Crappy, budget-priced Wii games like Rig Racer 2 and Pool Party aren't all bad. They don't spell trouble for the Wii. And in the end, they might end up being a good thing.
A quick glance at the shelves at any game retailer will reveal a host of slapdash B-games, churned out by publishers you've never heard of to make a quick buck off Wii's success. You of course should not buy any of these games. And you shouldn't let your friends buy them, either, unless you hate your friends.
But just because Nintendo allows these publishers to crank out garbage games for Wii doesn't mean they're bad people. In fact, it's a very healthy attitude to take towards a maturing market, one that could reap dividends for gamers in the long run.
Clubbing The Seal
You can't get a few minutes into a discussion of Wii shovelware without somebody asking, whether facetiously or not, "Whatever happened to the Nintendo Seal Of Quality?"
Let's take a moment to define what that even is. The Nintendo Seal of Quality was a little icon placed on Nintendo-licensed products, starting in the days of the NES. It was intended to convey that Nintendo had tested the product and that it passed a certain quality standard, but mostly the mark meant that the game or accessory had been officially licensed by Nintendo.
Coming off the Atari 2600, when most of the games on shelves were produced without Atari's consent or involvement and were of wildly varying levels of quality, this was seen as an important step to assure consumers that they were getting quality merchandise. It wasn't necessarily supposed to mean that every game would be as fun to play as Super Mario Bros. It meant that it was an officially licensed product, wouldn't void your warranty, free from defects in workmanship, etc.
Sure, even back then people laughed at the Seal Of Quality when it was applied to terrible games. But as a reassurance to customers (read: Mom and Dad, who didn't know shit from Shinola when it came to making informed gaming purchases) that they weren't buying an off-brand game, it was a good idea. Civilization creator Sid Meier recently praised it as one of his top three innovations in gaming.
It's important to remember that while Nintendo's competitors might not have copied the seal itself, they did take the idea: Every major game system since the NES has had a structure whereby third parties can create officially licensed software. It's gotten to the point where customers no longer need the extra reassurance. As such, the Nintendo Seal Of Quality doesn't actually exist anymore. For one thing, it's now the "Official Nintendo Seal." For another, it appears on the back of games, very tiny, not prominently on the front. Its original purpose is no longer an issue.
What's odd is that with Wii, Nintendo is actually loosening the restrictions. Sony goes much farther than Nintendo did: They have a "concept approval" policy, whereby games still in the design or concept stages have to be sent in to Sony, who has an entire team devoted to reviewing them and can block games from appearing on PlayStation hardware. One well-known case in point was during the early PSP era, where Sony blocked all PlayStation 1 and PlayStation 2 ports from appearing on the system unless they had roughly 30% brand-new, PSP-exclusive content.
Nintendo has no such process. Here's what president Reggie Fils-Aime had to say on the subject last year: "In terms of a certification program, we already have a certification program, and publishers need to conform with a number of key aspects in order for the game to be published on our system. What we don't do, is we don't have some sort of filter for quality, because quality is so subjective."
So basically, the "key aspects" that Nintendo looks for don't have anything to do with the quality of the gameplay, which means we can assume they're technical requirements.
And all we really need to do is take a look at the Wii shelves down at the local Gamestop to figure out that Nintendo doesn't have any quality controls in place. Many of the $20 Wii games are quick ports of PlayStation 2 software that was only released in Europe -- software that Sony's U.S. branch wouldn't allow to be released.
But isn't it a terrible thing for all of these quick cash-in games to clog the shelves? Surely bad games are never good. Surely consumers are only hurt by the possibility that they'll get suckered into buying a crappy game, right? And it can't be good for Nintendo, to have their good name smeared? Won't it give people a bad impression of the Wii and hurt their business?
Well, Nintendo seems to be doing just fine. Even if Conspiracy Entertainment did sell out of all of their copies of Ninjabread Man, they're not exactly eating in to Nintendo's game sales. There hasn't been any wringing of hands in the mainstream media about these crappy Wii games, or any widespread disappointment with Wii among its install base. Wii Fit and Smash Bros. are hardly in danger.
Is it a problem for third-party publishers, who don't have Nintendo's tight integration of hardware and software and have a tougher time competing on store shelves? Yes, but that shouldn't be Nintendo's problem. It's up to software makers to illustrate to consumers why they should invest in higher-priced, higher-quality software over budget knockoffs. It works in every other industry -- why not videogames?
