Last-Gen Heroes: Wii Sports is one of the Greatest Games Ever MadeS

I am not trolling you. Seriously.

My, my, motion control. Look how far you've fallen. It seems like only yesterday The Wii was announced, and with it a promise to change the way we play games forever. "Motion Control" was the new buzzword, touted around as if it were the cure for cancer. It was, of course, intended to cure something. It was meant to remedy an ailing, insular industry by providing an alternative to the confusing and contact-heavy control setups of the day. But we all know how that turned out.

Last-Gen Heroes: Wii Sports is one of the Greatest Games Ever MadeS

You can't blame them for trying, though.

On the other hand, it isn't an inherently bad idea. If anything, its undoing was an onslaught of developers that couldn't make heads or tails of it. And besides, the games that did get it right really, really got that thing right. Wii Sports was one of those games, working its way into our homes as an ambassador of this strange new frontier, and it was fun. It was fun in ways that many of us either don't remember or never found out about. It was hyped. It was bundled. It was big. And in the end, it became so ubiquitous that was and still is used as shorthand for motion control.

Unfortunately, that meant once the post-launch haze had worn off and we became aware of the kinds of games we could expect to be playing for the next five years of our lives, Wii Sports became shorthand for that too. It's reputation grew sour, and that's a shame, because the legion of shovelware games that rose, rotting and malformed, in its wake like post-nuclear zombies could learn a lot from it. Why did Wii Sports succeed where other games failed?

-More Than Meets the Eye-

Well, for one thing, Wii Sports, although it gets plenty of flak for being a quote-unquote “shallow” game, actually has a sense of nuance to its controls and gameplay that its competitors tend to overlook. It doesn’t make a lot of noise about it, though. It’s a smart game pretending to be a stupid one as so that its target demographic won’t be scared off. It’s something you might not have noticed if you’d had only a passing familiarity with the game (most of its players do), and definitely wouldn’t have noticed if you’d only played multiplayer.

To elaborate, you know how when someone’s playing first-person shooters for the first time, they try out the multiplayer only to get blasted apart by every other player within a 10-mile radius, even if it isn’t an online game, because everyone is just so much better? Do you ever consider the kind of work that goes into that level of mastery? It takes a very special kind of player to latch on to the particulars of a given ruleset. According to a study on player types by Playnomics, that person is a Proactive-Diligent, characterized by a mix of strategic thinking and a drive to pursue goals, even if those goals are only self-imposed. This is the kind of player that, generally speaking, thrives on accomplishment and mastery and has the patience to notice subtleties in the way a game works. Games catered to this group are the kind we habitually call "hardcore." I’m one, mostly, and if you’ve put in the time to find this on some obscure corner of the internet, you’re probably one, too, at least partially.

Last-Gen Heroes: Wii Sports is one of the Greatest Games Ever MadeS

You see, we’re also the dominant group of players in gaming culture. You could say evolution favored us. The games of yesteryear were blood-crushingly difficult (Is that even a word? It is now.) and barely comprehensible storywise, so it took a lot of patience and dedication to even finish a game, let alone appreciate it. (Sort of like how it's going to take a lot of patience and dedication to finish this article, nyuk-nyuk.) So anybody who couldn't keep up with those specific kinds of games got weeded out early. As a result, we’ve spent so much time surrounded by ourselves that it gets hard to acknowledge other types of players even exist, and when we do, oh boy, do we ever tear them one. It’s as if we consider our way the only proper way to play. (But that's another story entirely.)

This is important, because Wii Sports wasn’t marketed to us, but to the group directly opposite us, to Reactive-Intuitive types. That marketing worked 100%, but who’s going to master the game now? Nobody. You’ll find multiplayer matches aren’t that difficult, because most of the challenge of any sport comes from your opponents, and the vast majority of your opponents will either be new to the game (Wii Sports is so often pulled out for guests), new to games altogether, or just not into serious competition. The game’s audience practically regulates its difficulty in that respect.

