The Wii, if you can believe it, was released nearly 14 years ago. Most companies stopped making games for Nintendo’s cultural phenomenon years ago, as interest for motion controls faded and, as the cycle goes, players moved to new powerful hardware. There are two exceptions to this rule: Ubisoft, whch has continued to release annual updates to Just Dance (and will release Just Dance 2021 for the Wii this fall!), and designer Brian Provinciano, who released his Grand Theft Auto-esque open world game, Shakedown: Hawaii, this week.
There’s a good chance that, outside of Just Dance, this represents the last gasp for the Wii.
“I still can't even come to grips with the Wii being a retro platform!” Provinciano told me in an email recently.
At launch in 2019, Shakedown: Hawaii was released for PC, Switch, PlayStation 4, and PlayStation Vita. It was then released for 3DS a few months later. You might be picking up on a pattern here: over time, the game was being ported to older and older gaming hardware. While Shakedown: Hawaii isn’t a technical showcase, that’s hardly a trivial task, because with a few exceptions, Provinciano handles every aspect of the work himself.
His previous game, Retro City Rampage, eventually released across 13 different platforms, and Provinciano ported every single version on his own.
“I’m quite aware now that I probably need to stop doing so much of the work myself, and at some point build a team,” he said.
Bringing Shakedown: Hawaii to Wii was made easier because of past lessons—for example, writing code adaptable for platforms with different resolutions, which wasn’t the case with Retro City Rampage—and past work. Provinciano had already ported the game to 3DS, a machine with far less internal memory to play with. But Provinciano also has a tendency to get carried away, and this Wii port was no different. He didn’t want players to experience loading times during gameplay, requiring him to fit the entire game into system memory.
“This involved optimizing how the game's graphics were stored and rendered, the music, the sound effects, and finding all sorts of other areas in code where something’s a bit wasteful,” he said.
He pulled it off.
The trickiest part, it turned out, had less to do with the game’s frame rate and loading issues and more to do with publishing quirks. Even though the Wii is, essentially, a dead platform, Nintendo still has all sorts of byzantine requirements for publishing the game, such as:
- It must display the Wii Menu when HOME is pressed, and a specific icon if inaccessible.
- It needs to robustly handle disc read errors, or a disc being ejected or re-inserted during loading.
- It needs to display specific text in each language for those events. You can't say "Wiimote," you must say "Wii Remote."
- You need to create Wii Menu icons, save icons, and a nice startup screen.
Nintendo isn’t alone in this regard—this is just what it’s like to publish a console game.
And that wasn’t even the weirdest part for Provinciano. To publish on a disc, there were specific Nintendo development tools Provinciano needed access to—but were no longer available. He hadn’t kept a backup, and for a while, Nintendo didn’t have one, either. For a brief moment, Nintendo had connected Provinciano with a developer who would sell some equipment that would solve the problem. Thankfully, Nintendo eventually found it for him.
Shakedown: Hawaii won’t see a release in North America on Wii because the console’s digital storefront, the Wii Shop, closed in early 2019 and Nintendo of America, which was supportive of Porvinciano’s wacky idea, ran into logistical hurdles for a physical release.
“To release a new Wii game at this point in the lifecycle, every [Nintendo] department needed to be able to figuratively (or literally ) get their Wii stuff out of storage and set it back up,” he said. “If even a single department was no longer able to do that, the game could no longer be released, and unfortunately, there was a roadblock in the middle there.”
Nintendo of Europe, however, was able to work out a way to print actual discs.
Many ports are understandably driven by the chance to make more money, and while that’s not not a motivating factor for Provinciano, he’s tickled by nostalgia. His warm and fuzzy feelings for the past aren’t just inspiration for the throwback games he makes, but a driving force for why he ends up spending so many late nights porting his game to new platforms.
“Getting a game to run on an older platform is probably as fun for me as a sudoku puzzle would be for others,” he said. “You might need to optimize the game around a slow CPU, a unique GPU, limited RAM, or a slow disc drive.”
Perhaps the most extreme case of this is Provinciano’s ongoing attempt to make Retro City Rampage run on the Game Boy Advance, Nintendo’s handheld from the early 2000s. The port has been mostly done “for years now,” and required him to build a totally new interface.
Getting a game up and running on an older platform isn’t the problem, he explained. But the difference between a game running at 1 frame-per-second and 60 is a whole heck of a lot, because there’s a vast difference between a game functioning and being fully playable.
“Every [Nintendo] department needed to be able to figuratively (r literally) get their Wii stuff out of storage and set it back up. If even a single department was no longer able to do that, the game could no longer be released."
It’s why Provinciano tends to announce his weird ports pretty late in the development process, because he wants to make sure they’re actually possible. He wouldn’t even tell me which ports he’s abandoned over the years, mostly because in the case of one “abandoned” port, he actually “woke up one morning in the right mood” and managed to figure it out. In other cases, there’s literally no way to distribute the ports, digitally or physically, and so he’s been in talks with companies to find a way to, at least, display them at a future event.
Games being ported to progressively strange and more archaic platforms is normal, and in the case of Doom, both a challenge and a meme. What’s different about Retro City Rampage and Shakedown: Hawaii is that the original developer is doing all the porting.
For Provinciano, however, it’s relaxing and works another part of his brain.
“Let’s say I’m designing levels and want each to feel unique and include a new mechanic, but after a dozen levels, I’m a bit out of ideas,” he said. “In a moment like that, I might jump back over to a retro port and chip away at that, instead of just watching TV. It's kind of like going to sleep when you're tired. Listening to your body, listening to your mind, and just taking time to recharge when needed. I activate the technical side of my brain while letting the ideas brew on the creative.”