Today is the day that, presumably, Sony announces the PlayStation 4, and it’s expected to be a big, shiny, expensive convergence device that ‘connects your living room to the cloud’ or whatever and, hey, also plays games, though now the games will probably require you to jump around like an idiot in order to play them.
I haven’t bought a piece of Sony hardware in about a decade, so I’m probably not the target audience for whatever is getting unveiled tonight, but thinking about it has got me thinking about what I want a gaming console to really do: plug into my TV and let me play games. I don’t know that I own a gaming console right now whose primary function is exactly that thing. The Xbox 360 comes closest, but it’s becoming more of a passive entertainment box. Then there’s the Wii U, which is a solution in search of a problem, a technological swiss army knife chock full of theoretical fun.
The Wii U is a weird goddamn platypus of a console. It tries very hard to be several things at once: a ‘next-gen’ Wii (which makes it roughly on par with the current, at-the-end-of-its-lifecycle hardware generation), a living room convergence device that lets you play casual games and stream media and control your TV set right from the controller, a continuation of the fad that was the Wii (which was truly the hantavirus of gaming hardware, insofar as it you exposed people to it in groups, each of whom wanted to go buy their own Wii, which would then end up sitting dormant next to the TV until you had enough people over to make playing the thing worthwhile), and, hell, let’s throw a tablet in there because the kids love tablets. Shocking absolutely nobody, it is not successful at juggling all of these madly humming chainsaws, and Nintendo is doing a lot of bleeding in the form of slashed revenue projections and units shipped. January’s NPD numbers were, and excuse my language here, fucking dire – like, ‘number of Xbox 360s sold in Japan’ dire.
I bought a Wii U on launch day. These are my reasons:
1. Nintendo got their hooks in me at a young age, and I want to believe they can continue to make great and magical things forever. I have a reality distortion field around Nintendo; I’ve basically owned every one of their hardware products except for the Virtual Boy, but really, anybody could tell you that thing was a total nonstarter.
2. I am entirely comfortable with playing $300 for a Mario/Zelda/Metroid/Smash Bros./Fire Emblem/Starfox delivery system, especially if it will also let me play River City Ransom.
3. If I’m going to be completely real with myself, it’s entirely possible that the Wii U could be the last new gaming console I buy. There are a lot fewer games on the shelves that I want to buy these days. I have a lot less time to devote to gaming than I used to. The expense of the hobby is, and let’s be honest with ourselves, stupid. I’m much more interested in tiny, brilliant indie gems than I am in another Call of Duty.
Why the Wii U? The first gaming console I ever bought for myself was a Super Nintendo (purchased with a shoebox full of holiday money and spare change), and the idea of a parabola between Nintendo products seemed poetic to me.
It’s likely been a month since I last played the Wii U. Assassin’s Creed 3 is a major reason for this, since I picked up the Xbox 360 version of it (and why wouldn’t I, when all the other AC games I own are Xbox titles? Continuity is important). But a fair part of the blame has to land on the shoulders of the product itself. Because the Wii U is a mess, and it’s already abundantly clear just a few months from launch.
Wii U is deceptive. The hardware is nice. As an object, it’s sleek and well-designed. The GamePad does not feel like a stupid gimmick in your hands. It feels solid but not overly heavy, comfortable like a controller but big like a tablet. The GamePad’s screen is nice, too. It’s not particularly surprising that the hardware is nice; there’s a track record that indicates that it would be. It’s a pleasant object and it’s enjoyable to hold it, push its buttons, depress its triggers and tilt its joysticks.
I’ve only played two games to date, but likewise, they’re well made things. New Super Mario Bros. U is a triumphant game, and Nintendo Land is fun, but needs a few players to really get full enjoyment out of it, since the minigames that are the most fun require multiple players. I’ve heard good things about ZombiU, but haven’t gotten around to it yet, and TANK! TANK! TANK! might be a game I pick up when it’s cheaper. The rest of the launch lineup isn’t something I can work up excitement overs, since the best titles are ones I’ve already played elsewhere.
The move to and away from convergence is like a tide; we’re now so saturated with devices that do it all that it’s having a serious impact on how we interact with our devices and with other people. Everything I own is also a television and a radio. I bought an AppleTV last year, and I love it because it does a limited number of things that are all closely related to one another, all of them involving passive media consumption.
Alton Brown often advises against single-purpose kitchen tools. Nobody, he argues, needs to waste valuable kitchen space with a ravioli maker when it’s easy to make ravioli by hand or repurpose some other implement you’ve got already to help you do it. That’s wisdom in the kitchen, but as we go from multitasking into something very close to omnitasking, we might benefit from going back to embrace things that do one thing well.