"His voice betrayed a craving for terrible things." -- Don DeLillo

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January 26, 2007

Closer to the Holodeck (Nintendo Wii Launch, part 2)
With the Wii just over two months old now, it's time to look back at the many things that went right at launch and the few that didn't. The revolution has begun...

LAUNCH DAY - November 19, 2006
I've never really been one for console launches (faulty early hardware, lackluster software, zero availability), but I've always made an exception for Nintendo, usually grabbing their new systems within a few weeks of their debuts (I waited a year on the DS, though, since there were barely any worthwhile games available). I'd been counting down the days until the Wii, though, and it was the first major Nintendo console to hit stores since I graduated from college and moved away from home, meaning I was free to dedicate a stupid amount of time to tracking one down and playing the hell out of it. And so it was that I ended up sitting outside the Best Buy in Plymouth Meeting, Pennsylvania, at 7:30pm on November 18, waiting for the Wii. I'd like to share stories of wacky line misadventures, but, honestly, there's not much to say. I was ninth in line and the crowd grew very slowly as the night went on. The rumor going around was that there were going to be 50 consoles available in the morning, but the Best Buy employees weren't allowed to tell us the exact number. Since there was a Target across the parking lot and a Circuit City down the street, there were plenty to go around (assuming you didn't wait until 8am the next morning). It was just a big gathering of college age nerds, 4 to 1 male. I spent the majority of the time wrapped like a mummy in a few layers of clothes and a sleeping bag pulled over my head, trying to stave off the bitter cold. I listened to music, watched TV shows on my MP3 player, and drifted in and out of fitful sleep.

After an interminable night, the sun started coming out and our excitement started building again. By this point, the line stretched across the front of the store and around the corner (here's a shitty picture I took on my cell phone shortly before they opened) and deluded latecomers just arriving were turning right around. Every Best Buy employee's arrival was a cause for celebration, though it also dragged seconds into minutes. Eventually, the manager passed out numbered slips to everyone and detailed the plan of attack (since the store was opening early for the Wii folk, only the very front section was open: a few racks of games and accessories next to the customer service desk where the systems themselves were). At this point, we had the pleasure of seeing people show up and buy spots in line. The guy who was fifth in line sold his slip to a spoiled suburbanite woman for $75. This shocked me and not just because he didn't want the Wii (he sounded like he was there mainly to hang out with his friends anyway). Now, maybe this guy has a different value for his time, but if you asked me to wait outside a store in the winter cold for thirteen hours and only offered $75, I'd laugh long and hard. Maybe I'm just mad I didn't think of the woman's plan to skip the wait first...maybe it was that I had lost any vestiges of coherency at this point and that my body was prepping for the first stages of rigor mortis (getting roughly an hour or two of sleep outside on the sidewalk in 15-20 minute installments will do that to you). But even if I didn't care about the Wii, I better be getting paid to go through that hell. Anyway, they soon start letting us in a few people at a time. I'd already bought a couple games the day before, so, at this point, I needed to get Zelda, Excite Truck, an extra remote/nunchuk, two classic controllers, component cables, and the console. The component cables are in the Best Buy ad they handed out to us, but I'm still worried they won't be there. I was already on a no-end-in-sight backorder for the official Nintendo component cables, but I needed them for launch (I figured I'd just give them away once I got my Nintendo ones). Everything went according to plan and at 8:20am, I had my Wii, but, as I feared, no component cables. I won't bother rehashing how much of a buzzkill this was (see part 1 for my extended rant), but suffice to say, I wasn't happy. The rest of the day is a blur...setting up, going online to download updates, trying out each game, passing out multiple times, trying to bring my core temperature back up. The wait was worth it, of course, but, man, did it suck.

Considering how barren Nintendo launches usually are (and how awful the early lineups for the PS3 and 360 were), the Wii was practically overflowing with respectable software right out of the gate. The oft-delayed, long-awaited Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess was obviously the jewel in the crown and has fulfilled fans' lofty expectations. Carefully polished with the classic Nintendo Touch (the delays weren't wasted time), lengthy without feeling artificially drawn out (except for some of the tiresome collection sidequests), and brimming with the magic that's been a hallmark of the series, it blows away any other launch titles from the past two generations (and you'll be reading more about it in my Best of 2006 Awards). That said, it still doesn't supplant the life-changing Super Mario 64 as the king of launch games. That's no knock on the quality of Zelda, simply that, while it did a good job showing off some of the Wiimote's potential (gotta love aiming the bow and arrow), it's just not the full-on console showcase that Mario was to the N64. Mario ushered in the analog control/3D platforming blueprint that games to this day are still copying. Zelda is a masterpiece, but it could have been released on the GameCube to the same acclaim. Still, while the PS3 and 360 each lacked a killer app at launch, Zelda is a blue chip system seller (and, for the record, Mario 64 was one of the first games available on the Virtual Console). It's a shame that Nintendo was unable to get a second of their big guns ready for November (Metroid, Mario Galaxy, Smash Bros.), but the Wii had a lot to offer. I've played a good number of the games, so let's take a look at the field.

