Nintendo has ventured off the beaten path with its newest system, and the company knows it. While the Sony PlayStation 3 and the Microsoft Xbox 360 both emphasize their impressive graphical capabilities, Nintendo downplays the importance of graphics on its new console. While the Sony and Microsoft consoles keep the branding of their respective predecessors, the oddly named Wii is a semantic departure from Nintendo's more literally named 2001 console, the GameCube. And while the PS3 and the Xbox 360 both use conventional gamepads bristling with buttons, control sticks, and directional pads, the Wii uses a device that looks more like a TV remote than a gamepad to control its games.
These strange choices could have spelled failure for Nintendo's newest endeavor. Underplaying processing power, using a strange new controller setup, and giving the whole package an odd name could have been major mistakes for Nintendo. (Consider some of the company's earlier attempts to go against the grain: the Power Glove and the Virtual Boy.) But if our early experience with the Wii is any indication, this particular Nintendo gamble seems likely to pay off. It's strange, it's new, and it's not as powerful as its competitors, but the Nintendo Wii succeeds in its primary mission: it's fun to play.
Opening the box
The Wii box includes everything you need to hook the system up to a standard television: the Wii console, a wireless controller with nunchuk adapter, the sensor bar, a cradle (for mounting the console vertically), the Wii's modestly sized power adapter, and a set of composite A/V cables. Unfortunately, composite cables don't support the Wii's top resolution of 480p, so HDTV owners will want to also purchase a set of Wii component cables (sold separately).
The Wii console itself is downright tiny--easily the smallest and lightest of the new generation of game machines. At 1.75 inches high by 6.25 inches wide by 8.5 inches deep (when oriented horizontally), it is--as Nintendo promised--about the size of three DVD cases. The initial model is available only in iPod-white, but it's a safe bet that we'll see plenty of other colors become available as the months and years progress. Like with the PlayStation 3 and the Xbox 360, you can lay the Wii horizontally or stand it vertically (either by itself or, for added stability, in the included plastic cradle). Like the PS3, the Wii uses a slot-loading mechanism; it accepts the Wii discs (full-size 12cm) and older GameCube discs (mini 8cm), without the need for an adapter.
The Wii includes 512MB of internal memory for storing saved games, downloaded Virtual Console titles, and other data. If that half-gigabyte of onboard storage isn't enough for you, the system has a standard Secure Digital card slot for additional storage. SD cards are cheap and plentiful, and the Wii's support of them is a refreshing change of pace from the proprietary memory cards used by older game consoles.
While it doesn't come with a memory card or component-video cables, the Wii does include one pleasant surprise in the box. The system comes with Wii Sports, a simple but infectious sports game that lets users get a feel for the Wii's capabilities without investing in additional games. Wii Sports uses the system's wireless controller as erstwhile sporting equipment, letting users swing and mock-throw it to play baseball, tennis, golf, bowling, and boxing. The different games can support up to four players at a time, but most modes require more than the system's single controller for multiplayer options. Players can swap the remote back and forth for golf and bowling, but players who would like to box or face each other in a tennis match or a baseball game will need to purchase at least one more controller. Wii Sports feels more like a collection of five minigames than a fully fleshed-out title, but it lets users have fun right out of the box and showcases the system's potential.
The Wii's simple design makes it very easy to hook up. The back panel of the console has only five ports: one for the power adapter, one for the proprietary A/V cable, one for the sensor bar, and two USB ports for future accessories. Just plug in the sensor bar and put it either on top of or under your television, plug the video cable into your TV, and plug the power cable into the wall, and you're ready to go.
Once everything is hooked together, just turn on the Wii to go through the software setup. Settings such as time and user name can be easily selected with the remote control's pointer. The only remotely technical setting most users will have to deal with is the network connection, and the menu system practically walks users through the setup. The Wii's Wi-Fi connection can work with secure WEP and WPA encrypted Wi-Fi networks, so you don't have to make your network vulnerable just to play online. We had no problem connecting to our open wireless router, though we couldn't test the network connection beyond that. If you don't have Wi-Fi at all, Nintendo is said to be offering an Ethernet adapter that interfaces with one of the USB ports.
Once the Wii's network settings are set up, the system is designed to be constantly online through Nintendo's WiiConnect24 service. The Wii can use WiiConnect24 to automatically download system updates, additional game content, and even weather and news.
Wii Channels: Media and online capabilities
The Wii's navigation is done through a series of pages called Wii Channels that take advantage of the WiiConnect24's always-on design. Among the Wii's default channels are a weather forecast channel, a news channel, a message channel, a photo channel, and the cute avatar-generating Mii channel. The channel home page is the system's default gateway, which also provides access to the disc-based Wii/GameCube games and Virtual Console titles.