This is the first big key to maintaining its façade of superficiality. If a game isn’t challenging, it doesn’t matter what kinds of stunts you could theoretically pull off within its boundaries. Players in general can be relied on to take the path of least resistance. That’s why we have walkthroughs and cheat codes, and it’s not a bad thing in itself. (After all, speedruns and sequence breaking are also built around having to put up with as little of the game’s rules as possible.) But it’s only the toughest challenges that force you to drive a game to its limits. Arcade aficionados would never have found out about tricks like Street Fighter’s Hadouken or Guile’s handcuff trick if we didn’t have to. The game could have let us rest on our laurels and jump-kick our way to victory. But it didn’t, and so we had to either evolve with its challenges or get left behind. A game like that would have been intimidating from the get-go, but the same challenge that made it that way could make for a pretty exciting game. A fair trade-off. But not one that has to be made.

This is what happens when we have to get crafty. Oh yes-yes, we get very very much crafty.

Wii Sports doesn’t do this up front. Instead, it hides these challenges away in places where it knows pain-hungry players will find it. But they’re still there. After hours and behind closed doors, the game goes wild. As soon as you have nobody to play with, you might think about looking at the game’s first source of challenge, the single-player campaign.

Now, the first game or two is bound to be extremely easy (maintaining the façade again.) So try another one. Was that easy? Now try going pro. Now try shooting for Skill Level 2000. It’s only a matter of time now. You’ll be playing casually along when something unexpected happens. Wii Sports gets harder. Much harder. Several matches in, the difficulty begins to ramp up exponentially, and you can no longer swing thoughtlessly, the Wii equivalent of button-mashing, to move ahead. You have to figure out how the game works.

Fortunately, the game comes with a handy training mode, which is actually a series of variations on the main game with custom rules. In one of these games, you have to drive your golf ball into the center of a giant target, taking wind speed and direction into account. In another you’re confronted with a 91-pin bowling lane. When we’re working with established sports, it’s nice to be able to shake things up once in a while. And they’re not any easier than the main game would have gotten by this point. But just calling training “hard” or “easy” would be doing it a disservice. It’s a little bit of both.

Last-Gen Heroes: Wii Sports is one of the Greatest Games Ever MadeS

Imagine what it'll be like once that ball reaches the other side of the alley. It's just as fun as it sounds.

Training is what you make of it. You’re rated on your performance, and you’re encouraged to beat your own high scores. You even get medals, bronze, silver, gold, and eventually platinum, for showing increasingly outstanding levels of skill. You don’t have to get them, but also you do. That is, the training games are fun and addictive, and a casual player could play away for hours without even trying to break any records or collect any kind of medal, and be totally satisfied. But the game goads you to do better, and if you want to get one of those shiny medals, you’re in for a rough time. The divide between the basic game and its special challenges is staggering, so much so that it begins to seem like a game all its own. Suddenly, even simple things like returning the ball and putting a golf ball become a challenge. Have you somehow hit the ball 10 times in a row? Okay, now get 10 home runs. Still haven’t gotten that platinum medal yet? Try 10 slams out of the park! And make sure your total distance adds up to at least 3000 feet or more, okay?

The AI doesn’t get any better either. In fact, it begins to resemble the AI of your future opponents, and that’s the problem: If you can’t beat training, you can’t hope to beat them either. I say you don’t need medals, but don’t even bother trying finish up your skill chart in Boxing unless you’ve managed to get one, and no less than platinum will do. And even then, good luck.

Last-Gen Heroes: Wii Sports is one of the Greatest Games Ever MadeS

One interesting thing the game does is use a smaller feature, the Wii's Face Editor, to create a unique cast of recurring characters. These characters grow to to be a familiar part of the game, even though they never speak.

But challenge doesn’t mean anything by itself. Challenge, after all, can quickly turn to frustration if there isn’t enough depth in the game to keep you interested or help you find new ways around a problem. And lo and behold, as you work your way through the training games, you begin to notice things. You begin to notice how the direction which you hit a tennis ball is relative to the timing with which you hit it, or how angle affects power affects the spin of a bowling ball, and how this spin can be minimized at a price. You begin to see new dimensions to the game that you could have sworn didn’t exist before. Wii Sports is broken into five sports: Tennis, Baseball, Golf, Bowling, and Boxing, and a little bit of this savviness lives in every one of them.

-Motion Control Done Right-

Take Tennis for example. Emblematic of its game, Wii Tennis was only ever remembered as "that game where your character moves by itself so you can focus on hitting the ball." And yeah, it did that, and that was nice, but it did a lot of other things that get taken for granted.

