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Filed under: History/Lore

The Forgotten, the Maligned: LostWinds

NOTE: Thanks to PushDustIn and Cart Boy for edits.

Over a decade after the Nintendo Wii came to market and dramatically upended gaming culture for a time, its time is fully coming to a close. Its innovative motion controls were fun, and their impact can be felt across the industry from Nintendo’s successive hardware to virtual and augmented reality rigs, but the infamous “Wii waggle” has long been an easy example of the frustrations and limitations of the concept. The system’s successor, the Wii U, had plenty of incredible games but was possibly Nintendo’s single largest financial failure. Currently, the Nintendo Switch seems to have trapped lightning in a bottle again, powered by both a line of megaton releases and an instantly appealing gimmick of being both a home and portable device, and though Nintendo has been open about the Wii’s influence on their new console, it feels distant. And the Wii Shop Channel, the machine’s service for purchasing digital games old and new, will be coming to a close. While the service will be shutting down for good in 2019, on March 26, 2018, the shop will no longer allow owners to add any money to the system. Its shuttering feels very much like an end to an era, and I’ve been wanting to eulogize it for some time.

Alongside some catchy muzak, the Channel was famous for the Virtual Console, a sizable marketplace for emulated versions of Nintendo’s storied library of classics and a bevy of third party software. Some of the most famous games of the Eighties and Nineties for NES, Super NES, Nintendo 64, SEGA Genesis, TurboGrafx-16, MSX, and Neo Geo were available, alongside hidden gems, obscure classics, and commercial failures deserving of better reception. It was never as deep or varied as Steam, which had started moving much closer to its modern incarnation in 2007, but it was accessible and gave new life to hundreds of games. It’s hard to remember that there were a good thirteen years after Super Metroid’s debut that it finally got re-released through the Virtual Console, and players who didn’t get to play it on the SNES got a chance to legally play one of the most well regarded, beloved, and influential games of all time.

Less successful, however, was “WiiWare,” a second section of the Channel. Launched in 2008, it was specifically for original games, and in particular smaller works or development teams. Few projects from it have much acclaim nowadays; the biggest is probably Strong Bad’s Cool Game for Attractive People, one of the early successes of Telltale Games’ episodic model, and even that’s largely ignored compared to the games after their breakout hit The Walking Dead. With a harsh 40MB size limit – Nintendo was still antsy about digital distribution, and the Wii had serious storage limits – a tough price point for development kids, and poor advertising, WiiWare often struggled. This latter problem may have been the most unfair and onerous hurdle, as one of the more controversial stipulations was that developers would only be paid by Nintendo after hitting at least six thousand sales. It led to this odd service where one of the most popular and ubiquitous game systems in history had a weird, extremely niche service, one where a small number of titles from established brands – Mega Man 9, My Pokémon Ranch, Dr. Mario Online Rx – monopolized the marketplace.

Among the various WiiWare games, I distinctly remember one being touted by Nintendo Power and other outlets at the time as the game that would best show the artistic possibilities of the service: LostWinds. It was made by Frontier Developments, the studio most famous for Rollercoaster Tycoon, and the premise came from a company competition to come up with an interesting mechanic that could take advantage of the Wii Remote. Designer Steve Burgess started thinking about the way the Wii Remote could simulate the wind, and later, how a secondary character could work with and react to that. It led to a project that should have led the charge for independent, digital distribution on Nintendo platforms, but is now more just a fun curio than anything.

The plot might be the simplest for any game I’ve talked about in this series. The land of Mistralis is slowly falling under the assault of the evil spirit Balasar. Enril, the spirit who defeated him long ago, has an incredible power over the wind, but no physical form. Instead, she acts as a partner and guide for the silent protagonist Toku, who works as something of her executor in activating switches, finding abilities of hers that have been lost in the world, and breaking free other spirits. It’s pretty much the character dichotomy of Ōkami, just with the talkative side character being the all powerful god.

That Ōkami comparison doesn’t stop there; it’s a painfully obvious influence on LostWinds, from tone to visual style to gameplay. Controlling the wind is incredibly reminiscent of Amaterasu’s Celestial Paintbrush; you hold down the A Button and twirl the Remote to blow gusts of wind. Outside a few minor powers or upgrades, that’s pretty much it. And honestly, that’s fine by me. Ōkami is wonderful! And though LostWinds isn’t nearly as wonderful, it’s still decent and a respectable imitator. Being derivative is only a huge problem if it’s merely aping the original, and the wind mechanic is both distinct and brilliant. Toku’s fairly atrocious physical movement – he’s slow, can’t jump, and takes an excruciating amount of time to do anything – means that in any practical sense, he’s entirely dependent on Enril’s powers. Which means that moving around is about floating, flying and leaping on the wind, directing your little character through the air as though the Wii Remote is a conductor’s baton. It makes the Wind Waker fantasy real, and honestly, gliding around on the wind is freeing in a way that’s hard to fully explain.

But things aren’t perfect. LostWinds suffers from a problem I see in a lot of games, especially indies, that feel the need to add combat when it’s not necessary. The bland gangs of Dragon Quest slimes don’t do much of anything to either engage or challenge the player; they’re little more than a distraction from the flying and floating that the game excels at. They might be there to drag out the game’s length; it’s only around three hours long. And I don’t think that’s a problem inherently, but the game feels oddly padded despite that – certainly the Metroidvania layout was all but unnecessary, and only serves to confuse. It also just has a lot of weird little issues, like how Toku’s inability to jump or climb over some obstacles means that you can easily try flying over a rock holding down a necessary switch, only to shoot the rock away with you.

