Friday, September 22, 2006

How Thin is the Wii Lineup?

Alright, now that I've had a day or so to absorb the information of the impending Wii launch this November, I can start to examine things in a more critical light. As is often the case, I'm a sucker for early hype and first impressions, and sober thinking only returns later after a time.

I'm remembering the 1994 Summer CES in Chicago, when Nintendo unveiled one of its greatest surprises - Donkey Kong Country. The game was a sensation at the show, since it came as a complete surprise. It was only after the show winded down that I and the rest of the zine crew realized that, no matter the graphics sheen, the gameplay was a little basic. At the end of the day, DKC was just another platformer. A solid one, yes, but not the harbinger of a new age.

I think a similar attitude is in place for Wii. The new control scheme - Wiimote and Nunchuck - is indeed revolutionary, and it's pretty easy to get swept up in all the momentum at first blush. Videogames have been anything but innovative or fresh for a long time now. The economics of the business and the bad habits of the consumers have sucked all the joy out of games. It's all down to Doom game, Driving game, GTA game, and Madden. Sequel of a sequel of a sequel of a movie tie-in. I don't know about you, but I think that's a crushing bore. Fucking boring.

So then Nintendo comes along with Wii, promising a new age of immersion and invention in games, and it's easy to become swept up. It's the answer to all our prayers. It feels like you're a kid again, with an Atari joystick or NES pad in your hands, and the possibilities are endless.

Will the Wii console deliver that? Does the launch lineup deliver. Hmm. I have to conclude that it's a mixed bag. Wii has enormous potential, and one day I hope that we'll see new kinds of games that were never possible before, just as the more inventive titles on DS have demonstrated. But is that happening how? I don't think so.

Basically, this is the first generation of games software. Developers are still learning the ropes, and practicing with what works and what doesn't. There are a lot of games that serve to show off the new Wiimote, but little else. This is more evident with the Japanese conference, which occured simultaneously with Nintendo's presentation in New York. What we have are a lot of tech demos. Potentially fun tech demos, yes, but gameplay-wise, we're going back to the simplified days of the Atari 2600.

Obviously, there's Wario Ware, which seems to fulfill the same thrills as Wario Ware: Twisted on the GBA. It's a perfect opporunity to experiement with new control schemes and gameplay ideas, and wrap them around the micro-game format. It's a formula Nintendo has honed over several years. It works, fusing a lot of off-kilter humor and paying tribute to Nintendo history. I think the whole Wario Ware franchise is being milked dry, but it should work for one more installment.

So you'll be wise to grab Wario Ware for Wii. Where does that leave all the other simple demo games? I suspect this is one reason why Wii Sports has been included as the console pack-in. The novelty of the game - its control scheme, the bright, retro graphics - has a definite hook, one that guarantees everyone will want to try their hand for a game or two. But what's left after the novelty wears off? What happens once you're used to swinging a Wiimote? There's not a lot of depth or strategy to Wii Sports. All you reall ever do is swing the controller around wildly.

This is a game for children. It holds you by the hand and coddles you. At what point do the training wheels come off? Should I be able to play an actual round of golf, or move my tennis player around the field? All I'm doing is swinging the remote. I'm still eager to play, and hopeful that it becomes popular at parties, but I also remember the great multiplayer Dreamcast games like Virtua Tennis and SF Rush 2049 and Chu Chu Rocket and Power Stone 2.

Nintendo has a second set of Wii Sports mini-games including Duck Hunt, and it seems the complexity is being increased. These still aren't games that are worth $50 at retail. Let's hope they price these things appropriately.

Apart from Nintendo, there's Hudson's airplane game, which looks a lot like Pilotwings. It seems, again, the whole thing rests on the novelty of holding the Wiimote like a paper airplane and making your own buzzing sounds.

There's Ubisoft's Rayman Raving Rabbits, which certainly has a twisted sense of humor, but it's really a collection of mini-game demos. There's a simplified lightgun game, a simplified rhythm game, simplified FPS games, and some Wario-styled bits like milking or twirling cows.

There are a number of racing games that involve holding the Wiimote like a steering wheel. Excite Truck, Tony Hawk Downhill Jam, Sonic Rings. They all look pretty good, and I'll be looking very closely to see how they perform. Excite Truck is looking like a good second purchase (after Zelda, of course). Still, playing Devil's Advocate, these games look simple, stripped down, wrapped around the novelty of the controller. I hope I'm wrong here, but at least with Sonic and Tony Hawk, we're getting stripped-down games.

Okay, fine. The early Wii library will be just like the early DS library. Lots of short demos posing as games. That's to be expected, I suppose, but I sincerely hope developers don't use the mantle of "reaching the mainstream non-gamer" as an excuse to churn out one Atari 2600 game after another. It's bad enough that the hardware is so weak - the "Supercube" is really going to look dated in a couple years against the 360 and PS3.

So, okay, the best game at launch will be Zelda (a Gamecube game), followed by Red Steel and Excite Truck and a whole pile of tech-demo party games. Hmm. Is that gonna cut the mustard? For the first six months, sure. Nintendo's going to sell every Wii console that hits the shelves. After that, it's anyone's guess. The second wave of software titles next year is going to be crucial.

Oh, and by the way, if this is the only Zelda that ever comes out for this console, I'm gonna be seriously pissed off.

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