The Wii: One Small Step for Nintendo, One Giant Leap for Gaming

When Nintendo's Wii home video-gaming console debuts in North America early Sunday morning, it will put to rest any fears that it won't be able to compete with Sony's super-powered PlayStation 3 and Microsoft's already established Xbox 360.

Amid the bespectacled, 20-something tech journalists gathered at a Nintendo media demonstration in New York last month, a clump of mesmerized gamers huddled around a Wii (pronounced "Whee!") running a baseball game.

Periodically, the group burst into furious cheering, hysterical giggling and petulant whining: "So-and-so is taking too long. It's my turn. No, it's my turn. Hey, quit hogging the controller."

A couple of times, it looked as if they were going to come to blows.

Video: Staffers Take the Wii for a Spin

But the commotion wasn't coming from a gaggle of 6-year-olds.

It was a group of middle-aged men dressed in smart three-piece-suits, mostly marketing executives, who were easily old enough to be the fathers of the children they had become.

It was the power of the Wii, and it was unreal.

• Click here to visit's Video Gaming Center. spent almost a week testing the Wii, and is here to separate the hype from the tripe.

Control Issues

The Wii is all about its revolutionary spatially sensitive controller.

In fact, the console was code-named "Revolution" while in development. Nintendo changed the name to Wii to reflect the "inclusive" nature of the console, which makes sense, but "revolution" might have been more accurate.

With one hand, gamers hold a controller that resembles a TV remote, which Nintendo reps repeatedly asked journalists not to call the "Wiimote." Sorry, guys — you dug your own grave on that one.

The Wiimote has four primary buttons, a directional pad — and a port in its bottom into which you plug a second controller, the egg-shaped "nunchuk." That's held by the other hand and has its own directional thumbstick and two trigger buttons.

It's somewhat difficult to explain the arrangement in words, and even pictures barely do justice to the controller's truly clever and versatile design.

For example, in the racing game "Excite Truck," the Wiimote is held like a steering wheel and its buttons are used to accelerate and brake.

In the boxing section of the "Wii Sports" game that comes with the console, no buttons are used at all — players just grasp the Wiimote and nunchuk and throw punches.

In "The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess," however, the Wiimote becomes a sword, a bow and arrow, a boomerang — and a fishing rod.

When the Wii review model was set up in the newsroom, a crowd quickly developed as editors and reporters took turns swinging at imaginary baseballs, driving two-dimensional golf balls and lobbing unseen tennis serves.

The high point came during the boxing game, when two video editors wore themselves out, arms swinging as they landed blows on each other's on-screen counterparts, displayed side by side on the tiny 14-inch TV.

It's a good thing Nintendo put a wrist strap on the Wiimote, and asks you to use it. With the strenuous physical activity some of the games require, the user could easily end up hurling it into a wall — or develop an aching shoulder.

The Wiimote uses infrared light to communicate with a sensor strip — placed above or below a TV set and plugged into the console — and Bluetooth wireless technology to communicate with the Wii itself.

The result is surprisingly natural and accurate.

The Wiimote is so responsive, in fact, that it take a bit of time to adjust to.

Your first inclination is to make wild sweeping gestures with your arms, but over time you learn that the motions have to be much more subtle.

Most games can be played comfortably while sitting on a couch, but it's often more fun to just stand up and get into the action.

The playful nature of the Wiimote is sure to appeal to both kids and adults.

It's not hard to see parents buying the Wii for their children for the holidays — and then taking it for a spin while the kiddies are off at school.

Horsepower, Horsepower, a Kingdom for More Horsepower

Under the hood, however, the Wii is somewhat less revolutionary.

The central processing unit is still based on IBM's aging PowerPC chipset, which also powered the "Gekko" chip inside Nintendo's GameCube, the Wii's predecessor.

The updated core, dubbed "Broadway," is thought to pump out 735 MHz, about twice the clock speed of the GameCube, but a far cry from the 3.2 GHz Cell processor — a much more advanced Power-based chip — sported by the PlayStation 3.

