Posted: May 15, 2006 12:42 am
Updated Sun. May. 14 2006 8:13 AM ET
LOS ANGELES -- This year's E3 was supposed to be Sony's show, with the Nintendo Wii console lost in the shadow of the PlayStation 3.
But Nintendo has come out swinging - literally.
The sleek, compact Wii (pronounced we) console has drawn long lineups at the Nintendo booth at the annual video game trade show. Nintendo's innovative controller has turned heads and reminded some that there's more to gaming than gigabytes.
To play tennis, you swing the Wii controller like a racket. In baseball, you swing it like a bat.
While the graphics of Nintendo's Wii Sports game may be basic, the game will win you over the first time you swing the controller and slam a baseball 500 feet over the fence.
Electronic Arts has taken it a step further in Madden NFL 07. To pass the ball, rather than punch a button, you move the controller as if throwing it in the direction of the receiver. To hike the football, you just jerk the controller up. You also move the controller to kick the ball. Choosing a play or changing the player you control is as simple as pointing and clicking at the TV.
Nintendo says the controller's motion sensors are such that tennis players can apply slice and top spin.
"It's pretty cool. And very, very different," said John Schappert, senior vice-president and general manager at Electronic Arts.
While Xbox and PlayStation talk about the high definition world, Nintendo is looking to win consumers over by innovation rather than muscle under the hood.
"For seven years, we've watched the same core group of people play video games," said Ron Bertram, Nintendo Canada's vice-president and general manager. "There's been very little expansion of the marketplace."
Bertram argues that while hardware and software unit sales have grown, the rise has been due to people owning multiple systems rather than new consumers getting into the game.
Nintendo looks to change that by going down a different road than that of Sony or Microsoft. More fun for less money, is the way Nintendo of America vice-president Reggie Fils-Aime puts it.
Its portable DS system has won fans for its novel approach to gaming. A huge hit in Japan, now in North America, is the DS Brain Age line of games. Graphically simple, the games test perception, memory and other skills. They are also fun.
The idea is to bring more people to the table - to reclaim people who use to play video games but lost the urge, or get those who never picked them up.
"What kind of industry creates things that are exclusionary? And that's what we've done in a lot of cases," Bertram argues.
"We've created incredibly sophisticated games that unless you have a lot of prior experience, either with the series or with the controller or with similar games, you're going to have a really hard time playing well. And you're going to need a lot of time.
"What Wii and DS are trying to do is create fun experiences no matter what your level of gaming. If I only have five minutes of your time, and you've never played a video game before, am I going to want to put Ghost Recon in your hand? It's a tough game."
Swinging a tennis racket with the Wii might do the trick, however, he adds.
"We're not saying it's the biggest, most complete game. We're saying video games should be fun and entertaining. Here's a great way to start."
The Wii is not just about hitting a ball. Developers have found ways to work the controller in to game play for a first-person shooter in Ubisoft's Red Steel and the latest chapters in the hit franchises Legend of Zelda, Metroid Hunter, Super Mario and Rayman.
The Wii controller is a two-pronged affair. In addition to the main controller, which looks like a sleek TV remote, there is the so-called Nunchuk accessory. Shaped like a contoured mouse, the Nunchuk also has a motion sensor.
Nintendo says the controllers could involve the use of a sword in one hand and a shield in another. Or a clamp and scalpel. Or boxing gloves.
A speaker in the controller also widens the possibilities. Nintendo says in the upcoming Zelda title, gamers will shoot arrows by aiming on the screen and then pulling one controller back from the other as if drawing the string. When the arrow is loosed, the sound is heard on the controller. And when it finds its target on the screen, the sound comes from the TV.
The controller opens up a world of opportunities to video game developers. Sony thought enough of it to come up with its own limited version of a controller whose movement affects in-game play for the PS3.
Microsoft, which says it tried and shelved a similar controller to the PS3, questions whether the concept will work for all games.
EA is hard at work thinking up ways to use the Wii. While it is not saying much on the subject, its hit hockey franchise could benefit from the new controller.
"All I can say is I think you'll be pleasantly surprised with our next version of hockey," Schappert said.
Shigeru Miyamoto, creator of Zelda, Super Mario and Donkey Kong, says he thought about the traditional image of the gamer in helping design the Wii. Pictures of a gamer in a dark room hunched over a controller were negative, he thought.
So he wanted something that looked like the gamer was having fun playing. And it seems he has accomplished that. Watching someone wield a Wii controller can be more entertaining than what is happening on the screen.
In a worst-case scenario in the next-generation battle, Bertram sees positives for Nintendo. If a gamer is looking for a second system, he or she may choose the Wii, thinking the 360 and PS3 are too much alike. Plus the Wii will be cheaper, although Nintendo has yet to announce the price or release date other than final quarter of 2006.
Unlike the 360 and PS3, the Wii is not designed for high definition, although Miyamoto says its games will shine on a top-quality TV. Nintendo chose not to go down the high-def route just yet, because it wanted to keep the price down and because many consumers have yet to open their wallet for next-generation TV.
Gamers may also appreciate than the Wii is much smaller in size than its rival next-generation consoles.