Friday, November 24, 2006

The First Wiik

I have my Wii. I've now spent two solid evenings using it, and, although I want to spend a lot more time with it before offering a final opinion, I'm ready to share my initial impressions. But first, a story.

Allow me to share with you the tale of my Wii purchasing adventure. The EB in the mall opened its doors Sunday at noon, and I showed up with Aiden and Vern in tow at around 11:15AM. There was a pretty sizable line outside EB at that point, but I was told that people with preorders could file in first, so we went and killed forty minutes in the arcade (which is itself an interesting story that I'll save for another day), passing another line outside Toys R Us on the way (in which every fourth person or so was playing a DS). When we got back to EB, there was a small separate preorder line extending in the other direction from the door, so we settled in and waited for my turn. The wait wasn't very long, and roughly ten minutes later I was distributing five bags of swag (including a reluctantly accepted complementary copy of Geist-- man, they can't even give these things away) to Aiden (whom I gave Geist to for his trouble) and Vern (who got nothing for her trouble :-P). Thanks goodness I had the extra arms to help carry everything. My EB launch experience had been great-- I was ready to head home with my Wii, and it was only five after twelve.

So, I got out my wallet and prepared to pay the clerk $1000. *blinks* Wait, $1000!? As this information tried to process, I froze and blinked a couple of times, and then told the clerk (who was fairly new) that the total seemed quite a bit higher than my previous estimates, especially considering that I already had paid $250 for preorders on the console and various games and accessories. He gave the screen a perfunctory glance and assured me that everything added up, and, since there was a fifty-strong long behind me, I decided to drop it and leave, hoping that I had made a mistake. My next stop was Wal-mart, where I hoped to snag a copy of Rayman (which I hadn't preordered). I knew that the line wait there would be considerably longer, so I left Aiden and Vern in my car with my shiny new toy.

As I walked to Wal-mart, I saw yet another long line (and this one was notably messier, with pop bottles and pizza boxes strewn about), although this one just confused me, since the store was already open and sold out of Wiis. I bypassed this line, walked straight to the very crowded electronics department, and managed to snag one of three remaining copies of Rayman. As I queued up to pay for it, I spoke at length to those around me about the Wii and its launch. Apparently most of them had camped out, or at least shown up very early that morning, so I definitely lost the one-upsmanship contest when I said that I just showed up at noon and picked up my preordered Wii (or won it, depending on how you look at it). Their accounts of these lines, and my own experience in this line, was quite consistent with what I later read on-line, and what I fully expected: the Wii lines were much nicer than the PS3 lines in most respects, as summarized amusingly here. They told me that all of the Wiis in the mall had sold out (which was generally the case continent-wide), and a number of them were quite jealous of my full set of four remotes and nunchaku, as apparently nunchaku were in short supply (which was apparently a wide-spread problem). All told, it was a nice chat, and a rare opportunity to have a pleasant conversation and share a bit of camaraderie with a un-obnoxious group of fellow hardcore gamers.

After roughly half an hour in Wal-mart, I left with Rayman in hand, and got back to my car, where Veronica, who had spent the intervening time poring over my receipt, informed me that EB had charged me twice for everything save the console itself. Well that explained a lot. So, I passed her Rayman, took the receipt, and headed back into the mall for what I hoped would be the final time that day. The actual process of getting my money back was fairly quick and painless, as they were going to some effort to make sure that I left happy. I told the manager my problem and was rushed straight to the front of the still very long line, where he examined my receipt while reprimanding the new guy who had rung me through originally. Apparently he had pressed the function key that automatically charges me full price for all of my preorders, but then made the mistake of manually scanning everything again after that. I'm a bit worried that others may have been similarly overcharged without noticing it, but that's not my problem, I guess. *shrug* Five minutes and several apologies later, I left the store $500 richer and headed home to get my launch party started.

