In the 80s, kids of my generation cut their teeth on Super Mario Bros.. They went through high school with Mario Kart, and bonded with college friends playing Super Smash Bros. By 1999, though, the N64 had long since proven that Nintendo's dominance in American videogaming was over. The GameCube that followed was largely a disappointment. Nintendo failed to interest third party developers, and frustrated fans with long-delayed chapters of the Mario, Zelda, and Metroid franchises. Coming into this no-longer-next generation of consoles, Nintendo announced they were aiming for a Revolution, and then confused everyone by renaming it Wii. Their actions left a lot of people wondering if the company still had what it took to compete with committed powerhouses like Microsoft and Sony. The launch lineup is kind of tepid, and the controls really do take some getting used to. We've already established that they're not aiming to compete in the graphics race. So what is the console really like? Why is it selling so quickly? What does it have to offer? I've had two weeks to find out. Read on, so that you can get a feel for the system you'll definitely be playing (if not owning) at some point in the future.My somewhat bold claim is not based in any sort of fanboi favoritism. It's a simple reality of Nintendo's console; the Wii begs to be played by lots of people. Unlike the solitary games that are popular on the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, Nintendo's scrappy fighter is at its fullest potential when you've got four people armed with Wiimotes. Four players on a Wii title is like nothing you have ever experienced in gaming before. For some people the Wii's demand that you be physically proximate to your fellow gamer will be a mark against it. For many people, though, I think the need to get together in one space will cut through the confusion and misunderstanding this hobby has always suffered from.
The reason for this is that it is easy: It just works. The first time you hand a Wiimote to someone and they point it at the screen, they know what to do. There's a little hand, representing where you're pointing, and each Wiimote has a different colored hand. Navigating menus is actually ... fun, in an odd sort of way. Moving over UI elements with the little hand representing your controller causes a very slight rumble. The controller shakes just enough to give the entire experience a tactile element that, again, I've never seen in gaming before. It's the little things like this that really makes the Wii experience. Turning the Wiimote upside down inverts the hand. They didn't have to do it that way, but they did. Navigating menus is, mildly, fun. One of the first games my cousins played after they'd picked up the controllers was the "duel with their icon-hands" challenge. Odd, yes, but entirely understandable. The Wiimote, and the completely natural movements you make when using the device, require no explanation. When Nintendo went to the AARP event earlier this year, they knew what they were doing; this is the console your grandmother can use as easily as you can.
Channel selection screen is the first thing you see on booting the system, and stands out well against the system's default imagery. From left to right on the top row, you're going to find the games channel, the Mii channel, the photo channel, and Wii Store channel. Though I'm not sure why the somewhat anemic photo functionality gets to rank so highly, they've organized your primary Wii elements together on one screen. On the bottom of the screen there's an unobtrusive options button, and a button to take you to your Wii's address book functionality. As you purchase things from the Virtual console (the primary online capability of the console right now) they'll fill in additional windows on the console's launch page. This is also where the news and weather features are accessible, with promises of more services further on in the Wii's lifetime.
To start addressing the channels in order, the games channel is where you'll access your currently-loaded disc. The system has a little splash screen there on your Wii frontpage illustrating what you have loaded. Just to reiterate something you've probably already heard, GameCube titles are 100% backwards compatible with the system. The Wavebird controllers are too, and nicely slot into the ports for them on the top of the console. If you're planning on playing a lot of Virtual Console titles, I recommend that you make sure to hang onto your Wavebird; they'll play almost every game the download service can offer up, and your Cube games to boot.
Mii channel may just be the hidden gem for this system. If Nintendo plays things right, the Mii may become as much a part of your online identity as Microsoft's gamertag. Miis, to explain, are little virtual people. Using a canned set of features (hair, eyes, mouths), you can combine facial elements to great a little 'you'. Or a mini-Lincoln. Or Jesus. If you've always wanted to school the King of Kings in tennis, the Wii is the system for you. As innocuous a feature as this sounds, it's impossible not to find yourself wrapped up in possibilities once you sit down to play with it. At the very least, you're going to have to make you. And your S.O. And your family, and all of your friends, and your favorite movie star ... it's just too bad they don't have ears and you can't make pets.
