Nintendo’s latest game console a win-win

I bowled a 229 game last Sunday. Pins were flying, and I managed six consecutive strikes. And I haven’t picked up a bowling ball since kindergarten.

Coastal Point • RUSLANA LAMBERT: The Wii is Nintendo’s latest gaming machine created to try to bring the family together and introduce an active lifestyle to modern gaming.Coastal Point • RUSLANA LAMBERT:
The Wii is Nintendo’s latest gaming machine created to try to bring the family together and introduce an active lifestyle to modern gaming.

Likewise, I hit a baseball out of the park last week, and the aches and pains in my once-broken elbow seem to belie the fact that we don’t even own a bat as a safety device, or even the Nerf variety.

I haven’t hurt so much since I last took up horseback riding, and the only thing I’ve ridden on in the last month, aside from the relatively cushy seat in my car, is a virtual cow.

Confused yet? My body is. It thought we were just playing the latest video games, but for the last few weeks I’ve managed to trick it into full-blown exercise, all in the guise of family fun.

Just after the holidays, I wrote a brief bit about my love affair with Nintendo’s DS Lite, which was at the top of my didn’t-get-it-and-still-want-it list.

A big part of my love for that little device is the novel concept for some of the games that have been developed for it: market beyond the traditional gamer — the teenage and 20-something male — and expand your target audience to include seniors seeking mental stimulation; and girls and women who enjoy simulations more than shooters; and make games the whole family will enjoy on a single device.

Nintendo used that same model in developing its latest video console, dubbed the Wii. While the name got considerable flack from those in the gaming community who felt it lacked a certain cool-factor or just plain didn’t make sense, it has a certain element aptness, if you just think about it.

Instead of the gaming experience being about me, or my neighbor’s teenage son, or the college kid down the block, its about “we” — the collective household, encompassing both the traditional gamer and the new or non-traditional gamer alike. The twin I’s represent two people playing together, the company says.

The designers at Nintendo aimed for a console with the stylistic cachet of an iPod, the ability to bridge the company’s classic games to cutting-edge technology, and the family-gathering focus of a refrigerator door plastered with crayon drawings and photos.

Instead of having the teenager locked in his room playing Doom while mom and dad watch TV, the Wii encourages families to gather around and add an extra level of communication through the console.

Just as they might have gone to the bowling alley together on the weekend or hit a few balls in the yard during the summer, the video game console is now the gateway to a friendly set of 10 frames or a home-run derby for a half-hour in the evening, regardless of the weather.

Active gaming, healthy fun

And we’re not talking about passive game-playing here. With the Wii’s new interactive controllers — Wii remotes (so named for their resemblance to the traditional TV remote, and what we more often call the “WiiMote”) — players generally mimic the same kinds of movements they’d make in the real thing.

The movement of the WiiMote in space is tracked by a bar connected to the console and placed above or below the TV. It also has the ability to sense whether it has been tilted or twisted, or raised up suddenly.

Thus, a bowler raises the remote like a pistol in a duel, presses a button and performs what — in most cases — is remarkably similar to a realistic bowling swing. A batter chokes up on the WiiMote just like a bat and swings to hit it out of the park. Your forehand, backhand and lob go virtual for tennis, and your hook and slice are replayed for all to see in golf.

The bottom line is that for the otherwise sedentary, the Wii is leaps and bounds above traditional gaming consoles in terms of getting you up and moving. It takes the tracking camera of some last-generation consoles several steps further.

That’s the thing that finally got me to abandon all thoughts of a DS (for now, at least) in favor of the only slightly more expensive Wii. I keep promising myself I’m going to strap my 18-month-old into his stroller in the mornings for a nice healthy walk, but it’s just been too cold. (And if you’re that guy I saw jogging this morning at 4:45 a.m., you’re just nuts…)

I hate exercising for exercise’s sake, in the house or in front of others, so gym memberships and treadmills just don’t make sense for me. I’ve tried it all. It just doesn’t happen. So, short of warm weather or an indoor pool, I’ve been longing for a way to finally beat that baby belly I never lost.

