United Wii Stand Nintendo Emphasises Play Over Display

United Wii Stand Nintendo Emphasises Play Over Display
Not long ago it looked like Nintendo might go the way of Atari or ColecoVision — cultural relics to be fondly nostalgised on hipster t-shirts and in late-night stoner conversations. Oh, what a difference a DS makes.
Though groundbreaking from the moment the original Nintendo Entertainment System resurrected home gaming in the mid-’80s, Nintendo’s fifth iteration, the GameCube, fell behind in the current generation.

Though relatively inexpensive and always popular in Japan, GameCube featured no DVD playability, took ages to go online and was widely perceived as kid-friendly at a time when the average gamer age began spiking upwards (though that image started changing with 2005’s award-winning third-party title Resident Evil 4).

"We came out with a few titles at launch, one or two of which were pretty good, but there weren’t tons of them and there weren’t killer apps in every genre,” admits Nintendo of Canada spokesperson Pierre-Paul Trepanier. "Then we went silent for six months and had nothing happening on GameCube. That was devastating.”

But brand loyalty remained strong amongst hardcore Nintendophiles, the most loyal fanboys in the business; franchises like Zelda and Super Mario retained their iconic status and, as Trepanier points out, "it really is synonymous with videogames. In Québec, kids don’t say je vais jouez au jeu video, they say je vais jouez au Nintendo. It’s like Kleenex.”

So perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that their reputation has rebounded this year, to the point that its deservedly lauded Nintendo DS risks shorting-out from all the critical salivation over the way it has changed gaming with its dual touch screens, stylus, built-in microphone and wi-fi capabilities.

Meanwhile, Nintendo’s next-gen candidate, the Wii, unexpectedly walked away with "Best in Show” at the recent E3 game conference in Los Angeles, an award that normally goes to games rather than consoles. In fact, the company found itself nominated for a record 13 Game Critics Awards and also took home best hardware (Wii), best handheld game (The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass), best sports game (Wii Sports), and Best Racing Game (Excite Truck).

Since 1983, Nintendo has sold nearly two billion videogames and 170 million consoles, but the Japanese company has actually been in business since 1889. It started selling "Hanafuda” playing cards over a hundred years before legendary game designer Shigeru Miyamoto’s Donkey Kong introduced us to a pudgy Italian plumber.

Two decades later, the cult continues with the smash success of the DS’s blissfully fun New Super Mario Bros, the first side-scrolling Mario platformer since 1992’s Super Mario Land 2 for Gameboy, and it boasts retro charm, a few new tricks, complex gameplay and oft-brilliant level design.

Released in mid-May, it took top game slot across North America, selling about one every four seconds during its first few weeks and has already moved over a million units in Japan.

Nintendo’s momentum kept on keeping on with the mid-June release of the DS Lite, an iPod-inspired redesign of their original clunky version, which halves the size and quadruples the screen brightness while still rocking a solid battery life. When released in Japan earlier this year it inspired mass shortages and in North America sold 150,000 in just the first two days (Japanese sales have already surpassed two million and DS games recently occupied seven of the country’s top ten best-sellers for all platforms).

The mini-speakers remain weak, but the new DS fixes the original’s primary problems and its innovative technology has delighted game developers — expect about a hundred new titles for the handheld between now and Christmas.

Now we just have to wait for the Wii.

Once known as the Nintendo Revolution, its new name inspired considerable mockery and not a few online petitions, but the buzz faltered only slightly. Rather than trying to compete with Microsoft and Sony, Nintendo is taking a unique approach that tries to do for consoles what the DS did for handhelds — inspire a new way to play.

Its most creative new feature is the "Wii-mote,” an intuitive nunchuck-style controller with its own speaker and motion-sensitivity that replicates the player’s physical actions on the screen and generally operates like a "three-dimensional mouse.”

What it won’t have is the high-end graphics of the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, but Nintendo seems cool with that.

"Sony and Microsoft are headed down one road,” says Trepanier. "Their vision for videogames is more pixels, more polygons, it’s about clock speed and millihertz and more technology in the box. Microsoft wants a foothold in your living room to have leverage in controlling the operating system of your future media centre, whereas Sony wants its proprietary future hi-def Blu-Ray DVD system to become the de facto standard. Their golden egg is somewhere other than gaming. At Nintendo, we’ve always been just about gaming.”

Dude has a point. Sony is chiefly an electronics manufacturer and Microsoft is primarily a computer software company, whereas Nintendo has always kept all its mushrooms in one basket.

Whether its upcoming console will make the company grow or shrink won’t be known until November. But with lessons learned from the GameCube’s relative failure, Zelda, Mario and Metroid Prime franchises available at the Wii’s launch, and a philosophy based on creativity and attracting non-traditional gamers, Nintendo has more than a fighting chance against the big gorillas.

Other Distractions

Daxter (Sony/Ready At Dawn; PSP)
To downsize the much-loved Jak & Daxter series for the PSP, the duo’s larger member has been sensibly discarded to focus on Jak’s snarky, rodent-like sidekick. But Sony didn’t short-change the game itself, delivering the most solidly designed and lushly animated title yet for a technologically advanced handheld hampered by a somewhat lacklustre game catalogue. Connecting the plots between the first two titles, Jak languishes in prison while Daxter gets hired as an exterminator — his weapons are a fly swatter and pesticide — but is soon tasked with saving Haven City from, well, bugs. But evil bugs. This portable platformer also includes movie parodies (Matrix, LoTR, Indiana Jones), multiplayer mini-games and manages to maintain the amusement quotient the series is famed for.

Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories (Rockstar; PS2)
Settle down, kids — this ain’t a sequel to the sprawling San Andreas but a port of last year’s killer bestseller for PlayStation Portable. Until a next-gen GTA arrives in fall 2007, this budget-priced revisit will have to do, though it’s not nearly as impressive on your TV. Liberty City Stories’ graphics look particularly shoddy and it lacks the handheld’s multiplayer mode and custom soundtrack, though you can now control the camera, which was a PSP sore spot. Still, this return to the cityscape of GTA3 (albeit earlier in the timeline) remains a fun way to while the hours as a fresh-from-prison mobster with a gat and a grudge. But if you own the original Liberty City, don’t bother — the game remains the same.

Hitman: Blood Money (Eidos; Multiplatform)
As the title notes, you play assassin-for-hire Agent 47. You’re also a clone, sure, and bald, but what matters is your skill at killing invariably evil people in the most imaginative and sneaky of ways, taking out targets within cleverly assembled levels set in Vegas, Paris, Mardi Gras and even the White House (all unsurprisingly most spectacular on Xbox 360). Of course, not everyone appreciates your talents and the hunter becomes the hunted as a contract is put out on you. But even this new twist in the series’ fourth iteration doesn’t mess with the, ahem, well-executed formula that allows seemingly unlimited freedom within each mission to murder as you see fit, be it with your trademark fibre-wire, poison or 12 shots to the dome.