Ok, so I’ve had a Wii for a week now (insert childish snigger here) and thought I’d post my initial impression. It’s difficult because due to the continuing extreme stock shortages, I’m still missing an extra controller and Zelda, but here’s my view on what I have, ie Wii Sports, Super Monkey Ball - Banana Blitz, and the online services so far.
Firstly, it’s really quite incredible just how accurate and sensitive the controllers are. When they’re used well by the software, they can pick up very subtle changes in both angle and movement, and the pointer is generally very accurate. It’s also clear to me that Nintendo have been very, very smart about the shape and configuration of the controllers. It’s really quite surprising just how natural it feels in lots of different set-ups, from holding just the Wiimote it like a bat / club, to pointing it like a gun, or connecting the nunchuck and using the two in different combinations - sometimes as a regular directional controller, sometimes using the nunchuck’s own motion sensors to give you a many-axis combination of 2 motion-sensitive controllers.
Due to the fact that the 2 games I currently have use the controllers in lots of different ways, it’s become very clear to me that it can work brilliantly as a regular controller, as a steering wheel, as a flight yoke, as a club/bat/sword, as 2 controller levers in a tank setup, and as a better WSAD-and-mouse replacement than I’ve ever seen on a console. The range is really quite impressive and when the software uses it well, it doesn’t feel gimmicky at all (which was a possible concern), it just feels natural. That removes a huge part of the usability gap between you and the game, which is why I’m sure non-gamers can pick it up much more easily than a traditional controller. As a long-time gamer I appreciate it a lot too - all regular gamers have developed an ability to ‘paper over’ the gap between the player and the game caused by the necessary mapping of actions to little control sticks and buttons, but having that gap physically removed is far, far better - as anyone who has compared playing House of the Dead with a control stick versus a light gun could attest to.
What I’ve also learned is that it takes skill to use all this potential well. Wii Sports does it brilliantly, combining the immediacy of natural motion with accuracy and subtlety that really shines. When you’re hitting the baseball, it really does matter what angle you swing at and you can control direction, height, power just like you would in real life. In tennis you can put spin on the ball, control lobs and direction just by how you swing the controller. It’s a lot of fun in the first 10 minutes but also has a lot of depth to it.
Monkey Ball is another matter. The main game is a mixed bag - on the plus side, they’ve used the controller well and subtle control of the ball is much easier with the Wiimote; with the control stick in previous versions you had to have utter Zen-like control of your thumb and be able to move it accurately over tenths of a millimetre. They got rid of the more random elements of Monkeyball 2, which is good, but they added boss fights which was just daft - that had to be a marketing decision. I’m also not too keen on the fact that the ball is bouncier, like rubber rather than plastic as it felt before, which when coupled with the ‘jump’ feature I think detracts from the core mechanic of success being determined by walking the knife-edge of control, speed, and your nerve. At the end of the day I think the original Monkeyball is still the better game because the core mechanic and level design was perfect - add the Wiimote control to that and you’d have had a winner, but Sega seemed to think they needed to load it down with more baggage than it needed. Still fun, and still an improvement on the last one (which failed because of over-ambitious level design) but I can’t help feeling it could have been better.
But the minigames on SMB:BB - oh dear. Minigames were always a highlight of previous SMB games but they’ve really screwed up this time. They included 40 - yes 40 - minigames, but most of them are utter rubbish. For different reasons, some are just dull, but many make attrocious use of the controls, and this is where the above lesson comes from. Using the Wiimote & Nunchuck well takes time, and I expect a good deal of experimentation, tweaking and refinement. They used it well in some minigames - the yoke (and ‘flap’) control in the ‘Racing Birds’ game works well, the steering wheel is great in racing, and the pointer control works very well in the asteroids and FPS-style games, to name a few. What they appear to have done is experiment with lots of different ideas, and then just stuffed them all in regardless of how well they turned out, leaving many of them to just fall totally flat. What they should have done is toss away 75% of the minigames at prototype stage and used the time to really polish the few they had left - the ones that do work well show they had the potential to do that. But they went for the marketing bullet point “40 minigames!!” instead and what you get is a really poor first impression, since if you randomly pick a minigame, chances are it will be poor.
So, clearly there’s a lot of potential here if it’s used well, and I’m surprised at just how well it does work in Wii Sports, and how much depth it can have, which is easily our most-played game so far. They cleverly used the same idea they used in Brain Training and introduced a ‘Wii Fitness’ daily test, which only takes 5-10 minutes to do a day and it keeps a graph of your progress. It’s quite compelling to just do that even if you don’t have time for anything else.
The Mii system is fun, it’s quite surprising how easily you can create a quite striking cartoony likeness of yourself, send it across to other people’s machines, and that’s entertaining especially when you go up against each other in a game of tennis or baseball. Again I think this is a savvy move, making Mii’s non-photorealistic and propagating that style to the games - they’re easy to create, and it’s a lot more entertaining in a social setting to chuckle at the characiture of your friends than say if you had tried taking a real photo of yourself and slapped it onto a game character - something that’s possible but fairly rare for people to actually do, and it’s far less funny. It’s all about “we’re not taking this too seriously, it’s all just fun” and I think that resonates with most people, again leading to a broad appeal. For me that approach fits, because my console is a social, living room experience that I quite rarely play alone, so the emphasis should be on fun and inclusion. I also think that the best multiplayer games are played in the same room, with people you already know, despite the current obsession with online gaming. I never particularly got into online play with strangers, mostly because it seemed the population was excessively populated by 3 groups:
- ultra-competitive players who live and breathe the game, and whose only goal is to make the small amount of time you get to play as miserably demoralising as possible
- annoying teenagers who alternate between over-asserting their (dubious) masculinity while winning, and whining like girls when losing
- people with all the social grace of a drunken frat party, if it were attended by a troop of chronically flatulent baboons.
Some people manage all 3 categories at once. Impressive. And whilst there are plenty of perfectly reasonable people online, in my experience the people in the above 3 categories are by nature online a lot more that the average person, and are loud, attention seeking and domineering of the space. It’s like being in the school cafeteria, except you can’t throw your chips at someone when they’re being a dick.
Anyway, back to the Wii - the Internet browser (opera based) works surprisingly well considering the limited resolution and is a fun way to show people YouTube videos without getting the laptop out. All in all, we’ll have to see how things develop but the Wii could easily be a big winner for Nintendo, because when you get a that magical synergy of good hardware and good software like Wii Sports, it’s clear that this is something new, and something very exciting indeed. Judging by how hard it is to buy the console and accessories even after xmas I’m guessing they’ve had some very promising sales figures already.