The Mii Channel lets users create and modify Miis, cute little avatars for use online and in certain games. The Miis are cartoony and extremely simple, but the Mii Channel includes enough customization features for users to create Miis that look like themselves, their friends, or even celebrities. (Our Wii is currently populated with characters from The Big Lebowski.) Miis don't seem that useful, but they can be used as characters in games such as Wii Sports, and as avatars in the Wii's Message Channel. Since Miis are so simple, players can use their Wiimotes' 6KB of storage to carry around as many as 10 Miis and use them on their friends' Wiis.
The Photo Channel was a pleasantly useful surprise, though a bit of a misnomer. The channel can display and edit photos. Nintendo claims that the Wii can also play MP3 music files and QuickTime videos, but these features feel like afterthoughts; MP3s can be played only in a photo slide show, and we were unable to load a QuickTime movie on our Wii. Fortunately, the Photo Channel's emphasis is clearly on image viewing and editing. Once up to 1,000 of your photos are loaded through the SD card slot, you can view them individually, browse them in an album view, or watch a slide show of them. The Photo Channel also includes a basic image editor, though it's clearly built more for fun than serious editing. With its upbeat background music and some very cute image options, the editor feels a lot like the old Super Nintendo classic Mario Paint.
While on the subject of media, it's worth noting that the Wii does not play audio CDs or video DVDs, which is something of a disappointment. Yes, everybody already has a DVD player, but with DVD playback capability being standard-issue since the last generation of game consoles, its omission here is something of a conundrum. Nintendo claims it was to keep the price down, and the company's last-generation console, the GameCube, also lacked DVD playback. Nintendo also hasn't indicated that it's going to launch any sort of downloadable video or music store, and--with the Wii's lack of a built-in spacious hard drive--that doesn't seem like it would be on the docket anytime soon.
The Message Channel is the Wii's system message and online communication center. It's used to send messages to other Wii owners online using their systems' unique Friend Codes, but we were unable to test that feature without Nintendo's online service. The Message Channel can also give players a variety of reports about changes in their Wii system settings, how much time they spend on different games, and other interesting pieces of information.
While unimpressive compared to the Virtual Console and its own games, the Wii's various online channels offer some handy and entertaining features. The Forecast, News, and Internet Channels form the Wii's trinity of nongaming services. They're not quite as impressive as the Xbox Live or PS3's online media systems, but they're still fun and are occasionally useful to have around.
The Forecast Channel turns your Wii into your own personal weather report. It displays the local weather, a five-day forecast, and even UV reports. If you want to know more than what the weather's going to be like in your town, you can zoom out to a global view, complete with recognizable weather icons for nearly every major city. A quick drag with the Wiimote can get a weather report for anywhere from San Francisco to Tokyo. It won't replace the Weather Channel or more in-depth online weather services, but for a quick glance at the forecast in between games, the Forecast Channel is pretty neat.
The News Channel functions similarly to the Forecast Channel, only with news instead of weather. It downloads stories from the AP wire service, which are displayed in text that can be resized and zoomed in for easier reading on large screens. The stories come with either some form of accompanying photos, or a map indicating where the news is taking place. By default, the News Channel organizes the different stories in the manner of a newspaper into sections such as national, international, regional, and sports news. Besides the newspaperlike format, stories can also be browsed through a slide show or a globelike interface similar to the Forecast Channel's. Much like the Forecast Channel, the News Channel offers a nifty service that doesn't replace dedicated television or online news sources.
The Internet Channel is an Opera-based Web browser for the Wii. New URLs are entered with the Wiimote via the Wii's onscreen keyboard, and favorite Web pages can be stored in the browser's bookmarks. The browser is surprisingly full featured, and can even load complex, Flash-heavy Web pages such as YouTube and our own CNET.com. Much like the News Channel, the pages can be zoomed in and out for comfortable reading on larger screens. It occasionally chokes on some sites, but this might be more due to the sites' browser-sensing scripts that automatically assume the Internet Channel won't be compatible.
The Internet Channel is currently available for free as a beta version, but that won't likely remain the case. When Opera releases the final version of the Internet Channel software, it will be available as a paid download from the Shopping Channel, for the Wii Points equivalent of around $30. For now, however, the Internet Channel is nice and free.
Shopping for old-school games with the Virtual Console is easy. If your Wii is online, just go to the Wii Shop channel and browse. These games cost Wii Points, which can be purchased in card form at stores such as Electronics Boutique, or with a credit card directly through the Wii Shop. Regardless of how you get your points, you'll need to enter them into your account through the Wii Shop. If you have a Wii Points card, you can redeem it by entering a code through your Wii. If you want to buy the points directly online, you have to enter your credit card information with the Wiimote through the Wii's software keyboard.