The go-to standard for early Wii offerings is definitely minigames...lots and lots of minigames. Rayman Raving Rabbids, Super Monkey Ball: Banana Blitz, WarioWare: Smooth Moves (though Wario was delayed until the middle of January to help bolster the post-launch lull), all with lots of quirky ways for you to screw with the remote, look silly with friends and family, and risk serious injury (some of those Rayman minigames are downright exhausting). It's a smart way to show off the potential of the remote, but as Wii control schemes become more refined and more seamlessly integrated into the gameplay, these early minigame fests may come off crude and scattershot in retrospect (the Monkey Ball minigames in particular have a "throw everything out there and see what sticks" feel to them, as if the buyers are unwitting beta testers). They're certainly not the deepest experiences you can find (while Monkey Ball has its time-tested, sadistic single player mode intact with new motion controls, Rayman's single player game consists entirely of "Walk to minigame...beat minigame...walk to next minigame...beat minigame...walk to next minigame..."), but they kick the hell out of the endless ports you'll find on the PS3 right now.

Next up is the tilt-sensitive racing game, epitomized by Excite Truck and Tony Hawk's Downhill Jam, among others. Another batch of games designed around showing off how the Wii can redefine control standards, in these you hold the remote horizontally and tilt it to turn. You'll pick it up quickly and it actually does succeed in making traditional analog control seem antiquated in comparison (this is one area where the PS3 shouldn't fall too far behind, though, since Sony stole the accelerometer function for their SixAxis controller). Excite Truck is the Wave Race of this launch: a solid, but straightforward, racer, it's good fun, but it's only laying the foundation for the truly groundbreaking next gen racer still to come (Nintendo has been conspicuously quiet about the prospects of F-Zero or Mario Kart on the Wii). Tony Hawk is a change of pace from the traditional template that's been used to pump out iterations for years. Akin to the SSX series (which hits the Wii itself later in the Spring), it's a downhill sprint to the finish line. It'll get aggravating at times (especially during the few moments you're battling the controls), but the variety of races keeps it from getting dull. We're still at the stage where many games can get by on the sheer novelty of their controls, so while these may be collecting dust in another year, they're worth a shot (especially if you can pick them up at discounted prices).

Next up is Wii Sports, which is in a category all its own. Not as fleshed out as a full-fledged sports game (such as Madden or Super Swing Golf, neither of which I've played yet), but more substantial than the minigamers, it was a shrewd move on Nintendo's part to include it with the system. Selling it for $50 would have been a bit of a stretch and it's a great tech demo that can appeal to the whole family (one of Nintendo's primary goals this generation). Bowling, by consensus, is the star of the show and it's pretty much impossible to bowl just one game. The rest vary in quality (each has its own little annoyances), but there's plenty of novelty value in events like the home run derby or the bowling training mode that culminates in attempting a 91-pin strike. That said, take some caution when you're swinging for the fences unless you'd enjoy explaining to your boss that you pulled a muscle in your arm or threw your back out because of "bad video game form." A night of heavy drinking and Wii Sports may get ugly quickly (not that I'm suggesting you don't drink and Wii, mind you...after all, I do believe in fun).

First-person shooters are represented by Red Steel and Call of Duty 3. We've heard a lot of blather and hype about the Wii controls revolutionizing FPS's, but we're not there yet. While it does just feel right to point the remote like a gun at the screen, the inconsistent control makes movement a little more wonky than it should be. Red Steel is better than the terrible reviews it's gotten, but not much better (the decidedly last generation presentation doesn't help). Gameplay comes together okay with enough practice, but it needs to feel much more intuitive before it can approach the vaunted keyboard/mouse setup. Keep an eye on Metroid Prime 3, though, as months of control polish could do wonders.

There are two main problems with the Wii launch games, though. The graphics, across the board, are sadly pedestrian. Take a quick glance at Wii Sports and you could fooled into thinking it's an N64 game (ouch). Now, I know that Nintendo's refused to play along with the "graphics first!" battle being waged by Sony and Microsoft, but there's still no excuse for this. The Wii is reported to be a "GameCube-plus" in terms of power and, while it's missing crucial hardware shaders the Xbox 1 had, it should have no problem offering up quality graphics. Resident Evil 4 came out two years ago and looks substantially better than anything the Wii's offered so far. This needs to be corrected. This problem tends to crop up every generation and gets worked out as the second batch of AAA games is readied, but I thought the Wii would manage to avoid this pitfall since its architecture is so close to the Cube's. Whether Nintendo likes it or not, games are going to be superficially judged by their graphics (especially by the casual gamers Nintendo covets), so even if they never approach the HD glory of the PS3 and 360, Nintendo should at least attempt to put up a fight (and, for god's sake, EVERY Wii game had better support 480p--not doing so is despicable laziness).

