Hands on with the Nintendo Wii

Having pre-ordered a Nintendo Wii from my local video game retailer back in October, I didn’t need to wait in a long line to pick mine up when the game console went on sale Sunday —I just waltzed in and grabbed a unit that had been reserved for me, along with a spare controller and two games: The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess and Rayman’s Raving Rabbids. So far, it’s been loads of fun.

Measuring about 8.5 inches long, 6 inches wide and a little less than 2 inches tall, the Wii is very compact, and I think that Mac fans will appreciate the aesthetic appeal of the console. It’s white with some grey graphics; the sole excess is an optical drive bay that glows blue when it’s active. You can rest the unit horizontally or vertically; most of the pictures I’ve seen of it show it resting vertically in its stand, which is how I set it up. The stand is designed to angle the front of the Wii upwards slightly.

Like all of this new generation of video game consoles, the Wii features wireless Internet connectivity and wireless controllers.

Limited graphics quality

The Wii connects to a television using an included composite video cable. That means the Wii can connect to just about any TV that’s come out in the last decade, but it also means that the Wii lacks really sharp graphics out of the box—you even have to pay extra to use sharper S-Video, which many analog TVs feature.

The Wii’s AV multi-output also supports component video, but high-definition TV fans may be disappointed to discover that the Wii, unlike the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, doesn’t support any resolution higher than 480i and 480p. It can be configured to work with widescreen TVs; however, it’s unlikely to be a selling point for people who want to get the most out of their big TVs.

The Wii’s graphics are created using an ATI-made graphics processing unit. (The CPU, meanwhile, is a PowerPC chip.) The Wii’s graphics are certainly sharper than the GameCube’s, with richer colors and better animation, but the graphics are an evolution of the GameCube’s, too—not jaw-droppingly better, as we’ve seen on the Xbox 360 or PS3.

No movie support

It’s also worth noting that while the Wii uses a 5.25-inch optical drive, it can’t play DVDs, nor can it play the newer high-def formats HD-DVD and Blu-Ray. There’s been some talk about Nintendo releasing an updated version of the Wii next year that will work with DVDs, but that’s not the case right now. And it looks at this point like that’s bound be an actual change to the hardware, rather than just a software update, though time will ultimately tell. Suffice it to say that for now, Wii owners should only count on playing games.

This isn’t a bad thing, by any stretch of the imagination. Sony is blaming a shortage of diodes needed to make Blu-Ray optical drives work as the principal reason why its PS3 is in such short supply this year. And while the Xbox 360 will be able to play HD DVDs, that’s only using a $200 add-on peripheral—the box you buy in the store now can only play “regular” DVDs.

By comparison, Nintendo said it has five to 10 times the number of Wiis available at launch compared to the PS3. The Wii is also half the cost of the PS3 and less than the Xbox 360 as well, so there are tradeoffs.

Social butterfly

Central to the concept of the Wii is the idea that gaming is a social experience. New Wii users are encouraged to create personal avatars—called, appropriately, Mii.

Miis can be extensively customized with hair styles, different kinds of eyes and skin tones, different face shapes and body structures and many other tweaks to really make them your own. You can specify a birthday and a favorite color, and whether you want your Mii to “mingle” or not.

These Mii also serve a dual purpose: When you play a game, you simply tell the Wii which Mii you are, and it can track your scores. You can let your Mii “mingle” with other Mii on other consoles by downloading them to your Wii Remote, and bringing your remote with you when you play at a friend’s house. The Mii also identifies you to other Wii users who find you online.

Innovative controllers

The controllers—called Wii Remotes by Nintendo but redubbed “Wii-motes” by game mavens—look and feel like television remote controls, but with fewer buttons and a trigger underneath, within easy reach of your index finger. The design’s similarity to a TV remote control is very intentional, according to Nintendo, which created the Wii to appeal to general consumers, many of whom may have never used a game console before.

The Wii Remote works in concert with a foot-long “sensor bar” that connects via a thin wire to the back of the Wii. The sensor bar can rest above or below your TV and enables your Wii to “see” the wireless Wii Remote. That, combined with mechanisms inside the controller, make it possible for you to wield the Wii Remote much more intuitively than you can with other consoles.

The ability to point at the screen and shoot is something that’s been a part of game consoles for decades, but up until recently, it was largely limited to working with CRT-based displays. With the advent of projection screens, plasmas and LCD TVs, those old light guns don’t work anymore. That’s where the sensor bar comes into play, as well as some cool technology inside the controller. The Wii is aware of where the Wii Remote is in space and how it’s being used, so your interaction with games is much more fluid and natural than you might initially expect—much more so than just pointing and clicking a button.

