Much ado’s already been made about Nintendo’s new revolution in gaming, the motion-sensitive and online-ready Wii, so we’ll spare you the hyperbole and cut straight to the chase.
If you’re an HDTV-owning home theater enthusiast who puts surround sound capability, eye-popping technological pizzazz, Blu-ray/DVD support and on-demand access to downloadable music and video content above base game play, this is the point where you can officially stop reading. Beg, plead, whine, cheat… steal from some poor teen who preordered the unit, even. Whatever it takes to get the job done, the system you’re looking to lay hands-on this year is the PlayStation 3.
However, should you be a longtime hobbyist chagrined by the industry’s recent focus on cookie-cutter sequels, a gaming neophyte intrigued by this growing interactive entertainment fad, a fan of all-time great franchises like Mario and Zelda or simply an everyday admirer with a passing interest in the subject matter, we’ve got some good news. The Wii is your console of choice, and just the sort of eye-opening kick in the pants the biz has been desperately in need of for, oh, roughly the last half-decade or so.
Features and Design
A few misconceptions we should get out of the way up-front.
Despite being tagged as a “next-generation” console, the device’s custom IBM-designed, PowerPC-based “Broadway” processor and ATI “Hollywood” GPU won’t go toe-to-toe with PS3 or even last year’s Xbox 360. Roughly twice as powerful as a GameCube, the Wii doesn’t wow so much for its performance or polygon-pushing power. (Although games like the sweeping fantasy landscape- and otherworldly dungeon-sporting The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess or reflective water- and real-time terrain deformation-boasting Excite Truck still look a tangible order of magnitude sharper than less-sophisticated predecessors, even if they won’t make veteran joystick jabbers’ jaws drop.) Frankly, with graphical output capped at 480p widescreen displays, it’s not the type of machine you’d buy to, say, show off a shiny new plasma or LCD HDTV.
On a positive note though, despite what you may have heard, the gizmo isn’t just for kids either. A 62 title-strong launch lineup of new releases (including Trauma Center: Second Opinion, Red Steel and Rayman: Raving Rabbids) and classic favorites (e.g. downloadable, software-emulated editions of Ice Hockey and Super Mario 64) offers something for nearly everyone. And while you only get one game in the box – physical gesture-powered athletics outing Wii Sports, featuring baseball, boxing, bowling, golf and tennis challenges played by mimicking actual racquet swings or strike-scoring scooping motions – it’s enough to quickly demonstrate the gadget’s nigh-universal appeal.
Meaning that if the basic underlying idea (being able to immerse oneself to a greater degree in medieval dungeon crawls by wielding the TV remote-style controller like a sword or employ it gently in medical simulations as if you were controlling a surgeon’s scalpel) sounds even remotely appealing, there should be no question. Nearly $50 cheaper than its next closest competitor and unlike anything currently released to retailers to date, it’s worth standing in line – if not necessarily camping out – on November 19 to plunk $250 down for your own personal model.
Wondering what that not inconsiderable sum buys you, given that the standard package is sold as a system bundle? (Or worse, $699 mandatory minimum investment including added accessories and games, as certain gouge-happy retailers are all-too happy to offer.) Opening the box reveals the following contents: The Wii itself, a system stand for vertical positioning, one remote control, a “nunchuk” thumb-stick add-on, an AC adaptor, a composite video cable (sorry, component cable sold separately), sensor bar, sensor bar stand and two AA batteries used to power the Bluetooth-enabled gamepad. (Up to four controllers can function wirelessly from up to 30 feet away, and act as pointing devices at distances as much as 15 feet from the sensor.)
Slim and trim, the sleek, all-white unit (available now in iPod-type coloring only, upon which stains and markings will sadly show up clearly, though differently-shaded alternatives are surely coming) measures just 8.5″ x 6″ x 2″, or approximately the size of three stacked DVD cases as advertised. Not only does it run quietly and coolly, as opposed to the noisy, nigh nuclear meltdown-inducing beast that is an Xbox 360. It can also be positioned horizontally or vertically as desired, with the mounting stand offering additional stability for those of us who can’t resist the latter, sharper-looking option. Backwards-compatible with GameCube titles, both outings like Resident Evil 4 or Super Smash Bros. Melee and new, Wii-exclusive discs are inserted into a slit-like opening on the unit’s front, which – while opening the possibility of scratching or kids accidentally damaging models by trying to force-feed the unit – works with a minimum of fuss.
