Nintendo has ventured off the beaten path with its newest system, and the company knows it. While the Sony PlayStation 3 and the Microsoft Xbox 360 both emphasize their impressive graphical capabilities, Nintendo downplays the importance of graphics on its new console. While the Sony and Microsoft consoles keep the branding of their respective predecessors, the oddly named Wii is a semantic departure from Nintendo's more literally named 2001 console, the GameCube. And while the PS3 and the Xbox 360 both use conventional gamepads bristling with buttons, control sticks, and directional pads, the Wii uses a device that looks more like a TV remote than a gamepad to control its games.
These strange choices could have spelled failure for Nintendo's newest endeavor. Underplaying processing power, using a strange new controller setup, and giving the whole package an odd name could have been major mistakes for Nintendo. (Consider some of the company's earlier attempts to go against the grain: the Power Glove and the Virtual Boy.) But the gamble paid off: since its November 2006 release, the Wii has become a runaway hit, so popular that it remained tough to find two years after its initial release. It's strange, it's different, and it's not as powerful as its competitors, but the Nintendo Wii succeeds in its primary mission: it's fun to play.
Opening the box
The Wii box includes everything you need to hook the system up to a standard television: the Wii console, a wireless controller with nunchuk adapter, the sensor bar, a cradle (for mounting the console vertically), the Wii's modestly sized power adapter, and a set of composite AV cables. Unfortunately, composite cables don't support the Wii's top resolution of 480p, so HDTV owners will want to also purchase a set of Wii component cables (sold separately).
The console itself is downright tiny--easily the smallest and lightest of the new generation of game machines. At 1.75 inches high by 6.25 inches wide by 8.5 inches deep (when oriented horizontally), it is--as Nintendo promised--about the size of three DVD cases. The initial model is available only in iPod-white, but it's a safe bet that we'll see plenty of other colors become available as the months and years progress. Like with the PlayStation 3 and the Xbox 360, you can lay the Wii horizontally or stand it vertically (either by itself or, for added stability, in the included plastic cradle). Like the PS3, the Wii uses a slot-loading mechanism; it accepts the Wii discs (full-size 12cm) and older GameCube discs (mini 8cm), without the need for an adapter.
The Wii includes 512MB of internal memory for storing saved games, downloaded Virtual Console titles, and other data. If that half-gigabyte of onboard storage isn't enough for you, the system has a standard Secure Digital card slot for additional storage. SD cards are cheap and plentiful, and the Wii's support of them is a refreshing change of pace from the proprietary memory cards used by older game consoles.
In October 2008, Nintendo released an update for the Wii that allows WiiWare and Virtual Console games to be played directly off an SD card, thus essentially eliminating the console's dreaded lack-of-storage issue. There is one catch, though: as of this writing, the console can only support up to 2GB SD cards.
While it doesn't come with a memory card or component-video cables, the Wii does include one pleasant surprise in the box. The system comes with Wii Sports, a simple but infectious sports game that lets users get a feel for the Wii's capabilities without investing in additional games. Wii Sports uses the system's wireless controller as erstwhile sporting equipment, letting users swing and mock-throw it to play baseball, tennis, golf, bowling, and boxing. The different games can support up to four players at a time, but most modes require more than the system's single controller for multiplayer options. Players can swap the remote back and forth for golf and bowling, but players who would like to box or face each other in a tennis match or a baseball game will need to purchase at least one more controller. Wii Sports feels more like a collection of five minigames than a fully fleshed-out title, but it lets users have fun right out of the box while simultaneously showcasing the system's potential.
Starting in May 2010, all Wiis--both black and white--come bundled with Wii Sports, Wii Sports Resort, and Wii MotionPlus in addition to the standard Wii remote and nunchuk controllers.
The Wii's simple design makes it very easy to hook up. The back panel of the console has only five ports: one for the power adapter, one for the proprietary AV cable, one for the sensor bar, and two USB ports for future accessories. Just plug in the sensor bar and put it either on top of or under your television, plug the video cable into your TV, and plug the power cable into the wall, and you're ready to go.
Once everything is hooked together, just turn on the Wii to go through the software setup. Settings such as time and user name can be easily selected with the remote control's pointer. The only remotely technical setting most users will have to deal with is the network connection, and the menu system practically walks users through the setup. The Wii's Wi-Fi connection can work with secure WEP and WPA encrypted Wi-Fi networks, so you don't have to make your network vulnerable just to play online. We had no problem connecting to our open wireless router, though we couldn't test the network connection beyond that. If you don't have Wi-Fi at all, Nintendo is said to be offering an Ethernet adapter that interfaces with one of the USB ports.
Once the Wii's network settings are set up, the system is designed to be constantly online through Nintendo's WiiConnect24 service. The Wii can use WiiConnect24 to automatically download system updates, additional game content, and even weather and news. When a message or system update arrives on your Wii, the disc slot glows a bright blue, even when it's not in use--unless you disable that notification feature in the preferences menu.
