W-i-i. Apparently, that's how Nintendo spells "revolution." However you want to call it, there's no denying that this new console is more than just a curiosity. It's taken something that could be perceived as a gimmick and made it front and center. With the Nintendo DS as their proving ground, Nintendo has shown that, by thinking outside the box, players, developers and shareholders all win. However, the Wii is a much different monster than the DS. Unlike the handheld space—which Nintendo has dominated since day one—this is the living room.
So You Want A Revolution
For those who somehow forgot, or who have no idea what a Wii is other than a very bad homonym, it is the name of Nintendo's next-generation console. What makes Wii unique amongst all other consoles ever made is its unique controller. Designed to be less-intimidating than the controllers of the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, the Wii's controller resembles a television remote. However, its big secret is it's completely motion sensitive in a three-dimensional space. In plain English: you want to play a tennis game? Swing the remote like a racquet. A swordplay game? Slash away. Even light-gun style games are a breeze thanks to its ability to be a pointer as well. There's a port on the bottom of the remote to attach various peripherals such as a "nunchuk" which houses a traditional analog stick and a couple of extra buttons.
Let me get a few things out of the way. One: it's quite slick. Two: the technology seems to work for the most part. Three: you will not get tired playing a marathon session, nor will your arms fall off.
While it's only a superficial point, the Wii is an amazing-looking piece of kit. Everything is really well thought out, right down to the much-smaller-than-expected sensor bar (which is placed in front—either above or below—the television, making the remote's abilities possible). The last system whose initial design footprint shocked to this extent was the Sega Dreamcast. As expected, the Wii remotes work with little-to-no lag (depending upon the software) and are quite accurate once I adjusted to aiming more at the sensor bar than at my television.
With all the focus being on the interface, small size and low power consumption, Wii's graphics are far inferior to that of the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. That was my expectation going in—Nintendo has announced this since the system was first conceived—and I was not surprised by what I saw. There are more important factors than its engineering and visuals at play here. There is a possibility paradigm-changing control scheme at work. There is a philosophical break from over twenty years of tradition that always stated that bigger meant better. And there are billions of dollars at stake.
Does the Wii actually accomplish what it set out to do? Does it fundamentally change the way we play games in the same way the NES did? I was fortunate enough to get my hands on three Wii launch titles to find out: Wii Sports (the pack-in title), ExciteTruck and The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess.
Gaming for Sport
The game that will likely be everyone's first Wii experience (it is the pack-in, after all), Wii Sports is a compilation of five sports games meant to introduce all people—gamers and non-gamers alike—to the Wii's new controller. In this regard, Wii Sports doesn't disappoint. This disc is more a tech demo than five full-fledged games, and is a bit on the shallow side. Some games are more successful than others, but all of them have nice touches. For example, in Baseball, waving the remote around your head while batting is literally translated on the fly. Dodges in Boxing are achieved by actually weaving. But far and away, the best experience is bowling.
It's so simple, but it works. With the pointer and accelerometers, the game is accurately able to depict my gutter balls. Power is determined by throw speed, not a meter, and spin happens because you do it yourself in the angle and turn of your throw. Gameplay is astonishingly nuanced, and is something that everyone has to try once. It's the most engrossing experience due to its immersion and accuracy.
Keep On Truckin'
The first driving game for the Wii, ExciteTruck is the only game I played that required me to hold the remote horizontally in two hands as opposed to the regular single-handed grip. Nonetheless, holding the Wii remote as a steering wheel is effortless, and due to the button layout, resembles an NES controller, which probably isn't a co-incidence. I played Rad Racer on the NES back in the 1980s as a kid, and always tilted my controller when I steered. Now, in ExciteTruck, it makes a difference. Essentially, ExciteTruck could not be played using traditional means. The motions use all six axes (in a similar fashion to what the PlayStation 3's SIXAXIS controller is capable of doing) to control the truck. Very little is necessary in the way of button-presses, short of gas, brake and boost. Of all the games I played, ExciteTruck was the simplest for me to pick up and play without much effort. It boasts excellent course design, interesting racing objectives (racing for points as opposed to place, though place often determines how many points are earn at the checkered flag) and unique power-ups such as terrain-morphing (which makes a giant hill appear out of nowhere, potentially throwing your competitors off the track).
The Twilight of the GameCube
Naturally, Zelda is going to be the game that pretty much everyone walks out with at launch - with good reason. The game is stunning in just about every department. What sets this version apart is the ability to swing Link's sword very accurately, from straight stabs to circular slashes. With the nunchuk attachment (which also has a built-in accelerometer) Link can shove with his shield. It's very organic.
