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Allow me to paint you a picture... The year is 2009, and it's your 4th birthday. The Nintendo Wii has released about two years ago, and you've spent the past year begging your parents to buy you the "will" (I have no idea how I read the Wii logo and thought it read "will". I was a dumb kid). Alongside this white box from the heavens was a sleeve with a disc in it, and inside was the first video game I had ever played:
Fast forward to around 2017-2018, when I start to see a lot of people posting online about how great Wii Sports was. I was glad to see that people enjoyed the same stuff as me growing up, and I had very fond memories of playing it as a kid. But deep down, I assumed that the game was probably a little overrated. I mean, it was a game that a lot of people played when they were very young (me included), so I assumed most of the love for the game stemmed solely from nostalgia.
But as I'm writing this article, I can proudly say that past me was completely wrong. Wii Sports is a perfect video game.
Hello, and welcome to Wii Analyse, the series where I run each of the games included in the original Wii Sports under a fine-toothed comb, looking at the game mechanics, the visuals, the sound design, basically what we see, hear and feel, and trying to explain why the geniuses over at Nintendo EAD made the decisions they did. (The sequels to this game, Wii Sports Resort and Switch Sports, and its HD remake, Wii Sports Club are outside the scope of this analysis.) Ok, I think that's everything, let's do this!
After the failure of the GameCube and N64, Nintendo was in a rough spot financially. They knew they'd need to do something big to stay afloat. They eventually decided that their next console would try to widen the appeal of the "video game", from a pastime marketed toward straight, white, young men to a form of art enjoyable by everyone, or the "Blue Ocean strategy" as they dubbed it. The way they decided to achieve this is the "Wii" series, a collection of games that take a concept or genre of game, shave off all the superfluous gamer garbage (skill trees, levelling systems, etc.) that had grown onto them, like a type of mould, or a battle pass. These games find the raw essence of what makes a type of video game fun, remove all of the extrinsic skinner box "motivators", and build up something better in its place.
When you first press A and B to start the game, you are shown a list of games, alongside two more buttons we'll get to later. The menu's background is very reminiscent of the sort of thing you'd see on a TV in a mall or sports club. The music is low-key, but intense. It instils in the listener the feeling of walking into a sports club and feeling overwhelmed by all the equipment. Once we select a sport, we see a prompt explaining what the rules of said sport are. This song is very repetitive and boring, kind of like how you feel when you're learning the rules of a sport.
Wait a sec, this game just conveyed the feeling of two different unpleasant emotions through music without actually making the player feel them. The intro's music alone has already shown off the entire thesis statement of the Wii series: take a genre/concept and remove aspects until it is as simple as possible while still being fun to play.
Let's compare my experience booting up Wii Sports to AO Tennis 2, a modern tennis game made for Serious Fans. AO Tennis boots up and shows us about 15 seconds of logos, followed by a shot of a woman's face, followed by the game prompting us to select the gamma, then it asks us to make an account, then we’re brought to a menu where 5 of the 6 options on screen take us to a game of tennis. I choose "play now", and am faced with a large set of options that I don't understand, and when we finally get into a game, I find out that my computer can't run the game, so I have to change the graphics settings until it runs, AND THEN we can finally play. Compare this to Wii Sports, where each of the options have a very clear meaning that can be figured out by just looking at what the button says.
I do want to make it very clear that I'm not comparing these two games because I want to tear down AO Tennis and make you think it sucks, it isn't a bad game. All of these options that seem overwhelming to me are probably awesome for a connoisseur of tennis games. I also don’t think a game being overloaded with features is a bad thing, I love Hyrule Warriors, and that game is crammed to bursting with Stuff. Basically the comparison is being made to show that I think showing all of these options from the start is confusing to the average new player, and that just because a game has these options doesn’t always mean it is better than a game without them.
Once we start up a game of Tenni- OH SHIT I FORGOT TO TALK ABOUT MIIS-
Prior to the Wii's creation, the idea of putting yourself into the gaming Cyberverse had been bouncing around Miyamoto's head ever since the Famicom, but all of his attempts flopped due to the tech not being there yet, the process being too complicated, or a lack of things for the avatars to do. However, when Wii Sports needed characters, Miyamoto was finally able to turn his ideas into reality.
Games need characters to play as, and what better characters for a simplification of video games than a simplification of the human form? The Mii Channel on the Wii Menu lets us create our own Mii. It's a pretty quick process, we basically choose a hairstyle and eyes and that's it. I much prefer simple character creators like this to most MMOs, where I end up spending hours before starting up the game because I need to make the best possible character. Once we’ve created our Mii, they're dumped into the Mii Plaza. If you have a bunch of Miis registered to your system, you'll be able to see them all walking around and chatting, it’s really nice and relaxing to sit back and watch. You can even drop a Mii onto your Wiimote and bring it over to a friend's house!
Anyway, now I think we can finally start actually talking about Tennis. Oh, you thought I was talking about Wii Tennis? No, we're not NEARLY there yet! So back in the 1100s, tennis didn't exist, the game was instead called "jeu de paume" and there were no rackets, you had to hit the ball back and forth with your bare hands. The first ever famous tennis player was King Louis X of France, who seemed like a pretty cool guy.
He was so obsessed with the game that one night in 1316, after an insane game of jeu de paume, he got absolutely shitfaced on wine and then immediately dropped dead of pneumonia. Around the 16th century, people's hands started to hurt, so rackets were invented and a new ruleset was created, being renamed to real tennis. These new rules were... a little overcomplicated.
