This Christmas, Justin Stone is going to lose his Wii. Despite having camped for 16 hours in the frigid air outside Best Buy Boston on the weekend of the Harvard-Yale game to purchase Nintendo’s new flagship console, come January, Justin will be Wii-less. But Justin isn’t concerned about the distraction, nor has he already lost interest in his expensive toy. Justin’s about to get robbed of his console … by his parents.
Let’s put this in perspective: Justin’s father, Ira Stone, is 60 years old. And he’s not taking the console away to punish Justin — he’s taking it because he wants to play it. He’s not the only unlikely gamer drawn to the Wii — a quiet revolution is taking place in American video gaming thanks to Nintendo’s little white box.
The video game industry’s approach to console development has historically been to improve processing power and graphical capability between each generation. As every new console launches, its developers inevitably claim that it will revolutionize the way we play video games. In reality, though, there has been no paradigm shift in the medium since games made the leap from 2-D to 3-D a little over a decade ago. In that time, the industry has changed greatly. Games have become deeper, more cinematic and more sophisticated. Innovations such as the analog stick and the rumble pack have enhanced the gaming experience, but Nintendo’s Wii (pronounced “we”) presents a genuine change to the way we actually play console games.
The secret is in the controller. The Wii does not have the graphical horsepower of Microsoft’s Xbox 360 or Sony’s Playstation 3 — in fact, the Wii is not even significantly more powerful than Nintendo’s previous system, the Gamecube. What the Wii brings to the table is the Wiimote — a fully motion sensing controller you hold in one hand like a remote control. The Wiimote is conveniently attached to the wrist by a Wiistrap, presumably to limit damage to your Wiisurroundings and Wiifriends and to allow for the complete freedom of movement that the new controller affords the player.
Players are no longer restricted to button presses and joystick twiddling — now the player can perform the in-game actions directly. To go bowling in Wiisports, a title that comes bundled with every Wii console, you simply aim the controller skyward and swing towards the screen. As in real life, the speed of your swing controls the speed of your ball, a twist of the wrist adds spin and the B button releases the ball. For anyone who’s ever been bowling, it’s just like the real thing (but with cheaper beer). This is the Wii’s unique selling point — the game is not about memorizing complicated button sequences, so anyone can play.
But the new control system begs the question: Is it worth it? Why not spend a pleasant afternoon on your Xbox, killing people in “Grand Theft Auto,” or killing people in “Halo,” or just killing people? Why sacrifice great graphics and the tried-and-true format (button input controls, murder) that has served these games so well? The answer isn’t simple — while the Wii games are undeniably fun, only time will tell whether they will develop to the level of sophistication that currently exists in conventional video game systems. The first-person shooters released with the Wii launch — “Call of Duty 3” and “Red Steel” — certainly lack the fluidity of their joystick-controlled counterparts.
Fortunately for Nintendo, the Wii’s low price tag ($250) allows it to exist not just as an alternative, but in addition to its competitors. It offers a breath of fresh air for hard-core gamers and an introduction to the gaming world for people who might not have otherwise played. And for kids on college campuses (hint), it offers a whole new world of drinking games. But even though a large part of the Wii’s strength is its simplicity and mass-marketability, one game offered definitive proof that the Wii can make serious games too — “Legend Of Zelda: Twilight Princess.”
“Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time” is perhaps the most venerated video game in existence. Our generation is full of young men who spent the best hours of their childhood in the Kingdom of Hyrule. There was a tremendous amount of pressure on the sequel to perform (and this was before it was made the keystone of a console launch). Shigeru Miyamoto’s sequel delivers. If there was any doubt whether “Twilight Princess” could do justice to the epic scale and unprecedented innovation of its predecessor, those doubts are dispelled the first time you use your Wiimote to cast Link’s fishing rod or slash with the master sword. After a few hours at the controls, the exciting potential of the system becomes clear. Nintendo’s slogan really does ring true — “Playing Is Believing.”