It's a safe bet that the Nintendo GameCube won't be remembered as the gaming company's finest hour. Despite a handful of great exclusive titles such as The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker and Metroid Prime, the console limped to a third-place finish against the Sony PlayStation 2 and the Microsoft Xbox. Among the reasons: lackluster support from third-party publishers, no real online gameplay, and a kid-friendly stigma. For its GameCube successor, Nintendo went back to the drawing board and took some cues from its popular dual-screen portable. Like the DS, the new Nintendo Wii (it was developed under the name Revolution) has a focus on fun, accessible gameplay, and a unique control system. The Wii will make its worldwide debut on November 19, 2006 in North and South America, with additional worldwide distribution in the weeks to follow. The system will retail for $250 in the United States, and include one game--Wii Sports--in the box.
Upside: The GameCube's gameplay experience wasn't particularly distinguishable from that of its competitors, but the same can't be said of the Wii. The heart of the new system is the Wii Remote. Unlike the gamepads that you'll find on previous and current Microsoft and Sony consoles, the Wii Remote looks more like a wandlike remote control you might use to change the channels on your TV. In fact, it uses a motion sensor, so the movements in your hand can be translated onscreen. For instance, The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess allows you to use the Wii Remote to aim your bow or cast your fishing pole, while Super Mario Galaxy will use the controller to collect out-of-reach objects. Ubisoft's Red Steel, meanwhile, allows the player to use the controller to aim and swing a sword, while EA's Madden NFL franchise uses it to perform passing, kickoffs, and running tricks. In addition to the motion sensor, the controller features a four-way directional pad and two sets of buttons, including an over-under trigger configuration. Flip it on its side in a horizontal orientation, and the controls revert to old-school Nintendo: the D-pad on the left, two buttons on the right, in a configuration recognizable to any Game Boy or NES player. It also features an expansion port that allows for various other control options. The most notable expansion is the Nunchuk controller, which houses an analog thumbstick, two action buttons, and tilting motion sensitivity.
Another control method that should prove popular is the traditional gamepad, designed like an amalgamation of the Super Nintendo and PlayStation controllers, which should aid in the ability to play the system's vast backward-compatible catalog. In addition to Wii-specific titles available at retail, the new console is also fully backward-compatible with all GameCube discs. Moreover, the system's Virtual Console will allow users to download a bevy of classic titles from past Nintendo consoles, as well as games originally released for the Sega Genesis and NEC TurboGRAFX. There will be about 30 classic games available on the Wii at launch, including such fan favorites as Donkey Kong, Super Mario World, and Super Mario 64. Approximately 10 additional backlist titles will be added every month. Games will be purchased with Wii Points, a proprietary currency that will work much like Microsoft Points on the Xbox 360. The games will run between 500 and 1,000 points; the initial "exchange rate" looks to be 100 points to the dollar.
The Virtual Console games will be available as "Wii Channels," the system's onscreen interface. But the channels aren't just limited to gaming. Among the offerings will be a forecast channel (weather), a news channel, and a message channel, which will allow you to send messages to other Wii owners and e-mails to friends. There's also a photo "channel," which lets you view and manipulate digital images--just pop an SD card in the console's front slot. You can even browse the Web--if you purchase the Opera Web browser, which will be available through the Wii for a still-undisclosed amount of Wii Points. Rounding things out is the Mii Channel, which lets you create your own digital avatar, save it to your remote, and bring it to other Wii consoles, as well as use it in games such as Wii Sports.
Nintendo has managed to pack the Wii full of features without creating an exorbitant price tag. For $250, you can snag the console (available only in white at launch, though additional colors are sure to follow at some point), Wii Sports (a compilation of games including tennis, golf, bowling, baseball, and boxing), power and A/V cables, one Wii Remote, one Nunchuk controller, and one remote sensor (for detecting the Remote's movements). Considering that the fully featured Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 consoles sell for $400 and $600 respectively, Nintendo has made the Wii an attractive option for gamers that don't wish to break the bank.
Downside: One area where you'll definitely see the price difference is in visual quality. Unlike the PS3 and the Xbox 360, the Wii will not will not support high-definition output, though the system will offer 480p progressive scan and a wide-screen mode, so it has the potential to look at least as good as a DVD on an HDTV. In addition to the diminished resolution, the Wii won't have the graphical horsepower that you'll find under the hood of Microsoft and Sony's systems. The games we've seen so far are closer to the last generation of consoles than the current ones. In fact, the Wii's flagship launch title, The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess is being concurrently developed for the GameCube, with the controls--not the graphics--being the major difference between the versions.
While we were pretty impressed with the Wii's price point, the accessories for the system are a bit expensive for our liking. The Wii Remote will run $40 and the Nunchuk will cost $20, so to get the same controller accessories that are sold with the system, you are looking at a hefty $60. The classic controller is another $20. While we're all for innovation in control, we could see the Wii becoming a wasteland of one-off accessories that work with a small number of games. As popular as the DS is, Nintendo does have a track record of releasing innovative products that didn't quite catch on: ROB the Robot, the Power Glove, the e-Reader, and the Virtual Boy were all unique ideas that didn't quite pan out.
Outlook: Could the Wii be the latest in that line of failures? We doubt it. While we have a few qualms, Nintendo's combination of unique control features, an ultra-affordable price, and a huge back catalog of retro games make the system appealing for casual and enthusiast gamers alike. It's priced very attractively for holiday buyers, and the buzz for the console has been hot. With Sony's PlayStation 3 shipping in scarce quantities and the Xbox 360 continuing to aim for a more adult audience, Nintendo has a chance to reclaim the console crown with the Wii.