You wouldn’t know it from the Switch’s ever-growing library of indie games, but there was a time when Nintendo really didn’t know how to run a digital store. WiiWare, the company’s first venture into online game publishing, never made a major impact — the prohibitive 40MB download limit, lack of advertising, and developer-hostile sales requirements all played a part. There probably won’t be too many people devastated at its loss.
But at its best, WiiWare played host to some truly unique games that you can’t play anywhere else, which is reason enough to give the service another look. And there isn’t much time left. From Monday, March 26th — a decade and a day after the service launched — you’ll no longer be able to add points to the Wii Shop Channel’s digital wallet, meaning this weekend is your last ever chance to buy these games or anything from the Wii's Virtual Console. (Once you have the points, you’ll be able to spend them until January 30th next year.)
You can access the Wii Shop Channel from an original Wii or a Wii U; on the latter, it lives within the separate Wii mode, because Nintendo never uploaded Wii content to the Wii U’s eShop (which is a separate store (but one from which you can download full retail Wii games (which you can’t on the actual Wii Shop Channel (remember when I said Nintendo didn’t know how to run digital stores? Yeah)))).
You’ll need a Wii Remote to access the store on a Wii U, and to play basically all of the games. You’ll also want a Classic Controller for many of them, or at least the nunchuk attachment. One neat quirk is that you can use the SNES controllers from the Super Nintendo Classic Edition if you managed to pick one up last year, thanks to the shared connector.
Anyway, here’s what I’d recommend looking into.
Nintendo’s own published output on WiiWare was experimental and extremely mixed in quality. The closest thing to a major franchise entry it ever released was Excitebike: World Rally, a neat 2.5D update of the NES semi-classic that’s worth checking out. Elsewhere, Fluidity is a wonderful physics-based puzzle game with music from Sega legend Richard Jacques; Rock N’ Roll Climber is a bizarre climbing game that uses the Wii Fit Balance Board; and Bonsai Barber is a surreal plant-trimming simulation by Martin Hollis, who led design on Goldeneye and Perfect Dark while at Rare.
My personal favorite WiiWare release from Nintendo is Maboshi’s Arcade, a brilliantly cerebral puzzler that divides the screen up so you’re playing three games at once. The entire Art Style series is also essential; building on Skip’s Japan-only Bit Generations line for the Game Boy Advance, each title is a minimalist, arcadey delight. Orbient, Light Trax, and Rotohex expand on the GBA releases, while Cubello and Rotozoa are all-new creations for the Wii.
Konami launched a mini-series of its own on WiiWare with a trio of “Rebirth” titles: Castlevania Rebirth, Gradius Rebirth, and Contra Rebirth. All three are similar in concept: they’re short, fun resurrections of their respective franchises, with solid pixel art that makes them feel like lost entries. They’re similar in spirit and quality to Capcom’s Mega Man 9, which also came out on WiiWare but isn’t included here because it’s easily available on other platforms.
OTHER REASONABLY GOOD REVIVALIST GAMES
Mega Man and Konami aside, if you’re into modern revivals of old Japanese games, WiiWare was your platform. There’s Taito’s Bust-A-Move Plus and Arkanoid Plus; Namco’s Mr Driller W; Hudson’s Bomberman Blast, Adventure Island: The Beginning, and Star Soldier R, Sunsoft's Blaster Master: Overdrive… the list goes on. Are any of them definitive? Not really. But they’re all decent-to-intriguing entries in their respective series. Special mention also goes to Hudson’s Alien Crush Returns, a gross Giger-esque 3D sequel to the TurboGrafx-16 pinball game.
Square Enix’s Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: My Life as a King was the most high-profile launch title for WiiWare. You know how in most Final Fantasy games you eventually arrive at a castle in some town and the king tells you to go out on a quest? My Life as a King basically lets you be that king. It’s a cute 3D city-building simulation where you walk around your town talking to minions and so on, sending warriors out on quests to come back with materials. The game also spawned a tower-defense sequel called My Life as a Darklord, which I never actually played, but King is an entertainingly chill addition to the Final Fantasy oeuvre.
Trials developer RedLynx’s MotoHeroz came to mobile platforms eventually, but its WiiWare debut is the only way to play it with a controller today. Frantic rhythm game Lilt Line started on iOS, meanwhile, but also works better with Wii Remote tilt controls and its heavy dubstep soundtrack blasted out through bigger speakers. World of Goo is another WiiWare debutant that made it to other platforms, though for my money the original version’s pointer controls remain definitive. Namco’s Muscle March, meanwhile, wouldn’t make sense on any other console — it’s a ridiculous game where you play a stacked bro (or polar bear) that has to contort himself into shape with motion controls to fit through holes in walls.
And where would a list of downloadable games for a Nintendo platform be without mention of Shin’en, the German studio that has a history of squeezing impressive performance out of the hardware? Jett Rocket is somewhat generic but a technical marvel of a 3D platformer, Art of Balance is a beautiful, addictive puzzle game, and Fast Racing League is the brutally difficult first entry in the futuristic racing series last seen as Fast RMX on the Switch.
Virtual Console is a separate service to WiiWare, having been available from day one of the Wii’s existence. But, while the drip-fed releases were annoying during the years that the Wii was actually relevant, over time it became an invaluable and comprehensive archive of retro games. The Wii U’s equivalent never came close to matching it in depth or breadth, and the Switch doesn’t have one at all.
There are lots of games on the Wii Virtual Console that can’t be legitimately downloaded on any other system. NES classics like Blades of Steel and A Boy and His Blob, for instance, or Square’s amazing SNES strategy-RPG hybrid ActRaiser. The Wii Virtual Console is the only way to download Chrono Trigger, arguably the greatest Japanese RPG of all time, in its original form (let’s just pretend that the blurry new Steam version doesn’t exist). The same goes for Final Fantasy II and III, these days more commonly known as IV and VI.
The SNES games based on the original Star Wars trilogy aren’t amazing, but they’re unique relics for Star Wars nuts and you can’t get them anywhere else. The original N64 version of Super Smash Bros. only ever came to the Wii’s Virtual Console. Castlevania: Rondo of Blood is one of the best games in the entire series, yet never saw a release in the US before — or after — its Virtual Console showing. Breakneck action-platformer Pulseman, originally made by Pokémon developers Game Freak for the Sega Genesis, has only ever appeared globally on the Wii's Virtual Console.
Really, this could be a whole article unto itself. The Wii Virtual Console is an amazing treasure trove, and if you have the hardware you should definitely make time this weekend to browse through and see if there’s anything you missed.
But there are other ways to play old games, of course, and many of them will likely see re-release again at some point. You can’t say the same thing about the WiiWare library, though. Much of it wouldn’t have made sense on anything else, and might not make sense to re-release today.
Today, WiiWare is a symbol of the growing pains Nintendo suffered in the transition to digital distribution, and as a platform itself held no particular merit. Still, it hosted some wonderful, weird, and wonderfully weird games, and it deserves to be investigated for one final time.