A Bastion For Hidden Gems
The Wii was a fascinating system for Nintendo, pushing video games more into the mainstream than ever before. The console also popularized motion controls in gaming for many years, and Nintendo’s family-friendly focus certainly helped in that endeavor.
The Wii had a strong helping of first-party Nintendo games, from launching with The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, to seeing a bold new multiplayer IP with Splatoon. It was certainly a golden age for Nintendo, but even with all that success certain titles still managed to fall under the radar. Part of the problem was the sheer amount of software shoved onto the Wii, making it easy to miss releases, especially later in the console’s life. Underneath all the massively successful titles, there’s a whole host of third-party games that simply didn’t get the due they deserved.
As someone most interested in JRPGs and niche experiences, the Wii was an interesting console that continuously provided unique experiences, even while I bought countless Nintendo exclusives and family games. Looking back the system was a surprisingly strong outing for niche games, even if it isn’t obvious at first glance.
The Last Story
The Last Story comes from Mistwalker and Hirobonu Sakaguchi, the creator of Final Fantasy. With a fitting title, The Last Story manages to feel like a fitting homage to Sakaguchi’s past, while also trying plenty of new things. The story focuses on a band of mercenaries looking for work on the island of Lazulis, and more specifically a member of the troupe named Zael. After getting wrapped up in war and political happenings, Zael gain the mysterious “Mark of the Outsider” granting him strange powers.
The Last Story certainly feels like a “classic” Sakaguchi games, but its charming characters add a lot of heart to the overall narrative. The game also has a phenomenal cast of British actors that help The Last Story’s setting feel like something unique. While Mistwalker’s previous games had both been turn-based, The Last Story goes for an action system that weaves in tactical and stealth elements. Zael can issue commands to his fellow party members during battle even though they fight on their own. A host of other abilities are available during combat as well, like taking cover behind objects, firing Zael’s crossbow, and even drawing all enemies to yourself to give the party an opening.
Interestingly, The Last Story nearly didn’t get its chance in North America. Although the game had a planned release in Europe, by 2011 there were still no plans to release it in North America. A fan campaign called Operation Rainfall was established that year, with the mission to push for three games to get localized; Xenoblade Chronicles, The Last Story, and Pandora’s Tower. Operation Rainfall gained a ton of public support, and despite Nintendo saying they wouldn’t bring the games West, all three eventually made it.
Unfortunately, The Last Story came out so late in the Wii’s life cycle that it was severely overlooked. The game has a lot of bold ideas for the JRPG genre, and its presentation is stellar for being on the Wii. As Mistwalker’s last console game to date, it’s a hidden gem that shouldn’t be missed.
Madworld stands in stark contrast to the usual Nintendo fare; a grungy extremely violent title with more curse words than you can count. The game takes place in the fictional Varrigan City, after a terrorist group called The Organizers have severed communication with the rest of the world. The group releases a deadly virus on the population but informs the city that anyone who kills another person will receive the vaccine. This turns Varrigan into chaos, resulting in the creation of a deadly game show called DeathWatch, where competitors kill each other to survive, and earn a cash prize.
Madworld’s story is actually written by Yasumi Matsuno, of Final Fantasy Tactics and Final Fantasy XII fame, but the real draw lies in the utterly brutal combat system. The open levels of the game encourage players to kill enemies in different and more inventive ways, in order to receive more overall points. Madworld is insanely violent, practically too much so at times, but everything is presented in a highly stylized way. From the very first moment Madworld’s black-and-white art style is gorgeous, and the game uses those colors to contrast bright red blood in a similar way to Frank Miller’s Sin City.
The Wii didn’t have a lot of truly mature experiences, and Madworld filled that niche with gusto. It’s certainly not for everyone, and you need to have a penchant for stylized violence, but past all that is a strong action experience.
