Requiem for Nintendo’s Wii eShop

Looking back at a flawed but essential piece of video game history on the cusp of its shutdown.

Nintendo fans: You have less than a year until the Wii eShop closes down for good; the company will be discontinuing all Wii online commerce at the end of January 2019. However, for all intents and purposes, the real cut-off date will be next month. As of March 26, customers will no longer be allowed to purchase Wii Points, the virtual currency required to make Wii eShop purchases. Once point sales end, Wii owners will be limited strictly to making eShop purchases from their existing pool of points.

Of course, at this point, Nintendo has journeyed two console generations beyond the original Wii, which turned 11 years old back in November. The company clearly has no intention of looking back; its new console, Switch, currently enjoys gangbuster sales status. Furthermore, the unpopular and unsuccessful Wii U system poisoned the well for the Wii brand as a whole.

Nevertheless, the Wii eShop shutdown will affect more people than sales charts would suggest. Though Wii has long since ceased being a going concern for core gamers, two new games shipped just a few months ago for the console's final holdouts: Just Dance 2018 and Let's Sing 2018 both showed up on Wii. The casual audience for those games probably won't be wracked with grief at the prospect of losing access to more hardcore features like Virtual Console, but even Just Dance has an online component that will be affected when the Wii servers go dark next year.

In hindsight, it's hard to describe Wii's eShop as anything but a messy, imperfect venture. It wasn't actually Nintendo's first online effort — the company hosted a Japan-only satellite gaming service for its 16-bit Super Famicom console back in the ’90s, complete with unique downloadable games — but Wii was its first console to launch with online support on day one.

From the moment it debuted, Wii's eShop service was fraught with issues. There were those Wii Points, for starters; rather than allowing people to simply make purchases with real cash, Nintendo forced everyone to buy virtual currency. Wii Points mapped directly to the dollar in the U.S. — one point equalling one cent — so this really just amounted to a money-wasting obfuscation. Consumers were forced to exchange their cash in 100-point increments, but most games cost odd amounts. People regularly ended up with obscure and unusable remaining balances (e.g. 73 points) after making a few purchases, amounting to wasted cash that Nintendo got to pocket. No reverse Wii Points-to-cash conversions were allowed, of course.

The eShop suffered from other logistical issues. The Wii console itself shipped with a mere 512MB of internal storage space, a pathetic amount even in 2006. It took a while before the company sent out a system update to allow customers to use the Wii's SD card slot for game storage. Long before that happened, the most enthusiastic Wii owners had already filled their parsimonious internal space with classic Virtual Console games. Nintendo PR's response? Fans needed to "clean the fridge" by removing less-used games from their memory. Of course, this spoke to a fundamental misunderstanding of the appeal of digital purchases, which are tailor-made to complement the hoarder mentality. It would only get worse: Nintendo later released a compact, second-generation Wii model in 2012, which removed online connectivity altogether — including eShop access.

For all of eShop's frustrations, though, it represented a critical step into the modern era for Nintendo.

For all of eShop's frustrations, though, it represented a critical step into the modern era for Nintendo, a company that had long eyed the internet with profound suspicion. The company had sold a broadband network adapter for its GameCube console, but that ended up being compatible with less than a handful of games, none from Nintendo itself. Fans eventually hacked together a way to trick Mario Kart Double Dash's local networking feature into working online, but it should never have required a workaround in the first place. The company redeemed itself with 2005’s Mario Kart DS, which helped roll out the Nintendo WiFi Connection service a year before Wii's launch, but that meant the DS platform was around for a full year before it could go online. Wii, on the other hand, debuted with internet support right out of the box.

On launch day, the Wii's online service was really only good for buying classic video games. It took a while for proper online multiplayer games to roll out on the console. For example, Call of Duty 3 shipped at the system's launch, but it lacked online multiplayer — something present even in the PlayStation 2 version of the game. Nintendo slowly, agonizingly figured out the online thing over the course of the next five or six years. Virtual Console gradually faded as it became clear that Nintendo fans only really cared about buying Nintendo's retro games, and WiiWare — a series of compact digital releases available only through the eShop — rose to take its place.

WiiWare had its problems, too, many of which persisted through the lifetime of the console's successor, Wii U. Discovery of worthwhile material on Wii eShop never managed to move beyond "burdensome." WiiWare had plenty of great, interesting, or just plain weird games that deserved far better sales than they got. But when even long-running series like Castlevania and Dragon Quest generated new releases that flopped on eShop, how could smaller publishers hope to stand out? For that matter, how many millions of Wii owners never even realized they could buy games online? Nintendo didn't allow you to buy retail games like Mario Kart Wii through eShop. After all, the console only had 512MB of internal storage, far too little for all but the most compact of disc-based releases. So for most Wii owners, eShop worked out to be a non-factor.

Nintendo's own internal policies didn't help much. Besides the company's failure to promote eShop releases, it also practiced a decidedly opaque release process. WiiWare games tended to show up at random, with little forewarning to either consumers or developers. Nintendo also adopted a bizarrely punishing stress-test policy to check the stability of eShop releases. Simple, trashy games flooded the service because — ironically — they could more easily hold up to Nintendo's technical requirements than could more intricate or complex creations.

The Wii’s clumsy, halting efforts to bring digital distribution to Nintendo platforms got us to where we are now.

But clearly, the company treated its eShop efforts as a learning process. A decade-long learning process to be sure, but one that seems to have paid off with Switch's digital storefront. Everything Nintendo did wrong with Wii eShop, Switch gets right. The new console's streamlined front-end may lack the whimsy and personality of buying classic games on Wii, but as charming as it was to watch Mario and Luigi battle for coins in lieu of a download progress bar, having games download invisibly in the background makes for a far less tedious user experience. An internet-connected Switch constantly refreshes to inform players of new eShop releases without being pushy about it. And perhaps most importantly — albeit invisible to consumers — Nintendo has greatly eased its approvals process, which has helped buoy the numbers of worthwhile releases for the console… and their sales figures. Publishers regularly report that sales on Switch outstrip all other versions of their games.

Nintendo has gone from last generation's archaic also-ran to a critical and commercial darling, and the new platform's no-nonsense approach to its eShop plays a huge part in that newfound success. It's quite a change compared to Wii, whose popularity almost seemed to come in spite of itself, and whose online services might as well have not even existed for most console owners. While it's hard to shed a tear for the termination of Wii's clumsy, unfriendly eShop itself, the service's demise does represent another loss of a video game legacy. From a historian's or preservationist's standpoint, eShop's end means hundreds of games unique to the platform will cease to be available to the public, perhaps forever. But there's a sentimental element to the loss as well: The Wii’s clumsy, halting efforts to bring digital distribution to Nintendo platforms got us to where we are now. And the result was a huge array of unique obscurities that are simply begging to be unearthed by future retrogaming novelty-hunters… an opportunity that sadly will never come to pass.