Once you've made your Mii-version of former child star Gary Coleman, you can actually compete with him or against him in Wii Sports. At the moment, the games on the pack-in disc (and those on the upcoming Wii Play disc) are the only places you can make use of your strange little people. Even with that limited scope, Nintendo is already showing their intent to make the most of this feature. Your capabilities in Wii Tennis, for example, are tracked via intuitive charts. Someday down the line, when more titles take your Mii into account, you'll hopefully be able to import more interesting stats (frags and such) into your Mii's pockets. You can already take your Mii with you; up to 8 Miis can be loaded onto a single Wiimote for easy toting to another person's house. You can send them away, too; after you exchange friend codes with someone, you can trade Miis. They'll go wandering, too, if you let them. Heading off into the great Wii beyond, they'll wander across the Mii Parades of consoles across the nation, just begging to be included in that owner's personal Mii Plaza. Reggie Fils Aime has already hinted at the eventual addition of more facial features, and it is little wonder why. With the ease of making a little 'you' so tantalizing, it's easy to see why Nintendo is taking this 'uber-cutesy' feature very seriously.
The system's photo feature/mp3 player is something of a forgettable tack-on. Photos and music can be uploaded to the system, or played directly from, SD memory cards. They slot right into the front, and featured photos are very lovingly displayed by the UI. Music can be played behind the photos; it's essentially the only way to just listen to music on the system. Uploaded tunes can be played during select Wii titles (like ExciteTruck), which is very nice, but otherwise the media capabilities of the Wii are fairly forgettable. Given Nintendo's drum-beating about the Wii being 'focused on games', I'm kind of surprised they even bothered. Just the same, the utility of these features can't be denied, and they certainly don't get in the way.
Virtual Console, then, is the final default offering you'll find on loading the system. Nintendo's answer to Microsoft's Xbox Live and Sony's E-Distribution model, it currently only offers downloadable retro titles. The Wii Shop will eventually be where you pick up additional services as well, but for now games are all this service has to offer. While the launch list for the U.S. market has some much appreciated classics included, overall the titles are downright disappointing compared to other regions. I'm not complaining about what we have gotten, to be sure. Bonk, the original Sonic, the SNES version of Sim City, and the original Legend of Zelda are all titles still well worth your time in 2006. It's hard not to look at the Virtual Console list from Japan and other sectors, though, and not be a little jealous. Castlevania IV and A Link to the Past? Why don't we deserve Link to the Past? Recent events has also hinted that Nintendo has no plans to offer games via the Virtual Console if they were not originally released in that market. If that turns out to be true, terrific JP-only NES and SNES games will never reach our virtual shores. A serious oversight on the company's part.
The Virtual Console itself has proven to be less enjoyable for me to use than other parts of the Wii interface. Out of the box, the only way you'll be connecting with the Internet is via a WiFi connection. Even with a solid WiFi setup, it's inevitable that your connection will flake out. The console seems intent on blaming 'firewalls' for its woes, but some days I know everything is working fine; the problem lies with a cranky Wii. Once you're online you may run into difficulties there as well. The interest level in the Virtual Console must be higher than Nintendo expected, because I've found the service absolutely hammered and essentially unusable several times since the system launched. All that said, this is exactly what you'd expect from Nintendo: a solid retro-delivery system, straight from your childhood. I spent many, many, many hours playing the SNES version of Sim City. I gave myself an allowance of three games from the launch lineup. Along with that early Will Wright title, I snagged the original Zelda (my wife had never played it) and Sonic, as we were Sega-less in my formative years. All three play as smoothly as silk. No hiccups, no quirky controls, just unadulterated blasts from the past. Of course, my three titles will soon have friends. Even with Nintendo's odd reluctance to give us the good stuff, they'll be releasing a least one new title every Monday for the foreseeable future. Emulator fans may scoff, but it's hard to look down your nose at a legal way to enjoy retro classics in relatively high definition. The Wii even does game suspension, so you don't have to play games straight through. Despite some petty annoyances, they've got a great channel here for future content (including the much vaunted indie gaming scene), and it only looks to be getting better in the future. At the end of the day, even if it can be annoying to use, at least the Wii Shop music is soothing.
