Sunday, July 20, 2008


Nintendo's Data Storage Non-Solution

The push to make a hard drive for the Wii has been around for a long time, but now that Wii Ware has introduced the idea of downloadable content that can take up almost 300 precious blocks at a time, it seems like the Wii's tiny internal memory has become the biggest issue of the decade among editorialists who write about Nintendo. Nintendo's reactions have ranged from dismissive to insulting. Ultimately, their message is that we need to live with it.

I have to admit, I've been feeling the pinch lately. When Wii Ware launched, I realized that something was going to have to go if I was going to make room for it. At first it was easy enough -- I had a bunch of Virtual Console games that I didn't especially like. It was no big deal to delete Star Fox 64 to make room for Lost Winds, or Yoshi's Story to make room for Dr. Mario.

But the memory hogs kept coming. I wanted the Nintendo Channel, after all. The Wii Fit Channel looked pretty cute on my channel list. And I decided to download Check Mii Out again. And My Pokemon Ranch. And who could live without Everybody Votes?

And with every program that absolutely had to live on my Wii, there was less and less room for my precious virtual console games. Super Mario 64 went packing, as did Paper Mario. It was a little disheartening to think that I didn't have a definitive library of games living on my Wii 100% of the time.

E3 came and went, and all Nintendo had to say about the storage situation was, gee, isn't it great how iPods and Wiis remember what kind of software you have, so you can keep things in rotation? Erase what you don't need, then get it back when you need it again? And a funny thing happened.

I decided to give it a try.

I spent a long evening backing up every piece of software I'd ever downloaded onto a 2GB SD card. It was a very long process -- I'd heard about how long it took to transfer data to SD, but without so much as a progress bar to entertain me, it was excruciating. And when I had a copy of every piece of software I "owned", I deleted it all. (With the exception of utility channels, which I use frequently, and four games -- Super Mario Brothers, Dr. Mario, Pac-Man, and Mario Kart 64 -- that should live on the console as a convenience to other family members, who love those games and won't want to dink around with the downloading crap.) And I had my first surprise.

I quite liked the result.

My channel menu looked... Clean. Elegant. Efficient.

Your Wii Channel menu is, after all, a software garden. It just doesn't feel right when it's cluttered with options. There was a time when I tried to group my Wii channels across the four pages according to theme, frequency of use, and other factors, but it never felt quite as nice as seeing all of my software summarized on one screen, with 12 friendly buttons to press.

My original plan was to keep all of my software backed up on the SD card, and to load it into Wii memory as needed, but after seeing how much quicker it is to just download it again from the Shop channel, I've decided to keep the SD card strictly as a backup for a situation where the household Net is down. And besides, it's fun to download stuff from the Shop. There's something adorable about watching Mario run around gathering coins as an indication of download progress. And the Shop keeps a convenient list of the games you've already purchased, making it easy to pull something out of the virtual vault and back into your system.

And there are added psychological benefits.

Now, I'm sure I won't be able to explain this correctly, but the basic idea is this. When my Wii's memory was stuffed to the brim, there was this obstacle in my mind to re-downloading, say, Paper Mario to play with it for a few hours. "Sure, I could do that," I would think to myself, "But then I'd have to delete Lost Winds or Defend Your Castle. And what would I do when I wanted to play those again?"

But now that I have practically nothing in my channels to play with and hundreds of blocks of open memory, downloading Paper Mario again is suddenly a tantalizing proposition.

And there's every chance that I'll get more out of my VC games by having fewer of them immediately available to me. If you create an obstacle to changing games, you'll use the ones available to you more and tend to get more out of them. It's like when you own a classic arcade collection -- if it's easier to change games than it is to get good at the one you're playing, you're much more likely to play one round, then switch to something else.

If I know I'll have to go through the rigmarole of deleting The Lost Levels and loading up the Shop to get Super Mario Brothers 3, I'll be less likely to play it for five minutes, get bored, and change games. I'll get more use out of The Lost Levels when I have it available.

I might even get good at it.

Let me finish by saying that this should not be interpreted as an apology or an endorsement for what Nintendo has done. I'm sure they could make a system that was just as elegant and useful if they had a larger storage system and, say, a single channel that allowed you to choose from all of your VC games. The system in place is not ideal.

All I can really say is that I've learned to live with it. And I've come to see it less as a crippling handicap and more as a cute little foible.


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