Year Over Press "A” to Continue

Year Over Press 'A” to Continue
Videogames may be an interactive medium but active does not necessarily mean innovative — which is why the past year, the most important since gaming entered the third dimension, has been so refreshingly unexpected. Seriously, who doesn’t wish they’d thrown their life savings into Nintendo stock?

Last fall, Playstation 3 came out guns a-blazin’. But once the hype settled, it became apparent that Sony, the Andre the Giant of gaming, was getting pinned by the new tag-team champions Wii-60 (for about the PS3 price, at least initially, frugal gamers could own both Microsoft and Nintendo’s now-gen consoles). Having ironed out its launch year kinks, Xbox 360 kept thumbs busy with a string of solid exclusives that began with Gears of War at launch and continued through last month’s Mass Effect. The Wii, however, proved to be a much bigger surprise as their open-arms strategy to attract non-traditional gamers actually worked and the revolutionary console broke mainstream. A year later, Nintendo production still hasn’t caught up to demand and serious shortages are expected during the holiday season. Nintendo execs said the motion-sensitive Wii wasn’t meant to compete against its more souped-up rivals. But by September the Wii had surpassed the 360 (which had a year-long head start) and is estimated to be approaching 14 million sold, with an additional 1.8 mil hitting stores each month.

"Wii Bowling” was a hit at old folks’ homes and "Wii Tennis” entertained rained-out tourists at five-star resorts. Stroke victims used it for physical therapy. Fatties used it to lose weight. How I Met Your Mother’s hipster sitcom characters played Wii pants-less and even Time magazine praised it as an "invention of the year.” Hosting Wii parties became part and parcel of being a lucky owner.

Nintendo’s only real problem is that many people want a Wii more than they crave specific games. For most of 2007, the system was flooded with same-same mini-game compilations that, aside from the surreal WarioWare and Rayman Raving Rabbids games, failed to offer the fun of their flagship Wii Sports. Yes, the Wii launched with a pretty amazing Zelda and more recently put out further instant-classic franchise updates with Metroid Prime 3, Super Paper Mario and Super Mario Galaxy. But between big N releases, my Wii got much more of a workout when guests came over. Social gaming is awesome and all, but to keep the pressure up next year they’re going to need a deeper catalogue of single-player titles that make use of the Wii’s unique technology. This is especially true for third-party publishers — though props are due to Ubisoft‘s Elebits and Capcom’s Resident Evil 4 and ≤i>Zak and Wiki.

But even as the Wii won over the un-callused masses, the hardcore contingent was quite content over on the 360. Halo 3 made a gazillion dollars, with 3.3 million sold in September alone, though developer Bungie has since abandoned the Microsoft fold. But it was the one-two-three punch of 2K’s brilliant game-of-the-year BioShock (so beautifully bizarre I ran right out to buy an HDTV), EA/Valve’s deal-of-the-year The Orange Box (compiling several Half-Life 2 releases alongside the fantastical first-person puzzler Portal) and BioWare’s RPG-of-the-year Mass Effect (a sprawling sci-fi benchmark from the beloved Calgary-based company) that made Microsoft’s console a must for the discerning gamer. These successes also proved that critical and commercial tastes are not mutually exclusive, a realisation that bodes very well for the future.

Then there’s the PS3, which can by no means be written off, especially given recent price cuts, but has squandered the dominance of its predecessors. In fact, it spent much of the year selling fewer units than the PS2, which boasted the awesome sequel God of War II and celebrated its seventh birthday by cracking 120 million units sold. The PS3 may be the most powerful new console, but it remains mired in last place and many of its most innovative games have surprisingly been downloadable indie titles like flOw and Everyday Shooter (the latter from by 25-year-old Toronto programmer Jonathan Mak).

Yes, there were some well-received holiday games (Heavenly Sword, Folklore, Ratchet & Clank Future, Uncharted: Drake's Fortune) but nothing that came close to capturing gamers’ imaginations like, say, BioShock. Next year bodes better, though, with the return of Sony’s much-loved "dual-shock” rumble controller and the debut of their Second Life-like virtual world Home.

The new consoles also ushered in the era of downloadable content, and while often this was used to squeeze out "micro-payments” for useless in-game items, multiplayer maps or bundled Guitar Hero songs, the year’s best DLC came courtesy of 2006’s game-of-the-year Oblivion.

Instead of pumping out a half-assed sequel, they released the downloadable psilocybin-inspired Shivering Isles expansion pack, which added about 30 hours of missions across a new continent that was massive, eye-popping and oh-so-very insane. Of course, this year was just the opening skirmish in the console wars — it will be some time before the big three foist another generational leap upon gamers. So there are plenty of opportunities for the PS3 to prove naysayers wrong, the 360 to make inroads in Japan or for Nintendo’s little white box to become a hi-tech Rubik’s Cube. But there is absolutely no question that in 2007, against all odds, Wii was the champion.