Talking Point: WiiWare's Vital Role in a Retro Revival

Introducing bits and pixels to a new generation

The upcoming release of Retro City Rampage on WiiWare arguably represents two important trends for the service — it could be the last notable release on the platform, and it's also yet another "retro" themed release. We'll consider the possible swansong and end of WiiWare in the near future, but for now we want to acknowledge the important role played by the service in making bits, pixels and old game design principals a valid part of modern gaming.

It's easy to forget in the modern gaming landscape of Steam on PC, download platforms on Xbox, PS3 and also marketplaces for iOS and Android, but there was a time when the idea of releasing a new game that looked and played like a classic from the '80s or '90s wasn't particularly common. All of the platforms mentioned now have plenty of offerings that could be described as "retro-themed", but WiiWare's arrival in 2008 represented an ideal service for these kind of titles to find a like-minded audience — after all, the Wii's humble tech and varied control options made it the perfect home for distinctive experiences produced on modest budgets, along with a part of its user-base looking for experiences different from the latest HD FPS available elsewhere or, in the case of Wii, the latest Wii Fit-style release.

Naturally the extensive retail library on Wii played a big role in providing a variety of titles, but for retro gamers — or those interested in the style of games that graced consoles such as NES and SNES — WiiWare became a surprising source of delight. The Virtual Console was another first, of course, but those seeking new games that mixed the modern with the old could quite easily root out a range of titles that scratched the retro itch.

Perhaps it was inevitable, especially with the reported 40MB size limit on downloads, but it's easy to forget just how many pixel-based throwbacks WiiWare has given us. Below is a far from comprehensive list of titles we feel represent this genre, all earning scores of eight or above in our reviews.

BIT.TRIP RUNNER
BIT.TRIP BEAT
BIT.TRIP FATE
BIT.TRIP FLUX
BIT.TRIP VOID
BIT.TRIP CORE
Blaster Master: Overdrive
La-Mulana
Castlevania The Adventure Rebirth
Cave Story
Excitebike: World Rally
Mega Man 9
Mega Man 10
Bubble Bobble Plus
Contra Rebirth

There are others that could be included in a list such as this, but at the very least it provides an indication of the breadth of experiences on offer. We see major developers and publishers such as Nintendo, Capcom and Konami, but also smaller organisations such as Nicalis, Nigoro and Gaijin Games. A variety of genres are represented, from action platformers to exploration adventures, and also puzzle and racing games.

What this selection also shows is that, whatever your retro preferences, WiiWare offered a broad mix from which to choose. Notably, WiiWare was often the lead platform or the highest profile for major releases - Konami's "Rebirth" titles were only released on Nintendo's service, while Mega Man 9's WiiWare release arguably drew greater focus than on rival platform releases. That latter example seemed to be less prominent with the arrival of Mega Man 10, perhaps a reflection by that stage of Wii's digital store beginning a decline in momentum.

A number of those titles, and more, did either arrive exclusively or first on WiiWare, with some only being available on PC away from the home console space. Whether new IPs such as BIT TRIP or re-imagined classics, games such as these have served as the perfect induction to older gaming mechanics for younger gamers, while those of us that remember cartridges or even game tapes can revel in new AND old experiences.

Of course, such has been the demise of WiiWare and the Wii Shop in general, that not many of those listed titles have been recent releases. We're yet to see whether Retro City Rampage will join the list of retro-themed titles and earn an exceptional review score on this site, yet it shows how the market has changed that Wii is the last platform to enjoy the release. Perhaps it says something for the inherent prestige that WiiWare has for titles of this style that despite the decline in the system's marketplace, and the game's inevitable publication on other platforms, Vblank Entertainment has still pushed ahead to release it along with the ROM City Rampage extra.

It's a game that's been critically acclaimed on other platforms, and we'll see whether it hits the expected standards on WiiWare; it's likely to be the last of its kind on the service, potentially joining a memorable group of downloads.

We've seen some hints of retro-themed games finding a home on the 3DS eShop, and it's still very early days for the Wii U equivalent, but perhaps Wii provided the perfect storm for games like this — a console with ideal control options, a background of 2D retail releases, and system/file size limitations that made pixel presentation the most practical option. Perhaps it was to cater to us, as gamers, with so many choosing to play on a Wii as a choice of "Nintendo-style" games, which didn't just mean new entries in classic franchises from the Kyoto-based company, but also experiences from other developers that would have been perfectly suitable on a NES or SNES cart.

Whatever the future holds for "new retro", WiiWare should be remembered as a flag bearer for keeping pixels and bit tunes relevant.

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