The other problem could be more serious. As much as I enjoy playing the Wii, it's sometimes hard to shake the nagging feeling that a lot of this is just a <gasp> gimmick. For every spot-on use of the Wii remote (aiming in Zelda, surgery in Trauma Center), there's an unnecessary "shake the nunchuk" instruction when pushing a button would make more sense. These moments, combined with the dated graphics, serve to pull the player out of the experience and make it feel like we're playing some silly novelty game at an arcade. Not really what Nintendo's going for. Zelda is a brilliant adventure, but nothing that wouldn't work perfectly on the GameCube. The Wii needs a true showcase game, a deep experience that highlights the rich immersion the unique controls can offer. The problem is, I don't know what game this will be. Metroid Prime 3 is a strong candidate and developer Retro has the track record, but I hope they're working 23 hours a day making sure the controls are PERFECT. It won't be Smash Bros. Brawl; as great as that game will likely be, the developers seem to be outwardly avoiding the Wii's motion capabilities. Super Mario Galaxy has obvious potential as well, but Nintendo still needs to reveal a lot more about the game before I anoint it the Chosen One. Let's not even discuss how long it'll be until these games even come out (you know at least one or two of them won't make it this year). Don't get me wrong, I do love playing the Wii, but Nintendo had better be prepared to fulfill its ambitious promises with more than just glorified tech demos and minigames or, after the initial excitement wears off, we may just have an underpowered stepping stone to whatever truly revolutionary control scheme comes next. I trust Nintendo more than any other company to get this right, but they have a formidable task ahead of them.

We've got to touch on the glorious Virtual Console, one of the shining stars of the Wii universe. I've made my peace with having to buy each game individually (and how this will break my wallet) and I've come to terms with how slowly these games are going to be rolled out (I'm still pissed that Nintendo made me wait a month for NES Ice Hockey (for the record, the first VC game I bought was SNES classic F-Zero), but it's just not realistic to think Nintendo would toss out 200 games in a month no matter how much we want them). Once you get over these mental blocks, you'll see that, man, the Virtual Console is going to be some fun. I've got very fond memories of playing my friend Erik's TurboGrafx-16 way back when, so getting to start up Dungeon Explorer, Bonk, and Bomberman again brings on an almost overwhelming nostalgia attack (and I can't wait for Splatterhouse and Ninja Spirit, not to mention others I'm sure I've forgotten). While Nintendo's done a decent job of keeping a flow of games going (don't look now, but there are over 40 games already on the VC), with such an enormous library to choose from, there are inevitably going to be ones that slip through the cracks (two favorites from the SNES era I'm waiting patiently for are Kirby's Dream Course and the criminally unknown Uniracers). Nintendo did give us Link to the Past this week, though, and we'll finally get our second N64 title (Mario Kart 64) next week. Unfortunately, who knows if and when we'll see original titles developed for the VC or any games for the MSX (the other system supported). However, the more games you download, the more you start seeing some issues coming down the road which brings us to...

Simplicity is key for the Wii, but the "channel" interface is already in need of a serious overhaul. Giving each VC game its own channel may be fine if you only have two or three games, but once you start getting over ten or so, the interface becomes excessively cluttered. With no way to sort the channels automatically, you'll need to drag and drop each channel to a new location manually...and it's about as tedious and cumbersome as you can imagine. How hard would it be to create custom VC channels? How about a channel that brings up a list of all your NES games? Or one you can set to list only Zelda games? Does Nintendo really want us to slog through four pages of games to find what we're looking for? And what happens when, in the next six months or so, some gamers actually manage to fill all 48 channels? Then what? Sure, you can copy the games onto an SD card, but you, stupidly, can't actually play the games directly off the card (though, judging by how long it takes to copy games onto the cards, maybe they would run too slowly anyway). How much fun does it sound to have to move games around SD cards just to make up for an interface flaw? Right. That might not even be the biggest problem, though. Thanks to the limited amount of internal memory in the Wii, you may very well run out of space before channels, an even more frustrating oversight. Maybe Nintendo's prepping a USB hard drive that can play VC games directly, but it's now starting to make more sense why they're releasing the VC games so slowly (and why we only have one N64 game so far): Nintendo simply isn't ready to deal with these problems and wants to delay them as long as possible.

I'm not much of an online gamer, so I'll spare you a rant on the pathetic state of Nintendo's online support and its babying "friend code" system. If you bought a Wii for hectic online play, go get a 360 instead. Nintendo can continue to put all this off, but if they even think about releasing Smash Bros. Brawl without full, comprehensive online support, they'll be shooting themselves in the foot with galling, embarrassing fervor (even more so if it then launches anywhere near the beast that is Halo 3).

Nintendo should be commended for such a successful launch. Especially compared to the debacle that was the PS3 debut, Nintendo sidestepped many of the problems that have dogged their earlier launches and people are still lining up (two months later!) on the weekends to get a chance to bring one home. The true test is still to come, though. When will the true flagship title be revealed? Will third-party developers break new ground or offer only gimmicky minigames and haphazard ports with slapped-on controls? Will casual gamers tire of the Wii over time or help propel Nintendo to the head of the console wars? Will Nintendo continue refining the interface or just keep its head in the sand? With so much variety available between all the systems, it's a fantastic time to be a gamer, so let's enjoy it and dream about where we're headed. We're only inching our way there, but the Holodeck is still closer than it was yesterday.