What has Nintendo given videogames? Well, it’s created mascots and traditions, and even come up with a handful of genres. It’s pushed physics and character, too, along with analogue controls and rotating sprites. Yet a big part of what Nintendo always brings with it is an understanding that videogames shouldn’t just build environments. To be great, they need to create actual places.
Let other teams play designer – Nintendo’s often more interested in behaving like a property developer. So while 8bit competitors were turning out lava and snow levels, Shigeru Miyamoto and company were crafting Hyrule and the Mushroom Kingdom. Both can encompass fire and ice, of course, but do so with coherency, and work on a large scale. Densely playful, bright, fully imagined worlds like this have always told you a little about the mysterious company that made them – and perhaps they still do. Take Wuhu Island, Nintendo’s most significant new landscape of the past five years. It’s built with the same clear colours and aesthetic values as the company’s other worlds, but it carries hints that something’s changed. Why don’t we love it the way we love Hyrule? Is it us, or is it Wuhu’s architects?
Wuhu Island has always stood out from the rest of Nintendo’s work, and perhaps it should. For one thing, it’s a bit of an experiment. It’s not a single space in its own right, but a playground shared across a handful of different games. Wuhu has been fairly busy, in fact. Since its debut in Wii Fit – where it was initially named Wiifity Island – it’s lent its beaches and pathways to Wii Sports Resort, offered up its paved roads and hairpin bends to Mario Kart 7, and let Pilotwings players buzz over its mountains and waterfalls in a selection of dinky planes and jetpacks. It’s been a racetrack, a landing strip, and the backdrop for a virtual treadmill. It’s the closest thing Nintendo has to a corporate getaway.
When it comes to variety, at least, Wuhu’s every bit the rival of the kind of worlds that Mario, Link, and Samus explore. It has hidden caverns, ancient ruins, and a volcano filled with bubbling magma. It’s got mown lawns, a tidy little town and the whole thing appears to be powered by a gleaming wind farm. But while it’s rich in features, it’s lacking in specifics: the vistas it offers are those of bland, Caribbean prettiness, and its empty streets have the feel of a ghost town to them. Nintendo’s almost always a master of scale, and yet here it’s hard to judge how well-proportioned the architecture is. And if you move in close on a flyby expecting facades to update or crags to emerge in its cliffs, you’ll be disappointed. On Wuhu, the detailing simply isn’t there.
Pilot Wings resort offers the best views of the Island
The island keeps you at arm’s length in other ways, too. Wii Sports Resort tends to cordon players off in specific areas, while Wii Fit places you, for the most part, on rails as you jog around, maintaining a gentle pace. Pilotwings and Mario Kart both have to keep their audiences moving by design, and both discourage visitors from poking around in things they aren’t meant to see. On top of all that, Wuhu’s custodians like to quietly shift bits of the landscape about when you’re not looking, dropping features and adding new ones with little warning.
Sure, the playgrounds of most Nintendo games are fairly flexible – Hyrule, after all, has been flooded, frozen and splintered into various kinds of dystopias. These changes almost always involve the passage of time, though, and they generally hinge on the protean nature of myths and magic. There’s something more disconcerting about the modular approach taken with Wuhu. This is landscape shaped by dull utility – and that probably explains why it seems like placeholder content. Most of its monuments have been named, for example, but the names don’t stick in the mind.
Perhaps that’s also the key to Wuhu’s popularity over the last few years, however: it’s defined by the bowling alley and the jousting baton, rather than the sword or the treasure map or the grappling hook. And why not? It’s built, after all, for the patronage of Nintendo’s celebrated expanded audience – for a crowd drawn in by the company’s canny promise of brain teasers, ping pong and healthy exercise.
This audience doesn’t want an adventure as such, but rather a day at the virtual spa. It doesn’t want to explore, it wants to cycle around, indulge in a little wakeboarding, and maybe chuck a frisbee about on the beach afterwards. Wuhu Island is a getaway for people who have come to compartmentalise fun. It’s a place for busy adults whose imaginations have withered, as imaginations often do, with all that fretting over mortgages, telescoping working hours, and cumulative easing.
What comes next? It’s hard to tell, since the expanded audience the place was designed around has proven as fickle and problematic as the old one, and may well have migrated to iOS and Facebook for good. Meanwhile, Wuhu’s presence in older IP such as Mario Kart can feel intrusive, like pages from an Ikea catalogue turning up in your copy of The Lord Of The Rings.
For the moment, the island’s fate may be uncertain, then, but it’s still a fascinating flashpoint for videogames’ current identity crisis. Wuhu is nothing less than the fantasy world grown up. The rugged iconography of adventure remains, but the true exploratory spirit has passed on.