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A Nintendo surprise? Mais Wii!

perspective CNET News.com's Charles Cooper says that the odds favor Microsoft and Sony, but the game console victor may very well turn out to be Nintendo.

Nintendo hasn't been the hot game console maker for quite some time. But thanks to its own design inspiration, Nintendo has become the talk of the blogosphere.

As the holiday-shopping season gets under way, Nintendo is reaping the sort of public relations bonanza we've come to associate with the likes of a Steve Jobs product demo. Part of this is obvious media manipulation. Even though Sony and Microsoft dwarf Nintendo in total revenue, we're still talking about a multibillion-dollar corporation with ample means to stoke the PR cycle.

But whatever its origins, buzz soon takes on a life of its own. The big research houses tend to frame the debate about the future of the game console business as a battle between Microsoft and Sony. Chalk it up, perhaps, to institutional bias.

In the meantime, with the first Wii consoles going on sale November 19, early reviews suggest that Nintendo has got a beaucoup hot product on its hands. So much so that the president of the company's U.S. division is warning shoppers that there may be too much demand to satisfy. Even with the approximately 4 million Wii consoles expected to become available worldwide after the mid-November launch, Nintendo predicts that the systems will soon become scarce.

The winners...will be those machines that comprise more than the sum of their technical specs.

"We're urging shoppers not to get complacent," said Reggie Fils-Aime, president of Nintendo America. "The level of demand we're seeing goes beyond the ordinary. Retailers are telling us a significant fraction of customers preordering Wii are nontraditional gamers."

Fils-Aime is begging for a 15-yard penalty due to unnecessary self-promotion, and none of this is surprising since all the major consoles sell out at launch. But Nintendo recently did take out an exhibit at Life@50+, an annual event sponsored by the American Association of Retired People.

Maybe Nintendo is on to something that Microsoft and Sony will decide to tap. With the aging of the Baby Boomer generation, more and more over-50 types (such as moi) are skewing the normal demographic of the "average gamer."

The winners in the game console wars will be those machines that comprise more than the sum of their technical specs. Sum it all up with that much overused phrase, the "user experience." In this latest go-round of next-generation game consoles, Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft all packed their systems with doo-dads to make sure their list is oh-so impressive. But if that's your way of comparing, be my guest. Remember that on paper, the New York Yankees are a World Series caliber club; on the field, they're also-rans.

No doubt Nintendo's engineers believed that the company's previous entry, the ill-fated GameCube, had a respectable list of fancy specifications. Unfortunately for Nintendo, gamers were less impressed by a glossy laundry list than by what the system could--or in this case, could not--do. The blunt truth is that the GameCube was a me-too console with weak third-party support and absent real online gameplay. Any wonder then that it failed to stand up against the Sony PlayStation 2 and the Microsoft Xbox?

With the Wii, Nintendo learned from its mistakes. Reviewers have fallen in love with the fun motion-sensitive control system that translates hand movements onscreen. Even if the graphics aren't Xbox 360 or PS3 worthy, who may hesitate to shell out $400 for a fully featured Xbox 360 or $600 for the PlayStation 3.

Something else about this makes for an intriguing story. Both Sony and Microsoft have wider ambitions than simply offering gameplay: Sony views the PS3 as a way to promote the Blu-ray format while Microsoft dreams of displacing Apple Computer as the central technology provider for so-called entertainment hubs.

With so much at stake, the game console market has turned into quite the show--and may turn out to be the most interesting tech story for the remainder of this year.