Sports are hard. This shouldn’t be news to anyone with a lifelong gaming fetish, nor was it news to me. I hate sports. I can’t play most of them, and those I can play usually involve more time away from the house than with which I am comfortable. So, when it comes to sports, I tend to abstain.
I played football for a brief time as a child (in Texas, it’s almost a requirement – like military training in Israel); played some soccer and baseball and whiffle ball in elementary school; basketball, dodgeball, tennis and golf in middle school gym class; and as an adult played pool and threw darts in various bars and once bowled in a league. In all cases, I sucked ass.
Yet Nintendo’s introduction of the Wii promised a revolutionary control scheme allowing easy, user-friendly simulations of practically all manner of sports on a home videogame console, requiring little more than a swing or shake of the remote to replicate practically any actual sport or game under the sun. This was what we call “A Big Promise.”
Naturally, as the dust has settled and the months have gone by since the console’s release, the dreams inspired by Wii have been realized in some ways and dashed in others. I wanted to test the post-honeymoon phase waters and see if Wii was really all that, as they say. I wanted to see if a lifetime of sports avoidance had rendered me completely unable to enjoy the experience of Wii, or if, like the advertising claims, playing games on the Wii is so much fun, you might not realize you’re actually getting exercise.
For this experiment, I played every sports game for Wii I could get my hands on. These included: Wii Sports, Wii Play, Pool Party, The Bigs and Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2007.
Wii Sports fared the best overall, in terms of fun and simulation, which was no real surprise. The bowling game, while completely failing to capture the odor of despair at the local bowlatorium, does manage to effectively simulate the throwing motions, and aside from being a cheating rat bastard half the time, copies the real-world physics fairly well.
After playing Wii Bowling a bit, I decided to actually go to the bowling alley and throw some balls. I hadn’t done this in years (I owned my own ball once) and I was immediately disheartened by the experience.
For starters, I’d forgotten that most bowling alleys are in the absolute worst parts of town imaginable, and that all of them smell like ass. Second, having given my bowling ball away some years ago, I discovered what many a bowler before me probably already knew: House balls suck.
I couldn’t find a ball that fit my hands properly; all of them felt too heavy. And somebody was being a little too free with the lane grease that day, as within a frame or two my ball was practically dripping with oil and almost impossible to touch without causing a gag reflex. What was worse, I sucked.
Wii Bowling hits the golden nail square on the head: It’s easier than actually bowling, and enough like it that it feels like a satisfactory substitute. Plus, you can play without getting grease all over your clothes.
Round one: Wii.
A Big Stick
I know that I’m a lousy pool player. I’ve been playing most of my life (mainly in bars) but I suck at it. I understand the math involved and can usually tell which ball I need to hit and where, but translating that knowledge to actions is a bit problematic. A typical game of pool starring me tends to take three times longer than it should and ends with me hitting everything but my own balls into the holes, and occasionally sending the cue ball flying across the room.
This is why I love video pool. In a game, the computer does all the work of performing the physical actions, leaving me free to be the idea man of the operation. I’m a significantly better pool player on the sofa, therefore, than at the bar.
Enter: The Wii.
To give the Nintendo and game development folks their due, playing pool on the Wii is significantly enough, gesture-wise, like playing in real life to make it fun and exciting. Unfortunately, it’s also significantly enough like playing pool in real life to make me suck at it.
For the pool portion of this experiment, I played two pool games, the 9-Ball game included in Wii Play and South Peak’s Pool Party. Physics and graphics-wise, the two games are on par (although Pool Party features more realistic models and scenery), but control-wise, there’s a wide disparity.
As with all of Nintendo’s Wii showcase games, Wii Play‘s 9-Ball controls very well. The interface is intuitive and clean, which leaves me nothing but my own inadequacy to blame for the fact that I completely suck at it. Pool Party, thankfully, is a piece of shit, so there’s plenty of blame to go around there. But in both cases, my personal failure as a pool player wasn’t the only obstacle.
Nintendo would have you believe that the versatile remote is capable of performing as well as any variety of sports tool in almost any circumstance. Unfortunately, in practice, the device does a fairly poor job of pretending to be a pool cue.
In both pool games, you hit the ball by pulling the remote backward, away from the TV, and then sliding it forward, just like you would a real pool cue. And yet in both games, the Wii only figured out that I had done so about 75 percent of the time. The rest, I had to repeat the gesture once or twice to convince the game I’d done something, and more often than not, this caused the cue to fly forward either in the wrong direction or with the wrong amount of force.
Pool Party increases the difficulty by forcing you to play a little mini game to choose the force of your stroke, but the combination of button presses and hair-trigger Wiimote pointing acumen required to pull this off was so unnatural – and so impossible for me to master – that I gave up on it and hit the ball with the same amount of superhuman force each time, inevitably ricocheting balls every which way except into the damn pockets.
Round two: Real life.
A Stick and a Ball
There’s a trophy somewhere in my mother’s house with my name on it. Atop the marble base is a small pillar, and atop that is a gold-colored figurine of a person holding a baseball bat. I earned that trophy when I was around 10 years old. It signifies my baseball team (The Phillies) came in last place.
I remember getting hit in the face with a ball one time when I stepped up to the plate, but memories of actually hitting or catching one have somehow fled my mind. Perhaps they were never there. The Bigs, therefore, was my chance at redemption. I know baseball is a simple game in theory (throw the ball, hit the ball, catch the ball), so I was eager to see if my increased life experience, leveraged by the power of the Wii, would make me a better ballplayer. I started the game up, selected the “play now” option, chose to play as the Texas Rangers at home against the Giants and quickly found myself standing at the pitcher’s mound.
