NEW YORK — Nintendo's Wii blowout was thrown on an umbrella-breaking rainy day last week. It was the game maker that brought the thunder, a lot of confident chest-beating about the promise of the machine. So what's a gamer to make of it, and what were the real surprises beyond those launch-date and price headlines?
Despite years of claims from Nintendo that it isn't in competition with Sony, its former partner and current PlayStation maker, it will indeed be Wii vs. PS3 in November. Both systems will launch the third week of November and are expected to sell out quickly. The PS2 will probably jump in to win the skirmish: Its $129 price, plentiful supply and shelves of available, quality games make it a more attainable option than any short-supply next-gen console. Sony sold more PSOnes when that machine hit $100 than when it was at any other price, and the PS2 isn't even down there yet.
Sales winners shouldn't matter to gamers, but getting a system in their hands probably will. Sony has pledged 400,000 PS3s for its November 17 North American launch date and 2 million in North America and Japan by the end of the year. On Thursday Nintendo trumpeted a 4 million figure for year's end, with a "majority" of those Wiis coming to the Americas. When GameFile pressed Nintendo of America President Reggie Fils-Aime about whether the company would release more than 400,000 Wiis on its launch date, he said, "We'll have more than that. Absolutely."
Launching with "Zelda" has been met with praise from many gamers, and those games typically make the shortlist for game of the year. "The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess" has been touted by the highly respected Nintendo developers overseeing the title, Shigeru Miyamoto and Eiji Aounma, and they rarely over-hype. Nevertheless, launching with a title not made from the ground up for Wii raises questions about the game's fit for the gesture-driven Wii. Will it feel as natural as directing traffic or be just a hamstrung substitute? Nintendo has already launched one recent machine with a flagship game, the controls to which were an ill fit: the analog-stick-free Nintendo DS which, played round hole to the square peg of the remake "Super Mario 64 DS." The "Mario" game played best with an analog when it first came out for the N64, which had an analog stick. The DS did not and the remake's new touch-screen controls proved a poor substitute. That left the following year's "Kirby Canvas Curse," "Nintendogs" and — in Japan — "Brain Training" to show off the promise of the machine's microphone and touch screen for primary controls. Whether "Zelda" proves to be another system's leftovers clumsily warmed to serve as a Wii main course or winds up genuinely satisfying the palette might be the biggest question the Wii launch is able to answer.
In New York, Nintendo showed only an E3 level of "Twilight Princess," refit with updated Wii controls. Shaking the remote-shaped controller in the right hand causes hero Link to swing the sword he holds in his right hand. Shaking the nunchuck controller in the player's left caused Link to attack with the shield in his left. Those details might hasten the heartbeat of true "Zelda" fans who remember Link being a lefty ever since his 1987 original outing on the Nintendo Entertainment System. Link's switched sword hands for this Wii version, though Nintendo Head of Localization Bill Trinen pointed out to GameFile that even the original Link sometimes held his sword in his right: When he ran to the right, since the primitive NES simply flipped the drawing it used for Link running to the left, a southpaw grip of his sword mirrored as a clutch in his right.
Whether "Zelda" proves itself worthy or not, the absence of "WarioWare" from American shores this year is a loss. Fils-Aime pegged it as an "early 2007" title. The updated build of the game in New York sparkled with the ingenuity of the series' best earlier incarnations. "WarioWare" games throw — no exaggeration — any of 200 short games at the player, generally at random and generally to be conquered with the briefest of controller inputs in about five seconds. Then comes the next. The version for Wii, unveiled in May at E3, first commands the player to hold the Wii remote a certain way, then throw an unexpected game on the screen. New to this build was a command for "thumb-wrestler": choking up on the remote and wrapping one's thumb over the top. The associated micro-game involved shaking a champagne bottle and then spraying it at some onscreen victims. One that has the player holding the controller like a remote brings back a "WarioWare" staple: sampling other Nintendo games. This time "Nintendogs" gets the treatment, as one micro-game required the player to "give me five" to a Nintendog. The new build also included a "boss" in the form of a first-person driving game. Holding the controller at its short ends, players have to steer their car down a canyon, something that's simple and fun until monkeys come out and force a swerve.
While Nintendo's best may wait on the other side of New Year's, one of the company's 2006 stopgaps for Nintendo could turn out to be "Wii Play," which includes quick games of air hockey, fishing, table tennis, billiards and some other games, two of the 10 intended total being kept a secret. Most notable was the game Nintendo calls "Shooting," which looks and plays just like the classic "Duck Hunt": Players point at the screen and zap the ducks. Fils-Aime was soliciting press feedback about releasing the game in the U.S. Here's a suggestion: if it plays like a duck hunt, looks like a duck hunt, then call it "Duck Hunt." What's wrong with nostalgia?
As for other '06 candidates, attention should be paid to games not coming from Nintendo itself, like the gesture-driven surgery of Atlus' "Trauma Center: Second Opinion" and Ubisoft's "Rayman Raving Rabbids." A new "Madden" designed just for Wii is also in the works for this year, guaranteeing one of gaming's biggest series a firm presence on the console. That showing brought to mind the most potent third-party franchise that appears on any system but those made by Nintendo: the Take Two-published "Grand Theft Auto." Microsoft score a coup announcing in May that October 2007's "GTAIV" will arrive on Xbox 360 at the same time it comes out for PS3. But Nintendo has never hosted a "GTA" on a home console. Nintendo's leaders used to dismiss the series and tell the press it did not represent the future of games. Said Fils-Aime: "We're reaching out to every publisher, frankly every day. I'll be spending some time later today with the folks over at Take Two to see what type of support they can give our console. ... The fact is there will be M-rated content on the Wii console. EA has already announced that they're bringing 'The Godfather' to our console. And we want every single best-selling game to be available on Wii. Whatever that content is."
More from the world of video games:
Hard-core gamers, you're not alone. But you are almost alone. A study released Tuesday (September 19) from the NPD Group claims that "heavy" gamers represent only 3 percent, or 3.6 million, of the 114 million console and portable system owners in the U.S. They play 19.2 hours a week on home consoles and another 9.1 hours a week on portable systems. Just under half these dedicated souls are 6-to-17-year-old guys. Only a fifth are female. This rare hard-core breed is the most dedicated group but not the biggest. That goes to what NPD defined as the second most game-crazed bunch: avid gamers. Such gamers log 8.1 hours a week and represent 29 percent of the gaming population. ...
Hype for the Nintendo Wii may have been in overdrive last week, but stay tuned for PS3 news this week. Friday will kick off the annual Tokyo Game Show, where PlayStation creator Ken Kutaragi will deliver a keynote address and likely unveil any final system surprises. Sony is promising a day of news and special attractions.