While once free, Opera's Internet Channel browser is now a 500-point ($5) download. It offers surprisingly flexible web browsing on the Wii, made even more useful with the system's recently added USB keyboard support.
Since the Wii's release, Nintendo has launched a handful of new channels. While they offer fun little diversions, most of these new channels feel shallow and gratuitous. The Everybody Votes channel offers a daily online survey on various, seemingly random subjects. The Check Mii Out Channel lets you share your various Miis online and have other users rate and vote for them in informal contests.
The Wii now also offers on-demand Netflix streaming, just like the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. Users will need to use a disc each time for watching movies; the disc is available for free from Netflix.
The Wii's Virtual Console offers the bulk of the system's online content. Rather than new downloadable titles like Xbox Live Arcade or the PlayStation Network, the Virtual Console plays classic video games from generations past. Originally the VC supported NES, SNES, Nintendo 64, Sega Genesis, and Turbografix-16 titles, and recently expanded to Neo-Geo titles. Nintendo currently boasts a library of over a hundred classic games, with new titles added every Monday.
Shopping for old-school games with the Virtual Console is easy. If your Wii is online, just go to the Wii Shop channel and browse. These games cost Wii Points, with each point equivalent to a penny. They range from 500 points ($5) for NES games to 1,200 points ($12) for certain N64 titles. Wii Points can be purchased in gift card form at major retailers or with a credit card directly through the Wii Shop. Regardless of how you get your points, you'll need to enter them into your account through the Wii Shop. If you have a Wii Points card, you can redeem it by entering a code through your Wii. If you want to buy the points directly online, you have to enter your credit card information with the Wiimote through the Wii's software keyboard.
Once you have your points, you can start shopping. Go into the Wii Shop and select Virtual Console, then browse through the various games available. Each game has a title screenshot and a short description so that you can learn a bit before you decide to buy. When you're ready, just click Download, and you can confirm the purchase. The Wii will tell you exactly how much space you'll have left on the Wii and how many Wii Points you'll have left in your account after the download. After you confirm the purchase, the Wii begins downloading your chosen game automatically. The progress of the download is shown by a cute animation of the 8-bit Super Mario Bros. Mario chasing coins and hitting blocks. The downloads can take less than a minute for NES games, or as much as 10 minutes for Nintendo 64 games. Once the game is downloaded, the program will boot you back to the Wii Shop's main menu.
Downloaded Virtual Console games appear as individual channels in the Wii's main menu, and playing those games is as simple as selecting their channel and pressing start. The VC emulator loads the game, and your retro fun begins.
VC games are essentially perfect emulations of their original versions, which is both good and bad for gamers. Classic purists will be thrilled at the genuine, old-school gameplay experience, but more casual players hoping for the enhanced graphics or online play found in some XBLA retro games will be disappointed. At most, a few N64 games remove licensed logos from in-game billboards for legal reasons, but otherwise remain untouched. For extra old-school experience, the Wiimote itself can be turned sideways and handled like a conventional controller for NES and Turbographix-16 games. For SNES, Genesis, and N64 games, however, you'll need either an old GameCube controller plugged into one of the system's GC ports or the Wii Classic Controller plugged into your Wiimote.
Wide-screen users will notice the one annoying flaw of the Virtual Console: old-school games have no wide-screen support. If you play on a wide-screen TV, your retro game will be stretched noticeably. Though a firmware update may be in the system's future, the only way to fix this issue currently is to set your television to a 4:3 aspect ratio for Virtual Console games and set it back to wide-screen for regular games.
Also new to Wii's online shop is WiiWare, a marketplace for downloadable software made my developers of all kinds. The WiiWare marketplace is updated weekly and features hundreds of titles of varying genres.
The Wiimote controller
Wii Sports also doubles as a tutorial for familiarizing yourself with the system's unique wireless controller, which is what really sets it apart from competing consoles--and all the game systems that have come before it. The Wiimote, as it's been affectionately dubbed, is a sophisticated motion-sensing controller that connects wirelessly to the Wii via the Bluetooth wireless protocol.