While it's true that you have virtually no control over the movement of your character, you do have more than enough control over the ball to make up for that. Two key factors affect the angle the ball flies at. One of them is swing: do you go for underhand or overhand? Slightly less obvious is timing; the longer you wait to hit the ball, the wider the angle. This factor, that you can aim the ball wherever you want, but have to give it a little time to do so, has the potential to mess up what should otherwise be a fairly straightforward game.

Last-Gen Heroes: Wii Sports is one of the Greatest Games Ever Made

You might wait too long, miss the ball and let it bounce twice or send it back too low, even though it was the angle you need to keep abreast of your rival. And freedom to decide where the ball lands really means freedom to get an out at any time if your timing takes a dip. Plus not being able to control your character acts as a sort of randomizer: every time the computer puts you in position to swing at the ball, you're given a list of possible paths to send it down, and even though you might have been able to choose the ideal path had you access to the Nunchuck and its control stick, you now have the challenge of choosing the best possible path before the ball comes your way. Two controllable positions means double the possible angles. And none of this is even hinted at in-game.

In fact, the only way you even find out about timing is in the manual, which almost no one reads anyway. Do you have to know all of this? Not if all you want to do is kick off your shoes and have a quick round of this "video game" thing with some of your closest friends. Details like these are in every game, even more so in the later games, tucked away in the background waiting to be mastered by an ambitious player. But all a beginning player needs to know are the basics, which take up no more than a 1-minute tutorial. Heck, the game even teaches you Tennis without a tutorial, something that hasn't been done in a Nintendo game, and very few high-profile games at all, in years.

Last-Gen Heroes: Wii Sports is one of the Greatest Games Ever Made

Fun Fact: Did you know that Nintendo had already released Tennis, Baseball and Golf games for the NES/Famicom from 1983 to 1984? This might have been a factor in choosing these games for Wii Sports. Wii Golf especially seems to be taking some cues from the original. All that's missing is Mario.

The other games are even more interesting. In case you're still wondering, the secret to reducing spin in a game of Bowling is to use the bare minimum of necessary strength, throw as steadily as possible and release the ball at the last moment, but spin and power can be helpful, too, especially if you want to send one pin flying into another and break a dastardly 7-10 split. Besides, spin can be balanced out by tilting your angle, or moving to the side, although you might want to get a close up view of the alley before you take aim.

Batting in Baseball is a nice exploration of Tennis's timing concept, taking power into greater consideration (a well-swung bat can send a ball clean out of the park) and changing the window of possible angles with every unique pitch, forcing you to adjust on the fly and get some of idea of how different pitches change things in a very short amount of time (sometimes having to try and predict the pitch your opponent will send)... But you know what? Enough about batting. Pitching is much more interesting, an asymmetrical dynamic where the pitcher must outwit the batter using a mix of curveballs, screwballs, fastballs and splitter, whipped out as fast as possibly can to either side or clean over the plate, leaving the batter on the defensive.

Last-Gen Heroes: Wii Sports is one of the Greatest Games Ever MadeS

Boxing is another great game where, among other things, strength is determined by the rhythm of your consecutive hits and the faster you knock someone out, the longer they stay down.

And Golf is where Nintendo's designers really start flexing their creative muscles, turning out to be an especially tricky game where Club choice, swing strength, whether you alter your aim to take a shortcut (which is usually necessary to get anything below a par) or to take slopes into account, whether your shot slices or hooks, the roughness of the terrain your ball is on (of course), and not to mention wind speed and direction are all factors that have to be considered before taking a swing, and as it turns out, many of them are under your control. You'll have to master all of them if you want to earn yourself an ultra-rare hole in one, and trust me, you will do badly the first time. Just like last time, none of this is even hinted at in game, and casual players will be pretty well off just doing these things, enjoying the novelty of it all, the experience, swinging like Babe Ruth and driving like Tiger Woods, managing to hit the ball at all, and watching where it happens to land. Turns out motion control can feel pretty impressive if you're willing to put a little thought into it, just like button-based control schemes, but in a different way.

