How High Voltage Software Tried to Make the Wii Cool With ‘The Conduit’

In the late 2000s, the Nintendo Wii was not the console for cool kids. In retrospect it was a daring concept with plenty of hits, but none of this mattered to the schoolboys that surrounded me in the late aughts. Back then, it was all about graphics and guns. Nintendo never felt the need to compete in the “hardcore” FPS-dominated field of the last decade, choosing to instead forge their own path with their “Blue Ocean” strategy. And financially, it worked. To my peers, though, the Wii was for babies.

So when I heard about The Conduit, it had my full attention. 

High Voltage Software’s slick 2009 first-person shooter for the Wii was a game that demanded to be taken seriously. The initial reveal and announcement for the game produced a wave of hype from Nintendo fans, and I rode that wave all the way. Here was a little-known studio attempting to carry the torch for higher-quality third party titles in a market full of shovelware minigame collections and PS2 ports. It was an attempt to begin a revolution within Nintendo’s own revolution, the spark of an idea that many Wii owners like myself latched on to in our misguided search for validation from the Xbox and PlayStation crowds.

After the game hit store shelves, the excitement for The Conduit fizzled out. Ten years later, The Conduit and its sequel are mostly forgotten, except as minor successes as Android ports. My original copies are lost to GameStop’s pre-owned game ecosystem, but they still hold a place in my heart. I recently sifted through my old Wii paraphernalia, and it spurred an unlikely resurgence of interest in these games. And so, against my better judgment, I found and purchased used copies of them.

I finished The Conduit and Conduit 2 in just a few days, fueled by a nostalgia for a time when I was a sensitive, immature teenage gamer. It was bittersweet, witnessing both the creative spark and ambition along with the design failings of the games. By themselves, they remain mediocre first-person shooters. But in context, The Conduit is an important historical artifact, one that stands as testament to the bizarre console wars and accompanying gamer insecurities of the 2000s.

The Conduit

Quantum Dreams

The Conduit was built from the ground-up to be a hardcore, high-fidelity FPS on the Wii. High Voltage developed their own engine for the game called Quantum3, and in describing it during the initial Conduit media blitz, the studio utilized language not often reserved for Wii games. In a tech demo video, the developers use terms like bump mapping, texture-based RBG gloss maps, projected texture lights, depth of field, material based bloom, and other technical jargon. The words themselves meant nothing to me, yet they had an air of credibility and succeeded in rallying me to the game’s cause.

It was a display of confidence that touted the studio’s ability to do what others could not — release a game for the Wii that could compete with the FPS fare of the Xbox and Playstation. Months later, a 30-second video of gameplay footage had IGN declaring “This footage makes us believe!” In the video, we see a scene of an alien invasion in Washington D.C. Of note are the shine on the guns, a veiny realistic human hand, and a number of particle effects with multiple hostile enemies onscreen, all while the game runs at a solid 30 frames per second.

To more objective observers, The Conduit looked like another first-person shooter. I didn’t necessarily disagree, but the prospect of my very own FPS — no matter how generic — was a big deal. To me and other Wii fans, this was the game that would begin a new era where the Wii, the little underpowered engine that could, would hold its own against the graphical heavyweights of Sony and Microsoft.

The Conduit

National Treasure, But With Aliens

The Conduit had a silly high-concept premise, essentially being National Treasure with an alien invasion. But the game’s story was far less of a draw to me compared to its controls. Games like the first Red Steel, a Ubisoft launch title for the Wii, failed to create an intuitive first-person control scheme with the Wii Remote. For The Conduit, High Voltage jumped off the work of EA’s Wii port of the PSP game Medal of Honor: Heroes 2, which featured a wealth of customization options. In my hands, The Conduit felt like a dream — after extensive time tuning the settings to my liking, that is.

Once I’d gotten things feeling right, I was treated to a novel arsenal of weapons that were fun to wield in both the single-player campaign and online multiplayer. Along with the standard “human weapons” were organic Drudge guns with disgustingly squishy visuals and sound effects, and the sleek, futuristic, electric Trust firearms. But as I discovered in my extensive playtime with The Conduit, almost every other element of the game faltered.

