Summary: After spending a month with the system, today JCal gives us his review of Nintendo's latest game console, the Wii. Is the Wii and its new controller really as good as everyone says? What about the launch titles? Read his impressions of both in this article!
The mainstream media has been very quick to declare Nintendoís Wii console to be the next big thing in gaming and thereís no doubt that the Wiimote is indeed a revolutionary controller that when used to its full effect by developers will give games and the people who play them an all new experience, however, the Wii is almost a schizophrenic product with a mix of both revolutionary ideas and design combined with technology that at times is almost retro (sometimes in a good way and sometimes not). The overall result is a product that in our view does a lot to make video games more acceptable to a mass audience but has features that keeps it tied to consoles of the past. It does have one terrific launch title but the overall game launch line-up for the Wii is also lacking. However that may change as more developers get used to the system.
In terms of size, the Wii is small, far smaller than Sonyís Playstation 3 and Microsoftís Xbox 360 (itís even smaller than the recently released HD-DVD movie add-on drive for the Xbox 360). Nintendo likes to say that the Wii is about the size of three stacked DVD cases and thatís a fair comparison. While the console can be laid down on its side, most people will likely want to use the included gray stand that keeps the Wii in a more space saving vertical position. Overall, the size is a huge plus for the Wii. It also helped that in my time with the console, itís also runs very quiet. Itís far less noisy than my Xbox 360 which seems to always have a loud buzz even when it is supposed to be idle.
On the front of the console is the slot loading disc drive similar to the PS3 where you simply let the Wii do most of the work of putting game discs in the console (both Wii and GameCube discs are accepted). An eject button is available on the bottom. The front also has the power indicator and the reset button. Once the console is first turned on the Wii stays on in standby mode; there is no way to completely turn the console off short of pulling the consoleís power cord off. I wish Nintendo had at least included some sort of switch to turn the Wii off completely as the PS3 has done.
On the back are connections for the gameís power cord, TV connections and the Wiimoteís sensor bar (more on that later) along with two USB ports. Those ports donít really have a specific function for the Wii (unlike the USB ports for the PS3 and the Xbox 360 which are used to charge those consoleís wireless controllers). We imagine third party accessory makers will use the ports for various things (one company is already selling a third party USB network cable for the console for people who donít have a WiFi network at home).
Nintendo has been very protective of revealing what technical specs are inside the Wii console. Officially all they will reveal is that the graphics processor was made by ATI (now part of AMD) and that the main processor is a modified PowerPC chip from IBM codenamed Broadway. Nintendo has never officially revealed items like processor speed or amount of onboard memory for the Wii.
The console also has a built in internal WiFi set up but I wish Nintendo had also included an Ethernet connection as well for people who donít have or donít want to use their own WiFi network (again, the USB ports are already being exploited by third parties to allow wired home network connections). The Wii comes with a power brick style power cord (much smaller than the Xbox 360 brick, however) and an A/V cable.
Most people who have an HDTV set up will want to get component cables for the Wii (they were in short supply for the Wiiís launch but seem to have started to pop up more in various retail stores). Even with the component cable support the Wii will only go up to 480p resolution compared to the upper limit of 1080p for the PS3 and Xbox 360.
The Wii was also supposed to play DVD movies out of the box but Nintendo chose to remove that feature a few months before the consoleís launch. There are some indications that a future Wii hardware release might offer DVD movie support. Most people won't miss that feature, however and we think that Nintendo removed it as a cost saving measure which of course helps the price to stay low.
The most revolutionary (pun intended) part of the Wii is the unique controller, the Wiimote. Nintendo designed the controller deliberately to look much like a TV remote with a slim rectangular case. The remote feels comfortable when held in the hand and allows the fingers and thumb to have easy access to the Wiimoteís various buttons and triggers. On top, there is a power button for turning the controller on and off which also puts the Wii in standby mode. The small D-pad is next followed down by three small buttons which have Ė and + signs along with a ďhomeĒ button icon. A large ďAĒ button is next followed by 1 and 2 buttons. The Wiimoteís B button is actually the controllerís trigger located on the bottom of the remote.
