The Time When Nintendo Made A Classical Music Video Game…and How It Changed the Company For The Worse

(By Brian Davidson)

The year was 2008. Before the advent of mobile “quickie” games like Angry Birds and Flabby Bird, the Nintendo Wii was the king of “casual” games. Mostly known as shovelware to hardcore gamers, Nintendo sought to bring its Wii into every living room around the world through accessible software regardless of a player’s skill or history with videogames. The Wii itself was already established as having the market-lead amongst the other next-gen consoles of the moment (Playstation 3 and XBOX 360) as well having the top-selling game of all time in “Wii Sports.” It only seemed natural for Nintendo further milk the casual games market and attempt to break into the hot genre of the moment – music games.

Guitar Hero and Rockband were perennial sellers in the mid to late 2000s, and Nintendo sought to one-up everyone with their own brand of music games. Originally teased in Nintendo’s E3 2005 announcement of the Wii (then named Revolution), a music game using the simple waving of a remote (later to be known as the WiiMote) would be the ultimate reality of making videogames accessible to anyone.
A simple a 5 second tease showing an elderly couple using the wiimotes as a composer baton showed the promise that not only could your baby brother play the Wii…but so too could your grandparents…err great grandparents. Then a revolutionary thought for the time only to be looked upon as a foreshadowing of the boredom such a project would dawn.

At the E3 convention in 2006, Nintendo would bring greater prominence to its “music game” as the lead in game for its Wii release trailer, which would hit later in the year to great fanfare and critical acclaim. Without showing gameplay footage, the trailer teased the possibility of playing multiple virtual instruments all through hand motions of the Wiimote.

By 2008, Nintendo had a firm hold on the console market, with the Wii heavily outpacing in sales the Playstation 3 and Xbox 360. Nintendo’s strategy to the disheartening of hardcore gamers, focused primarily on casual games, especially after the success of Wii Sports, Wii Fit, and third-party titles as Just Dance. Wii Music would become a secondary flagship title for Nintendo that year, being helmed by Kazumi Totaka, who was more known as one of videogames’s most known music composers rather than a game developer. The notion was a musician leading the charge for the game would make more sense given that the game should be created with music accessibility in mind. Totaka would be backed by legendary and revered game designer Shigeru Miyamoto (Mario Bros, Zelda), who would play a producer role for the game. The game also evolved beyond just classical music to include other genres, further expanding its original scope.

With those heavy hitters creating the game, what could possibly go wrong? Answer: Everything.

With Microsoft and Sony touting impressive games such as the next titles in the Halo, Grand Theft Auto, and Resident Evil series, etc at E3 2008, Nintendo opted to show off their casual games lineup, headlined by Wii Music. The result was a moment that press, gamers, and even the hardcore Nintendo faithful cringe upon to this day.

Shigeru Miyamoto along with fellow Nintendo colleagues awkwardly (and embarrassingly) demoed Wii Music to much of the chagrin of their competitors. Not only did the game look shamelessly boring and clunky but incredibly dorky. For a game meant to be accessible to the general public, it sure welcomed players willing to be ashamed of playing “air” instruments.

Many signify that moment, and Nintendo’s heralding of Wii Music as the day the company lost of focus on gamers. Despite a few stellar home console titles from 2008 onward (a new Super Mario Galaxy, a New Zelda, etc), what would happen thereon would be a continuous downturn in the innovation of Nintendo’s coveted development house. While no one denies the magic of Nintendo games, the E3 2008 demo of Wii Music would leave a sour taste in gamers and preconception of Nintendo as not even a kiddie-game maker, but as a casual-games maker, through which Nintendo to this day is yet to recover (Nintendo’s current console platform, the Wii U lags far behind in sales in comparison to the PS4 and XBOX One despite having a stellar lineup of games).

As for the game Wii Music itself? Released in the fall of 2008 as one of Nintendo’s key 4th quarter holiday titles, the game failed to strike a chord with gamers and critics alike. While the game was indeed accessible to the general public, it lacked the depth and fun factor that kept Wii Sports sustainable long after its 2006 release. The game also suffered from somewhat shoddy controls, the ultimate downfall for a music game based on hand movements. As for the magic of creating music, the game was more of a noise maker than anything. Commercially the game would do OK but was the least selling of the Wii Games series. If not for the awkward 2008 E3 demo, many would have forgotten about Wii Music.

The game will live on in Youtube videos as a massive joke/blemish on a stellar track record for Nintendo. And in the end, despite all the hype (and bust), Wii Music would mark a dark turn in the company’s legendary history and a page many fans will forever choose to ignore.

Though if any company could create a classical music video game and do it justice, Nintendo was it. Nintendo put the care, the mindset, and dedication into making it happen as it usually does at their stellar first-party development studios. Unfortunately it lacked the imagination. Wii Music wasn’t a game about making music. It was a game made to appease commercial masses and its lack of creativity and polish showed.

For now classical music is yet to get its due in videogames. If a company like Nintendo can’t make it happen, don’t count on anyone else coming through anytime soon.

Perhaps Nintendo will make another attempt again. Perhaps they’ll get it right. But fans would rather have Nintendo not go that path again.

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