Playing the golf game included with the console as part of the Wii Sports disc, for example, you take a swing just as you would with a golf club. Overswing and you’re likely to hook or slice your shot. Playing tennis, you’ll need to backhand some shots. Using the controller is incredibly intuitive and it’s something that even novice game players “get” almost instantly. It’s utterly unlike other game consoles.

At the bottom of the Wii Remote is an interface to connect an extension called a Nunchuck—it’s a secondary controller, designed to be used in your off-hand, containing a thumbstick and two buttons. Working in concert with the Wii Remote, the Nunchuck enables you to interact with the Wii in ways you can’t with one hand: Boxing, for example, holding up your gloves to block a punch from your opponent.

Inside the Wii Remote, you’ll find a speaker. This is used to provide positional audio in some games. (For example, in Wii Sports boxing, you’ll hear your punches come from there.) There’s also a rumble device. The controller is powered by two AA alkaline batteries.

Only one controller is included with the Wii, and it comes with a Nunchuck too. The Wii can support up to four controllers. Nintendo sells the Wii Remotes and Nunchucks separately.

Installation and setup

When you first boot the Wii you’re walked through configuring it for your television, and, if applicable, setting up wireless networking access. I had no problems getting the Wii to talk with my 802.11g-based WiFi router, though I had to change the router’s active channel before the Wii could connect to Nintendo’s servers to download its latest system update.

The Wii’s setup was quite a plug-and-play experience, and I’ve had no problem getting it to run Wii or GameCube games. I’ve read comments from other Wii users talking about disc errors or problems getting some games to run. I can only speak directly to my experience, however, which has been quite good.

Wii on the Internet

If you lack wireless networking access in your home, Nintendo also makes available a USB-based network adapter. (There are two USB 2.0 ports on the back of the Wii, though no Ethernet connections).

The Wii’s Internet access — called WiiConnect24—is a persistent connection that will also be used (eventually) for downloading news, weather forecasts, surfing the Web and other abilities. You can use it to chat with friends, either other Wii users or regular e-mail accounts. There’s no charge for WiiConnect24 on top of your regular Internet access.

Because WiiConnect24 is persistent, it can download system updates or other content without needing the Wii to be powered on first (you can adjust this setting if keeping your Wii connected all the time makes you uncomfortable).

There’s also an online Wii store, where you can buy additional software (using either a credit card or Wii store points cards, similar to the iTunes Store cards you’ll find at retailers—useful for underaged Wii users who don’t have a credit card of their own.

The Wii can also connect wirelessly to Nintendo’s handheld system, the DS, which features its own WiFi-based connectivity.

Virtual Console

One of the system’s most vaunted features is its “Virtual Console” capability—it can run games designed for older Nintendo consoles, as well as the Sega Genesis and TurboGrafx 16. You can buy these games online. The service is only starting out with a handful, but Nintendo plans to expand the library to dozens by the year’s end.

To achieve maximum compatibility with these older titles, you’ll need either a GameCube controller (a concealed panel opens to allow you to hook up to four GameCube controllers and load two GameCube memory cards), or you’ll need to buy Nintendo’s Classic Controller—a wired controller that plugs into the Wii and provides a similar experience as the controllers included with those older consoles.

Limited storage capacity

It’s worth noting that the Wii has no built-in hard disk drive—game save files and downloaded content are stored using built-in system memory. You can expand the storage capacity of the Wii using a standard Secure Digital (SD) flash memory card slot, located under a panel on the front of the unit.

This also makes the Wii compatible with SD cards from cell phones or digital cameras; the main user interface — the Wii Menu — even includes a photo browser designed for thumbing through such files.

The lack of storage capacity makes it unlikely that we’ll see WiiConnect24 end up as a way for Wii users to download demos of Wii games, though Nintendo seems intent on offering up plenty of other content for users to grab.

Lots of fun for lots less cash

Nintendo expects that within the next month and a half, it will fill out its offerings with more than 30 new games for the Wii. They’re not all there yet, although there’s plenty to keep even avid gamers happy. And if you’ve amassed a sizable GameCube library, you can still play them, too—all 530 of them.

At $249 for the basic console with a game, the Wii is fairly priced for the amount of fun it gives you straight out of the box. Add in another game, extra Wii Remote and Nunchuck, and you’ll be tipping the scales at $359 or so, but that’s still pretty low-priced for a brand new console.

The Wii may not be as graphically powerful as the Xbox 360 or the PlayStation 3, but Nintendo is trying to reach out to a very different buyers with this console than Microsoft or Sony are interested in. Nintendo wants to appeal to people who may have never played a video game before in their life. To that end, the intuitive controller scheme may very well help Nintendo win new fans along the way.

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