This revolutionary design isn't completely wireless: to function, it requires the placement of the Wii's sensor bar either on top of or beneath your television screen. Fortunately, the sensor bar is extremely unobtrusive, and we forgot it was even there minutes after setting up the system. The sensor bar is a small and light plastic rectangle about the size of two pens laid end to end, and it connects to the Wii with a very long cord (about eight feet), so its setup is simple and flexible. The sensor bar comes with a tiny, clear plastic base with adhesive squares on its feet, so you can stick it securely on the top of your television, even if it's a narrow flat-panel screen. (If the thin cable is an issue, the battery-powered Nyko Wireless Sensor Bar works perfectly well.)
Accelerometers inside the remote sense how the device is being held and if it's being moved in any direction. These sensors control actions such as baseball bat and golf club swings in Wii Sports, Link's sword slashes in The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, and even steering trucks in Excite Truck. Moreover, you hold the Wiimote differently depending on the game: grasp it like the hilt of a sword in Zelda and Red Steel, as a baseball bat or tennis racket in Wii Sports, or hold it horizontally as a steering bar for Excite Truck. Because the Wiimote is so light, these controls and movements can take some getting used to. Fortunately, a speaker and a force-feedback module built into the Wiimote can provide additional tactile and audio feedback for your actions and add an extra bit of immersion to the Wii experience. For example, the remote's tiny speaker makes an audible "Clang!" when Link swings his sword, and it rumbles when Link strikes an enemy. Even menu selections on the Wii are signaled by helpful little vibrations of the Wiimote.
The Wiimote also uses a set of infrared sensors to determine the remote's orientation in regard to the television. A set of IR diodes in the Wiimote communicate with the Wii's sensor bar to serve as a pointer for navigating menus and aiming weapons in first-person shooters. Again, this control system takes some getting used to, but once you adapt to the control, pointing with the Wiimote feels much more natural than using an analog stick. It doesn't quite replace the beloved mouse-and-keyboard combination for FPS games, but--after getting acclimated to it--we found it worked better than traditional console controllers.
While the new control system is both fun and innovative, the pointer gets occasionally jerky or twitchy, and the tilt controls require a light and subtle touch. Part of this can be attributed to the Wii's learning curve, and after a few hours we barely noticed those quirks. Unfortunately, the Wii doesn't currently have a way to manually calibrate the Wiimote's controls; you're forced to trust the Wii's generally accurate automatic calibration.
The remote's stand-alone abilities are impressive enough, but it also has a device port so that accessories can be plugged directly into it. The Wii comes with a nunchuk attachment, a small device that plugs into the remote and contains an analog stick and two additional buttons. The nunchuk augments the Wiimote in many games, such as controlling characters' movements in Twilight Princess or Red Steel. The nunchuk also contains motion-sensing equipment, so it can be shaken and rocked to perform additional actions. For example, shaking the nunchuk in Twilight Princess executes a spinning slash attack.
The nunchuk is the most commonly used Wiimote accessory, but others are available. In addition to the aforementioned Classic Controller (for Virtual Console games). Nintendo launches the Zapper this November, a plastic enclosure for the remote and nunchuk that lets you handle both controllers like a machine gun. Several games are already being crafted for the Zapper's design, though it remains a simple enclosure; besides the the nunchuk and the classic controller, we haven't seen many more uses for the port at the bottom of the remote.
This wireless, motion-sensing goodness doesn't come without a price. The Wiimote uses two AA batteries, which must power the remote's accelerometers, IR sensors, Bluetooth radio, speaker, rumble module, and any attachments you plug in (the batteryless nunchuk draws its power from the Wiimote). The Wii doesn't come with any sort of charger, so you'll almost certainly want to pick up a set of at least four rechargeable AA batteries and a battery charger, or opt for a third-party solution such as Nyko's Wii Charge Station. Another factor to consider is that extra controllers a pretty pricey: $40 for additional Wiimotes, plus another $20 for the nunchuk.