Other major upgrades on the GameCube specs include Wi-Fi and Bluetooth modules for wireless networking, as well as a souped up graphics-processing unit that supports 16:9-format (widescreen) screens and 480-line progressive output for high-definition televisions — although separate component cables must be purchased for this last feature.

The Wii, however, is not about horsepower; it's about fun. Many Wii games take a cartoonish approach to graphics, which fits in nicely with the Wii's quirky playfulness.

The best games in its 26-title North American starting lineup are those geared specifically to be controlled by the Wiimote, like the aforementioned "Zelda" or "Tony Hawk's Downhill Jam."

But games that are slated for release on multiple platforms, such as "Marvel: Ultimate Alliance," often feel like they're missing some graphical pizzazz or are wasting the Wii's unique abilities.

A notable exception here is "Madden NFL 07," where players actually get to mimic throwing the football themselves — a priceless addition.

The Wii does light and playful much better than heavy and serious.

The kitschy party game "WarioWare: Smooth Moves" is perfect for the Wii, but don't expect any challengers to hardcore mainstays such as the "Grand Theft Auto" and "Halo" series — at least not yet.

The Wii's most adult title at launch, "Red Steel," pales in comparison to the graphics bonanzas that are the Xbox 360's gory "Gears or War" or the PS3's grim "Resistance: Fall of Man."

The Good, the Bad and the Superfluous

The Wii is a damn good gaming console.

Unlike Sony and Microsoft, who have engaged in a furious race to turn their consoles into high-powered all-in-one media boxes for the "digital lifestyle," the Wii sticks to doing what it does best — mostly.

In what may have been a sudden bout of keeping-up-with-the-Joneses, Nintendo executives decided to quickly slap together a couple of extra features.

As a result, the Wii includes "Wii Channels" that, among other things, give users access to weather, news and a Web browser.

Of course, all these things require users to have broadband Internet connections in their homes, so it seems unlikely that gamers will want to squint at their TVs when they could just as easily surf the Web on their PCs.

Wii users can also view photos stored on Secure Digital memory cards and share them with other Wii users via the Wii online message board.

Again, if you have a digital camera and an Internet connection, you'll also have a perfectly capable PC sitting around to do this already.

The Wii's photo features might be useful for showing off photos on a large high-definition television at large family gatherings, but we're guessing that online photo-sharing services such as Flickr are going to send Wii Photos the way of the dodo before it ever hatches.

More promising is the Wii Shop Channel, which allows gamers to download classic games from the long-dead Nintendo Entertainment System, Super Nintendo, N64, Sega Genesis and NEC TurboGrafx platforms.

The console will also play most GameCube discs and games, but it doesn't support DVD playback, even though the Wii's game discs are essentially DVDs themselves.

Nintendo can upgrade the machine's software or offer more channels through the Internet connection at any time, so it's possible that either could eventually evolve into something better.

But considering the minuscule 512 MB of built-in memory and wussy processing power, most users will probably say, "Thanks, but no thanks."

Finally, there's the Mii Channel. In this channel, users can customize their own digital avatars, which will show up in various games.

The Miis are saved to the Wiimote, so you can take them to a friend's house. It's a neat idea, but it doesn't add much to the majority of games.

If the promises of the PS3 and Xbox 360 to deliver more than just games into the living room are a big factor in your decision of which console to buy, remember this: When the original Xbox and PlayStation 2 were slugging it out for supremacy in 2001, almost nobody had a TiVo, an iPod or a Netflix account — heck, only one in four people even had a DVD player.

Given those facts, the idea that an Xbox 360 or PS3 will be the "one system to rule them all" is probably just pie in the sky.

To Wii or Not to Wii?

Despite its technical shortcomings, the Wii is a whole lot of fun to play. And the suggested retail price of about $250 makes it an attractive competitor to the $399 Xbox 360 and, especially, the PS3, the "full" model of which costs a whopping $599.

With that kind of price point, hardcore gamers might even consider picking up a Wii alongside a PS3 or Xbox 360. The Wii will simply play games — and come up with new ways of playing them — in a way that none of its competitors will be able to match.

In fact, after playing with a Wii for a while, PlayStation and Xbox can start to look like an exercise in nihilistic thumb gymnastics.

Get complete coverage in's Video Gaming Center.