E3 2007: The Wii Report

Making my way through the show, one of the questions I had in mind was why I bothered to buy a Wii when Wii Sports is the only game I like on the console. At this point, no one’s gotten the Wii’s “it,” and even Nintendo has seemed a bit lost. Luckily, a few shops – ranging from EA on down – are on the right track.

Nintendo was showing off two new peripherals at the show, a balance-gauging board and the Wii Zapper.

The balance board, which you stand on in bare feet or socks, is bundled into Wii Fit, a progression on Wii Sports and Play, and the game bears the thematic standard aptly. Wii Fit is a series of mini-games, including a stretching balance game and a more advanced Yoga version. For players more interested in competitive, party-style mini-games, Nintendo’s covered that base, too. There’s a ski jump, which requires you to lean forward as you build up speed and then spring upward to achieve distance. It’s about as forgiving as Wii Sports – I managed to sail 156 meters on my first go, and I’ve never even hit the bunny slopes. Additionally, there’s a soccer-based game in which you lean left and right, trying to head soccer balls kicked your way, and avoid cleats and other heavy stuff flying through the air at the same time. It wasn’t nearly as intuitive as the ski jump game: The board didn’t quite pick up my shoulder movements as I bobbed around, instead picking up my lower body’s counter-weighting, which ended up moving my Mii’s head into flying cleats and away from soccer balls.

Really, I don’t see Wii Fit stealing hearts the way Wii Sports did, but it functions well enough as a tech demo to make me excited about a Tony Hawk-type game taking advantage of the board.

The Wii Zapper was the star of the Nintendo booth, by far. Showcasing the new Resident Evil game, the Zapper took me back to the first NES and Duck Hunt, only rather than trying to shoot the damn dog, I was head-shotting zombies and lobbing grenades willy-nilly. The Zapper is shaped less like a real firearm and more like a futuristic ray gun, and the remote nestles into the top. The only button you have easy access to is the “B” button, which functions like a trigger.

In the wake of Manhunt‘s AO rating (in part due to the Wii version requiring players to mimic graphic acts of violence), I wondered if letting players bring a gun to a zombie fight was going to make things hairy between the ESRB in Nintendo. Nintendo of Canada’s Marketing Manage, Farjad Iravani, told me Nintendo would be leaving the rating problem between developers and the ESRB, and that the way the Zapper is used in non-Nintendo games really isn’t up to them; so the Wii Zapper doesn’t kill zombies, people kill zombies. I wonder how long we’ll be seeing games feature the Zapper after the first one earns itself an AO rating, and how Nintendo will respond when that happens.

A SNES kid at heart, Sega’s stone-like fall from grace validates my old belief that the only thing Sega does that Nintendon’t is wither in the face of the new millennium, but I’ll still admit to a Pavlovian cringe every time I hear Sega and Nintendo in the same sentence. So imagine my shock to learn of Mario and Sonic at The Olympics, developed by none other than The Enemy. And imagine my shock to be really looking forward to playing it.

Remember Track and Field, with that god-awful mat and bizarre mini-games you weren’t ever able to figure out? Put it on the Wii, update the controls with 20 years of innovative tech, and add Nintendo and Sega’s famous cast of characters. In the 100-meter event, you pump your arms like you’re running. In the hammer throw, you swing the remote around before letting the hammer … thing … fly. Like in Mario Kart each character has its own strengths and weaknesses; Bowser is strong, Sonic is fast. It’s perfect, and I can’t wait to leave Sonic in Yoshi’s dust.

First, best to get this one out of the way. LEGO Star Wars on the Wii. You swing the light saber with your arm. And the best part, the LA rep was specific in saying this was the “first time” Star Wars would be on the Wii. It’s OK to jump out of your skin. I did.

On a less nerdy front, LucasArts was also showing off Thrillville: Off the Rails. Part theme park tycoon, part roller coaster creation sim, part den of mini-game awesome, Off the Rails is the second game in the Thrillville franchise and the first of the series on the Wii.

Players create rollercoasters unbound by Newtonian physics, using the remote as a magic wand. And it really feels like magic. Of all the Wii games I saw at E3, Off the Rails boasted the best interpretation of what the Wii remote could be. Want the track you’re building to go up? Tilt your hand up. Want a twist? Twist your hand. In about 30 seconds, I was able to make a complete roller coaster, which zipped around itself and other rides in the park. It was like my hand was in the world; I haven’t had that type of tactile interface joy since the first time I booted into OS X.

