Nintendo's history is a colourful one. The company started life in 1889 as a maker of Japanese playing cards. It then reinvented itself to become a toy company in the 1960s, and moved on to video games only in the 1970s. During this transition, the company cast itself as a love hotel and even as a taxi company!
Down the decades since its birth, Nintendo has seen both the zenith and the nadir of success. Many credit the company from single-handedly reviving the industry post the 1983 video game crash. While the company enjoyed great success with its NES home console system, it hasn't achieved that level of success since. Indeed, Sony usurped the home console crown with its release of the first PlayStation, and hasn't looked back since. Today, Nintendo enjoys a dominant position on the handheld console front, but has seen its home console share erode and its position slip to number three.
Its last console, the GameCube, has been declared to "not meet expectations", by the company itself-a euphemism for failure if ever there was one. Nintendo thus enters the new console generation sore and defeated -squeezed on both the home console and handheld fronts by industry giants Sony and Microsoft, and their deep dollar pockets.
Thus cornered, 2004 surprisingly witnessed a resurgent Nintendo. One not afraid to throw the dice and take its chances; beaten perhaps, but daring to go; and singing a new tune. Today, Nintendo is betting on a revolution. With its mantra of "all-access gaming," it wants to change the way the world plays and views games. Under the leadership of once game designer and current president and CEO Satoru Iwata, Nintendo would like to exorcise the "unsocial" tag associated with playing games-and simultaneously regain its long-lost crown.
When Nintendo introduced the DS handheld in late 2004, nobody expected the ugly, fat handheld with two screens to stand a chance against Sony's sleeker, sexier, and much more powerful and capable PlayStation Portable. Nintendo's retired President Hiroshi Yamauchi was quoted by the Japanese Nikkei Shimbun newspaper as saying, "…if the DS succeeds, we will rise to heaven, but if it fails we will sink to hell."
In many ways, the DS was Nintendo shaking the boat just to see what sticks and what sinks. As far as the company was concerned, these were the worst of times: the Japanese gaming market was shrinking, or stagnant at best. The gaming population was seeing little growth; gamers were dropping out to real-life and questing to more the mundane things: job, wife, loans, kids. Female gamers were as rare as ever, as were gamers above the age of 40. In this environment, competing against Microsoft and Sony was a losing gambit. Nintendo thus decided that their best bet would be to expand the market and dip its toes in the virgin waters thus created. Lapsed gamers, women, and the aging populace would thus be targeted, along with the usual army of Nintendo fans.
Thus was the DS born: with a touch screen to simplify controls. At one point, Nintendo entertained the thought of doing away with all buttons save for the touch screen. Similarly the DS' microphone and wireless networking features were meant to increase interaction with a game and simplify the multiplayer experience. But designing the hardware was half the battle. With games such as Nintendogs (wooing the female population with cute puppies), Brain Training (luring an ageing Japan to keep their brains sharpened), Brain Age, and New Super Mario Bros. (capturing the thus newly-created market and the lapsed gamer with the simple and familiar world of Mario), Nintendo successfully expanded the gaming market.
The strategy was a huge success. The DS/DS Lite is the fastest selling console in Japan and has sold over 25 million units worldwide in less than two years. The company now hopes to emulate its success in the home console market with the Nintendo Wii.
Worst. Name. Ever?
When Nintendo named its next-generation console the "Wii", you could hear the Internet collectively snigger and groan. Pronounced "we", the name was a joke in itself. But Nintendo's nomenclature followed its new philosophy of all-access gaming. Wii (we) was for everyone-you, your sister, your mom, your granddad, and so on. On a quiet day, you can still hear the giggles, but Nintendo might yet have the last laugh.
The Nintendo Wii is a system like no other. Iwata had a vision for what Nintendo terms its "new-generation" console: it should be small, quiet, cool (thermally), approachable (don't scare the moms away), and sexy. It should be easy to play on the Wii (snigger), the controller must not be a mess of buttons, the Wii should be always on and rearing to go (groan).
With these broad directions, Nintendo's engineers designed what is perhaps the most unique gaming device to grace Mario's Green Earth.
The most striking feature of the Wii is doubtless its controller. Dubbed the Wii Remote and rechristened "Wiimote" by the Internet, the controller resembles a simplified TV remote-something everyone is familiar and comfortable with. The Wiimote can be waved as a sword, or swung as a bat or golf club; it can be cast as a fishing reel, or used as a steering wheel.
The Wiimote gets its mojo from motion tracking: it can detect its own position and orientation via a conjunction of accelerometers and an infrared sensor. The accelerometers determine roll, pitch, yaw, and directional movements. These are then communicated to the console via Bluetooth. The Wiimote can also track its own position relative to the console: this is done via a thin, small sensor bar that can either sit above or below a TV set-the bar houses infrared lights that are tracked by a camera embedded in the Wiimote, much like an actual TV remote's IR window. The Wiimote is thus able to act as a pointer on the TV screen, analogous to how a PC mouse works: small movements on the mouse pad are converted to mouse movements onscreen.
A game made for the Wii may or may not make use of this pointer functionality-action FPS Red Steel does, while racing game Excite Truck doesn't.