Trauma Team is the final entry in the Trauma Center series, and it uses a similar formula but deliberately tries to do new things as well. While the Trauma Center games started looping in more and more supernatural elements, Trauma Team tries to ground its story in reality, focusing on six different protagonists who each specialize in a different sector of medicine; surgery, emergency medicine, endoscopy, diagnosis, orthopedics, and forensic medicine.
Each of the six types of medicine has different gameplay features, like in endoscopy players have to guide the endoscope through the patient’s internal organs, while surgery follows the more standard medical simulation gameplay. Diagnosis and forensics are the most interesting additions, however, as these mostly revolve around investigative dialogue options and point-and-click sleuthing. After four Trauma Center games that all did the same thing, Trauma Team’s wide array of gameplay elements are a fantastic breath of fresh air. The game also has an interesting way of weaving together the six different stories into one cohesive narrative.
The main characters each have a unique quirk in their stories as well, like the amnesiac prisoner “CR-S01” who’s given a 250 years sentence for bioterrorism, but is forced to work at Resurgam First Care because of his incredible medical skills. Trauma Team was generally met with critical praise but it was, unfortunately, a commercial failure. It’s a shame that the most ambitious Trauma Center game to date is the last one.
Muramasa: The Demon Blade
Muramasa: The Demon Blade comes from the team at Vanillaware, so you know it’s going to be filled with tons of gorgeous art. In fact, the stunning hand-drawn art of Muramasa may still be the most visually ambitious the studio has ever been. The game takes place in the Edo period of Japan, during the rule of shogun Tokugawa Tsunayoshi. The warlike nature of the shogun has created a scramble for people to obtain Demon Blades forged by Muramasa Sengo and plunged the country into chaos. The game has two separate storylines that each follow a different protagonist, Momohime and Kisuke, whose stories intertwine. Muramasa is a side-scrolling hack-and-slash experience, and although combat is a little simple it provides plenty of options and combos to draw from. A blade forging and cooking system help add a little more depth to the gameplay as well, although the core combat is what you’ll be engaging with the majority of the time.
The real draw of Muramasa lies in that art style and exploring its gorgeous world. The game heavily draws on Japanese mythology, and Vanillaware really runs with the theme. You can tell the studio put real love and care into every inch of the artwork, and it makes Muramasa a singularly unique experience on the Nintendo Wii.
Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn
Fire Emblem may be a household Nintendo name these days, but at one time it was a failing franchise that simply couldn’t catch on in the West. Radiant Dawn hit right in the heart of that decline, and it a real shame as it’s honestly a brilliant RPG with fantastic world-building. Radiant Dawn is a direct sequel to the GameCube’s Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance, and it continues the trend of strong thematic storytelling. In fact, Radiant Dawn is by the far the longest game of the franchise, taking upwards of 60-80 hours to complete the main story.
In a twist, the game starts in the country of Daein, the villainous empire of the first game. Having been vanquished by Ike and his group, Daein is now under the rule of the Begnion Empire, which oppresses its people through violence and cruelty. It’s fascinating to see the roles reversed as you assume control of a band of freedom fighters from Daein, led by a mysterious girl named Micaiah who’s known as the “Maiden of Dawn.” While the resistance takes the focus of the first part of the game, the story swaps perspectives with the second and third parts focusing on Princess Elincia and the country of Crimea, and Ike and the Greil Mercenaries respectively. These three disparate tales paint a picture of the larger world before interesecting into one for the finale.
Radiant Dawn features the same grid-based strategy the franchise is known for, but it did introduce a host of improvements over the previous entry. Laguz characters can now counterattack when in their human form, and human characters have two ranks of promotion, which helps with the longer length of the game. One of the more interesting additions, however, deals with elevation and how it directly affects combat. Levels in Radiant Dawn have more verticality than ever before, and characters on higher elevation have a much higher hit percentage and damage output, while those at low elevations suffer a disadvantage on accuracy and damage. Only ranged units can attack from higher or lower elevations, but the system added a ton of new options into combat.