So, that's what the machine itself is like. The Wii's control scheme is what has people sitting up and taking notice though, and it's hard to judge that on menus alone. As a study in comparisons, I offer you the Good, the Bad, and the Awesome: Wii Sports, Red Steel, and Rayman Raving Rabbids.
Wii Sports was a waste, a Luigi's Mansion for the next-gen era, but thankfully this mini-game game holds its own and encourages your aging relatives to make fools of themselves. Wii Sports consists of five simple games which ... kind of ... resemble actual sports. There's tennis, golf, bowling, boxing, and baseball. Controls for each of the five pastimes are the definition of simplicity. Each only requires a very simple motion with the Wiimote, mimicking actual movements you'd make while participating in the sport. Tennis is probably the one that's been seen the most at press events, and all it requires is a quick flick of the wrist to get the ball moving to the other end of the court. It's also one of the most enjoyable of the offerings, and supports up to four players for some hi-larious doubles action. Bowling is likewise enjoyable in multiplayer mode, and requires only that you know how to make the bowling motion with your arm in order to strike. Golf and baseball are less enjoyable, as built-in sensitivities to the mini-games lend themselves to confusion and mistrust of your capabilities. In reality, it's not you, it's the game. Golf is particularly bad, as even the slightest swing will have the game registering 'too much force' on the ball. The final game, boxing, is much the same. Using the Wiimote and the nunchuck, you can deliver one-two punches to your opponent's Mii ... if you can get your flailing arms to work right. I've personally found boxing to be highly enjoyable, despite its lack of precision. Two people really into the game results in an air-slapping girly-fight scene like something out of "Revenge of the Nerds". Nintendo made an excellent choice including this as a pack-in, and Wii Sports will continue to be the social game console owners reach for until the likes of Wario Ware or Mario Party make it to store shelves. (Just make sure to use the wrist strap.)
Yakuza , which manages to weave a tale of Japanese crime with a straight face and get away with it, here the attempts at gritty criminality come off as hokey and poorly thought-out. The hero is utterly forgettable, and the noble quest to protect friends and family from the vicious crime syndicate is one John Woo flick short of a film festival. The only thing it gets (mostly) right is the control scheme, which is just as you'd imagine it. The Wiimote directs your point of view, while the stick on the nunchuck moves you forward. This is the schema that were' going to (hopefully) see a lot of over the Wii's lifespan. It's the way we'll be playing Metroid down the line, and can also be seen one door over in Call of Duty 3. Red Steel chooses to make the protagonist's arm flex and bend in inhuman ways as you turn, fouling up the game's one solid feature. His long, seemingly jointless arm is very disconcerting, and only serves to remove you from the action. Embarrassingly, the control scheme breaks down during sword fights. Those gooshy, confusing fight sequences are not quite as disconnected from reality as Wii Boxing, but it's fairly close. Even when poor reactions began leaking out of the enthusiast press, I maintained a guarded enthusiasm for this title. Guns and swords for the win, right? In the end, though, there's just not enough 'there' there. As much as it makes me want to play Metroid Prime, it makes me want to shut off the console more. You need not suffer from the launch-day enthusiasm that carried this into my cart; you can definitely give this one a pass.
