WiiWare's Unimpressive Debut

Nintendo's digital distribution sytem neither all-new nor all-great

In the beginning there was PlayCable, an adapter for the Intellivision console that allowed subscribers to use their newfangled cable connections to temporarily download poorly-rendered ports of games like Q*Bert, which would be lost when the system was powered off. It was simplistic, but 1981 was a simple time.

PlayCable (or at least the idea behind it) begat a dozen or so quasi-online efforts over the next two decades, but it wasn't until Xbox Live Arcade—an unlikely success from a company that thought the Microsoft Office Paperclip was entertaining—that the distribution method caught on in the console market. By capitalizing on the permeation of broadband Internet and the near-mandatory Xbox 360 hard drive, Live Arcade went from an afterthought with a library of less than 30 titles to arguably the premier platform for bite-sized releases from small developers and re-releases of retro games.

And what happens when someone finds a way to bring a new service to market and make it profitable? That's right, class: bandwagons, and the jumping on thereof. Sony's Playstation Store, launched with the Playstation 3, is largely seen as the Sony-branded answer to the Microsoft-fueled idea that downloadable console gaming is now a necessity if you're going to play with the big boys.

Meanwhile, Nintendo's only acknowledgment of digital distribution has been the retro-centric Virtual Console. It's just as well, though. Despite its push to grab the innovation ring on this generation's carousel ride, the Wii isn't a system built with downloads in mind. Its storage space is puny and its built-in wireless connection is better suited to less bandwidth-intensive operations than game downloads require.

But the people have spoken. They are all too happy to sit on their couches and order download-exclusive games with their parents' credit cards, and Nintendo hasn't survived for over a century by not doing things that make money. To this end, Nintendo acquiesced to the trend with its May launch of the WiiWare service.

Nintendo wants to push this as a natural extension of their strategy for this console generation, but this is one area in which consumers can feel free to not believe the hype. The process itself isn't new, or different, or otherwise special, beyond the soft white Wii branding and a vague but non-mandatory nudge toward the Wii's strongest marketing points. Ideal candidates for WiiWare release are small enough to fit comfortably within the Wii's sparse internal memory and utilize one or more of the system's buzzwords ("innovative," "family friendly," "intuitive," "grandma," etc.), but the method of their release differs in no way from competing services.

This would be fine if the service consisted of a bevy of high-quality offerings. It doesn't.

Though a month has passed since WiiWare's North American debut, its library is still as bafflingly sparse, both in quantity and quality, as it was on launch day. The Wii made a name for itself by turning simple modes of interaction into engrossing experiences. WiiWare's stable, a little more than a dozen strong, typically has the "simple" thing down, but its offerings largely fail somewhere around the "engrossing" part. A couple of puzzle games, a handful of space shooters, and a few assorted titles better suited to a next-gen phone than a next-gen console do not a proper selection make.

Of course, a few diamonds do persist in WiiWare's proverbial rough. Being the Ike Turner of the gaming industry that it is, Nintendo knows better than to beat you without giving you something to make you love it again.

Observe Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: My Life as a King, a novel take on the standard-issue RPG scenario. Instead of controlling a party of adventurers sent forth to unknown territory to fight monsters and right wrongs, players control a king and do all the sending forth themselves. It's a throwback to the SNES Actraiser, a lighthearted fantasy city-building scenario whose minutes-long day/night cycles easily turn into inadvertent hours-long play sessions. There's always just a little bit more to do tomorrow, and those tomorrows can quickly eat up a weekend.

Lostwinds, another early WiiWare hit, doesn't have the same time-stealing quality that King does, but its Wiimote-heavy Mario-meets-Okami approach to platforming makes for a fun experience, if not the longest. Developer Frontier Developments apparently agrees—less than a week after Lostwinds' WiiWare debut, the company announced a sequel.

Both of these are real games that make an end-run around the Wii's limitations and rely on its strengths without falling into mini-game territory. If only such polish were spread evenly across WiiWare's library; Nintendo has been around long enough to know how to pull off a better launch. It's not by any means a lost cause—Pokémon and Mario entries will undoubtedly keep WiiWare profitable long enough to develop a halfway-respectable library. To date, though, it's a notch or two above the software equivalent of the Wii Tennis Racket—having it and having much use for it are two different things.