Monday, June 23, 2008

The Wii - One Year Later

I spent a considerable amount of time and effort trying to get a Wii a little more than a year ago, showing up at Fred Meyer's at 6am two days a week for a month, even being the *first* guy in line at Toys R Us - that *didn't* get a Wii. My most excellent friend Ben seemed to be a magnet for the damned things, though, and managed to score one just stopping by a store. It's a year later, and through what seems to me to be considerable controversy for a gaming console, I thought it worthwhile to jot down my feelings on the system, the industry, and the continuing shortage of hardware.

First, availability. The Wii is not impossible to get as it was a year ago, but it does require some patience and perseverance. The local Fry's Electronics Superstore gets them in about once a week, although they go quickly. Controllers are easy to find, unlike a year ago when getting a Nunchuk was a bit of a trick. You no longer are forced to purchase Wii Play along with your controllers, which is nice. The new Balance Board controller that comes with the Wii Fit package, however, is nearly impossible to get. Rumor has it that Nintendo is shipping units to Europe rather than the US because the dollar is so weak compared to the Euro. I was very lucky to have been at the store the day they came out, because I'm not sure they've gotten any back in since.

The games have been a huge disappointment to me, at least in part. It usually takes the developers some months to start figuring out the efficiencies of any new system, but with the Wii it seems that they hadn't the foggiest idea of what to do with the new controller paradigm. When they did use it, there was little novel about it (usually shaking it or pointing it at the screen), or in some cases they abandoned the novelty altogether! This puzzles me, as some of the early games, like Warioware - Smooth Moves did a fantastic job of showing genuine creativity. Comparatively, the new Lego Indiana Jones game, while a lot of fun, doesn't really use the controller in anything other than a very traditional way. No shake, no point, no nothing. At the same time, I'd rather play a game using the Wiimote as a traditional controller if it makes sense to do so rather than staple on some non-intuitive elements just to make it more of a Wii game. 

This is not to say there aren't some exceptionally good games out there. It just seems like they were far and few between for quite a while. Some of the titles I think are worth investing in:

  • Super Mario Galaxy (do not play if the old Descent computer game messed with your inner ear)
  • Metroid Prime: Corruption (this is how to do a first-person shooter on the Wii)
  • Mario Kart (even comes with a little wheel you put the controller in)
  • Trauma Center: Second Opinion (you use the controller like a laser scalpel!)
  • We Ski (if you have the Balance Board and don't actually ski)
  • Battalion Wars 2 (Fun combat game)
  • Warioware: Smooth Moves (the "koans" they give for the various uses of the Wiimote are worth the price of admission alone)
Of course, the original Wii Sports package is still a lot of fun, if limited in many ways. 

The good news is that the quality of title seems to be improving in general after a long drought. The bad news, at least for some, is where the market seems to be going. The Wii can't really compete against the traditional console games on the XBox 360 or even the PlayStation 2 in some respects, but that's also because Nintendo isn't trying terribly hard. What Nintendo decided to do with the Wii was to open the market up to people who werent' twitchers but were instead interested in "social gaming". And it has worked. At the retirement community where my mother lives they play Wii Bowling every night, even those residents in wheelchairs or with walkers. And they have a *ball*. 

The success seems to be drifting over to the Sony and Microsoft camps, where developers are starting to copy the social gamer model. For one thing, you don't need to work so hard on AI or level design when Halo 3 isn't the point but Mario Kart is. Think of the brain trust needed to design Advanced Squad Leader (a wargame whose rules come in a 2" three-ring binder) compared to a game like Times Up, which requires you to think of a bunch of people's names and stick them on cards. I'm not saying I don't like games like ASL, but if the point was to make money putting together a game and selling it, a party game as good as Time's Up will win out every time, and by a factor of about 1000. So guess where the market is going? Not to mention that you have Wii's used in physical therapy, and played by people that previously wouldn't have gone near a console game.

While the networking side of the Wii is just starting to get beyond the Nostalgic Download phase, it's definitely moving in the right direction. Nintendo is starting to sell downloadable games and Mario Kart *finally* allows you to play other people online (and even shows you where they're from, which I really like). The Mii concept, that of designing an avatar that will represent you in the games and even show up as observers or competitors, seemed a little childish at first. Now, however, when I go for a jog using Wii Fit, there's my daughter jogging past me, or people from my game group playing baseball. It's a little corny, but I actually enjoy these games better when people I know are in the game, even if they aren't really there. 

Perhaps the biggest surprise is the physical exercise the Wii can provide you with. Let's establish right now that while I am not what I would consider a fat man, I am about 10-15 pounds over fighting trim and don't do much in the way of exercise. 30 minutes on the Wii Fit gives me a decent aerobic workout, and really surprisingly good feedback. After seeing the sort of trouble that decaying balance causes as we age in my mother (who has been very good about almost every other aspect of her personal health), the Balance Board is mana from heaven. My balance stinks, as anyone unfortunate to watch me try various yoga poses can attest, but now I have an excellent way to practice this at home. And I can't emphasize this enough, give me feedback on how I'm doing. While the Wii Fit is by no means as accurate as the balance machine they use at my mother's physical therapy workouts, it's an amazing first product. If anything would get me to start doing a daily workout in the mornings, it's this. 

I do have a PS2 that I use mostly for Guitar Hero (and Rock Star, which I plan to get later in the summer - it seems that they are unbundling the various elements and I'm hoping my GH controller will work as well as my SingStar microphones), so if I want the old-style twitch gaming I can always get it. Right now, the MMO experience is so rewarding that I mostly game in small increments on the Wii - 30 minutes of Mario Kart, for instance, or even just 15. 

However, what I find so damned rewarding about the Wii is that it tends to engage everyone, from small children (my great-nephew Kai, for example, is a scream to watch golfing at age 2) to my 85-year-old mother, and nearly everyone inbetween. My wife, who dabbled in PlayStation golf and a little Virtua Tennis on the Dreamcast, has started to ask if we can play the Wii in the evenings. She likes the boxing for some reason, but especially the slalom skiing in the Wii Fit program. Even my daughter comes over and plays with us. 

All in all, despite the dearth of decent games (mitigated a tad by the GameCube compatibility - I can still use all of my old controllers and games with the Wii), I can't imagine a more forward-thinking or perfect console for where I am in my life. I suspect that the developer community is finally figuring out how to leverage the unique aspects of the Wii by creating a different kind of game rather than retrofitting the old gameplay styles into new hardware. 

Now if only they would make the Euro-style boardgames available for play online, a la the XBox 360...

1 comment:

WiiBBG said...

Excellent post although I would have liked to have seen more on you views regarding the Wii Balance Board itself and games like EA Skate It and Shaun White Snowboarding which are scheduled for later this year.