The Front of the Nintendo Wii
The Wii is considerably smaller than the PS3
Reset, power and eject buttons can also be found on the machine’s face, with sensor bar, AC and A/V cable connectors hidden around back. Two USB 2.0 ports also adorn the machine’s rear, presenting the possibility of upcoming add-ons such as keyboards or additional storage solutions. Games are currently saved to 512MB of internal flash memory, with SD cards – there’s a reader on the front for archiving files or pulling pictures off digital camera – and GameCube memory cards (two ports to insert them into rest on the side) also providing extra room. Side-mounted slots for four GameCube controllers are further offered, although all openings can be covered with flaps which handily disguise them. Interestingly, the Wii has some heft to it as well, and feels surprisingly damage-resistant for such a small system. (A blessing, no doubt, for toddler-packing parents…)
The back of the Wii
Controller ports are located on the side
Setup and Use
Setup’s a cinch, with pop-up menus and intuitive commands walking you through basics like configuring the console and syncing up remotes (a.k.a. Wii-motes, to industry insiders). The trickiest part is getting WiFi network access up and running – and yes, encryption is supposed so you needn’t compromise home security – although even that’s a fully-menu-guided and therefore relatively painless process. Note that those without wireless LANs will require an additional adapter to go online (the console’s built-in WiFi capabilities are the priority here, apparently). And that not only are network servers not up and running at this point, preventing us from sending other users messages and enjoying multiplayer match-ups. We were also unable to exchange cartoon avatars known as Mii that jazz up your user profile or appear as characters in various games, of which 10 can stored on Wii-mote’s 6KB of memory, with other users.
Then again, perhaps it’s for the best random acquaintances don’t see the obese, bespectacled parody of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il we’re using as a digital double. Or, for that matter, that we’re temporarily prevented from accessing oft-discussed “WiiConnect24″ features, which provide perpetual connectivity and download enjoyable extras (i.e. bonus cars and characters) while you sleep. There’s only so much time we working professionals can afford to invest in Call of Duty 3 or Super Monkey Ball: Banana Blitz, after all.
The Nintendo Wiimote
From the outset, it’s worth bearing in mind that the doodad feels like no other console you’ve ever experienced. For starters, it’s not your average, everyday set-top box that requires precise placement of a gesture-tracking sensor bar centered above or below one’s TV screen. Or, for that matter, once said item’s been positioned, allows you to browse a TV-style, software-based system menu interface that contains up to 48 channels, or specific functional callouts, using the virtual equivalent of a laser pointer. While manipulating the Wii-mote does take some getting used to due to its extreme sensitivity (practice makes perfect) and free-roaming 360-degree movement, you’ll be up to speed in roughly one to two hours. And instructional windows, warnings and text prompts constantly guide one through the process, making the overall venture feel more akin to fiddling with a high-end PC than a snazzy new videogame system.
The Nintendo Wii Sensor Bar
In terms of basic navigation, the aforementioned channel-based setup keeps things manageable and ergonomic. There’s a news channel for sourcing breaking headlines, forecast channel for grabbing weather reports, Internet channel for Opera browser-based web surfing (alas, thus far announced as free only through June 2007) and even a messaging channel for sending friends online or cell phone-ready pictures and notes. You can further import and manipulate digital snapshots to create funky images or MP3 soundtrack-backed slideshows using a dedicated photo channel. The disc channel is likely to be your most frequent stop though, as it’s the location from where all games – Wii or GameCube – inserted into the machine are directly booted from.
Nostalgic geeks can also enjoy retro gaming goodness via the Wii Shop channel, where classic NES, Super NES, Nintendo 64, Sega Genesis and TurboGrafx-16 titles may be downloaded on-demand. (Retro titles are tied to your specific machine, tough, so sorry… no storing them on SD card and carting them around to a buddy’s house, however.) Using gift/credit cards, one simply purchases Wii points ($20 buys 2000, so 100 points equals $1), then can browse or buy from a selection of age-old hits including F-Zero, Sonic the Hedgehog and Bonk’s Adventure. These software-emulated outings – which cost a wholly-reasonable $5-10 apiece – are stored in Virtual Console channels, capable of being accessed and enjoyed at any time. And while the current selection’s limited to 30 or so offerings temporarily, between Nintendo and Sega alone, you’re looking at options to easily expand this number of available offerings into the hundreds in coming months using both companies’ extensive back catalogues alone.
