For the first time in more than a decade, Nintendo has shipped a console with a pack-in included. The title is Wii Sports and it's actually a compilation of five games designed from the ground up to make full use of the Big N's innovative remote. The disc, which ships for free with Wii in America and Europe, includes pick-up-and-play versions of baseball, boxing, bowling, golf and tennis, and learning the basics couldn't be easier. You just pick up the Wii remote and swing it like a baseball bat to whack the ball out of the park, or gesture an underhanded rolling motion to toss the bowling ball down the lane. These revolutionary controls make the old new again. But Wii Sports is also significant because it is the perfect representation of a new development direction for Nintendo - one focused on simple gameplay controls and uncomplicated, primitive graphics. The title is the result of a company-wide effort to win over the elusive non-gamer -- your mom, your dad, and maybe even your grandfather, too. So, is it all just a pipe dream, or will your girlfriend actually like this stuff?
Prior to this review, we asked some of the girls who work in our advertising department to stop by our demo room and play both Wii Sports bowling and tennis. They don't play games and had only a very limited understanding of Nintendo's new console. We armed them with Wii remotes and very briefly explained the basic controls. Within seconds, they were competently going back and forth on the tennis court and knocking down pins in bowling - and they were having a great time playing. In fact, just about everybody we've introduced to the sports compilation has walked away happy, whether they have been a gamer for years or completely new to the activity. It's clear to us that Nintendo is onto something and sure enough, Wii Sports might even truly capture some of those non-gamers.
(As a side note, always wear your wrist straps. One of our ad girls -- Katherine Bowe -- became so engrossed in tennis that the Wii remote slipped from her hand and crashed into a nearby wall at mach speeds; luckily, although the strap broke, the back case flew off and the batteries spilled out, it all worked again when we put it back together.)
Wii Sports is a particularly difficult game to review because it is so different and also because it's free. We had to ask ourselves, should we cut it some slack because it comes packaged with the system or should we instead weigh the game's strengths and weaknesses individually? We've taken the latter approach. After all, we're reviewing the game and not the package. Furthermore, the offering is not free for everyone, as Japanese players will attest. There is more to consider, though. For instance, exactly who is this title for? If your intention is to play Wii Sports for an hour per day with friends, you will probably love the title, whose bowling and tennis outings are especially addictive. However, if you're the hardcore type who wants a deeper sports videogame, you will find Wii Sports' overall depth sorely lacking. It is our job to consider both potential audiences and make a recommendation based on all the factors.
For You and Mii
When we first set eyes on Wii Sports so many months ago, we thought Nintendo was playing a joke on us. The graphics were so primitive that we couldn't believe this was a game for the company's new generation console - a system roughly twice as powerful as GameCube. Compared to some of today's cutting-edge projects, the visuals in Wii Sports are laughable. They just don't compete. In Wii Sports baseball, the generic and blocky players don't even have legs, for example. The background crowds in Wii Sports tennis are nothing more than different colors - Nintendo didn't even bother to model anything. And yet, the title does feature crisp textures, displays in 16:9 widescreen and progressive-scan modes and runs at 60 frames per second. There are no technical shortcomings to speak of - like it or not, this style was purposeful. If Nintendo's intention was to establish an overall less daunting presentation for the non-gamer - an audience who played Pong and never returned - then it has succeeded. The bare bones look of the title is uncomplicated, if anything. And for that very reason, it's unlikely to wow any of the more discerning hardcore players.
Still, Wii Sports does have its charm, which is largely made possible through the integration of Mii characters. This is the first title to utilize the Mii avatar system, which basically means that you can import a virtual version of yourself, your friends, or your family members into the game. We wasted no time in designing versions of ourselves and some of our creations looked eerily like us. The concept may seem silly, but there is something to seeing a caricature of yourself running around on the tennis court or getting pummeled in boxing. Simple as these avatars are, they oftentimes succeed in evoking giggles from both players and passersby alike. You could say that they bring character (literally, we suppose) to the otherwise straightforward presentation. We're already looking forward to future iterations so that we can how ridiculous our virtual representations appear in different sports outings.
We can sum it up like this: we absolutely adore Wii Sports bowling and yet we are completely unimpressed - bored, even -- with the game's boxing mode. One element all the sports offerings share is simplicity. They are easy to understand and pick up. Everyone can play them. However, some of the outings are much better than others, in our experience. In order of rank, we like bowling, tennis, baseball, golf and boxing. The first three are fun and addictive because we feel as though we are really influencing our on-screen characters. In bowling, we can easily add spin to a ball and plan intricate shots. We merely mimic the motions we would make if we were really on the lanes. Skill is a major factor and if you're good, you will bowl strikes; if you're not so good, you'll be much more prone to hit the gutter. In tennis, it's all in the timing. If your gesture is perfect, but your timing is off, your return could fly off the court, anyway. There's depth, too. You can hit fast or lob it; you can direct your shot; and you can even add spin. And as you start to master both timing and form, you'll find that tennis gets better and better. Baseball, meanwhile, is strictly limited to pitching and hitting. To throw, you make the gesture. The faster your motion, the speedier your pitch. And you can change up your pitches, too, by pressing the A button or D-Pad. Hitting couldn't be simpler. You simply swing the Wii remote as though it were a baseball bat. Connecting with a ball and sending it out of the park is a very satisfying undertaking.
Golf could very well be the deepest of the games. It has an impressive selection of holes. But using the Wii remote to control the power and angle of your swing - while great in concept - has not been implemented as an intuitive mechanic in Wii Sports. Rarely can you accurately set the power and direction of your swing before you send your golf ball flying, which is a disappointment. Hardcore players may eventually gain some degree of control over the configuration, but novices will probably never master it. Finally, boxing is a chore. It is neither very responsive nor particularly satisfying, as the Wii remote and nunchuk are unable to simulate the sensation of actually connecting with an opponent.
Even the great Wii Sports games have a limited life span. You will play and love these games for an hour at a time, and you'll find that they are better with friends and family. The novelty of hitting a baseball with a swing of the Wii remote cannot be ignored, but none of our editors wanted to bat it out for an entire nine innings - and for good reason: beyond hitting and pitching, there's nothing to do. All of the base work and fielding is handled automatically in the game. Tennis has a similarly unfortunate limitation imposed upon players to keep the experience simple: you don't actually control the movement of your athletes; rather, you control the swing of their racket. When a tennis ball is hit to one corner of the court and your player is unprepared to reach it, you lose, but it's not exactly your fault.
Wii Sports does have hidden depth, though. It's locked away in the Training Mode. Here, you compete in variations on the regular sports affairs - three of each, to be exact. Again, bowling and tennis come out on top, baseball next, and golf and boxing last. The variations on bowling are amazingly fun. There's a mode featuring different pin formations and you have to figure out ways to knock them down. There's a mode where more and more pins are added to the lane. You start out with 10 and end with well in advance of 100 pins, and all of them react and go down with a realistic sense of weight and physics. Finally, there's a mode where obstacles are placed in each lane and you have to set the angle and speed of your ball so that it coasts around them and still crashes into the pins. Playing these modes against friends is an engaging, almost hypnotic time-sucker and one that we can wholeheartedly recommend.
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