Her? How Wii Fit Trainer Represents Nintendo Right Now

Posted in The Screening Room by - November 18, 2016

From Jigglypuff to Duck Hunt Dog, Nintendo has shown a great love for joke characters in Super Smash Bros. While the decision to utilize these characters in Smash may be humorous in tone, Smash is not a series known for half measures, thus the moves and playstyle of these joke characters are every bit as thoughtful and technically rewarding as any of the hardcore choices in the roster.

Wii Fit Trainer is no different, but she comes with an added distinction: Wii Fit Trainer feels in many ways like a representation of the Wii U itself and Nintendo’s position in the video game industry right now. That might seem to be a lot for a yoga instructor in a fighting game to express, but hear me out, I can explain.

The Console Wars

To adequately explain the present, you have to understand the past, and in this situation, we have to go back to Nintendo in the 90’s. The console wars of the 90’s, waged primarily between Nintendo and their chief rival Sega, were an interesting time when both companies fought tooth and nail for the hearts and minds of video game playing audiences everywhere. The competition led to innovation on the part of both companies, but by the time the dust had settled in the Gamecube/Dreamcast generation, a clear winner had come into sight: as Sega announced that the Dreamcast would be their last console, it was evident that Nintendo had finally vanquished their longtime rival.

But just as this was happening, new challengers were approaching. The same generation that was Sega’s last was also the generation that put both Microsoft and Sony on the map, with the Xbox and Playstation 2, respectively. Technically, the first Playstation had already been around for a while, but while Sega and Nintendo’s efforts had dominated the PlayStation’s debut generation, it was the Playstation 2 that truly took off, and the system currently sits at the number one spot of the highest selling consoles of all time.

Imagine this from Nintendo’s point of view: their biggest rival finally down for the count, and two more rises to take its place. It’s the kind of result that could make someone want to withdraw from competition in the first place, which makes Nintendo’s next move as a company make a lot of sense. While their systems from the original Nintendo through the Gamecube all had mostly been enhanced versions of the same general idea, each system an update that featured better graphics, better processing power, and more buttons on the controller allowing for more abilities within the game, Nintendo’s next system, the Wii, was truly a game changer: intuitive, motion-sensitive controls on a stripped down, TV remote-like controller with about 6 buttons.

Nintendo had spent much of the console wars trying to find new, interesting ways of appealing to traditional video game audiences, but when the Wii entered the playing field up against systems like the upcoming Playstation 3 and Xbox 360 who were doing the same with better graphics and more processing power, Nintendo opted instead to simply not play the same game as them. Sony and Microsoft’s products were designed to appeal to the mainstream gamer; the Wii was designed to appeal to literally everyone else. This required a much simpler, more intuitive gameplay mechanic, which Nintendo delivered, and the result was a system that you could play with your parents, your grandparents, or your younger siblings, with games like the Wii Sports Resort and the Wii Fit series, offering video game activities that were simple yet fun enough that nearly everyone could enjoy them.

Now, Nintendo could get away with this in part because they still had name recognition from their top franchises; as long as they provided good Mario, Zelda, and Metroid games, gamers would still find the appeal of the system, and the influx of new markets whose interests weren’t being vied for by the other companies on the same level meant that Nintendo was in a fantastic position to appeal to… well, everyone. But while Nintendo did produce some fantastic games for the system, there were some negative reactions to Nintendo’s attempts at a cross-audience mass appeal. Which leads us, finally, to Super Smash Brothers.

Brawl My Problems

The Wii’s entry of the Super Smash Bros. series was Super Smash Bros. Brawl, and the reactions were a mixed bag. Consider for a moment the previous versions of the game; Super Smash Bros for the Nintendo 64 has the auspicious title of being the first game in the series, the one that started it all. Super Smash Bros. Melee for the Gamecube is considered by many within the Smash community to be the point at which Nintendo perfected the Smash Bros. engine, with fast, hard-hitting action that could still be complicated and technical for those willing to take the time to master it. This idea of Melee being the best can be seen down to today in the fact that Gamecube controllers are still considered the ultimate way of playing Smash, which even Nintendo recognized by offering a converter allowing Gamecube controller input for Super Smash Bros. (and only Super Smash Bros.) on the Wii U. Brawl, on the other hand, was very much a product of its time; it was the toned down, slower, more casual version of Smash for a more casual, broad appeal oriented system, and this was not an improvement in the eyes of the competitive Smash community.

The mixed reaction to Brawl is an interesting synecdoche of Nintendo’s struggles during the Wii’s heyday. Appealing to the masses also came with its downsides.  The lowered technical specs of the Wii compared to its competitors and the uniqueness of its control scheme being inhospitable to direct ports ended up being a limit to the 3rd party games made available to the Wii’s catalog. This issue has plagued Nintendo even more during the lifespan of the Wii’s successor, the Wii U, which leaned more traditional in gameplay but still felt a generation behind regarding technology. Mainstream games require the latest in graphics and power that other systems offer, but the Wii U did not, and as a result, audiences looking for the latest and greatest franchises had to look outside Nintendo if they wanted to play them. Nintendo has been falling further and further behind in the game market, but perhaps the biggest blow was the growth of the mobile game industry.

