Video Games: The Way Wii Were

Intrepid reporter learns new Gameboy skills. | Image by Frank HamiltonIf City Paper doesn't write frequently about video games, one reason might be the sheer cost involved in keeping up with the medium. Even in these bat-shit economic times, the average alt-weekly reader can likely splurge on a play or a night at the movies or a new album every so often. But now that video game systems cost half a month's rent and two games equals (maybe) a BGE bill, only full-time video game journalists can really be expected to consistently stay on top of what's hot and what's not. Lacking a trust fund and spooked to the bone by the shrill cries of "The Worst Economic Crisis Since The Great Depression," our Nintendo Wii lies collecting dust for lack of new games, only occasionally switched on to play $5 downloads of decades-old NES titles.

So when we got an invite to go test-play some new Nintendo games last week, we said well, yeah, duh. The traveling video game preview has become a standard way to build buzz for an upcoming game; just a few weeks ago, the Inner Harbor was swarming with twentysomething men lining up for a chance to play some forthcoming sports game for a few minutes. (Wanna say it was NBA Live 09 but our memories are proving faulty.) We expected Nintendo's preview to be something like the grown-up, multi-media version of a toy catalog, a chance to "ooh" and "ahh" at all the shiny new gewgaws you can't afford. We also expected something of a festive atmosphere this close to the all-important holiday shopping season, perhaps with a grown man walking around in a giant felt Mario costume and Santa hat. Or at least a small sign pointing us in the right direction.

Instead, the "event" turned out to be us and CP photog Frank Hamilton hanging out in a silver AirStream trailer hitched in a half-empty parking lot down at Camden Yards. There were, save a few Yards employees patrolling in a golf cart in the distance, no other humans nearby. The trailer wasn't rocking, so we knocked, and out came two squinting fellow reporters/video game nerds who had just finished up their own personalized preview. (Which at least proved the invite-only set-up wasn't a pretense to lure bodies into some serial killer's clutches.) Under gloomy skies, surrounded by purple portable toilets chained together to presumably prevent people from relieving themselves on a non-game day when the janitorial staff was excused, and with only the dull rumble of an electrical generator and the highway breaking the kinda eerie silence, the trailer's interior was slick and comfy, a traveling yuppie studio apartment complete with leather couches and flat screen TV. And then an obviously road-weary Nintendo functionary--having come all the way from Nintendo's homebase in Washington state, to judge by the trailer's license plate--led us through several upcoming or recently released Wii and Gameboy DS games.

Which were not for us. Admittedly, Nintendo was only showcasing their own in-house productions, but as gamers who generally prefer to be stomping turtles (or at least killing something), the Wii's descent into cartoon-y "party games" and licensed pap has been a bit disheartening for those of us who managed to track the system down when it was new and nowhere to be found. (Hell's Kitchen the video game? Really?) Even games that depart from the too-cute multi-player aesthetic seem to disappoint; don't even get us started on upcoming atrocities like Castlevania Judgement. And it's not that every video game needs to be based around senseless slaughter--even the senseless slaughter of anthropomorphic mushrooms--but Wii Music and Animal Crossing: City Folk were aimed a demographic that likes its game design gentle and its gameplay exploratory and interactive, rather than objective-based in the traditional sense of level-clearing and mini-boss battling.

Wii Music is Nintendo's unashamed attempt to capitalize on the Rock Band/Guitar Hero dollar, but unlike those series, the game is less about scoring points by adhering note-for-note to an original song than opening yourself up to the muse and improvising your own new tune, which can get downright jazz-like depending on your innate sense of rhythm. (Or awfully clunky if you flail the Wiimote up and down and entirely offbeat. Like us.) The design (based around Nintendo's Mii model) was attractive in a kid-friendly, CGI Muppets-kinda way, and there were several witty/goofy touches like the "rapper" (who raps something like the grownups in old Peanuts cartoons) and the cat suit that allows you to meow along with the music. But what makes Guitar Hero and its ilk fun is trying to not get your ass handed to you while playing "Cherub Rock"/trying to not look like an inept choad in front of your buddies. Argue all you want against a points-based system to reward virtuosity, but without it the charm of Wii Music seemed like it would wear off pretty quick. Debates on the subjective qualities of the new melody you added to "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" probably won't be quite as fun at parties as managing to pull off that finger-melting Dragonforce song after several cocktails.

Likewise, Animal Crossing: City Folk was one of those immersive strategy games that infuriates those with limited free time or expect games to have something as hoary as an objective. Well, there is an objective to City Folk, an objective perhaps novel for younger players but depressingly familiar those over the age of 18 (or at least out of college). You walk around your neighborhood; you try to make money; you buy things; you take a bus to the city; you try to pay your mortgage; you get a haircut; you buy more things; etc. Admittedly, most of us don't get to talk to adorable penguins and bears in our day-to-day, but those of us who pay bills in the real world often turn to video games for something like...relief from paying bills. (Even paying bills in an exquisitely designed cartoon world, which is City Folk's real draw.) On the other hand, if you spend too much money on Sanrio-style toys and too much time playing multi-player games online, this may be the pick hit for you this holiday season.

The other major "game" demoed for us, a Gameboy "cookbook," impressed with its thoroughness; not only it did it pack hundreds of recipes but took you step-by-step through each one, down to how to chop vegetables or skim froth off a soup. Still, it was definitely aimed at the "more money than sense" demographic and/or culinarily challenged game addicts, rather than those of us who've been cooking their own meals since junior high and don't like to get their consumer electronics near open flames or hot grease.

As Nintendo loyalists, it somewhat pains us to shrug at Nintendo's recent offerings or grumble that we're more likely to play StarTropics (a game now old enough to vote) than any of its upcoming releases. But Wii owners who still prefer running, jumping, and shooting at things should spend a beyond-reasonable $10 on the newish Mega Man 9 for Wiiware, a compulsively playable retro reminder of what once made Nintendo systems reliably great. And those of you who've yet to buy a Wii are probably wise to hold off in the name of your future fiscal solvency, at least until after the election. Or until they release another Zelda game.

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