How do you follow up a game that was brilliant, took the world by surprise, and became one of the best-selling titles of all time? This was the question Nintendo faced with Wii Sports Resort, which arrived on the Wii 10 years ago in June 2009. There’s the obvious answer, perhaps – bigger, better, released as quickly as possible. But that's never been Nintendo's style, and Resort opted to take the scenic route.
Wii Sports Resort did expand on its predecessor in the ways you’d expect. The list of sports grew from five to 12, and the game promised increased control fidelity thanks to the bundled MotionPlus attachment. What really made Resort something special, though, was a much more unusual decision. Wii Sports contained five games which were selected through menus. Wii Sports Resort's games are housed within a single open-world setting: Wuhu Island.
Interestingly enough, this wasn’t Wuhu’s first appearance in a Nintendo game – a year earlier, it had served as the setting for some Wii Fit activities, under the amusing but rather more unwieldy name of ‘Wiifity Island.’ Here it was merely a background. But Resort revolves around Wuhu Island, whether you’re throwing a frisbee on its beaches or circling the coastline on a wakeboard. Every sport has its own specific geography, and links the grab-bag of minigames in a much more coherent manner than any menus could.
Let’s take a moment to look at those sports in their own right. Wii Sports’ bowling and golf return, while tennis becomes table tennis, condensing the game to put more focus on precision control. Boxing is gone, replaced with a 'Swordplay' mode that's a better showcase for the MotionPlus's increased precision. And baseball just quietly disappears, because who ever liked Wii Sports baseball anyway?
Of the brand-new additions, the best manage to find simple motion-controlled interactions that stand alongside those brilliant originals.
It takes longer to get the hang of, but flicking your wrist and letting loose a frisbee, listening to it whistle on the breeze, is almost as satisfying as the first time you held that virtual tennis racket and felt the palm-buzz as it made contact with the ball. The one-two punch of fencing and archery could almost be the blueprint for a motion-controlled combat game – and sure enough, Resort’s swordplay provided the inspiration for Eiji Aonuma to use MotionPlus in Skyward Sword.
Not every new activity is a hit – none of Resort’s assorted watersports feel fully realised, and skydiving is a once-and-never-again novelty – but they all contribute to the game’s overall holiday vibe. Producer Katsuya Eguchi has said that his team “created a pretty fun prototype of kendama”, a Japanese cup-and-ball toy, but it was rejected because it “just didn't fit the game's theme”.
And while I’m not exactly sure who travels to a tropical island and then spends all their time in a bowling alley, the purpose of this setting comes through loud and clear. Visiting Wuhu Island is the idealised version of an activity holiday, the kind promised by every TV ad for Center Parcs. You just might need to ditch all your friends and family to experience the best of it.
The focus of Wii Sports, and Resort to an extent, is multiplayer. But the sequel also incorporates a surprisingly robust single-player offering, one that trades in completely different pleasures. It’s probably telling that Eguchi, serving as producer here, is otherwise best known as the creator of the wonderfully chill Animal Crossing series, because poking around the rock formations and palm trees of Wuhu Island is relaxing in a way that games rarely are.
The cycling minigame, for example, isn’t especially complex – essentially consisting of a basic slipstream mechanic strapped to the speed/exhaustion management system you might remember from riding Epona in Ocarina of Time, with hearts in place of carrots – but that's not the point. It’s a lovely way of seeing the island. Each bike race begins by tracing your route on a map, laying out a little Tour de Wuhu that takes you across the suspension bridge and up to the tip of the island’s central volcano. Or straight off the cliff of Icarus Bluff, dropping slowly like ET's in your front basket, and on to the town below.
Meanwhile, Resort repeats that wonderful Wii Sports trick of dotting the crowd with familiar faces from your Mii library. It’s still every bit as effective today – perhaps even more poignant, for the time that’s passed. On the beach, I spot an old school friend I haven’t seen in the decade since this game came out. Beneath Summerstone Falls I clock a very convincing Admiral Ackbar that I remember following an online guide to make. At the finish line there’s my dad, enjoying this rare opportunity to cheer on his chronically unathletic son from the sidelines.
Other aspects of the game haven’t aged so well. Resort’s open-world contemporaries were the Renaissance Italy of Assassin’s Creed II and revitalised Liberty City of GTA IV. By comparison Wuhu Island is all blocky geometry and empty spaces – but these issues are only apparent from ground level. Take to the skies, and such imperfections evaporate.
The Air Sports Island Flyover is the single best way to experience Wuhu’s peculiar charm. You pilot a plane by holding the Wiimote between thumb and forefinger like – what else? – a paper aeroplane. A timer counts down from five minutes, and you’re left to explore the island at your own pace.
This section is barely gamified at all – just a logbook that fills out with any landmarks you’ve discovered, and the chance to beat your own record for balloons popped in a single run. There’s not much challenge unless you want to set one yourself – maybe test your flying skills by flying through one of the tight rock tunnels that perforate the island, their walls not much wider than your wingspan. Some players might not enjoy that lack of guidance or structure. But then, what’s the point of a holiday?
Each Island Flyover is really just five minutes of aimless sightseeing. A chance to swoop in close to the ocean, throwing up spray from its strangely pearlescent surface. To go whale-spotting out at sea. To read the twee guidebook nuggets of information that are your reward for collecting the markers floating above each landmark: the lighthouse was accidentally built at twice its intended size, the island is powered entirely by wind turbines, booby traps have been discovered amidst the temple ruins.
Seeing the island from above has other advantages too. You start to realise how each minigame sits within this larger space. The cluster of activities in the main town, the lake with canoes bobbing on its surface, the golf courses out on their own string of islands to the southwest. Squint, and you can just about see the family resemblance to Breath of the Wild’s Shrines and Korok Seeds – discrete challenges dotted across an open landscape.
At a time before Nintendo really did open worlds, Wuhu was a cautious toe in the sun-warmed water.
A decade on, and despite selling over 33 million copies, Wii Sports Resort seems to have slipped out of the Nintendo canon. Those sales are not to be sniffed at – they put Resort just ahead of Skyrim in the all-time best sellers list (for now at least) – but they also, and inevitably, are overshadowed by the original Wii Sports’ astonishing figures of 83 million. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons why Resort has never quite escaped the shadow of its predecessor. It certainly didn’t have the same cultural impact, from sitcoms to care homes, that the original managed.
Wuhu Island is always worth revisiting and re-evaluating, because Wii Sports Resort is not merely a supreme example of how to handle the video game equivalent of a difficult second album, but a deeply unusual and singular experience. It takes the quintessential pick-up-and-play nature of Wii Sports, then expands and re-frames this within an idyllic island simulator that precisely no-one was asking for.
A decade on, I'll ask for it alright. Hell I'd beg. In this age of Joy-Cons, Nintendo, please: take us back on holiday.
This post originally appeared on Kotaku UK, bringing you original reporting, game culture and humour from the British isles.