If nothing else, you have to give Nintendo points for courage. When competitors decided to zig as the next generation of video game systems came along, Nintendo zagged -- and that gutsy decision may well give it an enormous market share boost in the coming years.
The Wii, which goes on sale Sunday, Nov. 19 for $250, is not a graphical tour de force. It doesn't support high-definition graphics. And forget about HD-DVD or Blu-Ray; this thing doesn't even play current generation DVDs (for now at least - a second version will be released next year). But it does make the gaming industry more accessible to those it unintentionally excluded before. Briefly put: The Wii is one of those rare video game machines that's worth trying to pick up during its first holiday season.
That, of course, will be easier said than done. Hardcore gamers will be fighting hard to get one early. But if you do manage to find one, grab it. The price is considerably lower than what Sony (Charts) and Microsoft (Charts) are charging for their new offerings -- and the system is one the entire family will enjoy.
By now, you probably know the Wii's big hook: the controller. Instead of having to struggle with dual thumbsticks and a myriad of buttons, the Wii controls games with a simple device that resembles a remote control. The wireless unit, using internal sensors, translates your wrist and hand movements into onscreen actions. For example, if you're playing a baseball game, you'll swing the control like a bat. Tennis? Wave it like a racket. A shooter? Aim it at the onscreen target and pull the trigger. (A sensor bar subtly sits atop or below your TV to capture your movements.)
While it's easier for gaming neophytes to grasp conceptually, don't make the mistake of thinking the controller is something you can instantly master. Your first instinct when you start playing Wii games is to make big, broad movements. Doing so might feel satisfying, but will lose you the game fast. The trick is to teach yourself to move a bit more subtly.
Physically, the controller's smaller than you might expect. It's also lighter. But most importantly, it's extremely comfortable. Maybe it's because we're all used to holding remote controls at this point - but the hand cramps that can accompany traditional controllers aren't an issue with the 'Wiimote'. And since you'll be holding and waving this thing for potentially long periods, it's particularly welcome.
The controller also houses a small speaker, which can either offer audio clues to players or deepen the immersion factor (by simulating the crack of the bat in a baseball game, for instance).
One thing to keep in mind, though: You only get one controller with the system - and to really enjoy the Wii, you need to play with someone else. To pick up an extra controller (and Nunchuck attachment, which is required in many games), be prepared to shell out an extra $65.
It's all about the games
Of course, technology only reaches so far. If the games aren't fun, then the system isn't either.
Nintendo and its publishing partners are casting a wide net in their effort to bring in new customers, putting out a broad range of games during the launch window (defined as the period up to the end of 2006). Nintendo's own "The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess" is the crown jewel - and will likely command the most sales, but there are plenty of options.
Electronic Arts (Charts) offers a new way to play "Madden" (along with other sports franchises). Activision (Charts) will bring its latest "Call of Duty" and "Tony Hawk" games to the system. THQ (Charts) keeps its focus squarely on children with "Sponge Bob Square Pants" and "Cars" titles. And Atlus Software will let you use your Wii controller as a virtual forceps, defibrillator and more in "Trauma Center: Second Opinion".
On top of all of this, the Wii comes with a game ("Wii Sports") included in its retail package, something that has become a rarity in the industry. It's a title that ties in well with the Wii's mission of luring new players. Its mix of short baseball, bowling, tennis, boxing and golf games are simple to grasp and fun to play. (For more thoughts on the Wii launch games, read our review.)
You'll also be able to download and purchase games for older Nintendo systems with the Wii via what's called the "Virtual Console". However, we were unable to test this feature, as the service will not be enabled until the 19th.
One important note: Graphics aren't great on Wii games. In fact, they're generally on par with current generation systems, but Nintendo's betting that won't be a factor. If anything comes back to haunt them as we move later into this cycle in the industry, it will be graphical quality. For now, though, the innovative controls more than make up for the difference.
Beyond gaming, the Wii is Nintendo's first push to become a multimedia device, though it's going about this differently than the competition as well. Rather than acting as a DVD player, the Wii utilizes a broadband connection to let readers keep up with the latest news headlines and local forecast. Users will also be able to type out notes to each other in a rough approximation of email (though typing is a rather clunky process). (As with the Virtual Console, we were unable to test these features.)
Additionally, the Wii has a slot for SD memory cards, allowing you to display pictures from your digital camera or cell phone. Beyond the typical slideshow capabilities, you're also able to doctor photos, adding text and pre-set images (such as sunglasses, snowflakes, etc.) and playing with image type. No changes are saved to your actual photos, so you don't need to worry about permanently altering the shots of Aunt Sally's 50th birthday. You're also able to make puzzles out of your photos, which is a fun twist.
The biggest frustration is the Wii doesn't let you play games against your friends online out of the box. Nintendo is still working on the development software to offer what it feels is the optimal experience, but says the functionality is on the way. (It has not given any sort of timeline for this, however.)
It's a minor quibble - one that will bother hardcore gamers a lot more than the casual and new players that are Nintendo's chief focus this generation.
With the Wii, a new type of gaming system has hit the industry. If the Xbox 360 and PS3 are Lamborghinis, the Wii is a Mini Cooper. It will never win a speed race. It will never be the flashiest. But it's something that appeals to people who might not take notice otherwise - and it's a heck of a lot of fun.