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Thursday, November 23, 2006

The Shins Nintendo Wii will change your life

"What if, on a crowded street, you look up and see something appear that should not, given what we know, be there. You either shake your head and dismiss it, or you accept that there is much more to the world than we think. Perhaps it really is a doorway to another place. If you choose to go inside you may find many unexpected things."
--Shigeru Miyamoto, General Manager of Nintendo and creator of the Wii controller, Super Mario Brothers, The Legend of Zelda, and many others

What is Wii, and why does it matter?

Nintendo's new video game system, the Wii, appeared in stores Sunday. Fanboys like me are thrilled, but everyone who cares about the quality of mainstream entertainment should pay attention to the Wii's reception.

Why does the Wii matter? Because Nintendo is doing the best thing a huge entertainment corporation can do: promote true creativity and experimentation. Instead of just releasing a higher-tech version of the same old game system, Nintendo has been taking risks and pulling them off. In 2005 they released the two-screen, touch-screen Nintendo DS--the latest version of the Gameboy--which lets players create and interact by, for example, sketching enemy monsters and sending them wirelessly to attack other players.

Now the Wii is scrapping the trend towards bigger-faster-louder in video games. The top-selling Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 games are high-resolution shoot-'em-ups that require rote learning of complex controller configurations and hours of obsessive playing before they are fun; the Wii comes bundled with a sports game where the players look like Fischer-Price Little People. Its graphics and processing speed are far inferior to those of its more expensive rivals. The Wii's only hope of competing lies in the experimental new way that Nintendo has developed for players to control games.

Instead of holding the controller in both hands and pressing buttons, Wii players hold the controller in one hand like a remote control and use gestures to control in-game characters. The controllers (up to four can be used at once) are wireless, and information about their position, rotation, acceleration, and distance from the screen is transmitted via infrared to a thin, foot-long sensor that sits on top of your television.

This means no sitting inertly and staring at the screen; players must stand and move their bodies. This means that games can't expect hours of obsessive focus; games must be quick to play and naturally social, drawing in players by requiring varying sets of controlling motions.

Or at least that's the hope. Now the system is here, and must live up to its promise. Its success or failure will affect the way corporations view creative risk throughout the entertainment industry.

Playing the Wii

I had the chance to play the Wii for a few hours the other day. Here are my reactions.

Instant fun

I began with Wii Sports, which comes with the system. The games are very easy to get into. Nintendo is famous for its games' intuitive play control and for what is known in the software industry as "balancing"--creating subtle variations in difficulty so that players of different skill levels can all enjoy playing. This expertise is in spades with Wii Sports, particularly the Tennis, Golf, and Bowling games.

Nintendo's guiding philosophy has been to get gamers into gameplay quickly and smoothly. Playing a game on an Xbox or PlayStation meant sitting through tedious loading screens (as much as 7 minutes, as shown by a hilarious YouTube video). But Nintendo chose for GameCube, their last system before the new Wii, to use smaller discs and thus to force developers to trim extraneous code and compress graphics.

Nintendo has clearly succeeded here: the time from turning on the Wii to getting the hang of a Wii Sports game and having fun is about 60 seconds.

...well, almost instant

To my surprise, though the games themselves load quickly, the Wii system interface gets in the way. You are frequently prompted to press two buttons simultaneously in order to continue, and in Wii Sports, you must clear four or five screens of options every time you want to play any game.

Worse, Nintendo commits the gravest sin in multi-player games: giving power to set the game up and get the game started only to the first player. It's maddening to stare, powerless, at screens that demand that the other player press a button. I haven't said "Hey, I think you gotta press 'A' again" so much since the time when Fred Savage ran away from home to take his brother to a Nintendo tournament.

Does it work?

The Wii would be a company-sinking wash for Nintendo if the controller didn't work. Does it? Yes. Mostly.

Information about the controller's motion is interpreted from its raw data, provided by its infrared signal strength and position and by an accelerometer chip inside the controller, which sits on tiny springs and knows its acceleration the same way you know yours when you lean forward in a suddenly stopping car.

The infrared communication has the same problem as all remote controls--it needs a decent line of sight between transmitter and receiver. The Wii compensates for this with multiple simultaneous signals sent at different angles, so that when the controller is pointing even vaguely toward the screen, even behind small obstacles, it works like a charm; you can wave it around, even twist it and move it forward and backward, and the cursor on the screen moves as if it's an extension of your arm. The technology is amazing, and I'm sure there's tons of complex code underneath that recenters the controller, magnifies some gestures and muffles others so that the interface seems right for everybody even though they may be in different places in the room.

But several of the Wii Sports games, and lots of forthcoming Wii games, involve movingthe controller so that it's not always pointing at the screen. Playing the Golf game, for example, involves swinging the controller like a golf club. How does the Wii console know where the controller is pointing when its infrared transmitters don't have a clear line of sight to the screen? Well, it sort of doesn't, and this can be a problem.

The games

Wii Sports: Golf

In Golf, the Wii compensates for this by guaging the speed of your swing when you hit the ball by the speed of your follow-through, which works well enough for big swings. But putting, which involves smaller motions, doesn't work. As you swing for a short putt, the on-screen character lurches and jerks as the system tries to guess what you're doing with the controller.