When the Wiimote was designed, Shigeru Miyamoto wanted a more modular hardware, something that could suit multiple purposes at minimal cost. The Wiimote thus has an expansion port for accessories. The Nunchuk, one such accessory, comes bundled with the Wii and is integral to enjoying FPS games and traditional software that require an analogue stick. The Nunchuk, too, houses accelerometers, but cannot be used as a pointer. This allows for some cool games such as boxing, wherein the Nunchuk can act as your left glove, and the Wiimote as your right glove, and you can box onscreen as you would in real life. Boxing, as part of Wii Sports, allows you to throw punches and even allows you to evade your opponent's punches by swaying your body left and right!
Another unique element to the Wii remote is the speaker. Of passable quality, the speaker does add a bit of aural feedback to a game: for example, it can output the sound of ball hitting racquet in a tennis game, the sound of a gun shooting and reloading in an FPS, or the sound of you reeling in your line in a fishing game. This apart, the Wiimote has the usual force feedback for a more tactile experience.
Finally, the Wiimote comes with 4 KB of onboard memory. This is used to store a user's personal settings and his or her personal avatar, dubbed Mii, of course, which can be created using the console.
Nintendo extended the Wii Remote's TV metaphor to the realm of "channels." As hardware meant for the entire family, Wii offers more than just games: each avenue of entertainment/information is presented as a thumbnail channel by the Wii. Apart from the Disc Channel, where you can play both Wii and GameCube titles, Wii has the Mii Channel where you can create avatars of yourself (which later appear in some games), a News Channel, a Forecast Channel, a Photo Channel, a Wii Shop Channel, an Internet Channel, and channels for each Virtual Console title.
While most of these channels are self-explanatory, notable among them are the Photo Channel, which displays your camera's photos and movies via an SD slot on the Wii. The Photo Channel also allows you to do some rudimentary editing to your pictures and videos, create slideshows, and play MP3 music to a slideshow. The Internet Channel is essentially the Opera Web browser optimised for the Wii and TV screen display (note that the maximum resolution the Wii can display in is 480p, or 720 x 480).
The Wii Shop is where you can buy additional games or content for your purchased games: the Wii will be able to play games from several old consoles, under its so-called Virtual Console feature-the NES, the SNES, the N64, the Mega Drive/Genesis, the TurboGrafx-16, the Commodore 64, and perhaps others not yet announced. You will also be able to purchase several brand-new games as well.
Most of these games will require you to purchase a "Classic Controller" peripheral. Each of these games will cost certain "Wii Points"-an NES title for 500 points, an N64 for 1000, a Mega Drive for 800, and so on-with 500 Wii Points being equivalent to $5.
Games downloaded from the Wii Store will appear as Virtual Console channels (a channel each for each game by default, although they can be grouped together) and can either be stored on the Wii's 512 MB of internal Flash memory or to an external SD card. The console will keep track of your purchases, so you can delete a purchased title and later download it for free. Each Virtual Console title will be locked to the Wii it has been purchased on; you cannot take these games on an SD card and play them on a friend's Wii.
Out of the box, the Wii can communicate wirelessly via 802.11b/g. You can otherwise separately purchase a USB-to-Ethernet dongle if you don't have a wireless router. Nintendo hasn't shared its online libraries with third parties, and online multiplayer support isn't expected to arrive until early next year, at least from third parties. Meanwhile, two games announced-Mario Strikers Charged and Battalion Wars 2-support multiplayer over the Internet as well as locally. Battalion Wars 2, or BWii, will feature online assault, skirmish, co-op play, and four-player capture-the-flag.
Apart from local and Internet connectivity, the Wii can also communicate with the Nintendo DS. It has been suggested that the DS' touch screen will be used to interact with characters on the TV. At least one game-PokÃ©mon Battle Revolution-has been noted as using this feature when it is launched later this year in Japan: not only can you import your PokÃ©mon from the Diamond and Pearl DS version, you will be able to control the entire game using the DS alone. You can use the DS stylus to select attacks, targets, view status, switch out PokÃ©mon, and even surrender. While the DS thus displays menus and stats, the Wii displays only the battle screens on your TV.
While You Were Sleeping
The Wii enters into a low-power state when not used, or switched off, much like a TV on standby. In this state the console can continue to communicate with the Internet. This always-on connectivity is called the WiiConnect24, and will be used to stream various data to your console while you sleep, such that when you next power on the system it has downloaded new maps, or weapons, or system/game updates overnight!
Other features of the Wii include a Message Board, which allows you to leave messages for your family or to send them across the Internet. For example, the Board can notify your friends about any new games you might have purchased. The Message Board is built around a calendar, and allows you to trade photos and text messages with cell phone users. The Wii also keeps a log of the games you've played and the amount of time you've spent on each game. The Wii Message Board alongside WiiConnect24 will allow a game developer to send you custom messages for a new map or a weapon as it is downloaded to your console.
The Wii is a brave vision, but perhaps an essential one for Nintendo. It favours aesthetics and simplicity over raw power; certainly a black sheep amidst the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3. Through Wii, Nintendo wants everybody to enjoy games and thus expand the market. In many ways this was the only way forward for the Japanese company. Only time will tell whether fortune indeed favours the brave, and if the Wii will see Nintendo sink to hell-or rise to heaven.