What’s even cooler is that fine-tuned control extends to the mini-games, too. And oh Lord, the mini-games. Of the ones we saw, one in particular, Robo KO, was worth the price of a full Wii game. Robo KO is as great as the boxing game in Wii Sports is terrible. You play a rockem-sockem robot and control each hand with the remote and nunchuck, respectively. And what’s so great is the motion is as natural as could be. Throw your arm like a jab, and the robot jabs. Throw a right cross and the robot fires a right into the other’s jaw.

It’s clear, in terms of interface and motion interpretation, LucasArts gets the Wii and how to grown-ups into giggling 8-year-olds. Maybe it’s because, in Thrillville‘s case, they put children in front of the game and asked for feedback in order to make the controls more natural and fluid. I desperately hope other folks working on Wii games get a hold of LucasArts’ focus group kids.

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Despite the loud booth, bad air conditioning and low ceilings, EA’s E3 booth away from the West Hall affirmed their investment in Nintendo, if nothing else. About a quarter of their real estate was dedicated to the Wii. A mix between party and sports games, their lineup represented a company-wide belief in the console’s marketability.

EA’s most interesting demo was Family Play, their application of Nintendo’s fun for all ages mission. The game offers two distinct play modes bundled with three games (either Madden, FIFA or NBA Live): the normal mode, which plays just like Madden and FIFA on the Wii, and simple mode, designed to help acclimate non-gamers to sports games’ confusing control schemes.

In simple mode, the game takes care of where your players run. You just provide additional stimuli, like speed bursts, jumps and stiff arms. In typical Wii fashion, when you want to stiff arm, you push your hand out abruptly, and when you want to swat a passed ball, you swat in the air. The motions were pretty spot-on, in their way, but not being able to decide where your ball carrier should run got old fast. In terms of barrier to entry, I can’t imagine non-gamers getting confused by the act of running away from a linebacker, and I’m not sure losing that key agency is going to attract people for long. But it is a step in the right direction, and provided the guys working on Family Play get some feedback from Mom and Dad, it could go a long way to introducing more people to intricate games.

Over at the Barker Hangar, Atari was only showing off two games, both of which on the Wii. The first, Godzilla Unleashed, didn’t quite grab me. While giant monsters battling for supremacy over the streets of New York and San Francisco was awesome to watch, the control scheme was too clunky and unresponsive for me. Russ and Dana, however, loved it, so it may just be me.

However, Atari did strike gold on their latest take on the Dragonball franchise. It was a 3-D fighting game on both the PS2 and Wii, and while the PS2 version was about as clunky as Godzilla, the Wii version was just amazing. The hand-to-hand combat was necessarily simple, but elegant: Mash “A” to hit and kick, but you could change where on your opponent you were hitting by moving the remote up and down. And really, you don’t watch Dragonball for kung fu, you watch it for the high-flying energy attacks. And in the Wii version of the game, performing them never felt cooler. After you build up enough power to launch a special attack, an indicator appears in the bottom-left corner of the screen, showing you how to manipulate the controller to mimic the character’s signature move.

(Super Nerd Mode on: Say you’re playing Goku and want to launch a kamehameha, you actually have to pull your hands back and to the right, then shove them forward as though you were pushing the energy in the direction of your opponent. Oh God, my pocket protector went flying.)

I’m really not an anime guy, but I could definitely see the appeal, especially if Atari would port the mechanics over to a superhero game. And it answers the question of how someone could make a fighting game on the Wii that actually works.

Buzz around the Conference
And while a lot of developers weren’t working on the Wii directly, it’s the console everyone loved hearing stories about. Pretty much everyone I spoke to who didn’t get a chance to tour the show wanted to know about what was coming on the Wii (including the concierge at our hotel).

Even the tech-happy guys at id have shown interest. In our brief chat with Todd Hollenshead at the show, he said, though he noted id doesn’t have anything in the works yet, the Wii would be the logical place for John Carmack’s pet project, Orcs and Elves to go, if they were to bring the game to consoles.

Regardless of what the Wii is actually capable, it’s certainly kept its buzz among the development community, which says to me more is on the way, even if it wasn’t there at the show.

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