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Wii Stripper Pole: Nintendo's Make or Break Decision

Forget about the holiday-season hubbub over Nintendo, and what Reggie Fils-Aime would have you believe about his stranglehold on casual gamers. Forget about Nintendo basically telling the gaming press we could go to hell, and that the Wii remains sold out in many locations. Nintendo is at a crossroads, and the success or failure of the Wii lies in the balance. Nintendo’s decision on one simple peripheral could seal its fate as either the savior of the game industry or the latest hubris-infused company that couldn’t see the forest for the trees. That peripheral? The Wii Stripper Pole.

The Wii Stripper Pole is a third-party concept, not something Nintendo itself is necessarily considering. But the mere unveiling of this idea (details here) underscores two elements that could leave the Wii scrambling to maintain its momentum beyond 2008: a lack of good third-party products, and the demographics of the people who purchased and play the Wii in the first place.

Nintendo has for years battled a growing discontent with its third-party lineup. The GameCube, in fact, failed in large part because developers and publishers realized few GameCube owners purchased games created by anyone not named Nintendo. 2K Sports was among the first companies to pull its support for the GameCube, and other companies followed suit shortly thereafter. Nintendo plugged ahead, because its first-party games are almost always of excellent quality and hot sellers. Other developers/publishers? They weren’t having the same success.

Part of the problem lay in the age-old Nintendo Seal of Quality. For years, that gold seal meant something to gamers, almost as if we all believed Nintendo had, quite literally, played, approved and given its blessing to everything bearing that mark. But as the NES and SNES grew in popularity, so did the number of companies developing for those platforms. The law of percentages naturally meant that as the number of total games increased, so did the number of stinkers. Still, gamers saw the seal and plunged ahead, fully expecting Nintendo’s blessing to translate into a good game.

By the GameCube’s release, not only had that Seal of Quality become simply the “Nintendo Seal,” but gamers had grown skeptical of third-party games. After being duped, duped and re-duped with non-Nintendo games, players felt that the seal no longer meant anything, and that third-party games were to be treated with more caution than enthusiasm. Meanwhile, Sega, Sony and eventually Microsoft gained a perception that they were more rigorous with their quality control, or at least had consoles whose game lineups had a lower likelihood of turds.

With the Wii, Nintendo turned the gaming world on its ear. Not only was (and is) the console a hot seller, but Nintendo’s first-party games have been fresh enough that gamers were willing to forgive, forget and embrace the Wii in a way not seen since the PS2 or SNES. Sure, Red Steel was a black eye on the Wii’s launch lineup; we all had Wii Sports, so who cared? Sure, most third-party games continued to be mediocre; we were playing Metroid Prime: Corruption and Super Mario Galaxy, so we ignored the others. The Wii had brought young gamers and casual gamers back into the fold, the “gateway drug” to “hardcore” consoles down the line, you might say. As a result, the Wii may very well have had a huge-but-not-yet-visible impact on the future viability of the game industry.

But here we are, with the Wii two years into its lifecycle, and we’re left not only with a dearth of good third-party games, but with a plethora of developers and publishers trying to capitalize on Wii fever — even if it is fueled almost exclusively by first-party titles. Which brings us to the Wii Stripper Pole.

At the end of the Wii’s lifecycle, Nintendo released the Donkey Bongos. Used for fewer than a half-dozen games, the Donkey Bongos were a bad idea that somehow managed to see the light of day, even as Nintendo itself decided to push a Bongo-developed game from the GameCube to Wii (Donkey Kong: Barrel Blast). Kudos to Nintendo for trying, but the idea didn’t work out. With the Wii, gamers have already seen the Wii Remote and Nunchuk, both of which are great, but also the Wii Zapper, the Wii Wheel and now the Wii Balance Board. Is anyone else waiting for the Wii Spatula to release with the next Cooking Mama game?

Nintendo may be peripheral happy, but largely they’ve worked out on the Wii. However, in developers’ desire to follow Nintendo’s lead, we’re starting to see some Donkey Bongo-esque ideas. The Wii Stripper Pole, as novel as it may seem to some, should not even reach the mockup stage. Nintendo, as much as it might want to rely on third-party discretion, needs to rediscover its Seal of Quality and put the kibosh on this bad idea.

The reasons for this are two-fold. First, The Wii Stripper Pole, if approved, would be the first step on a slippery slope toward the Wii’s demise. It’s easy now to say “first party games are great, but third-party ones stink,” but when a peripheral such as a Stripper Pole backs up the claim, the Nintendo Seal would once again become a black eye, another sign of Nintendo losing its focus on its entire platform, not just its first-party products.

Second, and perhaps more important from a sales perspective, the Wii Stripper Pole would send a confusing and potentially disturbing message to all the moms, grandmas, aunts and children who bought the Wii, who made it so popular, and who have led Nintendo to declare its “ownership” of the casual-gaming market.

Imagine, if you will, a mom going into Target to get a Wii for her six-year-old’s birthday. She’s heard about the fun Wii Sports and Super Mario Galaxy, and she’s seen the excitement on her child’s face when he’s talking about the Wii. But when mom gets to the electronics section, she sees a Stripper Pole sitting next to the last Wii on the shelf. You’re telling me that mom wouldn’t think twice, that she wouldn’t question buying a system for her six-year-old that also had a very adult-themed toy available for it? Of course, she wouldn’t have to buy the pole, but to think she would do so for herself is ludicrous, and to think she would overlook it completely is just as insane.

As a hardware manufacturer, Nintendo’s only technical obligation is to provide a platform on which others can create. In that regard, it has no reason not to let the Wii Stripper Pole become reality. Yet Nintendo is still struggling to prove its console can have multiple third-party hits and that its Seal means more than a pointless gold stamp. To approve the Wii Stripper Pole would invite even more criticism of its third-party track record. Even more important, while Nintendo has built the Wii’s reputation and demand, the company has carved a niche for itself as the “safe” console, the “trusted” console, the “family friendly” console that’s uniquely able to entice casual gamers. To preserve that aura, Nintendo must put the kibosh on the Wii Stripper Pole immediately.

Is it melodramatic to say the Nintendo Wii’s success or failure lies in the balance? When you consider how moms, grandmas and casual gamers might respond to the Wii Stripper Pole, not at all. Is it overkill to say Nintendo’s perceived lack of quality control is hubris on the part of a company that believes its fans will buy whatever products are released? When you consider Reggie Fils-Aime writing off most of the gaming press, it might not be.

Nintendo may think it has a simple decision to make by approving or disapproving the Wii Stripper Pole as a licensed peripheral, but the company’s decision could very well determine its fate not only for this console generation, but for generations to come. Those casual gamers and mainstream consumers Nintendo likes to flaunt don’t have the same dedication to gaming that “hardcore” gamers do. One wrong step could turn them away from the Wii — and gaming — completely.

— Jonas Allen

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