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Houston, Wii Have a Problem

Wiipackage.jpgReleasing third in a race to dominate the next generation of gaming, Nintendo Wii was unleashed to crowds of eager consumers all over the US on November 19, 2006. In just eight short days not only were the first and second shipments of the Nintendo Wii completely sold out, but consumers wanted the Wii more than the PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360. This is true even though Nintendo's new console is barely more powerful than the original Xbox and the system lacks true HD support. So why are legions of people trying to get a Wii instead of the powerful PlayStation 3 or readily available Xbox 360? After spending time talking to Nintendo Wii owners and consumers trying to own a Wii (if Nintendo can get them in stock soon), there are two main reasons why the Wii is a success: the innovative control system and the backwards compatibility via the Virtual Console and GameCube games. After examining these two items in more detail, we will find that all is not well in the world of Nintendo.

Even to someone who knows nothing about Nintendo Wii, just a glance at the console and a short demonstration will reveal what makes it so unique. The “Wiimote” is a controller that is shaped and held like a standard remote control. Nintendo designed the primary controller like this so it would be immediately recognizable and approachable by all ages and skill types. Even if you have never played a game or never could play, who can't pick up a remote and move it in front of the TV? The key is the motion sensitive controls that allow the Wiimote to be pointed and moved in any direction.

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The key to the Wiimote functioning accurately is a sensor bar that connects to the back of your Wii console and is placed above or below your television. The sensor bar can be stuck to the top of bottom of your TV or placed on a plastic tray to raise it up slightly for easier readings by the Wiimote. Players can then configure their Wii settings with the placement of the sensor bar. Despite how easy this sounds, Nintendo dropped the ball when it comes to the sensor bar. The biggest issue is that the cable is not very long. It is true that the majority of consumers will place the sensor bar within a foot or two from their Wii console. However, for others with projectors and Home Theater setups where the console must be placed much farther from the TV, length of the sensor bar cord becomes an insurmountable problem.

Wiisensor.jpgThird Party Accessory companies are supposed to be working on a Sensor Bar extender to resolve this issue. However, no details on price or delivery date for a device like this exist at deadline. Will it be a longer card attached to a similar sensor bar? Will it be an extension card your existing sensor plugs into? We aren't exactly sure but for those who need an immediate resolution, there was a workaround discovered. By taking two light candles and placing them at the bottom of your TV, spaced about two to three feet apart, your Wiimote will function without the need of a sensor bar. Just don't blame us if your Wiimote comes flying out of your hands, knocks over a candle, and burns your house down. The next generation of gaming can sometimes be a dangerous hobby.

Another concern with the Wiimote is that it is the only next generation controller that does not have rechargeable batteries. Microsoft allows for either a rechargeable battery pack or AA batteries and Sony only allows their irremovable battery found in the Sixaxis controller. Surprisingly the Sixaxis controller performs the best when it comes to time between charges. The Wiimote will get roughly twenty hours or less before needing to have two new AA batteries placed in it. Fortunately all three consoles have indicators for how low the battery power is. However, this is no excuse to not offer some sort of “official” Nintendo rechargeable battery pack.

Thirdly, we have an issue with the Wiimote being incredibly sensitive with relative few options to adjust it in a game. While this could be fixed with games released in the future, the current round of games can be incredibly sensitive to movement. Fortunately one of the only titles to utilize the Wiimote for complete controls is Super Monkey Ball Banana Blitz. But this title is actually more difficult to play with the Wiimote than it would be with the analog sticks.

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The last issue involving the controller is Nintendo did not anticipate the supply to meet the demand and some of the controller accessories seem overpriced for their quality. Perhaps Nintendo was hoping to create a huge demand by releasing less than four controllers and nunchuck accessories for every system released to the market place. However, for a console that claims to be a “family experience” and comes with a multiplayer game as a pack-in, why has it been impossible to locate any extra Wiimotes or nunchuck attachments? I am sure that in a few months it won't be difficult to locate the extra controllers.

But beyond the supply finally meeting up with the demand, where is the quality for the nunchuck controller attachment? Priced at $19.99, the analog stick is not nearly as precise as the GameCube’s and the device seems very light and cheap. I guess we will have to see if the attachment can hold up to extensive play in the coming months.

