPlanet. Of course, they never had a machine powerful enough to do that stuff.
The mention of a Wii U Metroid got me wondering, and, surprisingly, Nintendo's Katsuya Eguchi was more than willing to talk about such a game. Was he merely brainstorming on the fly? You be the judge.
We got onto the topic after I asked why a Wii U demo that he made called Battle Mii featured a cute version of Metroid heroine Samus Aran's space-ship. I asked him if he was trying to send people a message.
"I can't give you any details now," he said, "but I'm sure there will be a new Metroid release making use of the new controller, not just to control Samus and her ship but also to give the player a new source of information. Maybe the player is looking at the screen but has the information that they need to defeat the enemy in their hands." Maybe you could hold the Wii controller up to the screen and scan your enemy, I suggested. "You could look through the screen and scan your enemy and find where it's weakspot is." Sold, Metroid fans?
I wondered whether the Wii U would enable a Mario that was so graphically advanced that it would show the wrinkles in Mario's clothes and the sweat on his brow. "With the Wii U, while we certainly will have that ability," Eguchi said. "Whether or not we take advantage of it or whether we see the sweat on Mario's brow, that's kind of [Mario creator]Mr Miyamoto's call. The bottom line is that it's always our goal to make the best experience for the player... The New Super Mario Bros. Mii [Wii U prototype] , that takes advantage of HD and detailed graphics in that, when you're playing, you'll know exactly which Mii is you. Because of the detail that's presented. There are many possibilities with the HD that we can take advantage of."
Eguchi said Nintendo has no aversion to doing technically-advanced graphics. "Now that we have a Wii in HD - the Wii U - there are games like Zelda or Metroid or Star Fox, that definitely will benefit from the ability to display those detailed graphics. But there is games like Mario and even Animal Crossing where those details might take away from that experience. We have to explore our options."
That's the graphics, but here's Eguchi's surprising explanation for why Nintendo is going with a screen-based controller. Why the screen in the controller?
"When we first came out with the Wii, our goal was to have the Wii on all the time," Eguchi said, almost losing me from the start. "The goal was to have users interacting with the hardware all the time. But the reality is most people only have one TV in their living room. Because of that, we had to share time. People might be watching a DVD or watching TV and when that was happening they couldn't interact with the game.
"So we needed a solution.
"We needed an idea that would alleviate that problem. And that solution was including a screen that was a part of the console and allowing people to interact not just with the TV screen but also on the screen that comes with the console."
One of the Wii U's more compelling features is indeed the ability for the console to stream high-end games to the controller screen when the TV isn't available, but I told Eguchi that I was surprised this was such a high priority for Nintendo. I hadn't expected Nintendo's driving goal to be for consumers to keep their console running at all times, though in retrospect, that helps explain initiatives like Wii Connect 24, a service that encouraged Wii owners to keep their system in sleep mode, always prepared to automatically download new content.
"The idea of having people interact with [the console]all the time," Eguchi said, "came from [the fact]that people buy the game and they play it. Once they're done with the game, they tend to put it aside and set the Wii aside. In order to prevent that from happening, the goal was to make sure people always had something fun to do on their console...so that that the feeling associated with that hardware was that, 'if i turn this on and interact with it I'm going to experience something good.'"
The Wii U may not have a Wii-style blue light in its disc drive that illuminates when there's a new reason to turn it on - Eguchi said that omission isn't necessarily final - but Nintendo does plan to let people power on their screen-based Wii U controller and check it for updates (status reports of what their friends are playing, for example) even without turning their TV on.
Why the Wii U and why now?
1) HD Graphics. 2) A console that can always be on.
Those are some of the reasons.
Top photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images