My very first thought on removing the console from the box is likely one that most new Wii owners had-- my goodness is that thing small. At the width and thickness of three stacked DVD cases (but an extra inch or two longer), it looks and feels like a slightly oversized disc drive, which is essentially what it is, really. Its size is a good match for the Wii-mote, which is itself a bit small for my taste-- it reminds me of the Game Boy Colour, which was too small for my hands. This isn't a problem for the motion-sensing or trigger buttons, but a few of the face buttons and the D-pad are hard for my thumb to manipulate. Also, I'm going to have to school myself (and my friends) to always wear the wrist strap, because when people play without it I'm seeing scattered reports of, at best, broken Wii-motes, and, at worst, broken laptops and televisions.

The physical setup of the hardware was relatively painless, although I did have to move things around a bit to accommodate the sensor bar and the power brick. Getting three remotes, three nunchaku, and one classic controller out of typically evil plastic accessory packaging was a bit of a nuisance, but it helped me stall for time and wait for Stefan and Nathan to arrive before the big moment (powering it on for the first time). That anti-climactic ritual finished (I had the TV on the wrong input channel, so it kind of killed the moment), I began to use the Wii for the first time and poke around the menus. The pointing functionality is incredibly awkward at first, as it is clear that you're pointing at the bar and not at the television itself, but it began to feel natural remarkably quickly, and it ceased to bother me after about five minutes. It helps very much to think of it as a mouse instead of a pointer-- the movement of the on-screen cursor corresponds quite nicely to the movement of your remote with respect to its current position, but if you try and sight along the length of it you'll be sorely disappointed.

That being said, one problem that I think may be largely specific to my setup is that players seated on the chairs not directly in front of the television have wobbly, erratic cursors. Tweaking the sensitivity in the system menu helped this quite a bit, but the players on the fringes still get fairly regular shaking and flickering. The sensor bar evidently gets finicky at wide, low angles, as the problem goes away if those fringe players either raise their remote high or move in front of the television. If my TV weren't so high, this problem would go away, and even as is, I could likely fix it by moving the sensor bar below the television. However, my setup doesn't lend itself to that, so I guess I'll have to make do. I don't think it's been interfering with gameplay at all, so it's not a huge problem-- just annoying.

After the quick physical setup, getting my Wii online proved to be quite a challenge. It found my wireless router easily enough, but when I tried the automatic setup it couldn't seem to connect. Manually walking through the setup process solved the problem, but it was still a nuisance. Then, once I was connected, it immediately began looking for a firmware update, but the download crawled, and usually made very little progress before the connection was dropped. At first, I assumed that Nintendo's servers were simply getting hit hard, but subsequent efforts made it increasingly clear that something was amiss.

An exhaustive search for answers online (the support URL we were directed to wasn't valid at time, although it is now, and it's maddeningly informative and convenient) revealed an official recommendation that I switch my router to channel 1 or 11. This fixed everything immediately, and from that point forward both firmware updates went smoothly. However, I did encounter a problem after the second firmware update when trying to setup WiiConnect24 that is supposedly symptomatic of a bricked system. Fortunately, it worked fine on my second attempt, and I've had no such problems since, which makes me wonder if Nintendo support is jumping the gun with its hardware replacement recommendation for this particular error.

With all of that ugliness out of the way, it was time to get our Wii on. The very first thing we did was have everyone create their own personal avatars, called "Mii"s, which was fun, simple, and a nice introduction to the pointing interface. That done, it was time to pop in our first game. Even just the act of inserting a game into the system was a pleasure-- I love that disc slot. It takes either Wii or GCN disks at any height, and loads smoothly-- I wonder how I ever got by with crappy trays. I thought at first that it took discs on either facing, which amazed me, but a bit of testing quickly proved that this was not in fact the case.

One mildly amusing problem resulting from this is that there are many reports online of people with Wiis that read discs properly only one half of the time. This is of course roughly how often the disc would be read correctly if you weren't aware that the label had to face in a specific direction. Even more amusing is when people go on to say that the problem goes away when the Wii is laid flat. Obviously, this is because there's only one intuitive orientation for inserting discs into a horizontal slot.

