It's all fun and games at NYC's Wii launch

Nintendo and Toys "R" Us collaborate for a remarkably smooth launch as Wii fans--or were they Zelda fans?--gather for goodies. Photos: Wii takes over Times Square Video: Wii takes Manhattan

Caroline McCarthy Former Staff writer, CNET News
Caroline McCarthy, a CNET News staff writer, is a downtown Manhattanite happily addicted to social-media tools and restaurant blogs. Her pre-CNET resume includes interning at an IT security firm and brewing cappuccinos.
Caroline McCarthy
5 min read
NEW YORK--The massive video screens, neon lights and perpetual crowds of Times Square are enough to make anyone dizzy. But throw in a Nintendo Wii launch event, and the energy reaches a whole new level.

The line began at the entrance to the Toys "R" Us store on 44th Street and 7th Avenue, New York's official Wii venue (complete with an indoor Ferris wheel), and snaked around nearly the entire block: up to 45th Street, around to 6th Avenue, and back. By midnight, there were approximately 3,000 Wii fans and gawkers.

It was a diverse bunch, with the groups of people waiting for the midnight launch of the Wii ranging from rowdy packs of teenagers to families with small children. The gender makeup was skewed in favor of males, but it was a far more coed affair than Sony's PlayStation 3 launch on Thursday night.

And when people were asked how long they'd stood in line, the answers ranged from 20 minutes (near the back) to 30 hours--impressive, but since Times Square's heavy pedestrian traffic meant that Wii buyers weren't allowed to line up too far in advance, it paled in comparison to the PS3's multiday campout.

But regardless of age or gender, or how long they'd been standing around, everyone in line was absolutely ecstatic for the Wii. And, as they were quick to point out, they weren't about to rush home to sell them on eBay.

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Video: Wii takes over Times Square
Long lines, but wait worth it for fans purchasing the first Wii units after midnight in New York City.

"These are all real gamers," said 29-year-old Triforce, who was the first person waiting in line and considers himself to be so immersed in gaming culture that he legally changed his first name to his gaming name. Triforce was wearing a Power Glove, a hand-movement-based controller for the original Nintendo Entertainment System, on his right hand. He said it's a testament to where he and the rest of the gaming community have come from.

Triforce is no stranger to launch events, having waited in line for the Xbox 360, the Nintendo DS and the PlayStation 2. But when I asked him about the PlayStation 3, he shook his head. "I didn't want to get involved in the mayhem," he said, "and it's not worth the risk of danger."

The PS3's debut, plagued by horror stories about impending shortages, had been marred by incidents of rioting and even shootings in some cities. "It's a horrible misrepresentation of gamers," Triforce added.

But there was no talk of Wii shortages, and the Toys "R" Us store was very open about the fact that 4,000 units would be in the store at midnight--10 times as many as the 400 PS3s that had been available at the SonyStyle store for Thursday's launch party. Consequently, the overall atmosphere was cheery and bubbly, which 20-year-old Everett--one of the first half-dozen people in line--attested to.

"Meet everyone!" he said to me enthusiastically. "It's a great crowd here tonight. Everyone's cool, and relaxed."

A large part of that was because everyone was confident that they'd be going home with Wii consoles in hand. So the Wii line was, as Everett had observed, notably calm. There was only one situation in which the line began to resemble a mob scene, and that's whenever Nintendo representatives passed by to hand out swag: Wii T-shirts, beanies and baseball caps. For that, the crowd went wild.

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Free stuff wasn't the only way Nintendo kept fans entertained before the launch. There were also plenty of opportunities to actually try out the Wii, as a number of the consoles were attached to TVs that were strapped onto the fronts of Segway Human Transporters. Nintendo's crew rode the "Segwiis" (as one blogger nicknamed them) around and stopped intermittently so that gamers in line could give the new system a test drive. And for passersby who weren't in line, there was music cued up by DJs and performances by dance group AntiGravity.

Interestingly enough, most people weren't just waiting for the Wii. They were, more specifically, eager to get their hands on its most-hyped game, Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. In the middle of the line, I spoke to 7-year-old Justin, his head almost completely hidden by a Wii beanie, who had been waiting in line with his parents and two older brothers since earlier that evening. When I asked him what game he was most excited to play, he answered definitively with, "Zelda!"

Zelda-mania wasn't restricted to the under-10 age group. At the very front of the line, Triforce professed, "'Nintendo fan' is the wrong term. I'm a Zelda fan." He told me that the new Zelda game was so highly anticipated, it was rumored that Toys "R" Us had as many copies of it as it did Wii units. "Everyone wants Zelda," Triforce said. Behind him in line, Everett commented that maybe Nintendo should've just bundled Zelda with the Wii.

"But then it would've cost more," one of Everett's friends added. "Like, over $300." Everett nodded in agreement. These intense Wii fans at the front of the line took pride in the console's affordable cost--especially compared to what they thought was an extravagant price tag for the PS3.

Around 11:30, Nintendo of America president and CEO Reginald Fils-Aime, known affectionately to loyalists as "Reggie," took the stage to welcome everyone to the event and to remind them that there were more than enough Wiis to go around.

"Somebody told me there were nearly 3,000 people in line," he said. "Well, let me tell you, we've got 4,000 units in the store." The fans erupted into a Jerry Springer-like chant of "Reggie! Reggie!" and Triforce instructed those waiting at the head of the line as to how they'd count down the final minute.

Soon after that, the clock struck midnight. Press coverage of this event was much more intense than that at the PS3 launch; when the first pack of Wii buyers arrived in the store, the scene erupted into a flurry of flashing camera bulbs.

But the media respectfully stood back as fans eagerly grabbed not only the Wii boxes, but also raided the selection of the various extra controllers, accessories and carrying cases that were offered nearby. The people still waiting were patient. The cashiers were well prepared for the onslaught. And the customers were dazzled by the celebrity treatment of cameras and microphones in their faces, and the cheering from the line outside whenever a group walked out with their Nintendo-logo shopping bags.