Review: Wii's Online Abilities Shine in Low-Key Way

The Nintendo GameCube might have been my sons' pride and joy for four years, but it was relegated to the kids' small television and not once did it earn a connection to our main family room TV.

Our Wii game console, however, is having a hard time leaving the high-profile spot — a testament to both its motion-sensitive remote and growing collection of online content that includes classic games and information "channels."

Who can resist the Nintendo Entertainment System classic "Super Mario Bros.," which for a mere $5 can take up permanent residence in a Wii menu channel slot, stored in the Wii's built-in memory?

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Headline and weather junkies can get their fix with free channels. And though it's not perfect, the Wii offers a Web browser that works well for a quick e-mail check or Google search.

To access these online features, you'll need to configure the Wii's built-in wireless connection to talk to your Internet router or buy Nintendo's $35 USB Wi-Fi adapter.

Sure, the online offerings are a way for Nintendo and other companies to get more mileage and money out of dated titles, but some of these games are classics well worth the $5 to $10 price tags.

Real money doesn't work on the Wii, so you'll first have to convert your hard-earned dollars into Wii Points.

I found only one retailer in my city — Toys "R" Us — with Wii Points cards in stock, and they were $25 plus tax for 2,000 points.

A better option is to go online with the Wii and buy 2,000 points by credit card for just 20 bucks.

With points in the bank, it's time to choose from the more than 50 games from the old Nintendo Entertainment System, Super NES, Nintendo 64, Sega Genesis and TurboGrafx consoles.

Go to the Virtual Console section of the onscreen menu to browse games alphabetically or by the name of the old console, or scroll through recently added titles. Nintendo has been adding new Virtual Console games each Monday.

Another game worthy of a channel slot is "Sonic the Hedgehog," which helped catapult the Sega Genesis console into the big time.

Like most side-scrollers, "Sonic" features a character running left-to-right through long, scrolling levels while gathering tokens and killing bad guys. But the ring-snagging blue mammal moves and spins at speeds Mario could only dream of, providing more than enough fun for $8.

Both "Sonic" and "Super Mario" — which look and play exactly like the originals — require minimal controls, so spending $20 on an optional Wii Classic Controller proved unnecessary.

The wireless "Wiimote," titled sideways so the arrow controls are on the left and the buttons are on the right, was all I needed.

More complex and multiplayer titles may need the Classic Controller or old GameCube controllers ($20), which can plug into the slots on top of the Wii console, which retails for $250. (Unlike the online services for the Xbox or PlayStation 3, you can't, at this point, play remotely with others.)

The final version of the Wii's Opera-powered Internet Channel isn't due out until March, but a trial that went live just before Christmas does an amazingly good job considering it's not officially ready for prime time.

To add the Internet Channel to your menu, click on the shopping channel, choose "Wii Ware" and download the trial.

The Wii remote acts like a mouse, letting you aim at the screen to move the cursor. Press the "A" button to click.

Until you build up your favorites, you'll have to enter Web addresses manually using the on-screen pop-up keyboard. Traditionalists will prefer the standard typewriter layout, while those tied to portable devices might be more comfortable with the cell phone-styled keyboard.

The keyboard screen appears each time you click in a text box, so this can quickly grow tedious. Let's hope that someone comes out with a Wii-compatible wireless keyboard soon.

Still, the Opera browser did a great job pulling up a variety of sites, and even plays Flash-enabled games and YouTube videos. I wasn't able to download MP3 music files to the console, although some users have found workarounds.

Some of these minor incompatibilities probably will be addressed in the final version.

The Wii console's News Channel is a great way to catch up on the day's news without leaving the couch.

Once you start the channel and spend about a minute waiting to pull the latest headlines from The Associated Press, you can browse stories grouped into categories such as "national," "international," "sports," "business" and others.

The slideshow feature is more passive. Headlines appear every few seconds on the bottom of the screen while a globe rotates to stamp a radar blip on the dateline city. Just click the "A" button when a headline of interest appears and it will bring up the full story.

Wii users can save themselves another trip to the computer with the Forecast Channel. It doesn't provide the depth of a local forecast from The Weather Channel or your local TV station, but it gives conditions, temperatures and forecasts for cities across the globe.

Another channel that appeared out of the blue on Internet-connected Wiis last month is the Everybody Votes channel, which lets users vote on such pressing issues as "Do you prefer dogs or cats?" and "Which century would you prefer to live in?"

It's not very deep, but the animation is clever and it is free.

The Wii has already brought many casual gamers back to console gaming with an innovative remote system that draws players off the couch and into the game.

Considering that most of these additional features are free or relatively cheap, they really boost the value of a console with a price tag far below its competitors.