Having spent the last six days with Nintendo’s Wii console, which is coming out in the United States this weekend, I wanted to just add a few last-minute, “big picture” thoughts on the entire experience that might help some people currently on the fence about the machine, and its competitors.
Yesterday, the Wii component video cable arrived, and as expected, it bumps up the resolution, and hence clarity of Wii’s video signal from 480i to 480p – a difference that’s noticeable, but still nowhere near the 720p and 1080p standards supported by Nintendo’s competitors, Microsoft’s Xbox 360 and Sony’s PlayStation 3. In all honesty, I think it’s pretty obvious at this point that Nintendo just doesn’t care about high-definition video, true multi-channel audio (there’s no optical-out on the system), or any of the other features that are selling game systems to HDTV buyers and other early adopters. And here’s the shocker: right now, I’m not caring too much, either.
For the last week, I’ve been thinking about a conversation I had ten years ago with an executive from Sega. He pointed at the company’s then-latest arcade motherboard, and said correctly that the game we were watching – Virtua Fighter 3 – had reached a level of technology past which point advancements in resolution and graphics would soon suffer from diminishing returns: additional visual improvements would be expensive, but only noticed by hard-core gamers, just like hard-core audiophiles can hear minute differences between speakers or headphones. But average people just wouldn’t care. So here we are ten years later, and yes, there have been major visual improvements since then – lots of them, really – but virtually all of them are lost on 80 or 90 million of the people who buy game consoles. I’ll call them Bose gamers – people who are just looking for a good entertainment experience, and aren’t as concerned about specs as simplicity.
The Wii is the Bose Wave Radio of game consoles. It’s simple, maximized for fun game-playing experiences, and it just works – despite the fact that it has some unique features, mostly in its controller, which could have gone all wrong. True, it’s a little more expensive than some people thought it should be, but literally everything you need is just sitting inside the console’s cabinet already – there’s no need to spend $100 more for Wi-Fi (like Xbox 360 or the $600 version of PS3), or for wireless controllers, or for online gaming. Given what Microsoft’s charging for its wireless components, and as annual fees for online gaming, I can’t overstate the value of not having to deal with these sorts of added fees – Wii just makes it all easy on the consumer.
I’m not going to tell you that Wii is the end-all, be-all game console. It’s not. Putting aside their BluRay Disc and HD-DVD players, which really do nothing for me at all, Sony and Microsoft have both secured exclusive games for their machines that look appealing, and frankly better visually than what the Wii will ever be capable of delivering. In a perfect world, I’d be playing Virtua Fighter 5, Ridge Racer 7, and Gears of War some time in the very near future. Someplace in my head – the same one that bought HDTVs more for games than for TV or movies – the fact that these games look really cool is appealing. But I have to tell you that the high prices of the Xbox 360 and PS3 have basically turned me off entirely to the idea of being on the “cutting edge” of game graphics – so much so that I’m resigned to passing on these titles until their consoles come down in price to more reasonable levels, and the games are selling for $20 in bargain bins rather than $60 as “OMG I gotta have it now” titles.
And I’m very much okay with that. If Sony wants to charge $500-600 for a game console, that’s its choice. Let the 88,400 most excited people (or their line-holding proxies) help Sony recoup its staggeringly high development costs – most of which I’d argue were unnecessary, given that Microsoft came so close without having to create its own chips from scratch. In the meantime, I’ll be playing the much less expensive Wii, and having every bit as much fun. To me, right now, that’s what really counts. And when Mario comes out, I’m going to be locked inside the house for a few days playing it, no matter what else is out there. Zelda’s a strong start, but my money’s on Mario as the system’s true killer app.