Setup and Use Cont’d
Sorry, cinephiles: No DVD playback is offered, and sound is Dolby Pro Logic II (not true 5.1 surround). But hey, you do get a nifty controller complete with face-mounted buttons, including a gigantic “A” key, located next to an 8-way directional pad and near two secondary buttons labeled 1 and 2. There are also + and – keys (a.k.a. start and select), a button for shutting system power on and off, and a home key for easy menu sifting as well. And don’t forget that nifty B-trigger located around back, built-in rumble capabilities or an integrated speaker used for 3D positional audio effects like tracking an arrow’s flight all the way from your bowstring to a bad guy’s behind either. Happily, while a wrist-strap’s necessary to keep the thing from flying off your arm during active play and having to buy AA batteries to power the beast won’t amuse anyone, the gizmo’s shocking responsiveness should endear the Wii-mote to newcomers and jaded vets alike, nonetheless. Added bonus: You can also tilt the sucker sideways and hold it like a traditional gamepad, wiggling your wrists to, say, manually send Excite Truck’s off-road vehicles skidding down hairpin curves in place of traditional d-pad controls.
Relatively lightweight and fun to fiddle with, a bottom-mounted attachment port also legs you plug in supporting peripherals like the nunchuk secondary pad. A curved, C-/Z-trigger and analog joystick-sporting handheld device designed to be used in tandem with the Wii-mote, the gadget’s a huge boon in adventures and first-person shooters, letting you quickly move characters around open environments or aim more naturally, with plenty of other useful applications in development. For example, in the The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, you can use the nunchuk’s joystick to cause hero Link to run around and explore forests or dungeons, while simultaneously using the remote to initiate blade-slashing attacks or assault spiders and goblins with a handy slingshot.
Legend of Zelda and Excite Truck
An optional dual-joystick “classic” controller – similar to what videogame fans have gotten used to – will also be offered for use in certain titles. Additional remotes cost (yikes!) $39.99, with nunchuk and classic controllers priced at a more affordable $19.99. Best of all though, games themselves will run just $39.99-$49.99, or $10 less on average than those for competing platforms.
All of which combines to make the Wii a fairly monumental achievement, save for the fact that – like any newly-launched console, which developers haven’t had time prior to ship date to maximize game performance on – its potential hasn’t been anywhere near fully tapped. From Madden NFL 07 to Need for Speed: Carbon, Cars, Barnyard, Metal Slug Anthology and Rampage: Total Destruction, a large portion of the launch lineup simply consists of upgraded ports of games previously launched for other systems. (Even Twlight Princess is merely an enhanced take on a long-awaited GameCube outing.)
However, with widespread industry support from the likes of top publishers such as Electronic Arts, Activision, UbiSoft, Midway, THQ and Konami, expect the situation to change soon. As efforts like the original Elebits and Super Swing Golf prove, third-party enthusiasm is much greater for the machine than GameCube, and software makers are just getting started. Rest assured you aren’t buying another pricey gewgaw destined to simply collect dust on a shelf. And that the future will bring even more interesting applications for the technology, given that any physical activity’s now fair game for being turned into a virtual play mechanic. (Even something as simple as opening doors, which you’ll twist and turn your hand to do in Metroid Prime 3: Corruption.)
Serious gaming enthusiasts can subtract about 0.2-0.5 points from our official review score for the first six months. But come late 2007, you can add that back and then some. A fantastic effort that you’ll have to try firsthand to believe, the Wii finally sees Nintendo return to form. And, potentially, as the company’s claimed it’s planned on doing for quite some time now, light the spark that could ignite an entire game industry revolution.
• Motion sensitivity
• Selection of games
• Third-party support
• Appropriate for all ages
• Free wired/wireless connectivity
• Retro gaming emulation
• Less powerful than rivals
• No true HDTV support
• DVD, HD-DVD and Blu-ray playback missing
• Sensor bar required
• AA-battery munching remotes
• Lacks a hard-drive, extensive online music/video downloads