The Wii also includes one of their Nunchuk add-ons for the Wiimote that attaches to the bottom of the main remote and is connected by a small cord. The Nunchuk, which is required for playing many Wii games, has an analog stick and two more trigger buttons. One other feature of the Wiimote is the wrist strap that is located in the same place as the add-on port and which people are supposed to use to keep the Wii from flying across their room. As you might know, many people have complained that the wrist strip is not strong enough (Nintendo has apparently shipped new Wii consoles with a more sturdy strap) and there have been plenty of YouTube videos showing people who donít use the wrist strap encountering self-induced problems like seeing the remote fly in the air and hit TV screens and other household items.
One problem with the Wiimote is its default use of 2 AA batteries to power it up. The Xbox 360 wireless controller has the best solution with Microsoft offering rechargeable battery packs that can be charged via the Xbox 360ís USB port. Nintendo doesnít seem to be interested in offering a similar option for the Wiimote although we know that third party companies will likely offer their own solutions. We think they will be popular.
Because of the Wiimoteís unique nature, an outside addition is needed to make it work. That would be the Wii sensor bar, a long thin rectangular object that connects to the back of the Wii via a long cord. You are supposed to place the sensor bar either on top of your television or beneath it. You get used to the sensor bar's look after a while although at first you might think it's something of an eyesore. Itís a small price to pay, however, for the Wiimoteís unique motion sensing features.
Once the initial set up is done you encounter the Wii main menu where you see the various ďchannelsĒ that the Wii has.
The Mii Channel has gotten a lot of attention for allowing people to create cartoony style avatars that can be altered to make halfway decent approximations of yourself or anyone else. The mainstream media has been hyping this feature a lot but most hardcore gamers know that character avatars have been a part of many games for years, from the THQ wrestling titles to MMO games like City of Heroes, and most offer far more customization than the Mii channel. However, I have to admit its hard to tear yourself away from making fun visualizations of yourself, family members and celebrities.
The avatars also have the ability to move to other peopleís Wii console via the WiFi connection (at least those on your friends list) and even inside the Wiimote's storage. The avatars are used in Wii Sports as playable characters. Rumors are that the avatars will be used for other upcoming Wii games.
The Wiiís online support is still a work in progress. It's only recently that the Wii's Forecast Channel was turned on which gives people weather info from anywhere in the world. Nintendo has also provided access to the Wii version of the Opera web browser, which was turned on just before Christmas.
By far the most interesting Internet feature for the Wii is the Virtual Console which allows people to download a number of NES, Super NES, Sega Genesis and TurboGrafx16 games. The Virtual Console titles have a wide variety of choices from classic Nintendo titles like Super Mario 64 and Legend of Zelda to not-so-classic games like Segaís Altered Beast. Some of the games require the Classic Controller add-on for the Wii (sold separately and shaped much like a normal video game controller), so before you download make sure you have the right equipment.
As great as it is to have some of these games available for download, the titles are straight ports with no extras and no improved graphics like Microsoft offers with most of their older game ports for Xbox Live Arcade. The Virtual Console games are also tied into the Wii itself; you can transfer the games to an SD card, but you canít take that card to a friendís house and play the games stored on the card on his or her Wii. There are also no free demo versions of these games; if you donít have any Wii points (available via a retail card or putting in credit card info in the Wii) you canít download any of the games.
Microsoft has just launched XNA Studio Express that will allow anyone to create Xbox Live Arcade games that can run on any Xbox 360 console. That feature alone should expand the available number of Xbox Live Arcade titles to a number that may possibly eclipse the Wiiís Virtual Console titles. There are supposedly plans to release original games for the Virtual Console, but for the time being you will have to settle for the older game ports. However I know that long time Nintendo fans appreciate the Wii's access to these older games, and it's hard not to get nostalgic playing Super Mario 64 or the original Legend of Zelda again.
While the WiFi Internet features are interesting, the most important one is missing for the Wii launch and that of course is online multiplayer. Nintendo execs have almost been hostile to the concept of online multiplayer for the GameCube, so itís no surprise to us that they didnít want to offer this important and now even expected console feature for the Wii. While Nintendo has said that they will offer online multiplayer gaming of some sort starting in the spring of 2007, most of the details are still unknown as to how this will work in the US (the company did have one Wii online multiplayer game for its Japan launch). No matter what Nintendo comes up with it will be hard-pressed to beat the robust and varied amount of online features that Microsoft offers for the Xbox 360. The reason is because the Wii lacks a built-in high capacity storage device. Without support for some kind of a hard drive there will likely be no downloadable Wii game demos like the PS3 and Xbox 360 provide. Thatís another big strike against the Wii.
