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

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May 18, 2006

Wii Are Coming
So this year's E3 (Electronic Entertainment Expo) has concluded, I've waded through all the coverage (lots and lots can be found at www.ign.com), and, oh yeah, I've got opinions. Let's go...

As a longtime Nintendo fanboy, my attention was firmly set on the big N's show presence, which was somewhat of a mixed bag. The press conference? Disappointing. As the kickoff to the rest of their show, the conference is the chance to make a huge splash. There's an packed audience of eager reporters, a legion of rapt viewers on the Internet, and what do we get but more tantalizing crumbs, a rapid-fire glimpse at upcoming games, and a frustratingly-vague, classic-Nintendo lack of specifics. A night earlier, Sony came out swinging with a release date, a pricing structure, and even a Wii knock-off tilt-sensitive controller. While everyone was still picking up their jaws upon hearing the PS3 will run $600 ($500 with a smaller hard drive and some missing features), Nintendo had a chance to bitch-slap Sony with a startlingly-low price point for the Wii. $200? $150? The rumor circulating said Nintendo had decided on $250, but I think even that's too high. Announcing a $200 price point for the Wii right there in the press conference would have sent a shockwave through the rest of the show (and Microsoft execs were already saying that the $600 for the PS3 can get you both an Xbox 360 and a Wii). Sadly, Nintendo only teased us with an ambiguous "Fourth quarter 2006" release and a "low" price. With November only six months away, it's time for details to emerge. Seeing quick shots of lots of games is great, but which of these are we actually going to play this year? My guess: not many of them.

And where are the details on the Virtual Console, Nintendo's ace-in-the-hole for this console generation? I'm still scared to death that Nintendo's going to fuck up the VC's pricing scheme and I was hoping to allay those fears during the show (I think the only obvious price structure at this point is a flat-rate monthly or yearly fee that allows you to play every game--needing to pay for individual games would be a monumental disaster). I also assumed we'd hear about more games coming to the VC, but I guess Nintendo shot off that bullet earlier in the year with the announcement of their partnership with Sega and Hudson Soft (though I was exceedingly happy to read later in the week that Hudson Soft is already trying to get the rights to games left in limbo after their various publishers/developers went belly up).

The games themselves? First, the bad. I can understand Nintendo wanting to showcase Wii Sports to demonstrate the accessible multiplay of the Wii, but as much as Nintendo can claim they're not joining the "graphics-first" cockfight between Microsoft and Sony, the Wii is still a powerful console capable of impressive technical feats. On a purely superficial level, Wii Sports looked bad. Really bad. As in, sub-N64 bad. If they're going to splash this game all over their advertising campaigns, they'd better pretty it up quickly or have Metroid or Red Steel sitting right next to it. Conspicuously absent from the conference was the new Smash Bros., long thought to be one of the flagship titles for launch. While it made a surprise appearance in video form later in the week (and it looks awesome, though there is no excuse whatsoever for Sega's characters not to appear in the game as well--hopefully Nintendo's well aware of this), its delay until 2007 (or beyond) is a disheartening sign that Nintendo may be launching the console too early. There was also no sign of Wii Pilotwings (the rudimentary airplane game glimpsed briefly in one of the video montages is actually just one of the subgames from Wii Sports) or Mario Kart and I think we'll be lucky to see either in stores before 2008 at this point.

Now, the good. From most accounts, actually playing the Wii was just as fun as we could hope. With 27 playable games on the floor (a number fudged a little by including tech demos and each individual game in Wii Sports), Nintendo certainly was ready to show how the Wii felt and played and it won over many admirers. In the press conference, Reggie emphasized that this is a system you need to play to understand, so I think it's imperative that Nintendo gets test units in stores as soon as possible (and in a wide variety of stores to try to win over the non-gamer crowds Nintendo is coveting). I fondly remember making a special trip to Blockbuster to try Mario 64 for the first time and if you told me a store down the street had a Wii set up, I would drop everything to go play it. The Wii remote looks sexy and cool, the VC controller looks like the most awesome Super NES/Genesis controller ever made, and the new light gun attachment has loads of potential. Coming off the "GameCube in purple" launch debacle, the Wii and its components look sleek, iPod-ed out and I can't wait to spotlight them in my living room. We haven't seen the motion sensor, though, and I'm worried Nintendo still hasn't found an efficient size/style for it yet.

