The Zelda liturgy
Your favorite game of '09

Dear Brutus


Recently, EA CEO John Riccitiello expressed frustration about disappointing sales of EA games for the Wii, and he blamed Nintendo for failing to release enough first-party games to generate momentum for the platform. According to Riccitiello, EA is doing its part: "We are building the products that I think [are] the most highly rated on the platform and at this point in time, generating the most revenue of any third-party platform."[1]

Nowhere in his remarks did Riccitiello contemplate the possibility that EA's doleful situation is the result of a woeful string of games his company released for the Wii this year. Whatever justifiable complaints he may direct at Nintendo's lack of third-party support, Riccitiello would also do well to consider Cassius' famous admonition "The fault dear Brutus, lies not in our stars, but in ourselves."

EA released 26 games for the Wii this year. Only 5 of those games achieved a Metacritic score above 80. 11 averaged scores in the 60s or lower. The two highest-rated games on the console were multi-platform releases Beatles: Rock Band and Tiger Woods '10.

But let's forget about Metacritic. It's a problematic system at best, and I have concerns about the way many of its source sites approach casual or kid-friendly games. EA produces more than its share of such titles, so maybe Metacritic unfairly misrepresents games like SimAnimals: Africa (Metacritic 55) or Hasbro Family Game Night 2 (Metacritic 64). Yes, Metacritic has misjudged these games. Their scores are too high.

I don't receive a flood of games in the mail from publishers. I buy or rent most games myself. But EA occasionally sends me their Wii titles, and I dutifully play them. Some I've enjoyed and written about here, but most of the EA Wii games I've played this year have been sorely disappointing, and in some cases downright awful. SimAnimals: Africa, which plays like a compendium of muddled design choices, is a prime example.

SimanimalsManic waggle issues aside, SimAnimals: Africa had the potential to succeed as a friendly exploration-focused experience for kids. Its playful box art and cartoony style suggest an accessible game about making friends with animals and helping them thrive in their natural environments. Sort of a cross between Nintendogs for the DS and Afrika for the PS3. I entered the savanna with an open mind.

Your main objective in SimAnimals Africa is to befriend and nurture animals. Everything else you do in the game hinges on this primary activity. Here's how you do it (from my own notes):

Aim your Wiimote at an animal to select it. Choose the hand icon to activate petting control. Identify animal's petting spot by looking for red target marker and use the nunchuck stick to move your petting hand to the target. Shake the Wiimote to pet animal. Pet her some more to gain her trust. Use the Wiimote d-pad to rotate to the other side of the animal. Locate another petting spot.  Shake the Wiimote again. Find her Super Itchy Spot for extra points. 

"Hooray! Now that you and Kasi are Best Friends you can control her." Select another icon to make Kasi run. Locate a tree by navigating with your stick and aiming with the Wiimote. Press "A" to make Kasi kick the tree. Press "B" to deactivate control mode. Aim Wiimote at Kasi and press A to select her. Now use the Wiimote stick to select the knife and fork icon and press "A" to select it. A menu screen appears with a food inventory. Point at the fruit with the Wiimote and press "B." Hold the fruit near Kasi's mouth (the Wiimote will rumble when you're in the right spot) and Kasi will eat the fruit. 

And that's how you make friends with animals. You will repeat this task, and others based on the same system, hundreds of times in the game. It's hard for me to imagine how anyone of any age could find such cumbersome gameplay anything resembling fun. 

Sadly, you'll find this kind of inexplicably poor design throughout EA's Wii lineup this year. How can the same developer that produced two terrific Boom Blox games settle for the abysmal version of Jenga included in Hasbro Family Game Night 2? It's the same game! How can a world as rich in possibilities as Harry Potter's be reduced to a lifeless sandbox and three minigames in EA's Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince? Oy, I could go on and on.

Back in October, Nintendo CEO Satoru Iwata saw declining software sales for the Wii and assumed full responsibility: "Wii has stalled. We were unable to continually release strong software and we let the nice mood cool,” Iwata said, "We were unable to show a new game to become the next thing. In the game market, once you've lost the momentum, it takes time to recover."[2

Mr. Riccitiello would do well to shift his gaze back to Redwood Shores.