Once you have your points, you can start shopping. Go into the Wii Shop and select Virtual Console, then browse through the various games available. Each game has a title screenshot and a short description so that you can learn a bit before you decide to buy. When you're ready, just click Download, and you can confirm the purchase. The Wii will tell you exactly how much space you'll have left on the Wii and how many Wii Points you'll have left in your account after the download. After you confirm the purchase, the Wii begins downloading your chosen game automatically. The progress of the download is shown by a cute animation of the 8-bit Super Mario Bros. Mario chasing coins and hitting blocks. The downloads can take less than a minute for NES games, or as much as 10 minutes for Nintendo 64 games. Once the game is downloaded, the program will boot you back to the Wii Shop's main menu.
Downloaded Virtual Console games appear as individual channels in the Wii's main menu, and playing those games is as simple as selecting their channel and pressing start. The VC emulator loads the game, and your retro fun begins.
VC games are essentially perfect emulations of their original versions, which is both good and bad for gamers. Classic purists will be thrilled at the genuine, old-school gameplay experience, but more casual players hoping for the enhanced graphics or online play found in some XBLA retro games will be disappointed. For extra old-school experience, the Wiimote itself can be turned sideways and handled like a conventional controller for NES and Turbographix-16 games. For SNES, Genesis, and N64 games, however, you'll need either an old GameCube controller plugged into one of the system's GC ports or the Wii Virtual Console controller plugged into your Wiimote.
Wide-screen users will notice the one fatal flaw of the Virtual Console: old-school games have no wide-screen support. If you play on a wide-screen TV, your retro game will be stretched noticeably. Though a firmware update may be in the system's future, the only way to fix this issue currently is to set your television to a 4:3 aspect ratio for Virtual Console games and set it back to wide-screen for regular games.
The Wiimote controller
Wii Sports also doubles as a tutorial for familiarizing yourself with the system's unique wireless controller, which is what really sets it apart from competing consoles--and all the game systems that have come before it. The Wiimote, as it's been affectionately dubbed, is a sophisticated motion-sensing controller that connects wirelessly to the Wii via the Bluetooth wireless protocol.
This revolutionary design isn't completely wireless: to function, it requires the placement of the Wii's sensor bar either on top of or beneath your television screen. Fortunately, the sensor bar is extremely unobtrusive, and we forgot it was even there minutes after setting up the system. The sensor bar is a small and light plastic rectangle about the size of two pens laid end to end, and it connects to the Wii with a very long cord (about eight feet), so its setup is simple and flexible. The sensor bar comes with a tiny, clear plastic base with adhesive squares on its feet, so you can stick it securely on the top of your television, even if it's a narrow flat-panel screen.
Accelerometers inside the remote sense how the device is being held and if it's being moved in any direction. These sensors control actions such as baseball bat and golf club swings in Wii Sports, Link's sword slashes in The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, and even steering trucks in Excite Truck. Moreover, you hold the Wiimote differently depending on the game: grasp it like the hilt of a sword in Zelda and Red Steel, as a baseball bat or tennis racket in Wii Sports, or hold it horizontally as a steering bar for Excite Truck. Because the Wiimote is so light, these controls and movements can take some getting used to. Fortunately, a speaker and a force-feedback module built into the Wiimote can provide additional tactile and audio feedback for your actions and add an extra bit of immersion to the Wii experience. For example, the remote's tiny speaker makes an audible "Clang!" when Link swings his sword, and it rumbles when Link strikes an enemy. Even menu selections on the Wii are signaled by helpful little vibrations of the Wiimote.
The Wiimote also uses a set of infrared sensors to determine the remote's orientation in regard to the television. A set of IR diodes in the Wiimote communicate with the Wii's sensor bar to serve as a pointer for navigating menus and aiming weapons in first-person shooters. Again, this control system takes some getting used to, but once you adapt to the control, pointing with the Wiimote feels much more natural than using an analog stick. It doesn't quite replace the beloved mouse-and-keyboard combination for FPS games, but--after getting acclimated to it--we found it worked better than traditional console controllers.
While the new control system is both fun and innovative, the pointer gets occasionally jerky or twitchy, and the tilt controls require a light and subtle touch. Part of this can be attributed to the Wii's learning curve, and after a few hours we barely noticed those quirks. Unfortunately, the Wii doesn't currently have a way to manually calibrate the Wiimote's controls; you're forced to trust the Wii's generally accurate automatic calibration.
