Nintendo's Wonder Bar

April 24, 2021

The Top 100 Games Podcast invited Polygon’s Editor-in-chief Chris Plante to the show to discuss the importance of game #55, Wii Sports.

Not only is the discussion a trip down memory lane that many people will remember, but it is an argument for the historical significance of the Wii Remote in terms of controller accessibility and the wonder in simplicity.

Chris Plante: In the history of video games, there is no better party game than Wii Sports Bowling. It is the only game you can hand over to people and everybody can play. And not only can everybody play, they’ll feel like they’re participating in magic. Equally. No matter how much they care about video games. I don’t know if I can think of anything that can compare to it.

Jered Petty: Wow. Ok. Expound. How and why does that work? What is it about the magic bowling game that makes that take place?

CP: This is going to get into one of my long term issues in video games that ironically I think is just aging out. For a very long time, I have had a beef with how complex video game controllers are. You’re expected to learn the D-pad, two thumbs-sticks, four face-buttons, two start-and-pause-buttons, a home button, triggers, and who knows whatever else. That is a ridiculous amount for any newcomer to ever learn. It’s a completely prohibitive barrier to entry.

Around the time the Wii came out, that’s what companies were grappling with. I also think it’s what touchscreen controls were grappling with. How do we make computer entertainment more accessible? Both the keyboard and video game controllers are too complex. So we got [the Wii Remote] and we got Kinect.

I’m not sure I still believe this any more; video games being so ubiquitous that they are as common as someone having to learn a keyboard. It’s just a thing you have to learn as a kid. So fretting over what happens if someone doesn’t know how to use a video game controller? The answer is like, “who is this person?” Especially with Xbox making so much more headway into accessibility devices, I think my argument has sort of slipped away.

That said, there is still an older generation — there especially was when [Wii Sports] came out — who could not and would not learn a video game controller. Today, if we took every game out from it and put them out for offer for anyone to play, [bowling] is the one I don’t think a single person couldn’t pick up — minding that they have the capability to use a Wii controller — and that is what I think is inherently special about it. [Bowling] more than any of the games has that “it’s literally just like bowling” feel. To make it even better, you can put spin on [the ball]. Not only is it like bowling, but it has that extra Aha! moment of, “they did it. This isn’t faking it. I am actually controlling this bowling ball.” I think that’s special.

Later in the episode…

JP: In 1986 or so, I first saw Super Mario Bros. I’d been playing video games for years before then, even as a kid. But it was like something had come down from outer space. Compared to what I’d played before, it was as if the skies had opened and aliens had dropped a new technology on earth that allowed me to travel to 32 different worlds, fighting bosses, jumping, finding secrets. No game had captured that feeling of wonder since. Until I played Wii Sports. That reignited that same feeling from my childhood. That I had never had this much fun doing something like this.

CP: It’s that total novelty. I think it’s hard for people to… I hope we get that again. I’m sure we will with different things and different technology and stuff.

But I think about that a lot. We grew up in a really unusual time where people were figuring out how to visualize the world through technology. As we were growing up. It’s hard to explain just what it felt like in Mario [3] that you could go forward and it scrolled, and you could go backward and it scrolled. There’s a whole world here! That single feeling was incredible.

I think the same thing about when Pixar movies first came out. The first few of them it was like I am literally seeing something I should not. This should not be possible. Wii Sports is right there in that space of “I’m doing this and I know intellectually how the technology works, yet it still feels like I’m casting a spell.” It’s the best! Same thing with Mario. I’m controlling another person in a fictional world; how is this happening?

I’ve griped about the number of buttons on modern video game controllers myself and praised innovations in accessibility. Plante’s retrospective of the Wii Remote clearly illustrates the benefits of simplicity. Removing complexity removes the friction between the player/viewer/user and make-believe. Simplicity in and of itself creates wonder.

For video game controllers, the metaphor I’ve come up with is puppeteering. Modern video game controllers are marionette control bars — complex by design for the sake of precision and realism. But the Wii Remote, and NES controller before it, is a hand in shadowgraphy — more a bridge between worlds than a tool to recreate the world.

Wonder bars.