Our first game was Wii Sports, the game that came bundled with the system. I'm mildly annoyed that it just has a cardboard sleeve instead of a full case, although there are alternatives that I may take advantage of if I can find someone who will ship to Canada. After it was inserted, it spun up pretty quickly, and then we were treated to a cute little musical intro and splash screen that's actually embedded in the OS's Disc Channel. This is a really neat feature, and appears to be used by all Wii games. I then clicked the play button, and the game started. I must say, Wii Sports was pretty fun, and it definitely left the best taste in my mouth of anything I've played on the Wii thus far. My favorites games in the package were Tennis and Golf, but they were all fairly enjoyable, save Boxing, which felt utterly broken to me, although Aiden and Stefan seemed to like it quite a bit. I really wish we had spent more time with Wii Sports than we did.

One item that I had almost forgotten quickly made its presence known once we started playing: the small speaker embedded in each Wii-mote. I absolutely adore those speakers. A lot of people online seem to hate them, and complain about the sound quality, but I think they sound just fine. I found them to be immersive, as opposed to distracting, and hearing things like the sound of the ball hitting your racquet come from the remote is just really neat. It feels like the natural evolution of force feedback, and I hope it becomes standard in subsequent console generations.

After Wii Sports, I took a look at the Wii Shop Channel. It felt pretty slick, but the initial offering was pretty limited, and the loading times while navigating the menus seemed excessive. On the other hand, the actual download times were satisfying quick, and featured a fun little animation of Mario collecting coins that I'm sure will get old pretty quickly. My first and only purchase that first night was the original Zelda for the NES, despite loud protests from Vern and Nathan (I have the game on a free Gamecube disc I got from Nintendo that will play in my Wii). I didn't play it for long, but it seemed like a faithful port. One nifty feature is that the Virtual Console uses save states. Whenever you load up a game, you'll be right where you were the last time you quit-- I now finally have something that supports gaming in short bursts.

Once everyone got tired of watching me throw my money away, we moved on to the game that we spent the majority our time playing, Super Monkey Ball: Banana Blitz. Monkey Ball has 50 mini-games, for 2-4 players, but they're all over the map, both in terms of play mechanics and quality. It's like the developers just threw whatever crazy ideas they could at this controller, and put them all in the game, regardless of what actually worked well. Aside from the few just outright broken mini-games, it seemed like, for most of the games, one or two people "got it" instantly, while the remaining players just didn't feel in control using whatever the latest crazy control mechanics were. Which means that, for any given game, there was usually at least one or two frustrated people, which is far from ideal. This would likely improve over time with repeated play (especially since I now know which mini-games to avoid altogether), and everyone still had fun in general, but it is definitely an issue.

There were a few stand-out mini-games that everyone liked, though, and, oddly enough, the FPS game (Monkey Wars) makes a good argument for FPSs on the Wii in general, and it controlled very well. Red Steel was the game that was intended to make that argument, but EB didn't have it in yet on launch day, and, although I could have picked up a copy later at Wal-mart, the early reviews had been poor enough that I decided to pass altogether. Apparently, it has pretty good FPS controls wrapped in a glitchy, ugly game with a weak story. I might rent it to see if I agree with the critics (word of mouth is treating it much better than they are), but I suspect that I'll wait until Metroid Prime 3 to really get my FPS on.

As far as actual physical activity goes, I felt pretty tired by the day's end, although I was definitely playing like a toolbox, and we played for roughly ten hours. At one point, during Monkey Ball's Hammer Toss mini-game, I was swinging the remote so vigorously that I smacked myself in the right temple pretty solidly. Fortunately, the controller was unharmed. The next day, my arms felt like dead weights, and they continued to hurt for the next several days after that, so I think I'm going to keep away from a couple of Monkey Ball's more demanding minigames for a while.

Fast forward to Tuesday, and my second extended Wii multiplayer session. This time the game was Marvel: Ultimate Alliance, the third game in a series that my friends and I have enjoyed in the past. As a mainstream cross-platform Wii release, I knew it could be an important indicator of things to come, and I was anxious to see if they had developed a Wii game or shoe-horned motion controls into a 360 game. I would have to wait to find out, though, because when I turned the console on I discovered that the TurboGrafx-16 had just joined the Virtual Console, with two titles available: Bonk and Bomberman '93.

