Why the Wii Needs a High-Def Visual Upgrade

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Nintendo says a high-definition upgrade for the Wii remains a distant future endeavor, dismissing criticism that the system needs a visual boost to be creatively competitive.

Speaking to Kotaku, Nintendo America president Reggie Fils-Aime explained that Nintendo won't move to a 'new generation' unless the current system starts bumping into serious technical road blocks. "What that says is that simply the addition of HD capability will not be the next step for us," he said. "There will be more to it. There will be additional capability. There will be additional elements, and, given that, it is far into the future."

On the other hand, Fils-Aime was withering in his criticism of top-ticket publishers like Activision for failing to pitch Wii versions of major franchise releases like Assassin's Creed 2 and Modern Warfare 2.

"I'm extremely disappointed," he said. "I've had this conversation with every publisher who makes content that is not available on my platform. The conversation goes like this: 'We have a 22-million unit installed base. We have a very diverse audience… We have active gamers that hunger for this type of content. And why isn't it available?'"

The problem with Fils-Aime's position--even if you accept the premise that the Wii's very much its own beast--is that it confuses aesthetic preference with mechanical advantage. Games like Assassin's Creed 2 or Modern Warfare 2 almost depend on higher-definition visuals. When you're rendering complex 3D environments like gutted war zones in Iraq or full-fledged Italian Renaissance cities and asking players to keep track of multiple objects in those environments, visual clarity--in particular, clarity at great distances--becomes advantageous, verging on paramount.

Assassin's Creed 2 doesn't render complex landscapes to drain performance budgets or high-five videophiles. Every square meter of the game's been carefully crafted with discrete game mechanics in mind. Several depend on your ability to sight miniscule objects in concealed locations or recognize distant landmarks. One collection activity has you hunting for up to 100 tiny white feathers stashed in concealed nooks and out-of-the-way crannies. Clue-yielding ciphers paint the odd angles of structures, and tiny collectible statues cling to buildings in places you wouldn't expect to discover much less sight from a distance at low resolution. Spying any of this stuff without poring over buildings or other structures up close and personal requires visuals crisp enough to let you pick out arm-sized objects four or five rooftops over.

Dealing with enemies benefits from spying whether distant rooftop guards are packing bows or swords--drop the resolution to 480p and the same guards become indistinct, jaggy blurs. Targeting individuals in crowded Italian cities (the objects of an assassination attempt, say, or someone you want to distract with hired help) is safest from the other side of a courtyard or the end of a cobblestone street. Distinguishing between targets at those distances benefits notably from sharper visuals.

Don't forget interpolation, a crude workaround that triggers when a display's fixed-native and a game system's output resolutions don't match. Run a game system that outputs at 480p (640 x 480) through an LCD designed to display 720p (1280 x 768) natively and the LCD "interpolates" the difference, resulting in blurred graphics and aliased text.

Wii games max out at 480p and look worse for wear on high-def LCDs, as opposed to high-def CRTs, where resolution scaling is dynamic and discrete. But CRT's are on the verge of extinction. Systems like the GameCube, Xbox, PlayStation 2, and Wii were designed with CRTs in mind, while I'd wager the kinds of gamers Fils-Aime claims Nintendo wants to address with these "missed-opportunity" franchises--the so-called "hardcore" market that prefers BioShock and Assassin's Creed and Modern Warfare to Wii Sports and Fitness and Play--have long since switched to using high-definition LCDs.

Point is, visual clarity affects gameplay in measurable ways. That gets lost in kerfuffles over polygon and pixel counts as contests of muscularity. The corrective requires thinking about gameplay in a more broadly spatial and perceptive sense, then thinking about reaction time in terms of an environment's visual intelligibility.

While none of this should put off gamers happy with Wii-oriented games like Mario Galaxy or Metroid Prime or New Super Mario Bros. Wii--games explicitly designed for the system--it'll probably dog arguments to port games like Assassin's Creed 2 and Modern Warfare 2 over until Nintendo recognizes that HD-gaming is more than just aesthetic fluff and antes up.

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