To them it would be pure chaos, wonderful chaos. To you, it might be a carefully calculated game about making the most of a clever set of restraints. But the beauty of Wii Sports is that, like the Original Super Mario Kart (I have no idea about the sequels,) it can be either of these things depending on how you play it. It doesn’t have to be random. But you can make it that way. You just have to be pretty bad at it, because it’s not random by default.

When it's not a blue shell-fest, it's AWESOME. Get a load of that bottom screen.

But even without trying to master them, controlling all of these factors would seem like a daunting task to any player, let alone a novice. How would that even work? To answer that question, here comes one of the most crucial yet overlooked features of the game: Wii Sports uses buttons. It uses gestures, too, but they're all simple things like a quick wave or an underhead lob. It doesn't make you jump through hoops, as doing so would defeat the purpose of including motion controls in the first place: simplicity. And it helps that this time they are, by and large, more responsive than most of the Wii's entire library combined.

The controls are laid out reasonably. In Golf, you change aim with left and right on the D-pad, switch clubs with up and down and can mess with the camera to your convenience with 1 and 2. there's even a feature that lets you see the depth of slopes on the terrain, and you only find it accidentally by poking around with the controller while putting. Before pitching, you can hold A or B or both or none to select any one of the four throws, and aim with the D-pad. And before you lob a bowling ball down the alley, you can zoom in with Up on the D-pad, and use A to switch what happens when you use Left and Right from turning your angle to moving side to side.

Most importantly, Wii Sports integrates buttons seamlessly into the gameplay by keeping them out of the action. Buttons aren't complicated by default, but they can get that way if you have to think about them too much. If there's any obstacle non-players face when offered the chance to get into video games, it's that they're too hard, but there are many different ways a game can be hard, and the way they usually mean "hard" is about action, about having to balance a medley of buttons, pull off chains of combos and adjust the direction of a D-pad or control stick in a split second. It's a way of thinking that's more than a little tricky to get used to. The buttons here, though are for planning only, so you always have time to think, and you're never overwhelmed. And the much more familiar motion controls get saved for the action.

Oh, and here's something you might not have noticed: Out all of the games, only Boxing doesn't use any buttons. This is key. Motion controls are nice and easy at first, but throw in too many, and make them too complicated, and then, well, what was the point of including them in the first place? What Wii Sports did was that it used the Wii Remote for actions that would've been too difficult to keep track of with buttons, like timing the swing of a golf club or aiming a punch, and didn't shy away from using simple button inputs when they knew it wouldn't overwhelm the player, resulting in a very balanced and accessible control scheme.

Last-Gen Heroes: Wii Sports is one of the Greatest Games Ever Made

Just try telling them that this is a game of wits. See what happens.

But probably the most ingenious decision of all was to get the sports they did in the first place. Everybody knows the rules, so almost no tutorials are necessary. Best of all, The sports of Wii Sports are all classic spectator games, designed to be fun to watch as well as play. One major reason people don't seem to understand games is that they're primarily experienced through interaction rather than audiovisual information, and the split between the two can at times be pretty strange. When they see cute faces and talking animals giving you presents, what you get is the experience of living in a town where everyone knows your name, and having the chance to be more financially secure than you are in real life. When they see heads exploding to and fro, you get the ultimate test of coordination, reflexes, and strategic thinking.

But Wii Sports is understood in a fraction of a split second. Even if you can't understand what's going on while the player plays, you can still appreciate it, because the visuals and gameplay were meant to reflect each other as much as possible. You can share in the player's joy, and understand why that player might be having so much fun. The best games of Wii Sports have spectators glued to the screen. Yes, people have reported a tendency to look silly while swinging the Wii Remote, but if you're focused on watching the player, then your eyes are in the wrong place.

Last-Gen Heroes: Wii Sports is one of the Greatest Games Ever MadeS

That moment when you finally get why your friend's logged so many hours with her Wii.

-Bad News-

There are few good words that can be said about any of the developers that were willing to use motion controls last gen. Party games and shovelware abound, catastrophic side effects of the Wii’s overhype. Looking back, that overhype was what killed the idea. It boasted that hand gestures would replace our traditional controls, while in reality they were less of a full-scale revolution and more of a missing link. When pursuing an easy-to-use control scheme, motion controls work best as just another tool in the designer's belt, not as the alpha and omega of accessibility, but there were too many developers that bought into that hype. They treated motion control as if it were some magic elixir they could sprinkle on their games to make them automatically approachable to everyone. There was no rhyme, no reason, no logic, no method to any of what they were doing, and yet somehow they thought they could get away with it.

