In 2005, when Nintendo unveiled its next-generation gaming console, the company revealed that the project's internal code name was "Revolution." Now that it's set to hit US stores on Nov 19, the box will sell, oddly, as the Wii--pronounced "we." But Revolution remains a better fit.
To compete with Sony's PlayStation 3 and Microsoft's Xbox 360, Nintendo has re-invented videogaming, making it more social, more intuitive and surprisingly physically engaging. The Wii is indeed revolutionary, and it's potentially the device that will make videogaming as widely enjoyed as board or card games.
The feature that sets the Wii apart from both its competitors and its ancestors is the Wii remote, the device's control pad. Instead of a bulky, button-studded joystick, Nintendo has produced a slim wand that looks like a television remote control. It's connected to the console wirelessly, and more important, it's equipped with an innovative motion sensor that detects movement and rotation in three dimensions.
In other words, the Wii remote allows users to get up, move around the room and become part of the game. If you want your character on the screen to swing his sword, you wield the remote and make the thrusts and parries yourself. In a game of baseball, you hold the remote like a bat, and swing for the stands when you want your virtual player to do the same.
By giving players the ability to physically interact with a virtual world, Nintendo has significantly changed the experience of videogaming. It's suddenly more immersive, more compelling and potentially more appealing to consumers who have never considered buying a videogame console before.
Last week, shortly after a Wii review unit arrived at Forbes.com's office, I set it up in a conference room to test it out. A colleague and I booted up Wii Sports, a collection of simple sports games that comes bundled with every console. It wasn't long before we were completely immersed in Wii Tennis. The simple mini-game replicates an actual tennis match as well as any I've ever seen: Since you're actually swinging the remote like you would a racket, you can hit with varying force or apply spin to the ball, depending on how you move your body.
Within minutes, we'd drawn a crowd, and only a short while after that, most of the editorial staff was packed into the conference room, laughing, enjoying the show and pushing for their turn at the remote. It was the first time since the original Nintendo Entertainment System came out in 1985 that videogaming felt like a party experience--not just because it was new, and worth gawking at, but because the experience is so much more physical, like Charades or Twister, and spectators can enjoy as much as the players.
After the hard-core gamers got their turns, less videogame-savvy editors took a shot, too. And it was here where the intuitive motion control system really proved its worth. There's no sequence of arcane button combinations required to throw a baseball: You just wind up and mime an actual throw. Suddenly, videogames are fun for everyone--old or young, male or female, regardless of prior gaming experience. I lost count of how many times I heard non-gamers say, "Wow, I want to get this."
The other phrase I heard a lot was something to the effect of, "There's no way I'm shelling out all that cash for a PlayStation 3." Sony's new game console, which debuts Nov. 17 in the U.S., will retail for $500 or $600, depending on whether you buy a basic setup or the premium version, which comes with a bigger hard drive, built-in Wi-Fi and a flash memory card reader. Similarly, Microsoft's Xbox 360, which debuted in November 2005, now retails at $300 or $400.
Compare that to the Wii's $250 price tag, and Nintendo's already got a leg up in the upcoming console war. By concentrating on innovating through game play, and ignoring its competitors' most high-tech features--super-powered processors, support for high-definition televisions and DVD formats--Nintendo has not only been able to keep its costs down, but it's hit upon the single thing that sets apart an entertainment device most: It's fun.
It's too early in the console war to tell if the Wii's upstart strategy will help Nintendo gain ground against Microsoft and Sony, both 800-pound gorillas of the gaming world. But if my early experience with the console--and the smiles on the faces of friends and colleagues--are any measure, Nintendo's got a huge hit on its hands.
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