In comes Wii Boxing, which admittedly had me breathing hard after just a few minutes of jabbing and punching (my college karate teacher would be ashamed) with the WiiMote and optional secondary controller they call a “nunchuck.” Yes, real exercise, for the first time in months.

I noticed a nagging soreness in my right bicep the day after a few games of baseball against a computerized opponent. At first, I thought maybe I’d slept wrong that night, but I eventually remembered the feel of well-earned soreness from repetitive movement of the exercise variety.

The draw here is that while the Wii batting seems a bit tricky, I take some small pride in a 94 mph fastball that the little digital people can’t hit most of the time. The same goes for the ability of a kindergarten-only bowler to manage a spare in most frames of a Wii bowling session.

Virtual sports go the extra mile

Ah, I know what you’re thinking — it surely can’t be that realistic. But well-known tech columnist John C. Dvorak begs to differ, and he knows even better than I, being a 200-game bowler from his college days to the present.

Dvorak recently wrote his own ode to the Wii, praising particularly its realism for bowling. Dvorak said he could do anything with the Wii that he could do with a real bowling ball and nothing with it that he couldn’t accomplish on the physical lanes. Likewise, my roommate, who bowled regularly through high school, found the experience was basically identical, save for the weight of the ball being gone.

This means that the two of us can compete head-to-head in what little spare time I have, without leaving the house, and still feel like we’ve done more than play a video game. Moreover, my 6-year-old goddaughter can join in, playing a realistic game for a kindergartner and getting some family competition in all at the same time. She now wants to go bowling for real, I should note. (And, yes, I’m chalking up the time she beat me to a fluke, along with those six consecutive strikes I’ll never repeat.)

Keep in mind, though, that there have already been some reports of injuries from some too-vigorous Wii players. “Wii elbow” could replace “Blackberry thumb” as the hot new tech injury. And those getting a new console should check out the WiiMote strap replacement program, which was instituted after some of the first buyers lost their grip on their WiiMotes and hurled them into their televisions, windows or friends. Just as with any sport, proper form is key.

Family fun with 'channel' surfing

Beyond the sports games that come packaged with the Wii on the Wii Sports disc, we’ve also loved the demo-style Wii Play game (smartly packaged at $50 with an extra WiiMote that normally sells for $40) that seems oriented toward helping you figure out how to manipulate the WiiMotes in all kinds of tricky ways. There’s target shooting, ping-pong, billiards, a laser-hockey game and, yes, even a game where your character rides a digital cow in a race to knock down scarecrows.

This isn’t a game for the die-hard gamer, but it’s a nice bit of quick family fun for $10.

The fishing game on Wii Play has been a favorite, teaching a degree of patience, calm and quiet to a 6-year-old who can’t stand still for 10 seconds. And the adults have to work hard to keep up in the Find a Mii game.

Miis, since you have to be asking, are the Wii’s virtual avatars for the players. About as graphically simple as they come these days, the customizable, doll-like characters can still manage to convey an uncanny sense of the real person. Miis from the same console — friends and family — show up as teammates and other characters in some of the Wii games, and the Miis can travel to friends’ remote machines over the Internet or via the WiiMotes.

I have to admit that the kids love tinkering with their Miis as much as any of the games. And the console’s photo mode — which takes photos off a Secure Digital card and allows you to edit, doodle, assemble a puzzle or send them in messages to friends — has been a big hit for our little guys.

The Nintendo designers truly thought of the Wii as the center to the home, incorporating “channels” such as the photo channel and Mii channel, along with news and weather channels that download current information overnight if you connect it to the Internet. There’s even an optional Internet browser channel, suitable for when the family computer is already in use.