"I don't get it! We put motion sensing in our game and everything! Why doesn't anyone like it?!"

And not only did they fail, they (along with other factors) managed to scare off any developer worth its salt, any developer that might've been smart enough to recognize that motion-based control schemes, just like any other, take intelligence to get right, ensuring the fate of the console and its userbase for the rest of its life. It was only a few games, like Wii Sports, that managed to avoid this fate.

It wasn't Assassin's Creed or God of War, no, but that doesn't mean it can't be an extremely thoughtful game. Wii Sports managed to successfully implement and effectively leverage a control scheme that almost no one else was capable of even understanding, making it entertaining in the process, presented an accessible, easy-to-learn yet structurally rich and eventually very challenging system that could appeal to a more diverse range of players than ever before, was the biggest success among non-standard audiences to date, set a standard by which similar games would be judged, and even had the ingenuity to take advantage of minor system specialties to better the experience without showing off, and in doing all of these things it constitutes a significant and rare creative accomplishment, the level of which only a handful of games have ever reached. In that sense, it is an elite.

If only there were more games like Wii Sports, maybe then motion controls could've taken off the way they should have. Until that happens, if it ever does (and who's to say it will?), it will be only one more idea that was so badly damaged no one believed in it anymore, just another failure wandering through the Valley of Lost Tropes. 3-D and Virtual Reality, move over. You've got company.

(Update, Note:) One thing the game does really well that I forgot to mention in this essay is how it handles strength. Before the Wii, if you wanted a way to represent building strength, one that required the player to put in some effort of her own, to set up a challenge and really drive the idea home, you had to resort to button mashing. Words cannot describe how painful this is.

Think about all the times you had to “Press -insert button or key- repeatedly” to do some kind of action, probably more than once at a time. Now that I’ve successfully filled your heads with nightmares, consider this: The reason that you have to press the button over and over again is because, well, if you just pressed the button once, what kind of conclusion could the game draw from that? It doesn’t matter if you focused the power of the universe and your heroic fighting spirit into that button press, pressing a button is almost always a binary action; either the button is pressed or it isn’t. There is no in-between. All the computer will be able to tell is whether or not you even pressed the button, regardless of strength.

The only way to overcome this hurdle is to keep track of something that is fairly analog. In this case, it’s how many times a button was pressed in a given amount of time. A test of finger strength. The nightmare begins.

When using the Wii Remote to gauge strength, there’s a huge difference: It only takes one swing. That one swing is analog, and the levels of intensity applied can vary wildly in even a relatively soft stroke. Golf challenges you to control the near-infinite number of possible outcome and apply a specific amount of force to your swing. And in Baseball, you’re challenged to swing as hard as can and send the ball flying into the stands (or beyond.) There’s even a high-powered swing you can pull off in Tennis that sends the ball flying hurdling towards its target at top speed, giving them less time to think. And it all only takes one swing.

In fact, it’d help if more developers took advantage of this feature. While in Super Mario Galaxy they allowed you to speed up your swimming by using the Wii Remote (a welcome time-saver,) you only got one powered-up stroke per wave. And you know what that means!

Last-Gen Heroes: Wii Sports is one of the Greatest Games Ever MadeS

It never gets too annoying, but still. It’s probably the only recorded instance of waggle in a game applauded for its lack thereof. This could have been avoided by, say, tying the number of strokes to the intensity of the swing. Because intensity is gauged in such an analog way, it doesn’t even have to be a very strong stroke (the number of values between any two numbers on the real line is always infinite, no matter how small those numbers are,) and since you usually don’t want to stop swimming quickly in that game once you start, as the move is most often used to cover large distances, going on auto pilot for a while and only having to give the remote an occasional brisk wave doesn’t sound like such a bad deal.

So there. Using the Wii Remote is an analog action! It solved one of our most annoying control issues! Now please, please, don’t treat it like something it’s not. Don’t treat it like a button, either swung or not.

Note finished.

This is on my blog now.