I’ve been to a number of baseball games and seen even more on television, but I can’t recall seeing a single game where more than 20 minutes passed before the pitcher threw the first pitch. As far as I know, it’s never happened. Perhaps that’s because the act of throwing a ball is so relatively simple, that even if you aren’t all that skilled in the vagaries of “strike zones” and “sliders,” you can at least reach your arm back, propel it forward and release the damn ball. The Bigs would have you believe otherwise.
After almost 30 minutes of poking random buttons on the remote, flinging it around in my hand as if it were a live vibrator on overdrive and then staring at it like it was the 2001 obelisk and I was early man, I discovered that pitching is hard. To pitch the ball requires a sequence of button presses and twisting motions followed by what’s almost (but not quite) a natural pitching motion. The idea is to select the type of pitch you want to throw (with button presses and twisting motions), point the cursor to the area of the plate where you want the ball to go and then let ‘er rip while pressing and releasing buttons and moving the Wiimote forward. In theory, this is killer. In practice, it makes me want to curl up and die.
While I’ll grant you that the attempt to simulate the dexterity hurdles a MLB pitcher must go through to throw a changeup, for example, is honorable, we’re still talking about an oblong stick here, not a baseball, and so introducing any complexity beyond requiring a generic throwing motion is simply that: adding complexity.
By the bottom of the first inning, my Rangers were down 13 runs and had changed pitchers five times. On occasion I’d throw a pitch that wasn’t an automatic home run for my opponent, and would then be forced to attempt to field the ball. By run 8 or 9 I’d taken to manually switching to whichever player wasn’t in the path of the ball, and then praying I could fade into the outfield and pretend the sun was in my eyes. In this way the game was very much like my limited experience playing actual baseball.
Needless to say, I was excited to step up to the plate – I shouldn’t have been. If The Bigs‘ pitching system was torture, the batting system was downright medieval. I occupied the pitchers’ mound for just over half an hour; I was at the plate for less than a minute.
With most baseball videogames, hitting a ball is as simple as pressing a button. In an attempt to introduce the added dimension of actually swinging the bat, The Bigs also opens the door for the added complexity of actually having to hit the ball with it, something I’m simply not able to do – in my living room or on the diamond. Three came up, three went down, and it was my turn to pitch again. I almost cried.
If the idea behind the Wii is to make video sports more accessible and more like their real life counterparts, The Bigs is a colossal failure. I’m sure there’s a great baseball videogame in there somewhere, but it’s not pick-up-and-play, and even a video baseball pro would need to go back to spring training to learn the new rules of play.
Round three: Neither. Watching the game with a beer is still the best way to enjoy baseball.
A Stick and a Ball Part Two
And then there’s Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2007.
Before playing Tiger Woods, My experience with the game of golf was limited to a few weeks basic training in middle school gym class, whacking yellowed golf balls from one end of the bumpy side lot to another with clubs older than my grandfather’s car, and a conversation or two with fathers of girlfriends, during which I pretended to understand the meaning of such terms as “handicap” and “tee.” I didn’t really expect to have any fun playing Tiger Woods, but I’m a journalist and a professional. I figured I’d muddle through the experience and drink off my misery afterward. Once again, I was wrong.
Tiger Woods is easily the most fun sports game I played during this experiment, and the one most likely to satisfy the market for real sports simulations. Granted, the motions required of the remote to simulate golf are relatively simple, and well within the capabilities of the device, but the power of the game can’t be laid at the feet of mechanics alone.
For starters, it’s beautiful. The quick start campaign takes the player through 18 holes at golf clubs from around the world, and the Wii does an admirable job of presenting realistic-looking photo vistas of these fabulous expanses of manicured landscaping. If I weren’t a lifelong outdoorsman and fan of the national parks system, I’d suggest that golfing would be a great way to get in touch with nature. But I know better, and considering some national parks cost less than $10 to get into versus whatever ungodly amount of money is required to even drive near a golf course, if we’re talking about getting close to nature, the better bet is still the national park.
But for standing in your living room, swinging a remote in a graceful arc and watching a tiny ball soar through the air and plunk gently on the fairway while the crowd cheers your every move, Tiger Woods is just the thing.
I enjoyed this game immensely, and I was good at it. Sure, I was playing on easy, and sure, Tiger Woods is like Superman as far as game stats go (it is his game after all), but I ripped it up, coming in under par my very first go-round, and significantly under each time after that. I felt like Babe Ruth, pointing to a spot on the green then slamming the ball down the fairway. Then, after a few turns playing Tiger, I switched to Annika Sorenstam for the obvious reasons, which was even more fun. (You can even change her outfit. You know … if you’re into that.)
Since I have no skill and practically no experience actually playing real golf, I tended to avoid outright mimicking the motions required of the sport, and just swung one arm back and forth to simulate swinging the club. This gave me a lot more accuracy and helped me avoid those pesky slices. I wonder why more golfers don’t do this.
Round four: Wii by a mile.
On the whole, I’d consider the experiment a success. I discovered a few games I’ll never play again, a few I’ll bring out at parties and one I’m going to play obsessively (and probably secretly) for many months to come.
Unfortunately none of the games, whether more or less fun than their real-life counterparts, are actually a substitute for the real thing, nor do the experiences offer the depth and strategic complexity of the various “traditional” sports videogames. Overall, I’d say the promise of the Wii is just that, and like all promises, is probably better left untested.
Russ Pitts is an Associate Editor for The Escapist. His blog can be found at www.falsegravity.com.