In June 2009, Nintendo introduced Wii MotionPlus, an attachment for the Wii remote that promises improved motion control and accuracy. While the initial games that took advantage of the device didn't really impress us, Wii Sports Resort displays the true potential of Wii MotionPlus. For more on MotionPlus and how it affects gameplay, check out our review.
Gameplay and graphics
The Wii's biggest and most obvious appeal is the ability to use its motion-sensing controller to play Wii-specific games. The Wii's release lineup includes the highly anticipated Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess and the addictive pack-in party game Wii Sports, as well as a variety of more traditional third-party titles (many of which have been enhanced to use the Wiimote control). But while you're waiting for some more innovative Wii titles to arrive, there will still be plenty of games to play. The Wii is fully backward compatible with the Nintendo GameCube and includes four built-in GameCube controller ports and two GameCube memory card slots for gamers who want to enjoy their last-gen games. To play those older games, you'll need at least one GC controller (best choice: the wireless WaveBird) and (if you want to save your progress) a memory card. Truth be told, though, the list of truly great GameCube titles is short and sweet.
If Wii and GameCube games aren't enough, the Wii also features Nintendo's Virtual Console, a library of games from the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), Super NES, Nintendo 64, Sega Genesis, and Turbografix-16 systems. Games can be purchased and downloaded over Nintendo's online Wii Store, where they are stored on the Wii's system memory or SD card. Virtual Console game purchases are tied to the Wii's network ID, so you can't pop your Virtual Console games onto an SD card and take them over to play them on a friend's Wii. On the bright side, Nintendo is pledging that already purchased games can be downloaded again free if you accidentally lose or delete your data. Games are purchased with Wii Points, which can be purchased via credit card or gift card (100 Wii Points equals one U.S. dollar)--the system is essentially identical to Microsoft's tried-and-true Xbox Live Marketplace (Sony's fledgling PlayStation store will denominate purchases in real currency, but is functionally the same). NES games will cost the equivalent of $5 (500 points), Turbografix-16 games $6, Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis games $8, and Nintendo 64 games $10.
While the Wii's controller is very advanced and innovative, its processing power is not. The system uses a more powerful version of the Nintendo GameCube's processor, and it doesn't have nearly as much polygon-pushing power as the Xbox 360 or the PlayStation 3. While Microsoft's and Sony's consoles support high-definition outputs of up to 1080p, the Wii can hit only the GameCube's ceiling of 480p, and even that mode can't be used with the Wii's included composite AV cables. (Most if not all of the Wii's games will, however, be optimized for wide-screen TVs.) The Wii also lacks advanced surround sound, instead sticking with the GameCube's Dolby Pro-Logic II matrixed surround (based on a stereo signal, not native 5.1). In other words, if you're looking for state-of-the-art eye candy, you're going to want to opt for the PS3 or the Xbox 360--either of which will take a significantly larger chunk of your bank account.
Is the Wii worth picking up? It all depends on what you're looking for. If you've been clamoring for an all-purpose next-generation multimedia box with blinding HD graphics, the Wii will be a disappointment. But Nintendo didn't intend to compete in that arena anyway: the Wii is focused squarely on delivering fun and innovative gameplay, leaving Sony and Microsoft to battle it out at the high end. The Wiimote and its motion-sensing, pseudo-virtual-reality controls are the biggest draws of the console, and its online capabilities, Wii Channels, Virtual Console, and GameCube backward-compatibility are just a thick, sweet layer of icing on an already tasty cake. Likewise, the Wii is the only home console that lets you play games featuring nostalgic Nintendo-only franchises such as Mario, Zelda, and Metroid. With a price tag of just $200 and the addition of Wii Sports Resort and MotionPlus, there's plenty of fun to be had right out of the box.
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