Rayman Raving Rabbids
crack-addled assortment of mini-games, and hung them very loosely around Rayman's neck. He's the central character of the game only insomuch as the little guy on screen has his name. Otherwise, you'll be concerning yourself more with the Rabbids: evil, stupid, ugly, bunnies from hell. The outline of the game is fairly simple. Ray competes in various events, spread out over a period of about thirteen days. Every day, there are four events to participate in. Completing three events unlocks a 'boss' event, which when cleared allows Ray to move on to the next day. Completing all four events during each day unlocks (on alternating days) new outfits for Ray to wear, and new music for you to listen to. Multiplayer play focuses on several people competing in individual events, with an option to string some of them together to make fairly anemic storylines for your adventures.
The beauty of this game, though, is that it's a.) absolutely crack-addled b.) hilarious and c.) completely addicting. Just a few of my favorite examples from the game include:
- "Bunnies Don't Like Bats" - Direct Rayman as he mounts a giant bat, collecting piggies and dropping them into a pigpen before the time runs out. "Bunnies Don't Like Bats 2" adds the complexity of fending off a Bunny raiding party while you collect the piggies.
- "Bunnies Don't Know What to do with Cows" - Whirl the Wiimote over your head, as Ray does the same with a chain attached to a cow's collar. Hit a button on the Wiimote to send the cow flying while it's facing away from you. You get more points the further the cow flies; the cow flies further by whipping that Wiimote as fast as you can above your head.
- "Bunnies Don't Use Toothpaste" - Grab horrible grimacing worms with the Wiimote as they emerge from the rotten teeth of a Bunny, and flick them away. They come slowly at first, but emerge faster and faster as you play. Allowing a worm to emerge and then disappear ruins a tooth. Allowing two worms to reenter a single tooth sends the worm borrowing up into the Bunny's soft palate and ends the game. Hilariously, the mini-game is backed by an homage to the the theme from "Brazil".
- "Bunnies Can Only Fly Downward" - This wonderful bunny-filled version of the parachuting level from PilotWings has you directing Ray down through smoke rings with your Wiimote. You speed up by pushing on the nunchuck's stick, but you lose control that way too. Your aim is to get to the ground before a set time has passed. (Hint to Nintendo: PilotWings for the Virtual Console. Get on it.)
- "Bunnies Are Addicted to Carrot Juice" - While pumping the nunchuck with your left hand up and down, aim the Wiimote at the oncoming diver-Bunnies to fill their dive masks with carrot juice. Filling them up causes them to fall over. You lose if the ever-increasing wave of bunnies reaches your bar.
The reality of the situation is that multiplayer Wii games make you look like an idiot. As strange as it sounds, this is just one mark of a system that has succeeded. For so many people, gaming is either a solitary pastime or one done socially via the cold detachment of a Ventrilo link. I, like many other folks, had the opportunity to introduce the Wii to my family during Thanksgiving, and it was anything but detached. It resulted in several hours of good-natured competition among my cousins, and allowed me the pleasure of watching four individuals north of 40 volley and serve via Wiimote. With the exception of my mother, I believe it may well have been the first time these people had ever played a videogame. It's not Half-Life, sure, but it isn't exactly Tetris either.
Even with a fairly humble collection of launch titles, Nintendo has managed to get gamers and non-gamers alike to drink the kool-aid. The system delivers exactly what the company promised when the 'Revolution' was announced in 2004. It's a system that offers the best of both worlds. Non-gamers have a completely intuitive control scheme that will now allow them to play with their game-loving friends. Hardcore gamers already have more innovative titles to play than they know what to do with. So what if some of them, like Red Steel come up a little short. For every Red Steel, there's a Trauma Center, a Rayman, or a Twilight Princess (whose review grew too large to fit here, and will be addressed tomorrow). Offering the best of new technology and plenty of unearthable retro memories, the Wii is a console that demands attention. I've yet to encounter anyone with a mild opinion of the little white box; you are either going to love this thing, or hate it.
Either way, Nintendo has finally broken free of its 'me too' position, held since the days of the N64. Even if the Wii stays the third-place console, it's no longer possible to think of the company as an also-ran. Sony and Microsoft are in for a hard fight this time around. The only side guaranteed not to lose is our side; whatever happens in this war, it's the gamers who win.