Nintendo Reaches Back With Revolution, Shrinks Game Boy

First look at latest console promised 20 years of retro gaming, offered few key details.

LOS ANGELES -- Following the debuts of new consoles from Sony and Microsoft in recent days, the other major manufacturer of video-game hardware, Nintendo, gave a first look at -- but offered few key details about -- its mysterious Revolution. The announcement of the company's new home console came on Tuesday, packing an auditorium just off the Hollywood Walk of Fame with attendees of this week's Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3).

The annual Nintendo E3 briefing tends to be a wilder affair than those offered by the other game makers, likely because the company's tenure through most of video game history has forged a close connection between gamer and "Mario"-maker. Last year's raucous event ended with the thunderous debut of a new "Legend of Zelda" game, eliciting wild cheers from industry professionals (many of them bedecked in Nintendo-themed clothing) and even tears.

The fireworks and waterworks were more subdued this year, partly dampened by Sony's scene-stealing PS3 debut the day before (see [article id="1502444"]"PlayStation 3 Will Let You See The Spit Fly Like Never Before"[/article]). After a fire-marshal-induced half-hour delay, Nintendo executives revealed a prototype for what will be the company's tiniest console since its 1985 Nintendo Entertainment System -- intended to be no larger than a stack of three DVD cases in its final model -- and possibly the least powerful of the newly announced machines.

"When you turn on the Revolution and see the graphics, you will say, 'Wow,' " Nintendo's president Satoru Iwata said Tuesday. But he declined to bandy the types of muscular horsepower numbers offered in recent days by the manufacturers of Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 (see [article id="1501783"]"Details On The Xbox 360: Speed, Storage And Customization"[/article]). In a USA Today article published to coincide with the announcement of the new Nintendo system, a company spokesperson promised that the machine would be two to three times more powerful than Nintendo's current GameCube console. Microsoft and Sony are promising leaps anywhere from 10 to 30 times greater than their existing hardware.

While Sony and Microsoft are positioning their new machines as vehicles to entertainment's high-tech future, Nintendo revealed that the Revolution would serve -- at least partially -- as a museum for gaming's storied past. The system, Iwata announced, won't simply be backward compatible to the GameCube, it will be able to download and play Nintendo-made hits from any of the company's home consoles from the past 20 years. Though specific titles were not announced, such a roster could include games starring Mario, Zelda, Donkey Kong and cult hits like "Excitebike" and "Punch-Out," available via the Revolution's built-in Wi-Fi connection. Iwata said the Revolution will also include wireless controllers, 512 MB of flash memory (presumably for saving games) and connect to an optional device allowing DVD playback. He declined to show the system's controllers, which he promised will "also be very unique in ways that we will show later."

"Later" didn't happen on Tuesday -- and isn't expected to happen at any point during this E3 week -- as the company remained quiet on what makes the Revolution revolutionary. At last year's E3, Nintendo's executives promised that their console would be radically unlike any that had come before. This year, Iwata invited his audience to deduce Revolution's true nature from the few details he provided: "Maybe we can look at this as a form of puzzle game," he said.

Less perplexing was the morning's announcement of a new, shrunken version of Nintendo's wildly popular Game Boy Advance, dubbed Game Boy Micro and set for release in the fall. Roughly the size of an iPod Mini (4"x 2"x 0.7"), the system weighs 2.8 ounces (roughly 80 paperclips, according to a Nintendo release). The Micro doesn't just have a smaller shell than the GBA, but also smaller screen, shrinking the already tiny system graphics. Nintendo is touting the device as a fashion statement, offering a variety of personalized faceplates for customization.

The show featured other unorthodox revelations. Nintendo, long reluctant to support online gaming, will soon bring its portable Nintendo DS online with the system's built-in Wi-Fi. Online DS versions of "Mario Kart" and the community-building "Animal Crossing" games, along with a Tony Hawk game from Activision, were announced for later this year.

The DS was also the platform for two unusual new pieces of software that Nintendo executives acknowledged might not even qualify as games. "Nintendogs" is a pet simulator featuring realistic dogs who respond to and can be trained by voice command, can be pet or washed through the DS's touch screen and who can pop into other DS users' systems (along with a voice message from the owner) when two DS machines are within wireless range. In Japan, Nintendogs has sold 400,000 copies in its first month of release. The DS was also used to demonstrate "Electroplankton," an esoteric piece of interactive art featuring several varieties of stylized neon fish that can be prodded, launched, clapped at or dragged by a stylus to create a wide range of techno and New Age sounds.

Nintendo closed the show as it did last year, with a focus on the next GameCube version of "The Legend of Zelda." Subtitled "Twilight Princess" -- and still on track for release by year's end -- the game is expected to be the final major release for Nintendo's struggling home system.

Despite the GameCube's inability to crack even 20 percent of the American market -- a far cry from Nintendo's domination of the industry 15 years ago -- the next "Zelda" has consistently ranked on industry-wide magazines and Web sites as the year's most anticipated game. The title casts the protagonist, Link, as a sort of cowboy/shepherd who is literally pulled into another world of fantastic adventures. Among other things, Link can turn into a wolf, wage sword fights on horseback against villains astride giant boars and visit a version of reality that appears mostly in black and white.

In a roundtable discussion later in the afternoon, Eiji Aonuma -- the producer of "The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess" -- invoked a previous "Zelda" title generally considered by the gaming press as one of the top two games ever made: "Our goal is to create a game that surpasses the 'Ocarina of Time.' " And then, in a fitting echo of Nintendo's theme of the day, he declined to explain the game's signature features.

You can check out Gideon Yago's video reports from the heart of this year's E3 on Overdrive, MTV's new broadband video channel.