[Addendum of Nov. 26th: you can see this problem in action in a precious Google video of a little girl playing Wii golf; on the last putt, you see her swing, and then swing again; only on the second swing does the system register the motion.]

Still, the game works remarkably well. Golf games traditionally require you to time a series of button presses in order to make an accurate shot; Wii Golf replaces this with the task of swinging the controller with just the right amount of force. Too little, and your shot falls short; too much, and it becomes wild, slicing unpredictably.

Wii Sports: Bowling

The controller problem is skirted elegantly by bowling, where you are required to start with the controller pointing up, swing it down and back (where the system can no longer read it), and then bring it back forward to release--just like a real bowling motion. The absence of information coming from the controller at the middle of this motion is no problem, since information comes before and after it. Still, the system chokes on the data sometimes at the boundary where the controller is pointed perpendicular to the screen, and inexplicable input errors--the game generously awards mulligans for these--are common.

The controls are a perfect example of Nintendo ingenuity: simple enough for a child to play, but deep enough to reward extended exploration. Release the ball with spin, and it spins convincingly, allowing you to hit tricky splits. Release it fast, and it will have enough power for a strike. Where bowling games in the past were essentially digital--you specifically choose to bowl a hook, or not to bowl a hook--this game is essentially analog, allowing combinations of motions to add unexpected qualities to the ball's momentum and spin.

No game like this has existed until now: the physics of the real world are mapped into a constrained virtual physics, and thanks to Nintendo's elegant balancing of the control and difficulty--I'm a much better bowler here than in real life--it works brilliantly.

Wii Sports: Baseball

Baseball, unfortunately, remains essentially analog. It's a game of timing: just swing hard at the pitch at the right time, and you've got a hit or a home run. There is no swinging high or swinging low, and no real need to watch for bad pitches, for none seem to be unhittable. When pitching, you can choose the type of pitch and vaguely choose where to put it, but the pitch itself is a meaningless flick of the wrist--nothing about your motion seems to affect the pitch. Fielding and baserunning are automatic.

It's too bad Nintendo didn't put the attention into Baseball that they put into Bowling, in terms of deep control and interpretation of motion.

Wii Sports: Tennis

Tennis was my favorite game, and the first game I'm describing that several players can truly play at once (rather than just taking turns). It has complex control like Bowling, allowing you to make hits quick and low or high and slow, or to put spin on the ball. But the details of your hit can be hard to control, and sometimes--as in serving--the details of your gesture are ignored. The problem of the controller pointing away from the screen occurs here too, causing the characters at times to trip up, swing improperly or miss balls.

The game moves your character automatically and does a large amount of interpretation to decide where to place your hit. In this way, it has much in common with the original Tennis game on the Nintendo Entertainment System, a shining example of Nintendo game-control and difficulty-balancing brilliance which hid a powerful system of shot interpretation behind the simple NES two-button controller.

Wii Sports: Boxing

This is the only Wii Sports game played with the Wii's "nunchuck" controller attachment, which gives each player one controller in each hand to punch with. It's a wonderful setup for a game: you and a friend can fight, throwing real punches high and low, throwing hooks, and throwing uppercuts. The gameplay, however, is horrible. Many punches simply do not register onscreen, and many of the biggest ones that do are interpretation errors--punches that were never actually thrown. It's a confusing experience, where winner and loser wind up equally frustrated.

The Legend of Zelda: The Twilight Princess

I know this game was developed simultaneously for the GameCube, but its Wii version is supposed to feature more detailed graphics. If this is what mainstream Wii games will look like, then graphics on the Wii are worse than I expected. Honestly, the game's graphics look closer to Nintendo 64's Ocarina of Time than to the Xbox 360's current hit Gears of War.

We expected this...
...and got this:

This game is getting rave reviews, but my half-hour with it only made me think that the Wii controller will prove to be an obstacle to playing mainstream games. I'm sure that swordfighting with the controller will be a fun part of the game, but the bulk of a Zelda game consists of running back and forth fetching things, using various items in your inventory, talking to people, and climbing ladders--all things where the Wii controller serves no purpose.

Cautious optimism, fun in the meantime

These are the first generation of Wii games--not even, because neither is a pure commercial Wii release. The potential of the system will become clearer over the next few seasons of games, which will probe the limits of the hardware. As it stands, however, the system is definitely flawed.

But it is also wonderful, fun on a level I rarely feel with video games. I'm glad Nintendo took a chance on such a peculiar and wonderful idea.

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Anonymous Anonymous on Thu Nov 23, 09:28:00 PM:
Ok, well I partly agree.
First off, so you have to to wait for a few screens, big deal. Are people really that impatient nowadays? WiiSports is more of a demo than anything else, it was free with the console. You can bet there will be better boxing, golf, bowling and tennis games to come.

If you want better graphics, buy the compnent cables. The graphics arent that bad. While Sony and Microsoft work towards mind blowing graphics, Nintendo is making games that are actually fun to play again. To me that worth a drop in graphics.