Another question from the peanut gallery. "But wasn't a glut of cheap, inferior software the cause of the game industry crash of 1983?" Whoa there. Yes, this is often cited as a major problem of that era. But to call this the one and only reason for the industry crash is a serious oversimplification.
First of all, what really caused the software glut was irrational overexuberance on the part of buyers and game makers. They truly believed that demand for videogames was about to explode and that they could just churn out damn near anything and sell it. There was no controlling central authority to put the brakes on, and a lot of small companies popped up out of nowhere to create Atari games and make a quick buck.
When the games business started to dip in 1983 and consumers stopped buying as many games as they had in previous years, retail buyers basically freaked out. For all they knew, the videogame fad was over and they were about to go the way of pet rocks and hula hoops. They canceled orders, they didn't buy all of the games from tiny companies -- they weren't even ordering from Atari. Atari (then owned by Warner) and Mattel and Coleco could have weathered the storm and convinced retailers that games were still a going concern. But they all decided that the videogame system was an obsolete relic, and that what consumers really wanted were personal computers, which were the natural evolution of game consoles.
It does not need saying that we are in absolutely no danger of this happening today. The videogame industry is not going anywhere. Might a software glut that outstrips demand hurt the Wii? Maybe, but Nintendo can put the brakes on if it needs to. This isn't the 2600. If -- and this is a big if -- it is shown that games like Rig Racer 2 really are hurting Nintendo, they can put the kill on them.
But at this point, demand for Wii software isn't being met by supply. Or it certainly wasn't over the holidays, when all of these junk games were released. Third parties haven't been putting out a lot of Wii software, and even as it continues to steamroller PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, they're still not announcing many major game releases. To put it another way, third parties created the gap that others stepped in to fill.
And who's to say that Atari wouldn't have been able to solve, using better marketing, the game-glut issue? As I said, they never even bothered to try: They jumped right out of the pool the second somebody started peeing in it.
Why It's A Good Thing
Ratingsymbol_ao It's important to keep in mind that we're only talking about the American market when we talk of the "new" phenomenon of $20 budget-priced game racks. In the other two major markets, Europe and Japan, this has long been commonplace. These Wii shovelware games had to be shoveled from somewhere, and it's Europe. Sony doesn't allow the PlayStation 2 versions of games like Billy The Wizard in the U.S., but their friends across the Atlantic have no such compunctions.
And D3 Publisher made its name by selling cheap budget software in Japan, under the Simple 2000 series. And they seem to be doing fine, too. As a matter of fact, Japan is a good example of how this kind of free-market stance can end up being good for consumers. A lot of the early Simple series games weren't good, but eventually they had some hits.
D3 managed to break into a market that had been controlled by the same few publishers ever since the Famicom days. Could Bold Games or Conspiracy Entertainment bring us the next Oneechanbara? How about the next Zombie vs. Ambulance? You never know; they might come up with a game that's actually worth twenty bones.
And if third parties are too scared of failure to do anything without somebody first lighting the way, what does it mean for us that companies like Bold have proved that there is a market for inexpensive Wii games that are light on features? Surely Capcom could come up with some $20 game concepts. Or Electronic Arts.
And why do we think that consumers can't figure it out? Why do videogames have to be the one product for which we believe they need to have their hands held? I loved He-Man as a kid. There were all kinds of crappy knock-off action figures in the cereal aisle at the supermarket for $1. Did anybody buy them for me? No. They knew what the real deal was and paid more for it.
Go into a Walgreens and look by the cash register. See the giant dump bin of $2 DVD movies? These don't stop anybody from buying the films they really want to see at full price at Virgin Megastore across the street.
All Nintendo is doing is opening up the market and exerting less control over what people can make for the Wii. Plus, think about it. Nintendo's official line here is that they're not putting creative restraints on game makers, which is wholly incompatible with their rationale for why they won't allow Adults Only-rated games on Wii.
If Nintendo doesn't think it's a problem that awful games like Monster Trux Offroad have the Nintendo logo on them and are associated with their company, why is it an issue if an AO-rated game like Manhunt 2 is released on Wii? That same laissez-faire philosophy might actually start applying to games we want to play.
A more hands-off approach to the game market from console makers is good for gamers, even if it lands us a bunch of bad games in the meantime.