NEW YORK — To succeed while playing Nintendo's Wii, you don't have to play by the rules.
That was a lesson learned on Tuesday in the basement of Manhattan's fancy Upper East Side confectionary Dylan's Candy Bar. One flight below street level, down a glass staircase embedded with colorful candy, past bins of Reese's Pieces, white M&M's and gummy teeth (not worms or bears), were four new games for the Wii from games publisher THQ.
The company permitted invited journalists and kids the chance to play work-in-progress versions of Wii games based on Disney's "Cars" movie and Nickelodeon's "Avatar: The Last Airbender," "Barnyard" and "SpongeBob SquarePants" franchises. And to set the mood — or maybe just to unnerve players uncomfortable with door-size yellow objects looming over their shoulders — THQ invited a person in a SpongeBob costume to hang out and try to avoid getting elbowed by the gesticulations of gamers swinging the Wii controllers.
The idiosyncratic basics of Nintendo's Wii handset have been well-documented at this point (see "Nintendo On Unique Wii Controller: 'Playing Is Believing' "). Designed separately by studios in Australia, the U.K. and the U.S., the THQ games exhibited many of the maneuvers seen in other companies' previewed Wii software. Punching and kicking in "Avatar," a four-character bird's-eye-view brawler, is triggered by combinations of pressing buttons and waving the Wii remote, which in this case needs to be pointed at the screen like a TV remote. In a rampage mode of "SpongeBob," a jostle of the Wii remote results in a punch, and a quick downward swipe makes your character stomp on the ground. The "Cars" racing game is controlled by holding the Wii remote sideways by its shorter ends and turning the device like it's a steering wheel.
The four games were packed with enough different modes to well advertise the diversity of the Wii. "One minute you're using the [Wii remote] rampaging and hitting buildings, and the other you're holding it like a joystick in a jet fighter," said Ali Bouda, brand manager for kids' games at THQ, as he surveyed the players in the room.
But what about those people who don't want to play by the rules?
What if, for example, in "Cars" you choose to hold the remote like you would the horizontal steering wheel of a city bus, rather than like the vertical wheel of a regular car? Would it work? A quick test showed that the game only reads a twist on the vertical plane, like the movement of the hands on a clock, or a wave goodbye or, for the theatrically inclined, "jazz hands."
But what about flipping the remote upside down and then steering? It still works, but again, only on that vertical plane.
The "SpongeBob" rampage mode features the character Sheldon J. Plankton (who resembles a giant standing cucumber) stomping through a little city, Godzilla-style. The punching and stomping are triggered by swipes and slashes, respectively. But it turns out those swipes can be done with the Wii remote pointed away from the TV. They can be done behind-the-back, and, while not tested at the event, assumedly between the legs.
The THQ representatives at the Candy Bar didn't advocate these alternate ways of playing the Wii games. Bouda and his colleagues only offered instructions for the standard approach and even cautioned against attempts to play the games the wrong way, like trying to steer "Cars" with one hand: "You can't do it. You do need to hold it like a steering wheel."
But while there may be only one way to hit a button to make a character punch in a game that uses a standard controller, play sessions with Nintendo's Wii continue to reveal a malleable system that allows players to apply their own style to the moves required to get gaming activities done. Just like basketball players can mess with the way they bounce the ball or put it through the hoop, the Wii player will be able to develop methods different from the textbook technique to do their moves.
A THQ spokesperson at Dylan's Candy Bar said she played a Wii tennis game made by Nintendo at E3. She plays tennis in real life and said she found herself adopting the proper stances as she swung the Wii remote like a racket. She got good results. But others who stood stiff and just swung their arm with minimal flair got some good results as well. Similar deviations were on display during a recent play session of Nintendo's Wii baseball game (see "GameFile: Why Australia Banned 'Reservoir Dogs'; Nintendo Wii, 'ShellShock' And More").
This kind of leeway could be good thing. However, one person's variety is another person's game-breaker. At Dylan's, the THQ Wii game "Barnyard" primarily featured third-person (third-animal, really) character-based gameplay. It also offered some bonus games. One was darts, which is supposed to be played with the Wii remote held and flicked like a dart — just not released — at the dartboard on the TV screen. The THQ producer showing the game advocated aiming with the Wii remote's laser pointer and then flicking the wrist. But a move from the elbow worked too. So did a move from the shoulder. And so did a flick in reverse, away from the dartboard, a sign of the Wii remote's limitations when it comes to distinguishing different types of motions.
Bouda cautioned again that breaking the rules won't always work on the Wii. "I found I do different things depending on what game it is," he said. "On some of them you can't fake it." He referred to a golf mode in "Barnyard." "If you don't hold it like a golf club and do the full motion you don't get the full result."
If nothing else, the visit to THQ's event proved that Wii's rules can be bent. This fall, when the system launches, players can figure out to what extent — and whether that makes the system's games the richer or the poorer for it.
What happens when four of the world's top game designers meet for their first-ever group interview? Check out "MTV News Presents: The Gods of Gaming," airing Saturday at 6:30 p.m. ET/PT on MTV2.