Mr. Sabatelli, a New York City high school teacher with the intensity to silence all chatter with a quiet stare, used to teach that revolutions in society start not from the bottom up but from the top down. The common folk never instigated the next big change on their own, he argued. They were too busy just keeping up with the way things were. Instead, radical change came from people at the top who had a new idea and the means to try to sell it to the masses for support. We don't ask for revolutions, he said. We're given them and then we need to decide whether to demonstrate frenzied support.
So it goes for video games' latest proposed revolution from Nintendo, its coming console and motion-sensitive controller now dubbed the Wii. For it to succeed, Mr. Sabatelli's lesson shows, it will take a convincing showing from Nintendo itself, because the common gamer, merrily content with their conventional controllers, has not been calling for this kind of change. Nintendo offered an advance play-test of five Wii-enabled games for a combined 45-minute trial:
- "Metroid Prime 3: Corruption": A third "Metroid Prime" game was announced for the then-Revolution at E3 2005. The E3 demo looks like a high-end GameCube game with a first-person view and sci-fi graphic design familiar to players of the series. The game uses the Wii's "nunchaku" controller set-up, meaning the player holds the motion-sensitive remote in one hand and a tethered device with a control stick in the other.
The most obvious novelty to the controls is that the pointing the remote in any direction causes Samus' gun hand to point in the same direction. Her arm becomes an extension of the player's. Small movements simply move her arm at her elbow. Larger movements swivel her whole body to point in a new direction. The aiming in the E3 demo was loose, and it was a challenge to always make small movements for precise aim, especially on a moving target. The problem could be a learning curve that takes more than 10 minutes to surmount, and it could have been exacerbated by Nintendo's lack of chairs, which eliminated the chance to support one's elbow on one's knee. But it could also be an indication that freeing up controls will require new and greater skill to accomplish the same things that so many players have easily accomplished with traditional controllers.
"Metroid" contained two other notable uses of the Wii controls. A locked door required players to thrust their hand (and by extension Samus') at the lock, pull it back out, rotate it until the lock pattern aligned properly and then push it back in. This was the Wii at its immersive best, providing an action that could have been mapped to a regular controller but just makes a lot more sense with Nintendo's system. Another example involved a pile of debris. Samus is typically armed with a grappling hook on her left hand, one that has previously been triggered with the press of a button. Revealing one of the secrets of the Wii controller, it turns out that the secondary nunchaku attachment is also motion-sensitive. Flicking it forward caused Samus' left hand to flick forward and shoot a grappling beam, Spider-Man style. The move snagged some debris and suggested that a flick back would yank the junk away. (A Nintendo rep said the same mechanic is later used to rip armor off of enemy warriors.) But the game's developer oddly requires the pull-back move to be done not with a gesture but with a move of the control stick, making the whole grappling affair a puzzling mix of Wii-style gesture-based control and old-school controller controls, a confusion of signals that indicating a revolution not fully committed to.
- "ExciteTruck": Monster Games, a small developer in Minnesota, has created a monster-truck-racing game that finally makes use of the wild tossing and turning of the controller that many players employ when playing racing games. "ExciteTruck" uses the same don't-turbo-boost-too-much-or-you'll-overheat mechanic of the '80s Nintendo classic "Excitebike," but it does it with the Wii controller. Players use two hands, gripping the remote at its short ends like they're about to compress a soda can. Acceleration is done with a button, but you control the direction of the vehicle by steering the remote. The truck frequently gets air as it bounds over the undulating outdoor course. Pivoting the controller in any of 360 degrees allows the player to nail the desired four-tire landing. All of this could and has been done with standard controllers, so hardcore gamers might be left wondering if the system is simply providing different means to a familiar end, but there's little doubt that the fun "ExciteTruck" would be easier for a novice than a similar game using an old-school controller.
- "Wii Tennis": Nintendo is offering a collection of Wii-controlled sports demos at E3, but only showed tennis in advance. The game's graphics were almost N64-simple, but the emphasis is on remote-only control. A two-player demo split the screen vertically. Flicking the remote up and then smashing it forward makes a serve. Forehand and backhand swings in real life — the faster the better — match the tennis players' swings onscreen. The demo plays well for righties but until Nintendo programs some southpaw characters, it's tough and unintuitive for the left-handed.
- "The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess": Still primarily a GameCube game, the new "Zelda" allows for some Wii functionality. Bow-and-arrow targeting can be done with the nunchaku à la "Metroid." Parrying in a swordfight can be triggered with a thrust of the player's right hand, which is mapped to the hero Link's shield-holding right. The most involved Wii controls were unveiled while fishing, which allows the remote to be hoisted back and thrown forward to cast a line. Pulling it back reveals another Wii secret as it turns out that the little remote has a speaker. While casting the line, it lets out a little unspooling rattle. Players can reel in their line by cranking their non-remote hand. It turns out that just about any movement of the left hand reels it in, a hint that, for better or worse, Wii controls may allow for a variety of gestures to accomplish a specific goal.
- "WarioWare Smooth Moves": The latest in the "WarioWare" series of rapid-fire five-second games proved to be the best demonstration of the Wii controller. Lining the bottom of a mostly blackened screen were about 20 icons, one of which enlarged to show the player which position to assume. Then a seconds-long game appeared, with one or two words of direction. With little time to think, the player has at it and is then shuttled to the blackened screen again — and the cycle repeats. This is how one session played out: The controller instructions first said "The remote control." The player held it like one and then had to bounce a tennis ball on a racket. Next up, "The sketch artist": Holding the remote like a paintbrush, the player stabbed forward to punch a cookie cutter onto some dough. "The umbrella": Holding the remote vertically, the player pumped both arms to get a man to win a track-and-field race. "The big cheese": Holding hands (and controller) on the hips, the player had to hula. "The sketch artist" returned, this time to color in a pattern. "The handlebar" involved pumping a ball full of air. "The Mohawk" overhead position had the player doing an exercise squat. That barrage of micro-games occurred in little over a minute. "WarioWare" titles typically include about 200 such manic games.
Those 45 minutes represented the Nintendo elite's reasons to support a revolution. But the best may be yet to come. The most persuasive argument is expected to come via whatever game or games star designer Shgeru Miyamoto is developing for the system. The pitch will continue. Action can be taken or ignored come fall when the Wii is released.
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