Wii Channels: Media and online capabilities
The Wii's navigation is done through a series of pages called Wii Channels that take advantage of the WiiConnect24's always-on design. Among the Wii's default channels are a weather forecast channel, a news channel, a message channel, a photo channel, and the cute avatar-generating Mii channel. The channel home page is the system's default gateway, which also provides access to the disc-based Wii/GameCube games and Virtual Console titles.
The Mii Channel lets users create and modify Miis, cute little avatars for use online and in certain games. The Miis are cartoony and extremely simple, but the Mii Channel includes enough customization features for users to create Miis that look like themselves, their friends, or even celebrities. (Our Wii is currently populated with characters from "The Big Lebowski.") Miis don't seem that useful, but they can be used as characters in games such as Wii Sports, and as avatars in the Wii's Message Channel. Since Miis are so simple, players can use their Wiimotes' 6KB of storage to carry around as many as 10 Miis and use them on their friends' Wiis.
The Photo Channel was a pleasantly useful surprise, though a bit of a misnomer. The channel can display and edit photos. Nintendo claims that the Wii can also play MP3 music files and QuickTime videos, but these features feel like afterthoughts; MP3s can be played only in a photo slide show, and we were unable to load a QuickTime movie on our Wii. Fortunately, the Photo Channel's emphasis is clearly on image viewing and editing. Once up to 1,000 of your photos are loaded through the SD card slot, you can view them individually, browse them in an album view, or watch a slide show of them. The Photo Channel also includes a basic image editor, though it's clearly built more for fun than serious editing. With its upbeat background music and some very cute image options, the editor feels a lot like the old Super Nintendo classic Mario Paint.
While on the subject of media, it's worth noting that the Wii does not play audio CDs or video DVDs, which is something of a disappointment. Yes, everybody already has a DVD player, but with DVD playback capability being standard-issue since the last generation of game consoles, its omission here is something of a conundrum. Nintendo claims it was to keep the price down, and the company's last-generation console, the GameCube, also lacked DVD playback. Nintendo also hasn't indicated that it's going to launch any sort of downloadable video or music store, and--with the Wii's lack of a built-in spacious hard drive--that doesn't seem like it would be on the docket anytime soon.
The Wii's online capabilities are a mixed bag. A series of online "Channels" offers a decent alternative to PC-based Web browsing, but the system's online gaming and community features leave a lot to be desired. That's largely because each Wii has its own unique "friend code," a series of numbers you can find in the system's configuration menu. To become friends with another Wii owner, you need to send them your friend code (through e-mail, instant messaging, or a phone call--any non-Wii form of communication). Then they must give you their own Wii's friend code, and you must enter it into your own Wii. When that's all done, you two have become friends and can finally send messages to each other via the Wii's "Message Channel." If that weren't bad enough, you have to essentially repeat the process for every Wii game you want to play online (each title has its own separate friend code, above and beyond the system's main code). Compared to Xbox Live's incredibly easy system of entering your friend's Gamertag and them accepting you as a friend, the Wii system is entirely too byzantine. (That said, parents may appreciate the fact that the convoluted system makes it all but impossible for online strangers to interface with their kids.)Beyond messaging, the various online channels offer some handy and entertaining features. The Forecast, News, and Internet Channels form the Wii's trinity of nongaming services. They're not quite as impressive as the Xbox Live or PS3's online media systems, but they're still fun and are occasionally useful to have around.
The Forecast Channel turns your Wii into your own personal weather report. It displays the local weather, a five-day forecast, and even UV reports. If you want to know more than what the weather's going to be like in your town, you can zoom out to a global view, complete with recognizable weather icons for nearly every major city. A quick drag with the Wiimote can get a weather report for anywhere from San Francisco to Tokyo. It won't replace the Weather Channel or more in-depth online weather services, but for a quick glance at the forecast in between games, the Forecast Channel is pretty neat.
The News Channel functions similarly to the Forecast Channel, only with news instead of weather. It downloads stories from the AP wire service, which are displayed in text that can be resized and zoomed in for easier reading on large screens. The stories come with either some form of accompanying photos, or a map indicating where the news is taking place. By default, the News Channel organizes the different stories in the manner of a newspaper into sections such as national, international, regional, and sports news. Besides the newspaperlike format, stories can also be browsed through a slide show or a globelike interface similar to the Forecast Channel's. Much like the Forecast Channel, the News Channel offers a nifty service that doesn't replace dedicated television or online news sources.
The Internet Channel is an Opera-based Web browser for the Wii. New URLs are entered with the Wiimote via the Wii's onscreen keyboard, and favorite Web pages can be stored in the browser's bookmarks. The browser is surprisingly full featured, and can even load complex, Flash-heavy Web pages such as YouTube and our own CNET.com. Much like the News Channel, the pages can be zoomed in and out for comfortable reading on larger screens. It occasionally chokes on some sites, but this might be more due to the sites' browser-sensing scripts that automatically assume the Internet Channel won't be compatible.