Eventually in the 19th century, a simplified and easier to learn version of tennis was developed, becoming the modern form of tennis we all know today. And this can't be a coincidence, right? The first sport listed in the menu of a game about sports boiled down to their raw essence, is a sport created to simplify and make real tennis more accessible. They had to have known what they were doing here!
Okay, we're done setting up, it's finally time to talk about Wii Tennis. The game follows the rules of tennis: you hit the ball back and forth, if the ball bounces twice you get a point, if it lands out of bounds your opponent gets a point. But the real selling point of Wii Sports are the "revolutionary controls". All of the movement is done automatically, and instead of using a button to swing your racket, you swing your remote in real life. You just swing your hands, and the guy on the screen swings their hands. It literally couldn't be simpler. Quite a few people online claim that they can win any Wii Tennis match simply by waggling the controller. These people have never played more than a few matches of Wii Tennis. The singleplayer gameplay of Wii Sports is basically just multiplayer matches against CPU opponents, which progressively get harder as your "skill level" increases.
High level Wii Tennis is INTENSE, genuinely on par with most esports I've tried. After you get to around level 800 the ball starts to just go where you tell it to, and you're able to mould it like putty in your hands. Many early reviews critiqued the lack of a singles mode, but let's be real, singles Wii Tennis would just be a less interesting version of doubles. Anyway, the way you hit the ball, direction, timing, over or underhand, all of these things play a part in the ball's trajectory... or does it? I have no way of proving that any of these factors actually matter at all, but it FEELS like they do.
But Wii Sports singleplayer is a little more fleshed out than just playing games against an A.I. The "Training" tab has a collection of three different minigames built off of each of the five sports. They are all arcade-esque high score based games, harkening back to the oldest days of the video game as a medium (taking a genre and turning it into a high score based minigame is a bit of a running theme for the Wii series). The first Training game listed is called Returning Balls, and the game itself is pretty self-explanatory, someone serves a bunch of balls and you need to return them in bounds. It sounds really simple but getting more than 30 in a row without messing up once is pretty tough. After a round, the game shows your score, alongside which rank of medal you got. Each game has 4 medals you can earn, from Bronze to Platinum. For the sake of finishing this analysis in a reasonable amount of time, I decided to cut myself off at 100 attempts of each game. After 100 attempts on each of these games, I was not able to earn a SINGLE Platinum medal in any of them, these games are HARD. (This is not an admission of defeat; I AM going to get every Wii Sports Platinum medal before I die, MARK MY WORDS.)
The next game, Aiming Shots, is pretty similar except now you have to hit the ball into a section in the back, I can only get about 30 at most. The last game is called "Target Practice" and holy shit it's so fun. You bounce the ball against this wall and you have to aim your shot at the target. If Nintendo released Target Practice 99 with online multiplayer, I would buy it in a heartbeat. Apparently when developing the game, the devs were so enamoured with this mode that they held a bunch of tournaments around just Target Practice.
In the research process for this video, I considered asking people how the underlying physics of the game actually work, but I feel that that would ruin the magic of the game. I think it's much more interesting to look at the little touches added to the gameplay: if your Mii seems too far to return a shot, you can swing and they'll make one last desperate dive for the ball. If you serve a ball just right, it'll get this little trail behind it and move at mach speed. Sometimes, your Mii will jump right into the net to return a shot. I have absolutely no idea whether this affects the underlying gameplay, and I don't care. When I play most games, I might get invested in the general experience, but in the back of my mind I'm thinking about the systems in the background, like "Oh, this character left, but they had a whole model and portrait and everything so they'll probably be back". When I play Wii Sports, my entire brain is focused on the ball and my opponent’s positioning as I decide where to aim my shot.
When the Wii was initially released, there was a lot of buzz about how the Wii was getting kids to exercise instead of just sitting around, and clearly Nintendo saw this coming because they included a "Wii Fitness" mode right underneath the Training button. It’s pretty underdeveloped, you just play through three of the training games and at the end it gives you a Brain Age-esque number showing your Fitness age.
It's a fun little side-thing you can boot up right after you wake up every day, sort of foreshadows one of the next few games this dev team would make. It's a fun way to play the training games, would I recommend this as a way to measure how physically fit you are?
In preparation for this analysis, I read through every press review of the game on Metacritic, to get a feel for what the game's general reception at the time of release was, and most of them were fairly critical of the inability to control your character's movement. And I mean, from a surface-level perspective, that makes sense, like more control over your character WOULD make the game better, right? But if you think about it, what is the soul of Tennis, what makes it fun? Does this soul require the ability to control your own movement? I believe that the true core of Tennis is the feeling of outwitting your opponent under a strict time limit. It’s a similar sort of feeling to playing a fighting game and tricking someone into walking into a combo. The core strategy of Wii Tennis is to hit the ball into a position that is in-bounds, but the opponent cannot run to in time, like a checkmate under the world’s strictest chess clock. The opponent's character makes a mad dash for the ball, but both you and them know it's all already over. This perfect replication of the soul of Tennis, even though the game doesn’t even include walking, is the goal of each and every game in Wii Sports and the Wii series as a whole. This commitment to removing all of the unnecessary elements that hold back a genre can only lead to one place; whether the devs knew it or not, Wii Sports strives for perfection, and I personally think they achieved it. Wii Sports is a perfect game.
Thank you for reading! Sorry it took so long to get this typed up, but now it's done and I can finally move on to other stuff for this site. I'm still planning on continuing this analysis, but it'll probably be a while until that goes up. See you sooner than 11 months hopefully lol