Leaving the many issues with the input devices aside, the other reason why people are excited about Nintendo Wii is the Virtual Console. Utilizing your broadband connection to the Internet, players can purchase older games for play on the Wii. The systems that have been announced include Nintendo 64, Super Nintendo Entertainment System, Nintendo Entertainment System, Turbo Grafx 16, and Sega Genesis. If the popularity of this platform continues to grow, I would also expect to see Sega Master System, Turbo Duo, Neo Geo, Sega Saturn, and Sega Dreamcast games. However, this is just speculation. But even with all the excitement about the Virtual Console, the platform is not without fault.

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To begin with, Nintendo has advertised that players can purchase Virtual Console games for prices between 500 and 1,000 Wii Points (500 Wii Points equals $5.00). However, this is not entirely accurate and I found this out in the worst possible way. After securing a Nintendo Wii console at a midnight launch event, my console had a laser problem that was getting worse and worse at reading Wii game disks. I had already added two Wii points cards—valued at a combined 4,000 Wii Points—and purchased Super Mario 64 and the original Legend of Zelda. Fortunately for me, my local Gamestop got a second shipment of Wii consoles in and the manager offered to hold me one. I unlinked my MyNintendo Account, backed up my purchased games and saved games to a SD Card, and swapped out the console. All appeared to be well.

While the new console played the games without any problems, I was shocked when, after linking my MyNintendo account, none of my Wii Points and none of my Virtual Console games were there. This is when I discovered that Nintendo has made the brilliant decision to link all Wii Points and all Virtual Console games to each specific console. This means that if you ever purchase a replacement console, you will lose all of your Wii Points and VC games unless you send your broken console to Nintendo Repair and pay them to fix it.

Beyond that, players are also limited in other ways. For example, if I purchase a game like Bomberman 93, originally on the Turbo Graftx 16, and I want to take it to a friend's house. Even though I can transfer it to a SD card, unless my friend has the game on his console—meaning he has also purchased it—you will not be able to play it unless you bring your console to their house. The same is also true if you buy a second Wii console for your house. If your kids have one upstairs, unless you buy two copies of each game, you won't be able to play them on the other console! What kind of system is this?

In the current way Nintendo has the Virtual Console store configured, the VC titles are best thought of as a Lifetime Rental for your specific console. If you ever have your system replaced or destroyed outside of Nintendo Repair, you can probably kiss all of your Wii Points and Virtual Console games goodbye. That is until you want to buy them again... or should I say rent them again? Why hasn't Nintendo created an account that users log on to and give them access to all of their purchases? Microsoft does this with Xbox Live and Sony does the same with their PlayStation Store service.

To make matters even more interesting, I was able to finally get in touch with someone at Nintendo customer service. After being connected to a Team Lead, they finally offered to transfer my old console Wii Points and Virtual Console titles to my new console as a one time courtesy. They were able to verify my account by my old Serial and new Serial number from my Wii consoles. This raises yet another question. If Nintendo can see and do all of this via the phone, why force users to go through Nintendo Repair? My experiences with their repair group have been very poor. They are very slow and I find them to be expensive.

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Finally, I would like to mention the lack of any sort of trial or demo for the Virtual Console titles. Players can read a brief description, see a couple of very small screenshots and then have to buy the Virtual Console game. If you don't like it or if the emulation is not very good, you are out of luck. No refunds of any kind are given. This creates a very bad situation for the consumer. A better solution would be to have some sort of trial or demo—or allow the player to rent the game for a certain period of time before committing a purchase.

There is no question that Nintendo Wii has a lot of promise and if Nintendo continues to Develop and release software and work closely with their Third Party Publishers and Developers, the Wii can be a success. However, if these issues we discussed above are not addressed, Nintendo may find that their once devoted fan base will quickly depart for greener pastures on the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. And while no console is perfect, these issues could be the Achilles heel for Nintendo Wii. Hopefully Nintendo will resolve these issues before it is too late.

By Kaleb Rutherford - 12/03/06

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