Really, the biggest problem is that it doesn’t do enough with its premise. The wind riding demands to be explored to the fullest, with a variety of complex levels, hard bonus challenges, and worlds that reward exploiting the premise as far as it can go. Given the project’s size I do feel somewhat unfair in making that criticism, but it’s really fun to brush and stroke and make big, sweeping turns with the Remote, and it is disappointing that isn’t explored through frenetic levels or calmer, larger worlds. It’s a great mechanic, and it deserves more exploration.

Going on its Metacritic review, it did fairly well with most critics but has an utterly atrocious “3 out of 10” score amongst users for the Wii version. If I had to guess, a lot of the discrepancy for that probably came most from its length. LostWinds was one of the earlier “casual” indie platformers, coming out the same year as Braid and two before Limbo. That was an odd period of time when the length of time to completion became a huge sticking point, and gamers felt insulted at any release that dared wrap up its story in less than eight hours. That was probably one of the major causes of the explosion of bloated open world games like Mass Effect: Andromeda, and while LostWinds is definitely short, I think it’s actually a good length given the premise – it just needed more interesting environments and varied challenges. Then again, it was also a genre of game that was still new, especially on Nintendo platforms; maybe it wasn’t quite “gamey” enough? I could be overthinking it, though, and just grading on a curve.

Admittedly, though, it’s easy to see why people were nonplussed with the game, even accounting for that weird obsession with “game length” and the lack of familiarity with more “casual” games. Mistralis is pretty enough, but the art direction is fairly generic, and the Metroidvania design being as poor as it is hurts how fun it is to spend time in it. There are barely any music tracks; even the clunky final boss fight is just set to the generic enemy theme. And while I do adore how controlling the wind works, it doesn’t change that it’s on a Wii Remote, and as such can’t really be reliably used for precise moves in hectic scenarios. I don’t think that’s bad in concept – in fact, it might be a rare example of loose motion controls having a positive effect on the immersion – but it still wants you to use a level of precision you simply cannot reliably have.

LostWinds was a stop on Nintendo’s long path of fitfully working with independent developers. WiiWare didn’t work out; alongside the terrible support from Nintendo, devs became frustrated with the Wii either due to that, the difficulty in making the Remote more than a cheap gimmick, or its inability to run large HD games. But for all its commercial failings, the Wii U turned out to be the platform that defined their relationship, and for the better. For a myriad of reasons – a lack of Triple-A games dominating the market, better advertising by NIntendo, owners wanting to “justify” their purchase by getting the most out of their lovely, clunky device – indies on the platform often had sales that matched, and in many cases exceeded, their showings on the more popular platforms. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship that has been doing gangbusters on the Switch, whose “home and portable” fluidity allows it to cater to the needs of most games. And though it still has a good ways to go, Nintendo has gotten much better at supporting and working with their “Nindies.”

As for Frontier’s project, it was commercially successful enough to get a sequel for WiiWare, Winter of the Melodias. It’s supposedly grander in scope and ambition, with a season changing mechanic à la Oracle of Seasons. I haven’t played it but would like to try, especially since the original ends on insultingly blatant sequel bait. And both games thankfully did get a second act; they were put on mobile in 2011 and Steam since 2016. The latter is definitely a better platform for it than the Wii ever was, and I imagine it works fine with a mouse and keyboard.

The storage space on the embedded Wii in my Wii U is close to capacity as I’ve started purchasing and downloading titles I’ve never played and didn’t get ported to consoles I own, like Princess Tomato in the Salad Kingdom, ActRaiser, and Rock N’ Roll Climber. It’s gotten to the point where decisions on whether to spend the precious remaining space, and if so on what – that LostWinds sequel? Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: My Life as a King? Super Air Zonk: Rockabilly Paradise? Gain Ground? – feel like the judgments of Solomon. It’s both exciting and especially sad knowing they are going to be lost soon, with at least a few of them likely never returning. That’s why I wanted to get this out early, and why I’m sorry I took so long to get to it. There’s a real value in more than a few of these games, and the Wii’s immense popularity means many console owners out there still have a chance, even a small one, to get at least some of them.

LostWinds isn’t really in danger the way many of these are, thanks to it and its sequel’s Steam ports, but it’s an odd but appreciated representative of Nintendo’s slow, half-measured start into the world of online gaming. It’s also a neat example of how indie developers could have used the Wii Remote for more experimental ends had the system come out with a more robust online service or in an era where distribution and development were as comparatively easy as they are now. I don’t know if it’s worth the $15 USD the Wii Shop Channel is asking for it, but honestly, sometimes historical worth supersedes immediate fun.

So check it out, but more than that, if you’ve got a Wii or Wii U, you owe it to yourself to check out some of these games. Take a gander at the Wikipedia lists of Virtual Console and WiiWare releases in your territory (or just these lists by Retronauts and Kotaku), see what didn’t port over, and at least consider the ones least likely to get a modern re-release. There’s not a ton of time left, and a number of these could use some more love.