The remote's stand-alone abilities are impressive enough, but it also has a device port so that accessories can be plugged directly into it. The Wii comes with a nunchuk attachment, a small device that plugs into the remote and contains an analog stick and two additional buttons. The nunchuk augments the Wiimote in many games, such as controlling characters' movements in Twilight Princess or Red Steel. The nunchuk also contains motion-sensing equipment, so it can be shaken and rocked to perform additional actions. For example, shaking the nunchuk in Twilight Princess executes a spinning slash attack.
The nunchuk will probably be the most commonly used Wiimote accessory, but others will also be available. Currently, the only other confirmed accessory is the Virtual Console controller, a conventional gamepad with dual analog sticks. The VC controller will most likely be used with the Wii's Virtual Console to play older games, though some Wii games will support the pad's more conventional controls. We also saw at E3 2006 a pistol grip accessory that the Wiimote slides into to offer more controls with shooter games. The pistol grip hasn't been confirmed for retail release, but it offers an example of the flexibility and potential the control configuration offers.
This wireless, motion-sensing goodness doesn't come without a price. The Wiimote uses two AA batteries, which must power the remote's accelerometers, IR sensors, Bluetooth radio, speaker, rumble module, and any attachments you plug in (the batteryless nunchuk draws its power from the Wiimote). The Wii doesn't come with any sort of charger, so you'll almost certainly want to pick up a set of at least four rechargeable AA batteries and a battery charger. Another factor to consider is that extra controllers a pretty pricey: $40 for additional Wiimotes, plus another $20 for the nunchuk.
Gameplay and graphics
The Wii's biggest and most obvious appeal is the ability to use its motion-sensing controller to play Wii-specific games. The Wii's release lineup includes the highly anticipated Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess and the addictive pack-in party game Wii Sports, as well as a variety of more traditional third-party titles (many of which have been enhanced to use the Wiimote control). But while you're waiting for some more innovative Wii titles to arrive, there will still be plenty of games to play. The Wii is fully backward compatible with the Nintendo GameCube and includes four built-in GameCube controller ports and two GameCube memory card slots for gamers who want to enjoy their last-gen games.
If Wii and GameCube games aren't enough, the Wii also features Nintendo's Virtual Console, a library of games from the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), Super NES, Nintendo 64, Sega Genesis, and Turbografix-16 systems. Games can be purchased and downloaded over Nintendo's online Wii Store, where they are stored on the Wii's system memory or SD card. Virtual Console game purchases are tied to the Wii's network ID, so you can't pop your Virtual Console games onto an SD card and take them over to play them on a friend's Wii. On the bright side, Nintendo is pledging that already purchased games can be downloaded again free if you accidentally lose or delete your data. Games are purchased with Wii Points, which can be purchased via credit card or gift card (100 Wii Points equals one U.S. dollar)--the system is essentially identical to Microsoft's tried-and-true Xbox Live Marketplace (Sony's fledgling PlayStation store will denominate purchases in real currency, but is functionally the same). NES games will cost the equivalent of $5 (500 points), Turbografix-16 games $6, Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis games $8, and Nintendo 64 games $10.
While the Wii's controller is very advanced and innovative, its processing power is not. The system uses a more powerful version of the Nintendo GameCube's processor, and it doesn't have nearly as much polygon-pushing power as the Xbox 360 or the PlayStation 3. While Microsoft's and Sony's consoles support high-definition outputs of up to 1080p, the Wii can hit only the GameCube's ceiling of 480p, and even that mode can't be used with the Wii's included composite A/V cables. (Most if not all of the Wii's games will, however, be optimized for wide-screen TVs.) The Wii also lacks advanced surround sound, instead sticking with the GameCube's Dolby Pro-Logic II matrixed surround (based on a stereo signal, not native 5.1). In other words, if you're looking for state-of-the-art eye candy, you're going to want to opt for the PS3 or the Xbox 360--either of which will take a significantly larger chunk of your bank account.
Is the Wii worth picking up? It all depends on what you're looking for. If you've been clamoring for an all-purpose next-generation multimedia box with blinding HD graphics, the Wii will be a disappointment. But Nintendo was never competing in that arena anyway: the Wii is focused squarely on delivering fun and innovative gameplay, leaving Sony and Microsoft to battle it out at the high end. The Wiimote and its motion-sensing, pseudo-virtual-reality controls are the biggest draws of the console, and its online capabilities, Wii Channels, Virtual Console, and GameCube backward-compatibility are just a thick, sweet layer of icing on an already tasty cake. With a price tag of just $250--far less than those of its competitors--and the included Wii Sports disc that provides mindless fun out of the box, the Nintendo Wii won't disappoint. Whether it will be merely a short-lived novelty or a sea change in video gaming, only time will tell.