The controller made games intuitive enough to reel in entire cohorts of the uninitiated. Can you see your mom mashing a bunch of buttons on an Xbox controller as she guns down the Covenant in Halo? I can't see my mom doing that. But I could see mine swinging a Wiimote in a game of Wii Tennis — and I have.
The strategy worked. After months of hype, Nintendo delivered that revolution. Reviewers praised Nintendo's focus on gameplay over graphics and exclaimed that Nintendo had brought back a sense of childlike wonder to video games. Media stories abounded about geriatrics playing Nintendo games and doctors using it for therapy. And, of course, millions of people picked them up off the shelves. To date, the Wii has sold nearly 97 million units worldwide, compared with the Xbox 360's 67 million and the Playstation 3's 64 million.
Now, Nintendo needs to defend its turf. There's something that happens often when a company makes it to the top by innovating and broadening its appeal. Once they've proven their strategy is successful, other companies will emulate it. That's why a lot of laptops now look like MacBooks and a lot of phones now look like iPhones and a lot of tablets now look like iPads. It's also why Sony released the PlayStation Move and Microsoft released the Kinect. Like Apple, Nintendo has to ensure that if it can't always be revolutionary, it can at least stay innovative. And, as Apple illustrates, that's not an easy thing to do.
I'm skeptical that Nintendo's new console, the Wii U, is a step in the right direction. So are shareholders. With the $299 retail price, and a good mix of casual and hardcore titles, Nintendo appears to be sticking to its strategy of inclusiveness and variety, but the new GamePad controller that comes with the console seems regressive. In an email to me, Scott Moffitt, chief of sales at Nintendo America, described the controller as "the key" to Nintendo's strategy. That makes me nervous. With two analog sticks, nine buttons, a D-pad, and a touchscreen, the GamePad looks like something that would operate the Curiosity rover, not something that will appeal to casual gamers.
Apple's disasters are measured in months. For Nintendo, this mistake, if it is a mistake, could endure for years.
But if the Wii, entering the twilight of its life, tells us anything, it's this: Don't underestimate Nintendo. It knows how to play the game.