Nintendo's revolution: How the Wii changed gaming forever, 20 years on

Announced in May 2004, the console became a household fixture when it was launched , bringing families together for gaming fun

The Nintendo Wii gave gamers the chance to get up and get active. Getty Images
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On May 11, 2004, at a games expo in Los Angeles, Nintendo teased what it called a "gaming revolution", one that would influence consoles to come and carve a new platform for the company to create on.

From the early days of the Family Computer (Famicom) to the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (Snes), portable consoles such as the Game Boy and the Switch, the company has rarely put a wrong foot when innovating the gaming experience.

Yet in the mid-Nineties, the company made a rare mistake – one that could have had greater ramifications if not for the face-saving release a year later of the N64. In 1995, Virtual Boy hit the shelves.

A console that functioned as virtual reality goggles, Virtual Boy was a good example of the type of risks Nintendo takes when attempting to stand out in the competitive market. In the same era as the first PlayStation model, the company decided to test the waters by presenting players with a completely new experience.

The console failed miserably, selling less than a million units. By comparison, Sony sold more than two million units in 1995. Virtual Boy users complained that the “virtual reality” aspect of the console hurt their eyes and made them nauseous.

Stepping out and attempting something so left field is not always the right move, and Nintendo learnt that the hard way, but that didn’t stop it from trying again with the Wii in 2006.

Teasing a new Nintendo console

During the summer of 2004, Nintendo’s main console, the GameCube, was only two and a half years old. Lagging behind the PlayStation 2 and the Xbox in sales, it seemed too soon to expect a new console announcement from the Japanese company.

On May 11, during the E3 Games expo in Los Angeles, Nintendo’s president at the time, Satoru Iwata, took to the stage to talk up his company’s innovations. The focus of the presentation up to that point was the GameCube and the portable Nintendo DS.

Later in his speech, Iwata announced that Nintendo was working on a console that "will create a gaming revolution". The 'Revolution' name stuck and that became the company's codename for its new console.

While not much detail was shared, Iwata wanted to make it clear that Nintendo was indeed working on its next console and that it would be different from its competitors, going head-to-head in terms of innovation rather than horsepower.

Details would be shared a year later at E3 again when Iwata revealed a prototype of the Wii, still called the 'Revolution' at the time. While the console itself was shown, its most unique aspect, the motion sensing controllers, were not ready for display yet.

The revolution of gaming has begun

At the Tokyo Game Show in September 2005, Iwata finally revealed the much-anticipated motion sensing controllers, now referred to as the Wiimote and nunchuk. The Nintendo president showed how these Wiimotes would be used to play interactive games, calling on the players to stand up and move them around.

The console’s identity was fully established ahead of E3 in 2006 when Nintendo announced that it would be called Wii rather than Revolution. In a statement shared on the company’s site explaining the name, Nintendo said: "Wii sounds like 'we', which emphasises that the console is for everyone. Wii can easily be remembered by people around the world, no matter what language they speak. No confusion.”

The President of Nintendo of America Reggie Fils-Aime justified the name change by saying that they wanted something short, distinctive, and easily pronounceable for all cultures.

During the 2006 E3, the anticipation cycle would come to a crescendo when the console was made available for review, giving critics and gamers a chance to experience the Wii and its motion-sensing controller for the first time.

The Wii launch is a success

The Nintendo Wii launched in the US on November 19, 2006. The console sold for $249.99 and experienced high demand during its first few months. By the end of 2006, the Wii sold more than three million units worldwide.

Production could not keep up with demand for the console, and despite being in short supply throughout 2007, the Wii sold a further six million units during that year. All in all, the Wii would sell more than 100 million units during its lifetime, becoming the seventh best-selling console of all time and Nintendo’s fourth best-selling console.

Critics gave the console very positive reviews, with the Wii winning multiple awards including the website Popular Science’s Grand Award Winner in home entertainment. The Wii’s Wiimote and nunchuks won an Emmy Award for game controller innovation from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.

Hours of family fun

The Wii’s biggest draw was the ability to play games interactively using the Wiimote and nunchuks, which gave a sense of bigger involvement than just pressing buttons. Through the console’s best-selling game, Wii Sports, players experienced bowling, baseball and boxing as if they were really partaking in those sports.

Another strong selling point was the accessibility and ease of use. The console became popular as a family activity, attracting people of all ages to compete against each other. With some of the Wii’s games requiring movement, the console also contributed to changing the perception that gaming was a static exercise.

Up until the Wii, there was a narrative of parents looking down on or panicking over the use of gaming consoles, viewing them as conduits for laziness and sluggishness. What Nintendo succeeded in doing with the Wii is convincing parents that gaming can be more interactive and stimulating.

The console was also popular with the elderly, giving them a chance to play games like tennis from the comfort of their homes, keeping them active and moving without the need to venture outside.

A lasting healthy legacy

The Wii was a very smart and calculated move on Nintendo's part. Focusing on a different style and experience allowed it to stand out against its competitors rather than be compared to them. Sony and Microsoft were always going to have the stronger consoles in terms of horsepower and picture fidelity, but Nintendo created its own unique selling point for casual consumers.

PlayStation and Xbox themselves attempted to enter the motion sensor arena with their consoles, but they never seemed to capture the magic of the Wii. Perhaps the biggest marker of the Wii's lasting legacy is the Nintendo Switch, which itself still has controllers that use motion sensing technology to create new gaming experiences, which are more popular than ever.

The Switch took what made the Wii successful and amplified it. It added gaming on the go to the equation and players immediately understood the appeal. The Switch has so far sold more than 140 million units, a feat attained in no small part because of the infrastructure the Wii built for it.

The technology could have been a fad, a new and shiny activity that became boring quickly, but Switch sales indicate that what the Wii did in terms of adding a new angle to gaming is likely to continue and thrive even beyond the Switch. The notion that gaming is only a sit-down activity was debunked by the Wii, and has remained so ever since.

While not an adequate substitute for more focused exercise, playing the Wii was a preferable experience to sedentary gaming as it encouraged movement. The console has also been used to help patients with rehabilitation with cases of stroke, cerebral palsy and Parkinson's disease.

An argument can be made that Wii Sports is one of the best games of all time for its long-lasting positive effect. Giving families hours of memories while also allowing ailing people an entertaining activity that helps in their recovery is something not many games can claim to do.

And that's something that has influenced not only the subsequent consoles of Sony and Microsoft, but the broader still-developing space of augmented and virtual reality, all of which became more palatable to the broader market because of their familiarity with the Wii and its core mechanics.

And the Wii, too, prevails. Despite being discontinued in 2013, the Wii is still a popular console in the second hand market. Many have kept and maintained their consoles and it can still be found under the TV in many a household.

But even as many of those systems collect dust, 20 years since the Wii was announced, its influence is only just beginning. As the gaming and tech spaces moves increasingly into bridging the virtual and the physical worlds, the Wii is still the best example we have to date of making those technologies accessible to all.

Updated: May 08, 2024, 8:01 AM