Curmudgeon Gamer
Curmudgeoning all games equally.
05 March 2009
A hacker discusses the Wii's limitations
Is it not beyond strange that Wii homebrew is able to do so much more on the Wii than even the official software?

Homebrew hackers have found ways to play DVD movies, fully access SD cards over 2GB in size, use USB storage in the form of both flash memory and physical hard drives, access Samba shares over the wireless network and connect to Bluetooth devices for storage and using cell phones as a remote control. In their hands the Wii has become both a powerful media player and an emulation haven; add Virtual Console to the homebrew emulators and, excepting PCs, it is by far the system capable of playing the most games, able to play those of the NES, SNES, Sega Genesis, TG16, NeoGeo, Gameboy, Gameboy Color, Gameboy Advance, NeoGeo Pocket, Atari Lynx, Atari 800/XL/5200, Commodore 64, Apple II, Commodore Amiga, Atari ST, Atari 2600, Sinclair and ColecoVision.

Since Nintendo makes money selling Virtual Console games I could perhaps understand why they haven't made available any good general-purpose emulatiors. And it's not like the other manufacturers are keen to develop such software. But those hardware limitations are maddening. While Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 consoles have only become more feature-rich over time, the Wii's feature set is nearly the same as it was on launch day. When they announce some great new feature to get everyone to update their firmware, it turns out to be something like (gasp!) using a USB keyboard in the message center. In the most recent update they (bigger gasp!) even let people use it in the Mii Channel, where it's useful for entering names and nothing else.

For a long while I've seen this as the result of Nintendo having a uniquely tech-unfriendly culture. People joke about how Nintendo is like a toy company more than a software company. While I do like their games and think, in terms of game design, they're the #1 company in the world, I have to admit that this is largely true. Their system software design is woefully nearsighted. The departure of Yamaguchi has done nothing to make the company more technology-savvy.

Nintendo would never themselves admit that their system is limited, especially when the Wii is exploding sales records, so the best person to ask about why this is so would be one of the hackers who has found out how to work around so many of Nintendo's stupid limitations, marcan of Team Twiizer, one of the people behind the super-awesome Homebrew Channel.

Here are his thoughts on the subject. In summary, all Wii software features have to be implemented by the games themselves. Other than the TCP/IP stack, the Wii's IOS system software very little in the way of features at all to Wii software! Presumably they have some libraries that they distribute to developers that implement the basic stuff like returning to the menu and the Home screen.

Those features that it does provide are tied to the version of IOS it was developed for. This is possible because all Wii system updates, with one exception, add an entire new copy of the IOS software to the Wii's built-in flash memory! So a game that was written for IOS 9, the earliest version that can run games, will always use IOS 9, completely ignoring any later system features Nintendo could add. This makes a kind of sense if one imagines Nintendo as being super-cautious about breaking older games, but come on, Sony doesn't seem to have any problems with it, and even Microsoft, which is infamous for just this kind of bug in Windows, has had no problems making new 360 features work with launch games.

While it could be argued that the mindset behind this approach has been the source of the Wii's appeal to most of its audience (most of whom are probably just as non-tech-savvy), that doesn't mean that the system's workings need be dominated by this thinking. C'mon Nintendo, the world doesn't run on NES hardware any more.

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--John Harris at 04:27
Comment [ 4 ]

Comments on this post:

As you note, they are not selling a complicated media center pseudo PC. They are selling a game machine whose goal is to sell software by engaging a broad untapped demographic.

You're advocating diluting their business focus (and R&D spending) for no upside to the above. Who in their customer base wants to watch streamed movies on their Wii? Who amongst that small percentage can't already do this with some other device?

By Blogger Michael, at 09 March, 2009 11:27  

The point isn't a specific feature like playing DVDs on the Wii (which I don't get either), but about their software design (lack of?).

Why is there a limit to 2GB cards? Why can't the Wii access shared drives on your personal network? How about Instant Message client support?

Or how about even fun but somewhat practical features, like reskinning the interface?

Just look at the software storage solution Nintendo has promised. Why in the world is it taking this long, when the homebrew developers have had it for months?

The simplicity of their software design can be seen even when they tried to break the Twilight hack: the team found workarounds quickly, sometimes within hours, and expressed dismay at Nintendo's efforts.

I love the simplicity of their overall interface design which is far easier than that convoluted mess that Microsoft vomits up. But console software needs to be designed for services, nimble, and flexible.

By Blogger guttertalk, at 09 March, 2009 11:43  

Thanks for the article link.

Some things that have always bothered me about the Wii:

-- Why can't I copy Gamecube saves to my SD card?
-- Why do some Wii games let me copy saves to the SD card, but others do not (e.g. SSBB)?
-- Why won't the Wii recognize when I plug in a USB keyboard on-the-fly, rather than having me re-boot the Wii for the keyboard to work? USB is supposed to be a hot-swappable interface.

It may be for games only and not a media center, but it still has limiting quirks that seem artificially limiting to me.

By Blogger Dan, at 11 March, 2009 00:34  

Who in their customer base wants to watch streamed movies on their Wii? Who amongst that small percentage can't already do this with some other device?


By Blogger JohnH, at 17 March, 2009 00:22  

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