However, a few things jumped out at me. Of all the games I played, Zelda had the most lag between my actions and the pointer (a fairy) on the screen. While this may seem like a minor technical issue, there were enough times that it started to detract from the experience. Nonetheless, there is a lot to be said for a game that had its control scheme overhauled and a radical new one shoehorned in its place.
This game is the perfect example of bridging the gap between the last generation and this new one. Playing Zelda is accomplished by sitting the traditional way (arms on lap, relaxed) and Link's swordplay is performed using minor wrist flicks for most of the action as opposed to full-on wide swings. There is no reason this game could not be successfully played with button presses and be just as great. Despite that, Zelda's new control scheme still fits like a glove. Fishing is the most natural motion in the whole game, and I foresee many couch potato fishermen. In all likelihood, Zelda is proof that a traditional title can work using a new control scheme, even if it's not 100% necessary.
So Does It Work?
The Wii is a very strange machine. It is unique in that is asks more of its users than any other console prior. More than simply asking for motion, it asks the players to believe in that motion.
Part of the problem with the Wii is that it has the same issue that the Sony EyeToy has: if you don't care, it's easy to cheat. The Wii remote is very sensitive, functioning like a mouse. Think about how you use one: you don't have to make a broad gesture to move your cursor from one side of the screen to another. In terms of the pointer function of the Wii remote, the same thing applied. The trickery lies in the accelerometer. In Wii Sports Tennis, for instance, extremely fast shots are best executed using small wrist flicks, since the acceleration from beginning of motion to end is very quick. Similarly, Baseball's pitching has the same mechanical basis. The only game on the disc I had difficulty "cheating" on was Bowling. But by doing so, players are cheating both the game and themselves, and missing the point.
This mechanic is a double-edged sword. The ability to translate wrist flicks is of paramount importance for a title such as Zelda. If a player was forced to do the slashing motion for each and every sword strike, physiotherapy offices would see a boom in business. Having the ability to do both large and small gestures is what will allow for multiple genres on the Wii. The flexibility of motions and the sensitivity that the Wii remote allows is startlingly subtle, but using this subtlety when the game clearly doesn't call for it can ruin the experience. On the other hand, it also means you don't have to re-arrange your living room.
In this regard, the Wii introduces a new level of suspension of disbelief. Even without playing it, looking at a title such as WarioWare: Smooth Moves shows that, in order to get the most out of the experience, the gamer must obey the console's demands rather than the tradition of it being the other way around. You must hula, or balance the Wii remote on your palm to complete certain objectives. Of course, success in the game can be had using simpler means but if you won't play properly, why bother playing?
But there's one group that hasn't been accounted for, and that's the non-gamer. After seeing a video demonstration, my 62-year old father—who hasn't had a controller in his hands since Pilotwings on the SNES—wanted to try Wii Sports Bowling. I have shown him many games over the years, and never once has he actively wanted to play one. After a short adjustment period (much shorter than my own) he was bowling like a pro, with a huge smile on his face. It was probably his first enjoyable gaming session pretty much ever. Will that be enough for him to buy a Wii? Probably not, as he has many more important things to spend $279 (Canadian) on right now. But it hasn't stopped him from picking up a controller and playing with me, or telling others how much fun he had. It also means he might be willing to pick one up with me in the future, which is something I don't' think even he thought was possible.
This phenomenon is the wild card of the system. The Wii is able to replicate a large and differing set of activities with shocking clarity and accuracy. It also puts all people on a level playing field again. Clearly, a lot of thought was put into this. Being able to perform real-life actions and get on-screen results has to be seen to be believed.
So the big question: Has Nintendo fundamentally altered the way we play and perceive gameplay? At this point, it's too early to tell. There is some incredible fidelity of action but clearly there are gaps, such as the ability to cheat and some games having a control scheme grafted onto them.
Personally, I have faith because of the Nintendo DS. Because of its games and, let's be honest here, its financial success, I can't see any game company creating a new handheld without a touch screen and microphone in the future. As game designers catch up with what the system can do—outside of Nintendo—we're starting to see some great innovation and fresh experiences. For Nintendo, this has translated into very high sales to the point that, in Japan, the DS Lite consistently sells more than every other console combined week after week.
The Wii is a bold move in a very odd direction. Gamers expecting a cinematic experience should definitely consider the Xbox 360 or the PlayStation 3. But games aren't necessarily cinema. Games can sometimes just be games. I have probably logged as many hours bowling as I have blowing up alien scum in Gears of War, and I'm still not tired of the experience. Given its price and its accessibility, it has a lot of hope for success. But you have to believe in it for it to work. If nothing else, Wii has forced everybody from developers to gamers and everyone in between to rethink what a game means, or what it can be. And until the next innovative experience comes along, I'll be straightening out those gutter balls.