I immediately downloaded Bonk, because I'd never played it before and had always wanted to. For those of you not aware, Bonk was to the TG-16 what Mario and Sonic were to the SNES and Genesis respectively, although not quite as popular. He was a caveman who's primary means of attack was bashing enemies with his huge head. I only played the game for about five minutes, since everyone else was waiting to get their Marvel on, but it seemed fun enough, I guess. I may never play it again, but it was worth the $6 just to see what I'd been missing all those years ago. That sound you hear is Nathan grinding his teeth. :-)

The real star of the night, though, was the other TurboGrafx-16 download, Bomberman '93. I've probably played at least half a dozen Bomberman games over the years, with more bells and whistles tacked onto each successive one, but this game makes it clear that it's the same great core gameplay that carries that series, because even with every advance of the last decade stripped away, that game is still hella fun for a group of five (!) friends to play. That's right, you read that correctly-- Bomberman '93 supports five-player local simultaneous multiplayer. I have yet to try it out, but I think the fifth player has to use a GCN controller. The game has already been more than worth the $6 price tag, and I expect I'll get a lot more mileage out of it yet. They just don't make new games like this anymore.

After an epic ten-round match of Bomberman (five wins for me, four wins for Nathan, and one draw, I think), we finally started playing the game that we had gathered to play. My first impression was generally favorable, as the game walked us through the gestures we needed to perform to trigger various actions, and it all seemed to work fairly well. This impression held through the first few areas, but my mood began to sour as the evening went on and a few design and control issues became apparent (I'm beginning to sense a pattern here). Aside from a poorly-designed character management menu, which isn't really pertinent to an evaluation of the Wii, there were a couple of annoying problems involving the motion sensing. The nunchaku is used to control the game's camera (tilt it right to rotate it clockwise, or tilt it left to rotate it counter-clockwise) and to operate doors and switches (shake or jerk it). This is actually simple and intuitive, and I really like it, but noone else seemed to share that opinion, because of a key problem-- gamers are lazy.

You see, my friends evidently have this distressing habit of letting their hands just kind of hang limp while they're playing, or setting their controllers down altogether. As you might imagine, this becomes a problem when a game cares about the orientation or movement of your controller. I think I generally always hold my controllers straight, so it's not a problem for me, but when I'm playing cooperatively with three other people for whom it is a problem, it becomes my problem. So, every minute or two, the camera would begin to swing wildly, and I'd have to ask who was holding their nunchaku sideways. Less frequently, a door would be opened or a save point would be activated by mistake as someone put down or picked up their controller, giving a quick shock to the accelerometer.

These are just minor annoyances though, when compared with the biggest problem: every now and then, for roughly five seconds or so, the motion sensing just seemed to stop working. I don't know if this is the game's fault (a glitch) or the Wii's fault, or maybe even some nuance of the control scheme that we're missing, but it makes the game much harder when you suddenly can't attack. I can't find any accounts of similar problems online, so it almost makes me think that the problem is specific to us, either because of user error or a problem with my hardware or setup. That aside, the game actually handles a complex set of gestures better than the other Wii games I've played thus far, but part of me wonders if there's a need for the gesture set to be that complex in the first place.

The Wii's motion sensors work well when they're tasked with something simple, but developers seem like they're trying make it do too much. If the controller is assigned to a single function, like most of the Wii Sports games (except Boxing, which is the one that feels broken for that very reason), it feels pretty good, but neither of the other games that I've played stop there. They want it to do one thing when it's jerked up, another when it's jerked down, a third when it's swung side to side, and a fourth when it's rotated sideways and shoved up your ass. The fact is that the recognition technology just isn't sophisticated enough (or, to be more accurate, humans aren't accurate and consistant enough) to sense the nuances required for this level of detail to work well, and hopefully games will begin to get better as developers realize this.

