In a great video game, the narrative is secondary to the game's central appeal: satisfying my desire to be an NFL quarterback, a Jedi Knight, and a martial-arts wizard (though not—yet—all at once). A good book or movie provides a vicarious experience. A good game comes much closer to being experiential—to actually approximating the real thing. The Wii, Nintendo's new console, takes gaming a giant leap forward in this journey. Like nothing else I've ever played, the Wii comes closest to achieving the grail of gaming: a home virtual-reality machine.
The Wii doesn't have the computing horsepower to provide the dazzling graphics of Sony's PlayStation 3 or Microsoft's Xbox 360. Instead, it has a more impressive piece of technology: its motion-sensitive controller, the Wii Remote. (Thankfully, Nintendo has dropped the awful original name, the "Wiimote." You have to get used to the fact that Nintendo's Wii nomenclature is a little, well, Wiitarded.) Along with the attachable, motion-sensitive Nunchuk (the most disappointingly named gaming device in history—it's really just a thumbstick-and-buttons device for your off-hand), the Wii Remote creates a level of realism that can't be attained through pretty pictures or through giving gamers ever-larger worlds to explore. (Like book reviewers, gamers sometimes confuse sprawl with excellence.)
Every Wii console comes packaged with Wii Sports, which features a set of simple but addictive games. Wii Tennis, for example, is pretty much a trumped-up Pong with a Wii Remote, and it's exactly as fun as that sounds. More important, it felt like playing tennis, despite the cartoonish graphics and music. The realism in Wii Tennis, like the rest of the games in Wii Sports, comes from the gameplay mechanics of the motion-sensitive controller, not the graphics. To serve, you "toss" the ball in the air by flicking the Wii Remote upward and then serve overhand toward the screen. You must hit forehand or backhand volleys, depending on which side you approach the ball from. You can lob and smash by lifting the Wii Remote upward or downward. I even found myself getting into a slight crouch and dancing on the balls of my feet as I awaited an oncoming serve.
In Wii Baseball, I stood in a batter's stance and unconsciously backed up in the box before a pitch. In bowling and golf, I held my form until I saw the result of my most recent bowl or swing. I wasn't just playing a video-game simulation of these sports. I was bowling, golfing, boxing, and batting. My wife, Jen, initially complained, "Isn't the point of these games that you don't have to move around like this?" But soon she was hurling jabs, hooks, and uppercuts with abandon in a Wii Boxing match. (You need to attach the Nunchuk to the Wii Remote so you can throw lefts as well as rights.) She even proposed a brilliant addition: a Wii Remote for your feet to add to the fun of a Wii-enabled fighting game.
Wii Sports is not, as Time argued, "the greatest videogame ever made." For one, it's a little too easy. The first time I put a little pine tar on my Wii Remote for a game of baseball, I immediately started jacking 600-foot home runs. I bowled a 200-plus game, which included a turkey, on my first 10 frames. And you can't adjust the difficulty setting, so if you have an immediate knack for the games, you're forced to endure some early tedium before the CPU adjusts to your, shall we say, abiiliitiies. In other cases, I wanted the Wii Remote to be more realistic. In tennis and baseball, it would have been nice if it could sense direction as well as the timing and speed it already picks up. In baseball, for example, you can't push the ball to the opposite field by stepping into the pitch and angling your swing. (I sometimes tried doing this anyway.)
But the Wii and its Wii Remote carry the promise of greater games to come. If a developer pairs the brilliant Wii Sports gameplay with the depth of a more intensive sports sim, my prediction that Electronic Arts' monopoly on officially sanctioned sports titles will lead to an unlicensed sports-game renaissance may come true. (That's not to say that EA's licensed titles won't be the winner. I'm eager to pick up Madden '07 for the Wii to see if the Wii Remote can handle the complexity of 11-on-11 football.) My personal gaming nirvana, however, will not occur until someone at LucasArts figures out how to let me wield the Wii Remote like a light saber (Star Wars: Episode Wii?). In no time at all, we will be a nation of Star Wars Kiids.
Those greater games were not, unfortunately, the two review titles Nintendo sent me. Excite Truck, a monster-truck racing game, was a dud. Maybe I had too much anticipation for a next-generation return to my Excitebike glory days. (For that, I'll have to wait until Nintendo releases Excitebike as a download on its nostalgia-filled Virtual Console, though I've had difficulty accessing Nintendo's servers for the past two days.) Using the Wii Remote as a steering wheel, at least as implemented in Excite Truck, didn't feel natural. The rectangular controller works perfectly as a bat, racket, or club, but tilting it left and right to steer my truck proved frustrating. After an hour, I gave up.
The second game, the Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, is too long for me to review fully yet. The somewhat-dated graphics, along with the complete absence of voice acting, showed the Wii's limitations compared to an Xbox 360 or PS3. But the gameplay, as with Wii Sports, was a delight. Rather than punching buttons to fight with a sword, you stab and slash your Wii Remote through the air. The Nunchuk attachment allows you to use both hands during certain attacks. To go fishing, you cast and reel by flicking the Wiimote forward and back.
Twilight Princess is fun, and worth picking up if you have a Wii, but it's not the gaming revolution augured by Wii Sports. While the controls in Zelda feel novel, my instant take is that the 360 and PS3 will probably be better consoles for epic single-player games. But for short bursts of gaming activity or for playing with a group, the Wii will probably be your best bet. I plan to pack up my Wii and play it with my extended family during the Thanksgiving holiday. I'm confident even the gaming-phobes will love it.
As much as I like the Wii, however, I'm more intrigued by its potential. The interactivity afforded by the Wii Remote should remind game makers that changing our identities, not following a story, is what attracts gamers to the shiny boxes under our televisions. We'll have to wait several more years to see what Sony and Microsoft can do with a Wii-like controller (the PS3's Sixaxis doesn't compare). So, for now, the Wii is as real as virtual gets.