Wii!

Perhaps the kidney stone in the urethra of Nintendo’s supply chain is finally passing, because Wii is now starting to appear in stores. Controllers are readily available, and I managed to put in an order on Toys”R”Us’s web site during one of the 6 minute periods when the console was in stock. So, hopefully in a week or two we’ll be Wii-ing.

Ironically, I finally saw screen shots of a couple of PS3 games that interest me: Ratchet and Clank: Tools of Destruction and LittleBigPlanet. And if Fatal Inertia ends up being disappointing, Sony are working on a real Wipeout for PS3. So I’m fairly optimistic that there will be a good reason to buy a PS3 some time before Christmas.

But right now, I’m much more interested in Zelda, Super Paper Mario, WarioWare, Elebits, Kororinpa, and Prince of Persia: Rival Swords (since I skipped Two Thrones). I also plan to visit some of the GameCube’s back catalog; the cube has been sitting idle since I failed to get component video to work, but the Wii should solve that problem.

Wii in your living room

Nintendo’s web site has a hidden gem: filed away under Iwata Asks… you’ll find a series of lengthy articles talking about the entire design process behind the Wii. If that’s not enough Wii to float your boat, BusinessWeek are also getting in on the act.

Nintendo have gone in pretty much the opposite direction to the rest of the industry. Sony and Microsoft are in an arms race of graphical and CPU firepower. The Xbox 360 has a custom IBM PowerPC CPU which has 3 G5-like processor cores, each at 3.2GHz, with a 5.4GHz front-side bus to connect it to the graphics chip. The PS3 has a 64 bit PowerPC core for general purpose tasks, connected to 7 independent vector processor cores known as SPEs, all at 3.2GHz. (There are 8 SPEs on the chip, but to increase yield they are using chips where 1 is faulty, as well as the faultless ones.) For the tasks needed for video games—3D geometry and the like—each SPE is allegedly about as fast as a general purpose CPU of similar speed.

So, 3 CPUs for Microsoft, 8 for Sony, all 3.2GHz—what about Nintendo? Turns out the Wii has one 729MHz PowerPC, a 243MHz graphics processor, and…er, that’s it. In terms of raw power, it’s a souped up GameCube. Instead of counting on bleeding edge CPU power, Nintendo are counting on innovative gameplay, convenience, and a host of other subtle design factors.

I won’t bother to talk about the controller, because you can read about that everywhere. Suffice it to say, the idea is to dramatically increase the approachability of the system. If you can point, you can play, hopefully. The rest of the design is what interests me more, and doesn’t seem to have received as much attention.

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Nintendo DS Lite thoughts

I was very skeptical of the Nintendo DS when it came out. A touch screen seemed like a reasonable idea, but putting two separate screens in a handheld seemed like a gimmick.

My skepticism was also likely due to my disappointment with the Game Boy Advance. There are some truly great games for it—Advance Wars, Golden Sun, Wario Ware—but they are far outnumbered by the endless Pokemon games and lame movie and TV tie-ins. The majority of titles seem to be aimed at those teenage or younger.

When Sony launched the PSP, I hoped that things might change. I guessed that just as the PlayStation targeted a more adult gamer than Nintendo, so the PSP would go after those who didn’t want to play with Pokemon, Bratz, Jimmy Neutron or Spongebob Squarepants.

And it did. But unfortunately, when I finally got a chance to try a PSP, I discovered that the load times were just cripplingly awful. In addition, most of the games seem to be sequels or ports of PS2 games; and unfortunately, things which work well on a full size console don’t make for a good experience on a handheld.

Meanwhile, Nintendo had taken things in a strange new direction, releasing titles like Electroplankton, Brain Age and Nintendogs. It wasn’t exactly the blood and guts approach to mature gaming that Sony favor, but it wasn’t kiddy gaming either.

I’ve a real soft spot for experimental games. I love Katamari Damacy, I bought Nobody Can Stop Mr Domino!, I have Sentinel Returns and Stretch Panic. Even if the game is flawed, I’d rather play something artistically interesting and new, than yet another First Person Shooter.

So before heading off to Hamburg I bought a DS Lite and a copy of Animal Crossing: Wild World. Sure, it’s cute animals, but cute seems to be almost obligatory with Nintendo. Behind the cuteness, though, is an interesting Sim-like open ended gameplay focused on exploration.

The game world exists in real time, with different events happening throughout the year and at different times of day. This encourages you to drop in for a few minutes on a regular basis to see what’s going on, rather than spending hours playing like a conventional console game. In other words, it’s a good game for a portable. Walk into a cafe, buy coffee, sit down, and go see what’s happening in the game world. Since it’s Internet enabled, you can go online via WiFi and see what’s happening in a friend’s game world too, or see if there are any new extras from Nintendo.

Brain Age has a similar design philosophy. It’s something you can play for 10 minutes a day for a quick break. And unlike the PSP, the DS has practically no boot time, so you won’t find that your bus arrives just as you get past the loading screen.

In fact, the DS Lite shows an attention to design that’s typical of Nintendo. Just as the GameCube was a much better piece of hardware than the original PS2, so the DS Lite seems to fit its niche much better than the PSP. It’s iPod-like, white and smooth. The rechargeable battery is easily replaceable. It flips shut, automatically putting the game into pause/sleep mode and protecting both screens. It’s small enough to fit in a pocket. All of this means you can put the game away and return to the real world in a second or two.

The DS memory cards are like slightly enlarged (and much more robust) SD cards, and will stand up to more abuse than a Memory Stick, let alone a UMD disc. The extra slot for GameBoy back-compatibility doubles as an accessory slot for rumble packs and other add-ons. There’s an iPod-like headphone socket that will take regular headphones, or a special DS headset with microphone.

As with the GameBoy, the game cards are both ROM game and flash memory for game saves. This is neat as, unlike with a full size console, you never have to worry about swapping memory cards or finding space for your game saves.

Overall, it’s a really nice piece of design. If Apple made video games, it’s the kind of thing they’d release.