I've experienced a broad range of emotions relating to my new Wii, with most of them over the course of that first day alone. I started launch day out eager and expectant, impatient to get it home and turn it on. Once I began setting it up and getting a feel for it, I started to get worried. However, once I started playing Wii Sports, I started to feel better, and by the time we'd played four of the five minigames, I was completely sold on the system. From that point forward, however, from Wii Sports Boxing through Monkey Ball's mini-game marathon, I became increasingly jaded and frustrated as the evening wore on. That being said, I've heard other people complain about Monkey Ball specifically being wonky until you filter out the problem minigames, and the console's fun factor is definitely high when playing in a group. This is definitely the best out-of-the-box launch day experience that I've ever had with a console.

There is one respect in which the Wii has definitely succeeded. I've heard people around the office, where nary a word on the subject of video games is usually heard, talk about the Wii on several different occasions. Even one of the secretaries was talking about Wii Tennis. Everyone who I've head talk about it has touched part of the Wii Sports package and been left with a favourable impression. From what I can see, Nintendo has definitely hit their mark in terms of accessibility and broad appeal. I intend to plop my parents down in front of the thing at some point just to see how well they've succeeded in this, but, to be perfectly honest, I'm not expecting much success, given that they both still can't operate a normal television remote properly. Right now, though, it's the appeal to the core gamer that concerns me more.

At this point, I'm still not sure where I stand on the Wii. It's a good value for its price, but I'm definitely not as in love with it as I thought I'd be right now. I think I need to give it more time before arriving at any firm conclusions. As far as functionality goes, the Coles Notes summary so far would be this: pointing and retro gaming FTW, and motion sensing FTL (although I feel like I might warm to it once I get used it). When everything comes together well, the controller really does make for a more immersive experience, but so far this seems to be the exception rather than the rule. If developers build their games from the ground up with the Wii's capabilities and limitations in mind (which may happen, since Wii development is cheap and the installed base is off to a good start), I really think this console could do great things, and I think that it will ultimately succeed or fail depending upon whether or not that happens.

Note that I still have yet to play Rayman, Twilight Princess, and Trauma Centre, which are generally agreed to be the three best launch games (and all of which I own), so I may have nicer things to say in a couple of weeks. If not, there may still be some hope, as Tycho claims that the best Wii games are the ones that weren't ready at launch (Mario, Metroid, and Warioware). I guess I'll just cross my fingers and hope for the best. For the moment, though, all of my criticisms aside, I'm still playing the Wii and having fun, and maybe in the end that's all you should take away from this bloated rambling post.


Anonymous Aiden said...

First of all i cant believe i read that whole post.

I love the Mii's, i think they are neat and i hope more games like Wii sports bring them into it.

Oh and lastly
"He was a caveman who's primary means of attach"

Attack not attach :P

Sunday, November 26, 2006 2:36:00 AM  
Blogger Jordan said...

*Typo deleted as if it never existed through the incredible power of the Inter-mo-tron*

Sunday, November 26, 2006 6:40:00 PM  
Anonymous Craig said...

My Wii experiences in a nutshell:

- Wii Sports

I liked them all except baseball and I usually HATE sports games. Mel and I had fun with boxing which apparently deviates from the Internet Consensus. The control scheme for dodging punches is pretty cool. I can't wait to play golf against my father and brother.

- Marvel Ultimate Alliance (rental)

Hated it. Controls felt tacked on. The wiimote is supposed to make the experience more immersive, shaking the controller side-to-side/up-and-down to attack does not make me 'feel' like Captain America. You might as well press a button.

I _really_ want to try Red Steel. I hit 5 video stores on Friday night but every copy in town was rented.

I have a feeling that games released under multiple platforms (e.g. Marvel UA) are going to suck on the Wii. If not designed from scratch for wiimote usage the control schemes will be sub-standard.

So far, I'm very happy with the system; good luck finding accessories though. I probably purchased the last wiimote-nunchaku combo in the area Friday night (Roger's Oromocto).

Sunday, November 26, 2006 9:01:00 PM  
Blogger Stefan Robak said...

Ah, the post didn't really feel that long. I attribute that to the quality of the writing and my interest in the subject rather than the actual length of the post. Jordan has written much shorter entries that I just glaze through.

I like Ultimate Alliance but I am not playing it like a Wii game so much as I only flick the controller around every couple of minutes or so. There are some wonky elements to the menu and for some reason I doubt our characters will be in a New York level (which is a shame since Marvel is all about New York. Every major hero lives there, albeit, in different areas).