Since Nintendo didn't want to give any details on launch, here's my guess. The system will indeed launch in mid-November, possibly even day-and-date with the PS3 (though I still have serious doubts that the PS3 will make its launch and, if it does, there's no way it'll be widely available in stores, taking a page from the Xbox 360's example of Bad Console Launches). They may even rush it in a couple weeks earlier to beat Sony to the punch, the type of aggressive and assertive move absent from their recent console history. Nintendo's claiming they'll make a worldwide release, which I was (and am) adamantly against for Microsoft and Sony, but if the Wii isn't as cutting-edge, they'll hopefully be able to flood stores with it. A much-cheaper price point and much-greater availability could allow Nintendo to spank Sony in the always-important holiday season. I think a $200 or lower price point is critical to this, but if Nintendo wants to release at $250, I think they have to make it a bargain. How about this: for $250, you get the system, two Wii remotes, two nunchuck attachments, one VC controller, one light gun attachment, and Wii Sports. I'd also make sure the new Duck Hunt is included with the Wii Sports package in order to showcase the light gun. Right out of the box, you have a multiplayer bonanza that everyone in the family can enjoy, all for half the price of the PS3 "budget" option. I think it's important to include as many of the attachments with the system as they can so the customer doesn't feel like they have to keep dumping money on them. Once they're hooked and want more for multiplayer, then they'll go buy them.

Games? While I'm sure Nintendo will continue to play footsie with release dates up until launch, right now the launch lineup looks like Legend of Zelda: The Twilight Princess, Metroid Prime 3: Corruption, ExciteTruck, WarioWare, Wii Sports, and Red Steel (among a handful of third-party ports like Madden and Tony Hawk). And, you know, that's not a bad lineup. Certainly beats the hell out of the GameCube launch. Zelda, Metroid, and Wario should all be must-buys and the others look promising as well (ExciteTruck looks like the obligatory Wave Race-esque racer tossed together for launch--not to say it doesn't look fun, though). Also, just last night it was confirmed that Trauma Center: Second Opinion (the Wii sequel to my 2005 Portable Game of the Year) will arrive for launch, so there's another one on my must-list. Smash Bros. is sorely missing, though, and while Super Mario Galaxy looks amazing, Nintendo's already hinting it won't make launch, meaning there's no way in hell it will. I just hope Nintendo has enough brewing that they won't artificially postpone Mario and Smash until late '07 to help offset a lack of other quality software (this is a time-worn Nintendo tradition).

Needless to say, my excitement hasn't abated one bit. Nintendo debuted a load of software, the control mechanism was fluid and innovative, and the design is pure sexiness. Toss in the Virtual Console (which I would buy the Wii for alone) and I am absolutely ready to do whatever I need to to get my hands on the Wii as soon as I possibly can. The PS3 looks impressive, but the price is so ridiculous that Sony's got a hard uphill battle ahead of them. Even still, I can't pretend that I won't give serious thought to picking up a PS3 shortly after launch assuming a) it's actually available without having to pay twice the price or sell my organs; b) the hardware isn't enormous/overheated/glitchy like the Xbox 360; and c) there are good games out (not just half-assed ports) that I want to play. Xbox 360 failed this test miserably (and, no, I still don't have one), but I'll give the PS3 a shot. The fact that it's backward-compatible right out of the box gives it a leg up over the 360. I'm not sold on the Blu-ray drive yet, though (it's rocketing the price up and there's no guarantee the technology won't be dead in a couple years), and the tilt-sensitive controller is pure rip-off gimmick (though I'm happy they ditched the ugly boomerang and returned to the classic DualShock design). The "six degrees of movement" are a far cry from the Wii's immersive remote and will just be a toss-in feature to a handful of games. Even still, Sony's lead is too formidable in the console wars to just toss them aside. Like Nintendo, Sony likely still has one or two surprises waiting for us. Regardless, November can't come soon enough and it should be a banner month for gamers.