Even though I wasn’t there for the story, it somehow felt both barebones and overly complicated. Protagonist Michael Ford lacked personality. But what probably sealed the game’s status as mediocre was the level design, mostly consisting of highly linear and basic corridors. Mission design was sloppy, with some objectives being unclear and others simply being repetitive, and legions of moronic AI enemies leading to unfair deaths and tossed controllers as I cursed at my screen.

I couldn’t tell if I accepted the game because I was cognizant of the technical limitations, or if I was simply determined to stick to my guns and pretend to my friends that this was the high-end Wii game I  had been waiting for. Whatever the case, the studio got a second chance with a sequel, and I traded in that first game at GameStop in the hopes that the second would be a perfect replacement. But while High Voltage aimed to make a number of improvements, Conduit 2 ended up with a curious identity crisis.

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Syfy Channel Original

Released in 2011, Conduit 2 sought to expand and iterate upon every aspect of the first game. High Voltage added local multiplayer, pre-rendered cutscenes, and FPS basics like sprinting and iron sights that were noticeably missing in The Conduit.

But the sequel also took a remarkable tonal shift, and the story drifted into the bizarre in ways the first game couldn’t prepare me for. Gone was the entire original voice cast, with Ford now vocalized by Jon St. John, most famously known as the voice of Duke Nukem. The reserved and terse Michael Ford turned into a complete juvenile meathead, and the sequel compensated for the first game’s humorlessness by peppering in completely idiotic one-liners.

The locales included the Bermuda Triangle, Atlantis, Siberia, the Lost City of Z, and finally, the goddamn center of the Earth. But even with larger areas, I still experienced frustration at the unremarkable mission design and linearity. Eventually, I would one day find out, it all culminates in an ending in which Ford encounters space marine versions of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, right before the game abruptly cuts to credits from one of the most baffling non-sequitur endings ever committed to visual media.

Conduit 2 was not a triple-A experience, one to bring the Wii to the level of Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3; it was a Syfy Channel original movie, a so-so shooter filled with sophomoric jokes and silly conspiracy theories. Even with its changes and additions, its critical reception was poorer than that of its predeccesor. And so, halfway through my first playthrough of Conduit 2 all those years ago, I would trade it in at my local GameStop, finally admitting defeat.

A Conduit to the Future

Needless to say, The Conduit games did not move the needle. The Wii was still slandered as a kids’ toy with the crappy graphics. High Voltage Software didn’t fare too well with the Wii afterwards, either — their highly-anticipated gladiator fighting game was stripped down into the dire Tournament of Legends. The top-down shooter Animales de la Muerte never made it to WiiWare and barely made a scratch on mobile. And The Grinder, an ambitious horror FPS with Left 4 Dead-like online co-op, mysteriously disappeared, presumed to be canceled. I followed all of their projects voraciously, hoping that this Wii revolution would culminate in something, that my investment in The Conduit wasn’t a bust. But each successive failure stacked up disappointment. 

Ultimately, High Voltage never reached the status of a top-tier third-party Wii developer, nor did anyone make another attempt like theirs. The studio reverted back to developing licensed titles and providing development support for other studios, and the Quantum3 engine was never heard from again. 

The Wii wasn’t a technological powerhouse with all of the popular, “hardcore,” violent games of the day — but in the end, it didn’t need to be. History has vindicated the console and shown us just how ridiculous the 2000s obsession with “mature” titles was. I know now that I didn’t need to be embarrassed by my console of choice, and neither did any other Wii owners or developers. My friends could chainsaw monsters all they wanted to, while I had lovely titles like Super Mario Galaxy to fall back on.

The Conduit games are not landmark or influential Wii titles, but they remain fascinating relics. Nowadays, Switch developers are successfully pulling off what High Voltage Software tried ten years ago, with games like Doom, Wolfenstein II, Rocket League, Fortnite, The Witcher 3, Mortal Kombat 11, Overwatch, and the forthcoming Outer Worlds making their way to the underpowered handheld hybrid console. And so, perhaps High Voltage Software’s dream of high-end third party games on less-powerful but more mechanically innovative Nintendo hardware has finally been fulfilled.