The only thing that bugs me is some of the dialogue. Namely, Winter Soldier's dialogue. Now, I know Winter Soldier is basically a grown-up and badass Bucky, but here he's portrayed as a full-on villain while in the comics he's a amnesiac government assassin unsure about where he fits in to everything. Not a good guy but not an annoying whiny bitch. Everyone else is relatively cool but that's because most of them are pretty old school and can afford to be loved despite cheesy dialogue.

The boss fights are pretty cool and the game has MODOK. I cannot fault a game for having MODOK. Especially when he kicks you with tiny legs. Too many writers are trying to come up with a badass villain, but why isn't anyone trying to come up with a villain as silly and creepy as MODOK. Even his name is fun to say.

Monday, November 27, 2006 9:50:00 PM  
Blogger Vincent said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006 1:56:00 AM  
Anonymous SyChO said...



I hate Boxing also! :)

Tuesday, November 28, 2006 2:15:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I believe that the linked penny arcade comic defines "playing like a toolbox" to mean using only the minimum gestures required. You seem to have meant that you were actually swinging it around like a hoedown partner. Actually getting into playing = FTW

Tuesday, November 28, 2006 8:30:00 PM  
Blogger Jordan said...

I'm not sure why the commenter a few entries above felt compelled to remove his original comment, but I thank him for the EBay tip-- looks like I'll be getting my Wii Sports case after all.

As for the fellow immediately above, my friend Nathan actually theorized that the comic in question was intentionally ambiguous. I thought this silly at the time, but now I'm beginning to wonder. I've spoken to several people who have each interpreted it in one of two ways, and it really does seem that each person chooses whichever meaning they find more appropriate. Now that I read it closely, I think I do find your interpretation (laziness = toolbox) to be the most intuitive based solely on the language, but I definitely think that there's room for it to mean the precise opposite, which I think is supported by the imagery, and that's definitely how I interpreted it after my first several reads.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006 9:59:00 PM  
Anonymous Travis said...

Just to throw my hat in the ring as well, I interpreted that Penny Arcade comic as indicating a toolbox being one who plays with minimal gestures. I didn't think of the possibility of it being read in other ways until you mentioned it.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006 11:33:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous (Vintage) said...

Ok, I read the whole post and found it to be a Wii bit long. It kept my interest, though.

How could you not open the other 3 games and play them for at least a few minutes each? You've got to have the will of steel or something. You must be a guy that can eat just ONE chip!

Wednesday, November 29, 2006 9:26:00 AM  
Anonymous johng said...

To the anonymous poster:

Jordan just doesn't work that way. He has at least 30-50 games still in their original packaging because he doesn't open a game still he has the time to play it start to finish. Though I suspect his true feelings towards the week will be decided upon after playing the games he bought the system for.

To Jordan:
What's the current game your playing? Still wrapped up in Oblivion?

Wednesday, November 29, 2006 10:18:00 AM  
Anonymous Vern said...

Jordan is playing Oblivion and Phantom Brave.
Vern knows what games Jordan's playing FTW!

Wednesday, November 29, 2006 11:47:00 AM  
Blogger Jordan said...

Well, to be more accurate, Jordan is wishing he had time to play Oblivion and Phantom Brave-- he hasn't logged time with either one for over two weeks now.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006 12:15:00 PM  
Anonymous Vern said...

Vern's taken precedence over playing video games for another win!

I believe I'm at 4 now.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006 9:24:00 PM  
Anonymous johng said...

JohnG is curious why Vern is speaking in 3rd person!

I know that as soon as I get a WII, FFXI will be taking a back burner for a while.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006 4:09:00 PM  
Anonymous Aiden said...

As FFXI should have been a long time ago :P

Thursday, December 07, 2006 1:23:00 PM  
Anonymous Vern said...

Who's Vern?

Thursday, December 07, 2006 9:55:00 PM  
Blogger Jordan said...

Who's Vern?
Just some crazy wozam who posts on my blog occasionally. ;-)

Friday, December 08, 2006 12:16:00 PM  

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