Tuesday, March 11, 2008

WiiWare Set to Launch in Japan

Nintendo's WiiWare service for their Wii console is nearly ready to launch in Japan. March 25 is the official date, and the details on the first batch of games have been released. This is a fairly large event for Nintendo, and games in general. Don't let the simple, almost retro style of most of these games fool you. Digital distribution is the wave of the future. Before too long, games consoles will enable direct downloading much the same as you download music. We are really just beginning this process, the very early stages. Digital distribution will grow, however, and I would expect that eventually, publishers - the smaller ones especially - will just forgo the traditional brick-and-mortar model altogether and just go digital.

This is the arrival of the long tail model for videogames. This has the potential to greatly widen the market, opening up niche genres and quirky games that just couldn't be feasible under the traditional model. All that manufacturing and inventory and disc production costs a pretty penny. That's something that remains out of the reach of aspiring garage coders...the very coders who created video games in the first place. But online distribution will give them a way in.

But that's all future talk. For now, Nintendo needs to launch WiiWare with a successful mixture of titles, and I think they're doing that. The quality is pretty varied, but that's to be expected. There's a bit of experimentation at hand, and you can spot at least a couple titles that probably wouldn't be seen without WiiWare. If you're a fan of, say, classic arcade space shooters, WiiWare will become your new best friend.

Nintendo's biggest challenge, now, is memory storage. They'll need an option for storing all these games, and they'll need a viable solution soon. If they haven't announced anything by the end of this year, I'll be stunned. This was an issue for the Virtual Console, but WiiWare brings it to the forefront like nothing else. After the never-ending supply shortages, this is Nintendo Wii's greatest hurdle.

I'm showing photos from the games that grabbed my interest. These aren't all the games, and the library will steadily grow over time. These are just the ones I'd be most likely to buy. That is, of course, if I could actually find a Wii in stores anywhere. Why the bloody hell are there still shortages? Somebody in charge has to take a hit for this. There's no damned excuse. Anyway...

My first WiiWare pick is Okiraku Ping-Pong (Arc System Works, 500 points). The game is just as you'd expect, another in the long line of Pong games. Some of us have been playing this since Gerald Ford was President. Yeesh. And this isn't even the first Pong to appear on Wii; that distinction goes to Wii Play, which had ping-pong and air hockey.

This game probably wouldn't grab my attention, except for its striking visual style. It's very bold and colorful and dynamic. I think part of me expected the WiiWare games to be simplistic little games, something slapped together in a week. This game looks terrific. It's bold and confident in the way that arcade games were. I'm not happy that the tables are so far away, but I'm hopeful that the gameplay is nuanced and competitive enough. For five bucks, it's certainly worth a look. I've wasted five bucks on far worse things.

Next up is Hudson's Star Soldier R (Hudson, 800 points). It's purely a genre title, the classic arcade shooter, which has all but disappeared since the Playstation and Saturn passed away. But many of us have lamented the lack of those great games; back in the good 'ole days when video games weren't about anything beyond fast reflexes, shiny graphics, and the need to top the high score table.

The graphics are very modern, and Hudson has also put some real work into this title. I'm not expecting anything beyond the standard shooter, and that's fine for now. It's been so long since the glory days of the monster Sega Saturn shoot-em-ups, it may take developers time to get back into that groove. Until Sega gets enough sense to bring Saturn to Virtual Console, this is your next best fix.

Next up, unfortunately without any pictures, is Dr. Mario (Nintendo, 1000 points). Ten dollars is a bit steep to pay, I think, but you're getting a classic game updated with Wii graphics. You're also getting some impressive multiplayer for up to four players. This is an important release because it suggests a future where name-brand titles will make the jump to digital distribution. Dr. Mario is Nintendo's first test case. As usual, they're playing it very, very safe.

Tetris, of course, will be arriving on WiiWare in the near future, and hopefully without any of those Nintendo-game annoyances that ruined the DS cart for me. But Dr. Mario has the puzzle crown all to himself for now, and it's an easy enough game for beginning puzzle fans to try.

Finally...the one we're all really waiting for. Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles (Square Enix, 1500 points)! This is the flagship game for Nintendo's new service. It will sell as well as everyone expects, and it needs to, because the software community needs to be brought on board to digital distribution.

Square Enix pulled out all the stops, and it shows. Second-generation Wii games are really coming into their own, adding an extra layer of color and details that set it beyond the reach of GameCube. The console won't ever reach the level of XBox 360 or PS3, but games like Chrystal Chronicles look terrific. I'm still impressed with some of the later Saturn games.

Clearly, this game is leaps and bounds over everything else on WiiWare, and I'd gather that this will remain the case for some time. It's going to become the next must-see game on Wii, which is already having an excellent year. And maybe it's just me, but I really like the retro gaming look for this Final Fantasy. This series stopped being a videogame years ago; the directors are just aspiring filmmakers looking to break into Hollywood. I miss those Final Fantasy games from the Super Nintendo...part four, part six.

Should price be an issue? $15 for a single game is still dirt cheap. Budget games sell for more. My only concern is that Crystal Chronicles will be too short or limited, more of a trial than a full game. I hope that isn't the case. We deserve the full treatment. And if digital distribution means lowering those costs to the consumers...well, let's just say it's a great time to be Nintendo.

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