I'll admit it—I was in love with the Nintendo Wii long before we'd ever met. And then, a few seconds after I touched those strange, new motion-sensing controllers, months of giddy anticipation vanished. I've played and won 14-hour-long Halo tournaments. I was a bird-slaughtering Duck Hunt master back when Times Square still had arcades. But the Wii, which is being marketed as the ideal system for newbies, made me feel like an incompetent novice. I don't blame myself. The ugly truth is that the Wii's already-legendary motion-detection system doesn't work very well.
Everything about the console is designed to welcome casual gamers, from that unfortunate name to the remote-shaped controller (aka the Wii Remote) that translates movement into in-game action. Internal gyroscopes and accelerometers detect tilt, rotation, and acceleration as you pantomime steering a car or slashing a sword. The wireless controller also acts as a pointer, using an optical sensor and a TV-mounted sensor bar to let you sweep crosshairs or a cursor across the screen. For complex games you can use an additional controller, which doesn't work as a pointer but can sense motion and has a traditional thumbstick. This device is called a nunchuk, since that's kind of what it looks like when you connect the two wireless controllers with a cord. But if you think you'll be able to whip them around like Bruce Lee, you're in for the first of many disappointments.
Nintendo wants you to believe that the Wii will tear kids off the couch and get them swinging virtual tennis rackets. There's also the suggestion that its intuitive game play could eliminate the steep learning curve that tends to repel both "casual gamers" and people who've never held a joystick before. When Time ran the first hands-on preview of the Wii, they included a photo of an ecstatic grandpa standing on his couch, controllers in hand.
There's a huge crack, though, in this dream of a fully immersive, pick-up-and-play experience. The Wii is not a precise machine. During my first closed-door demo of the new console, I tried out a sci-fi title. I aimed the Wii Remote like a gun at some enemy drones while using the nunchuk's thumbstick to run around. I pointed at an incoming robot. The crosshairs drifted off the screen, and suddenly my perspective changed and I was facing the wall. Now the drones were all over me. I opened fire, but even at point-blank range I could barely hit anything.
The Nintendo pointer felt less accurate than even the light guns used in antique games like Duck Hunt. Every time I sighted down the controller at the TV, the crosshairs were off-center. This inaccuracy becomes a mini-game of its own: In order to kill the guy on the left, you need to aim left and slightly down. Obviously, you can get used to this kind of self-calibration, but there's a learning curve even for experienced gamers.
To account for the console's lack of precision, some titles incorporate a lock-on button that does the aiming for you. But for the most part, the Wii compensates for its lousymotion detection by coddling users. Months after my run-in with the sci-fi drones, I got a taste of console condescension while playing the new Legend of Zelda game at a sprawling Wii press preview. During a quest to catch a magical fish, the onscreen directions told me to cast my line by swinging the right controller back, then forward. And when the fish bit, a graphic showed me how to make a reeling motion with the nunchuk. I was annoyed when I couldn't shoot straight, but this was worse. The Wii is T-ball for gamers.
Sure enough, when I tried hitting a baseball in another game, it was another exercise in round pegs versus round holes. The ball came in, I swung, and the ball flew away. After a few whacks, I realized that the Wii isn't asking me to simulate a realistic swing. There's no reason to assume a batter's stance, and no reason to bother swinging the controller fast or following through—flicking the controller like a pingpong paddle works just as well. This is the Wii's biggest letdown—you don't need to stand up, leap around, or otherwise leave the warm embrace of your couch. The console senses motion, but compared with the full-body workout of a game like Dance Dance Revolution, you're not getting any kind of exercise at all.
The Wii Remote is the most advanced motion-sensing device in the history of gaming, but in the interests of accommodating almost unlimited variables, from the size of the TV to the player's physical proportions, the Wii tosses out much of the data that are collected. Depending on what's going on in the game, only a narrow range of your physical input is converted to on-screen action. Which is why I could hit one-handed home runs without winding up or following through.
The new Nintendo's flaws make me question who the Wii's audience will be. Kids don't want embarrassingly easy games. Casual gamers of any age will bail out the first time their crosshairs go AWOL. And hardcore gamers like me aren't going to bother with a magic wand that makes us less efficient at killing aliens. For a console that wants to start a revolution, making users doubt their reflexes is a serious design flaw.By playing fast and loose with motion detection, the Wii swings wildly between deal-breaking frustration and hollow victories. Ultimately, it never achieves the level of difficulty that every console should aspire to: a good, fair challenge.