And there’s a central messaging system that not only allows individual users of a single console to send messages to each other — not unlike the memo board on many a refrigerator — but to record happenings for posterity and to allow any member of the family to see how much time has been spent that day using a given game or channel. Mom not only can see that Billy played Wii Bowling for 20 minutes, but that he set a new personal record, or she can note that he has a doctor’s appointment on Monday.

A shift for the couch potato and neophyte gamers

The end result is that a comparatively modest investment has already made some changes in my own household. The television isn’t turned off, but we’re moving around in front of it rather than sitting idly. Instead of everyone doing their own thing, we’re more often competing against each other or cheering each other on.

One of the other neat things about the Wii is that it truly has bridged the gap between the household’s gaming addict, the two of us who rarely play games anymore and generally prefer what is now considered a non-traditional gaming experience, and the kids.

While the gamer finds the new Legend of Zelda disc a challenge, I’m having at least as much fun with Wii Bowling as I once was in Everquest, back when I had time. And the one amongst us who rarely plays video games at all is now finding a hard time putting down the “classic” controller that lets her play the vintage Donkey Kong Country.

Nintendo was extra smart when it decided to allow the download of vintage games over the Internet via the Wii Shop channel. For $5 or $8, the best of the company’s older games are available.

We’ve also indulged in one of the first releases for the Wii, the latest in the Rayman series, Rayman’s Raving Rabidds, wherein we’ve been tossing cows like the Olympic hammer throw, “running” with remotes clenched in hand to get rid of an exploding gift, shooting menacing cartoon bunnies with plungers and trying a la Dance Dance Revolution to keep our WiiMotes bopping in time with wacky rabbit dancers to a variety of songs.

The roster of upcoming releases on disc is also something special, featuring a multi-player version of the DS hit BrainAge, which helps those of us with aging faculties sharpen them up with puzzles, math and memory games. On the Wii, it will permit players to play side by side with games appropriate for their age.

There’s also a version of the DS title I’ve been looking forward to: Cooking Mama, wherein the WiiMotes will become the handle of a skillet for frying, or a knife for chopping ingredients, or a masher for smashing up some potatoes. And even the famous Sims are scheduled to hit the Wii in the coming year, with a new title designed just for the system and avatars that are an extra-cute cross between the Miis and the traditional Sims.

Also topping my list are the planned Wii Music and Wii Health, which will, respectively, let players use their WiiMotes as drumsticks or a conductor’s baton, and enhance the health-beneficial functions already being noted from Wii Sports with a set of games and fitness tracking designed to expand into more general health and aerobic movements.

The center of the digital home

There’s a reason that the Wii has become a hit and is still difficult to find, months after its release and the holiday giving season. The $250 console does exactly what it aims to do: pull in a previously untapped market of older folks, non-traditional gamers, women and families, without losing its appeal for the more traditional gamer.

I’ve heard reports of families buying them for the kids and then getting a second console for the adults. I’ve heard of grandparents getting them for grandkids and then buying one for themselves after trying bowling. There are even reports of retirement homes buying them and the bowling tournaments that have ensued.

I am not, however, going to tell you this console is for everyone.

The hard-core gamer who demands high-resolution graphics and high-definition video is going to aim for the PS3, which features an HD DVD player and caters to the graphics-obsessed. It also comes with a price tag of $500 or $600, making for a much more serious investment.

The XBox 360 is a middle ground between the two but lacks the new functionality of the WiiMote and therefore much of the attraction for new gamers and those aiming for a more fully interactive experience. You can get an HD DVD player as an add-on, though.

And there are some who will just never find the appeal of a gaming console. Not to mention those who are more than armchair athletes — you’re not prepping for the Ironman with Wii Tennis, just having fun.

But I have to say that I’m sold on the Wii. It’s the first gaming console I’ve owned in more than two decades, and its uniqueness in terms of technology, concept and game design are all reasons why it’s now the top-selling console in the country, despite a short supply.

If you’re looking for one yourself, keep an eye out for coming shipments and increased production, or search for availability on the Internet to get some inside information. For many, it will be well worth the effort.