Part of what stopped Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn from catching on is its absurd difficulty level. Reviews at the time, by and large, pointed out the difficulty as a significant turnoff, but there’s an interesting story there. The English localization actually made a mistake as it titled the difficulties as Easy, Normal, and Hard. In the Japanese version, however, these difficulties are Normal, Hard, and Maniac. This means that most players picking up Radiant Dawn actually ended up playing on Hard mode, which only compounded an already difficult game.
While Path of Radiance may have the most thematically ambitious story in the Fire Emblem series, Radiant Dawn tells the most cohesive story with the most complete word-building. Radiant Dawn is gripping from start to finish, and levels do a fantastic job of mixing things up with unique mechanics and objectives. It’s one of the very best first-party games on the Wii, that sadly was incredibly overlooked.
Sakura Wars: So Long My Love
Sakura Wars never achieved the same notoriety in the West that it had in Japan, and Sakura Wars: So Long My Love was a bit of surprise when it released in the West, as it was actually the first game in the series to get a proper localization. As you might expect, that meant an already niche game only became even more niche.
So Long My Love takes place in 1928 New York, as the main character Shinjiro Taiga moves from Tokyo to join the American city’s Imperial Combat Revue. In the Sakura Wars series, Imperial Combat Revues protect their respective cities from invasion by demons but also serve as a musical theater of sorts. This was Western fans’ first introduction to the unique structure of Sakura Wars, with the game blending elements of turn-based tactical battles, dating sims, and visual novels. So Long My Love puts a huge emphasis on story and getting to know Taiga’s different squad-members, as the only way to really strengthen your characters is by deepening their friendships through dialogue and use of the series’ LIPS (Live & Interactive Picture System). The cast of So Long My Love all have their own interesting quirks, and it’s a joy to get to know everyone. Equally interesting is the game’s New York City setting.
While So Long My Love is set in New York it is a very Japanese game, and it’s fascinating to see the setting and style of the game collide. Story is definitely the main focus, but the game’s combat can stand on its own as well. Battles aren’t the typical grid-based event, but function more on a Valkyria Chronicles-like system as each character has an action meter that depletes as they move around the 3D areas and use attacks.
The Sakura Wars series still remains so unique after all these years, and So Long My Love is one of the most interesting entries in the franchise. Unfortunately, it’s also been the only Sakura Wars game to get a release in the West, up until the release of the Sakura Wars reboot in 2020.
Disaster : Day of Crisis
Monolith Soft has become a well-known developer for its work on the Xenoblade Chronicles franchise, but the studio also had another, much lesser-known game on the Wii. Disaster: Day of Crisis feels like a fascinating experiment that tries to introduce as much variety across the experience that it can. You take on the role of a former US Marine named Raymond Bryce, as he tries to survive horrific natural disasters, tries to save civilians, and fights terrorists the whole time. The story of Day of Crisis is pretty much B-movie schlock, although that’s fairly fitting.
While the main gameplay sequences revolve around third-person explorations and on-rails shooting, Day of Crisis delivers new gameplay mechanics at a blistering pace, whether that’s using the Wiimote to perform CPR, or washing an oil spill off of a survivor. Day of Crisis makes full use of the motion controls of the Wii, and it’s all just so absurd you can’t help but find it endearing.
Disaster: Day of Crisis certainly has a whole host of problems, and generally feels pretty unpolished. However, it’s an absurd experience that keeps the adrenaline pumping from start to finish, and it’s worth playing through simply to see how much of an oddity it is.
Classics Lost to Time
The Nintendo Wii was a time of great innovation and experimentation, and while Nintendo’s first-party catalog is still mostly accessible, the same simply cannot be said for a host of third-party games. So many of the games mentioned here are near impossible to, legally, find these days, even when it comes to the first-party Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn.
Video games, in general, need a better way to preserve past titles, and the Wii is a prime example of that. Physical copies of these hidden gems can cost over $100 and there’s no way to play them digitally. Hopefully, at some point, Nintendo will make more of the Wii’s catalogue playable with emulation, like with the NES and SNES classics on Switch. With the wild success of the console, there are so many experiences to uncover.