Consider the timeline. When the Wii was introduced in November 2006, the novelty and appeal of games that anyone could play became pretty readily apparent. But about half a year later, in June 2007, Apple revealed the first generation iPhone, and the era of the Smart Phone was born. There’s been a lot said already about the impact that mobile games and apps have had on the mainline video game industry, but suffice it to say the two markets are typically different beasts. There’s a difference between the appeal of a game that can be broken down into small play sessions and carried with anywhere and the kind of game that fully utilizes the immersive experience (and full system power) of a dedicated gaming platform, and both markets have plenty of room to thrive unless you’re a dedicated gaming platform that makes a decent living selling small, bite-sized gaming experiences. With the advent of the mobile game market, the casual gaming audience had found a shiny new toy that they already carried with them everywhere, and Nintendo’s tentative foray into casual gaming hit the point of diminishing returns.

These problems in the casual market are probably a major reason why Nintendo is starting pushing back into more mainstream gaming. You can see this with the launch releases of the Wii U, including ports of recent major releases like Batman: Arkham City and Mass Effect 3, to the emphasis on Nintendo finally joining the online multiplayer shooter genre with Splatoon and the massive open world adventure of the upcoming Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. You can see similar traits within their next new system, the Switch, with Skyrim Remastered, a game already pushing Xbox and Playstation capabilities, being advertised as a headlining launch game. And it’s in the middle of this push to win back mainstream gamers that Super Smash Bros. for Wii U makes its splash, and the Wii Fit Trainer makes her playable debut.

Wii Will Rock You

Smash Bros. for Wii U was already a hotly anticipated entry in the series by the time Wii Fit Trainer was revealed as a new playable character at E3 2013. While characters who represented beloved Nintendo franchises, like Villager of Animal Crossing, Little Mac of Punch-Out!, and Shulk of Xenoblade Chronicles were fairly obvious choices for this kind of project, Wii Fit Trainer was always a little weird. And it wasn’t just because she was a joke character; Jigglypuff is seen by some as a joke character because her move set is pretty gimmicky, famously including a move that makes her fall asleep but can be a near instant kill if pulled off right, but she’s a strong contender for one of the most popular Pokémon, itself a major Nintendo franchise, so her inclusion in a game that celebrates all things Nintendo makes sense.

Wii Fit Trainer, on the other hand, feels weird because she’s not a real character representing a game that’s not a game. Wii Fit, like some early Wii games, was less a goal oriented or story based video game and more an interactive yoga instructional video, making use of the Wiimote’s motion sensitivity to grade a “player”’s yoga poses. The Wii Fit Trainer was the nameless, almost colorless mannequin within the game demonstrating the poses, so she’s not even really a character, let alone a playable character. That said, her inclusion makes more sense when you recognize how high selling and recognizable her series is; the original Wii Fit is currently sitting comfortably at the 23rd highest selling video game of all time, just below Pokemon Gold and Silver but above Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II. Game or not, it’s big, and character or not, Wii Fit Trainer is the face of one of the most successful video game franchises in the world.

Each new entry in the Smash Bros. series has made a habit of particularly highlighting the games of the generation directly preceding the current one; in Smash Bros. for Wii U’s case, the roster highlights the Wii and its games. Wii Fit Trainer’s position as a representative of the Wii’s casual era of gameplay and audience outreach makes sense, but where she gets interesting is when you take notice of how she plays, namely, she’s precise and technical as hell.

Every single one of her attacks is a yoga pose; this makes sense, considering striking yoga poses is all she does in her own game. These poses in Smash end up giving her attacks very precise hitboxes; only small parts of her moves will land and cause damage, like the tips of her fingers or the heel of her foot. The precision needed to pull off many of her more powerful moves make sense as a representation of what the Wii Fit gameplay is like; carefully and precisely holding a pose, represented on screen by keeping a little dot within a small space. But in addition to the precision required for her moves, Wii Fit Trainer also has some weird, unexpected hitboxes; many of her attacks have secondary hitboxes on the backside of her attack. Her attack might mainly hit with a hand strike forward, but she’ll lift her leg behind her which it turns out spikes someone straight up. Several moves contain double hitboxes like this, and she has no less than three Meteor Smashes, two of which are secret Meteor Smashes that only work if you land a very particular part of a move just right within a few frames.

The result is a character with a very steep learning curve. The Smash 4 Tier List, which ranks characters according to how often they’re played, currently lists Wii Fit Trainer at number 45 out of 55; she’s underplayed on the competitive scene because of how difficult she is to master. This is not to say she’s a weak character, as in the right hands, she can be quite powerful: Waveguider, the number one ranked player in Australia, is a Wii Fit Trainer main. The bottom line is she takes skill, intelligence, and, most importantly, practice to succeed, making her the opposite regarding gameplay of her original series.

Why is she like this? Like I said, this is possibly meant to emulate the precision-based gameplay of the Wii Fit games. Also, while I mentioned that every current Smash game shines a spotlight on the standout characters of the previous generation, it’s also true that every Smash redefines those characters through the atmosphere Nintendo is promoting on the current console. Wii Fit Trainer might represent one of the top games of the Wii era, but she plays in the style of the current Wii U games, in this case representing Nintendo’s push to win back the hardcore gamer market. And above all, I wouldn’t put it past Nintendo to have designed her almost entirely as an elaborate joke; irony in Smash character form.

Whether it be any one of these explanations or some combination of all of them, the bottom line is that Wii Fit Trainer is a weird, wacky, wonderful character that represents the current climate of Nintendo: being inviting and open to the casual gamer, while still trying to satisfy the needs of the more dedicated gaming crowd. So next time you turn on Smash, why not try playing as Wii Fit Trainer? After all, you could work on your balance.

This post was written by

He is a staff writer for Kulture Shocked, specializing in comic books and superheroes. Part-time web comic writer and full-time insomniac, he lives in Texas and writes think pieces for fun. Approach cautiously; he is usually very tired and probably isn’t paying attention.

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