Wii first look & feel: Next-gen video gaming

Posted by Mark Raby

Columbus (OH) - Yesterday, hundreds of thousands of people in the US became the first customers of the Nintendo Wii console, and they are no doubt discovering what makes the Wii so interesting. We've taken a first-hand, gut reaction look at what the Wii offers and what makes it so different from the PS3 and Xbox 360.

Nintendo overview of features ...

Nintendo Wii - a first look ...

Buckle your seatbelts and get ready for a crazy ride as the next round of the console wars is now officially underway. It's hard to gauge which system is under the most scrutiny right now, with magnifying glasses back on Microsoft, scoping out how it will market the 360 for its second holiday season, and anxious eyes watching the PS3 for its hyped ultimate high-def performance. Right now, though, we're taking a look at the Wii. As the console that's gotten the most of the "huh?" factor, and possibly expected to move the most hardware in the next month or so, the Wii is certainly at the forefront of gamers' minds across the country.

We got a retail copy of the Wii yesterday and spent most of the day checking out the biggest new features for Nintendo, including major online connectivity, personal game avatars, and of course the motion sensing controller.

Ergonomically, the main feature is the Wii's compact size. The console is fully functional either standing vertically or horizontally, with a width of about three DVD cases. The Wii is backwards compatible with Gamecube games, so there are Gamecube controller ports and Gamecube memory card slots on the top of the system, when it's positioned vertically, so that needs to be considered when setting up the system into an entertainment center or A/V cart of some sort.

The SD cart slot is located right next to the disc tray, so it's always within reach no matter where the Wii is set up. The same goes for the power, reset, and eject buttons. The Wii stands up vertically just fine by itself, but the included stand makes it look a little bit more presentable and also helps it from being knocked over.

So, enough about the physical features of the system. The first thing gamers will notice when they actually boot up the console is the Wii Channel guide, which serves as the system's main menu. All of the Wii's uses are available here at the click of a button, from the Wii online store to the game launch function, and even a place to view images stored on an SD card.

From this point on, the controller does the talking. Anyone who is a long-time gaming enthusiast most likely has or had serious doubts about the Wii's control scheme, for reasons that eventually boil down to the fact that it goes against the most standard conventions of video games since the dawn of the medium. As trite as it sounds, though, the only way to really appreciate the simplicity and power of the motion sensitive controller is to try it out first-hand.

We first got to take the console for a test drive at E3, where we demoed several games. One of the things we wanted to test out in a more private environment, though, was how the controller works in situations where the player may not be standing up, or is perhaps at an odd angle away from the console or the TV.

All the motion is controlled relative to where the player is, so no matter what angle to the TV he or she is standing, a shake to the left will cause the on-screen character or object to move in that direction. Virtually no problems occurred in our tests with the wireless connection relating to the angle of play.

However, there is something to be said about the height from which the game is played. The two most common places for the motion sensor bar to be placed are above the TV and below it. It seems more sensible to place it above, since only a select portion of TV owners have a set-up where there's space for it directly below their television. Therefore, for most people, the bar will probably go above the TV, which caused a couple minor aggravations when we were testing the console.

Despite what we've seen in Nintendo's exaggerated promotional shots of people playing the Wii, not every game requires the player to stand up. When we put the motion sensor bar on top of the TV, about four to five feet high, there were intermittent problems getting it to receive the controls from anyone sitting on the floor or even from a foot or two off the ground.

This issue is not addressed by Nintendo in the owner's guide, though they do say you should play from between three and eight feet away from the TV and avoid objects in the way of the sensor bar, as well as excessive sunlight and nearby open flames. Technically speaking, this limits the areas and means of use for a Wii controller versus the PS3 and Xbox 360, but for virtually all gaming environments, there shouldn't be a problem getting the controller to work.

It all feels very nice and it's very intuitive. Someone who's never played a video game before, but has used a remote control, would literally have no problems with basic navigation through the menus and game play. However, this has led to one of the more vocal complaints from hardcore gamers, thinking that the Wii design omits them from the key demographic. For those willing to overlook the overall image of the Wii as a "non-gamers game platform", though, just an hour or so with the new Zelda game, Twilight Princess, will show that the new control scheme can actually be used to cater to that hardcore crowd.

With the nunchuck attachment, which adds a second-handed controller for joystick movement, along with a couple new buttons, controls can become even more sophisticated than anything the PS3 or Xbox 360 controllers can offer. Again, it looks like a very clunky, unnatural way to play a game, but the actual experience is a completely different story. In Zelda, for instance, when shooting an arrow, the nunchuck joystick is used to aim, while the controller manages the throw of the arrow, triggered by a flick of the wrist from the player.

We've seen similar multi-tiered control schemes before, like with the Gamecube controller's two different joysticks, but they always come out convoluted, annoying, or just plain illogical. With the Wii, however, the controller is essentially severed into a right-hand component and a left-hand component, working independently of each other and allowing the player to control the two more easily in conjunction with each other.

Even without the nunchuck attachment, though, the controls can be manipulated to so many different styles. It can be used as just a remote control that one hand moves from side to side, but it also has an effect that works well for racing games, by turning it horizontally and holding the controller with two hands, controlling it just like you would a steering wheel.

Even with such versatility, though, Nintendo has taken a risk with this design. Some are sure to be off-put by the huge step away from the gaming norm, while others will be more attracted to the massive amount of power on the PS3. As long as Nintendo can continue to integrate the controls into future games in a way that is intuitive and fun in some, yet sophisticated and powerful in others, its "new way to play" backbone could catapult the company back into contention for the next generation after a disappointing run with the Gamecube.

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