Nintendo Wii: One Ferocious Underdog

The graphics leave something to be desired, but the motion-sensitive remote makes this next-gen game system a tough competitor

Editor's Rating:

The Good: Wii controller creates an entirely novel playing experience

The Bad: Online features not fully enabled; graphics don't match rival consoles

The Bottom Line: Online features not fully enabled; graphics don't match rival consoles

For a sense of how the underdog Nintendo Wii fares against Microsoft's Xbox 360 and Sony's PlayStation 3, this scene from my home one recent night says it all.

On a rainy Monday, three friends stopped over for drinks before we were supposed to head out for dinner. Nearly five hours later, at 12:30 in the morning, they were finally shoved out the door, exhausted from the workout they gave the Wii and wondering where they could go to grab one of their own. The whole time they were there, the PS3 and Xbox 360 sat forlorn and ignored.

The Wii has the stuff to replicate that scenario in homes far and wide. Despite graphics that are far inferior to those of competitors and a design that looks more like an external hard drive than a next-gen game system, the Wii is just plain fun to play.

Virtual Reality in Your Living Room

What makes it so outstanding? It boils down to Nintendo's (NTDOY) decision to focus on how games are played, rather than the glitz and glitter of the games themselves. The company's innovative motion-sensitive Wii Remote controller truly creates the closest thing you'll get on a home system to virtual reality. Always thought you could be the next Andy Roddick? Playing even the simplest game of tennis with the Wii controller and rudimentary Wii Sports game package might show you how wrong you were.

Nintendo set about making the gaming experience itself something even a grandmother might look forward to, and it does a great job right out of the box.

Setup was fairly simple and intuitive. From the start, you put the Wii on its stand, connect the sensor pickup to the unit, and figure out where to place it near your TV for best pickup of your movements with the remote. I was concerned the sensor, placed below a giant-screen Sharp Aquos HDTV set would not pick up the signal, but it worked just fine.

It's All About Mii

After adjusting the clock and other settings, I set up a wireless connection to my home network in just a few minutes, without incident. Once you're Web-connected, as with the PlayStation 3, the system immediately downloads a software update. The next step is gaining access to the too-cutely-named Mii Channel, where you create your own Mii-simplistic but fun digital avatars that represent you in the Wii Sports games that are included with the console. Other online menu features like news and weather were not yet active.

But as I hinted before, the Wii Remote is the true hero of the system, and makes all the console's other features, or lack thereof, seem almost inconsequential. Nintendo wisely continues to license the force feedback technology that produces satisfying tactile cues through the controller. The same goes for Microsoft's (MSFT) Xbox 360. Sony leaves that feature out of the PlayStation 3, a decision that may come back to haunt the manufacturer as game developers make the most of the feature in the other consoles. The remote also provides great audio, such as the whooshing sound when you swing it like a tennis racket.

The true value of the Wii is its ability to reconvey that sense of child-like wonder that has been lost over the years as games like Electronic Arts' (ERTS) Madden NFL and Activision's (ATVI) Tony Hawk become familiar even as they get more technically complex. Anyone familiar with Super Monkey Ball: Banana Blitz will recognize the challenge of rolling monkeys through maze-like levels, or fans of Zelda know well they have to solve a raft of challenges and puzzles to win the game. But when you're using this controller to stab and slash, bob and weave, you'll experience even the most familiar games in a whole new way.

Cheaper Game Prices

You'll also get so into the game that it literally takes hold of you. In one case, while playing Wii Tennis against a friend, both of us at different times sent the remote sailing across the room (Nintendo warns you to use wrist straps to prevent just such a thing).

It doesn't hurt, either, that the games themselves often will be about $10 less than Microsoft or Sony titles and that the console is only $250. For the forgotten few who purchased GameCube titles, those work in the system as well. Nintendo promises to stock a large library of titles from five previous systems that can be downloaded and played through the Virtual Console feature. (A word of warning, though: some earlier titles aren't compatible with the most recent Microsoft and Sony (SNE) consoles (see, 11/16/06, "PS3: Soon to Be a Great System").

But Wii doesn't win in every case. The PS3 throws in a very nice Blu-ray player to showcase high-definition movies, and Microsoft just debuted a $199 add-on HD-DVD player that does the same with a competing DVD format.

Plenty of Room to Grow

With Nintendo, you're also still essentially stuck with graphics that look about as good as what you can get on the current roster of PlayStation 2 titles. And some people might be turned off by attaching the sensor to their television, particularly if it's in an area of the home where you don't want guests to see unsightly wires.

Still, you get the sense that Nintendo's Wii is a console that has plenty of room to grow in the hearts and minds of gamers old and new. Developers like Activision, EA, and Ubisoft already gush over it. Of course, that's partly because they think people may be more apt to buy two of the same game titles—one to play on either the PS3 or Xbox 360, the other to play on the Wii with an entirely different experience. But game makers also seem to be genuinely excited about the Wii.

Both Microsoft and Sony reportedly are interested in duplicating some of the controller features of the Wii Remote. Until they do, Wii is the must-have way to truly get your game on.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.