A few reviewers have actually called Wii Sports the best game of 2006. UmmmmÖyeah. The graphics are just a shade above your typical Flash web browser title, and I suspect that if the Wii had a conventional controller most reviewers would not be praising Wii Sports as they are now. The truth is that the game itself is boosted because of its use of the Wiimote to make anyone get into the game quickly and enjoy it. In that respect Wii Sports is a huge success. Anyone can enjoy the game and not have to worry too much about remembering a bunch of button and D-pad patterns. It's certainly a much better freebie than the PS3's Talledega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby Blu-Ray movie which will likely stay in the closet for most PS3 owners.
Besides Wii Sports, Nintendo only had two first party games for the Wii launch. One was Excite Truck, an off-road racing game that has a couple of interesting design ideas (deformable terrain being the main one) but also suffers from dated graphics and limited multiplayer (only two-player split screen support).
On the other hand there is Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. While Nintendo sort of cheated a little by making Twilight Princess a Wii launch title (it had been planned as a GameCube exclusive for a majority of its development) thereís no denying that the fantasy action-adventure game is perhaps the best launch title for a console since Bungie and Microsoft's Halo became the defacto must have for the original Xbox.
Twilight Princess has deep gameplay, and it's actually nice to look at for the most part. Best of all, it uses the Wiimoteís gameplay features (firing arrows, sword fighting and even fishing) to great effect. In my opinion, itís not the near perfect game some reviewers have labeled it; it takes a little while to actually get into the meat of the storyline, the music is annoying, and you still have to scroll through lots and lots of text to get info from characters (Nintendo, itís 2006; itís time for Link and Co. to enter the talkie era). But the truth is that Nintendo was smart in delaying Twilight Princess from its original GameCube fall 2005 launch to make it their big Wii flagship game; while itís also still coming out for the Gamecube as well (we have yet to play the Cube version) but I canít imagine it being any better than the Wii version.
Of those titles I really like Madden 07 from Electronic Arts, which uses the Wiimoteís features to turn the game into more of a fun arcade experience with movements for kicking, throwing the ball, and more incorporated into the game. UbiSoftís Rayman Raving Rabbids is a fun collection of mini-games (running with an exploding present, swinging a cow up in the air). Activisionís Tony Hawkís Downhill Jam is definitely for a younger crowd than the normal Tony Hawk series but the mix of skateboarding tricks with SSX style downhill racing make for a fun combo (ironically EA will release a Wii exclusive SSX game next year).
It's not recommended that you buy any of Midwayís Wii launch titles (a bunch of poorly done movie-based kids games for the most part) nor any of the rest of UbiSoftís Wii lineup. I really wanted to like UbiSoftís Red Steel first-person action game, but itís clear that the development team rushed this game into production. The first person targeting for guns is not precise, and as far as Red Steelís swordfightingÖwell, letís just say I looked and felt like a nerd flaying my arms with the controller rather than the cool swordfighter that I was supposed to be.
Nintendo was wise to move out of the graphical war that Sony and Microsoft are fighting and the Wii is the result of that idea that gameplay is more important than having cool graphical effects. I definitely have a worry, however, that because of the low hardware specs, the Wii will become a dumping ground for low budget and poorly produced kids games and there certainly are quite a few of those kind of titles in the current Wii game lineup.
A bigger worry is Nintendoís own Wii game release schedule. While the official word is that the company is going to try to avoid the drought of major titles that helped doom the Gamecube, Nintendo has already delayed the Wii launch title Metroid Prime 3 until sometime in 2007. For the first three months of the year, Nintendoís own games for the Wii will all be party games (Warioware, Wii Play and Mario Party 8) . While they all have an audience, you can bet that Nintendo fans would rather have far deeper games like Super Mario Galaxy, Super Smash Bros. Brawl and Metroid Prime 3 in their hands before fall 2007 rolls around.
If Nintendo does delay these major games to the holiday season next year they will be going up against games like Metal Gear Solid 4, Halo 3 and Grand Theft Auto 4, and that could be a huge problem.
Price: At just $250, the Nintendo Wii is almost an impulse buy, if you can find a store that has units for sale.
Low Hardware Specs: The graphics and processor are only a little bit above the GameCube and two years down the road the graphical differences between the Wii and its competition will be far more evident.