Musings on the Eternal Console Wars

I showed up at Target a few Sundays ago and stood in the cold for about an hour to try to get a Nintendo Wii. I had number 42. Unfortunately, they only had 41 of them.

Ouch.

Through some machinations and good luck, however, I managed to pick up a Wii the other weekend. My “real” review of the box (and some of the games) will be in Played To Death’s holiday issue, but I have a few philosophical ponderings to share here. First, and most importantly, the name doesn’t really sound any less stupid the more you say it. But in a way, that’s comforting. For any given thing you can buy, there’s always something stupid or brain-dead about it. In the case of the Nintendo Wii, we know the answer up front: it has a painfully stupid name.

The console itself is nice looking (if a bit bland) and petite. The control is odd. It manages to be both more precise and less accurate at the same time: I’m constantly astonished that the cursor managed to hit what I intended, but even with the remote braced against a hard surface, the cursor always seems ready to slip away from me like the fish in Fool’s Errand. The ergonomics of the controllers themselves, though, are great. Nintendo deserves praise if for no reason other than liberating us from the Playstation-style dual-handed rosary. Friends and family who would never touch an Xbox seem to have no problem with the Wii: the remote is approachable, and everyone who has ever used a mouse is familiar with “Move your whole hand this way to move the pointer.”

If they can manage to make enough of them, I think we can state confidently that Nintendo has defeated Sony in hand-to-hand combat for this round of the console wars. They’ve basically taken a Gamecube, revved it just a little, and given it a nifty control scheme. They combined this with an interesting smattering of launch titles taken from their console legacy (Zelda) and their handheld library (Trauma Center) Then, they are selling this device for just about one-third of what Sony is charging for a larger, heavier, uglier device that has features no one wants and games no one cares about. Basically, Sony has managed to use all of their engineering and marketing prowess to launch a new version of the Atari 5200, only with fewer games. Nintendo, meanwhile, has done something practically unheard of in the console space: they’ve innovated.

What’s particularly saucy about Nintendo’s innovation is that it is in your face. Game publishers, as I have mentioned before, hate and fear innovation. Microsoft’s decision to include a hard drive in the original Xbox cost them millions of dollars, and the only reason they did it was the game publishers, lying like pregnant Catholic schoolgirls, swore up, down, left, and right that they would make games for the Xbox that could only work with a hard drive. Then they treated the hard drive like a glorified memory card for the life of the console, and ported all their games to the PS2. With the Wii, Nintendo has placed the innovation right in the user’s hand. There is absolutely no avoiding it.

There will be game developers who make games for the Wii that don’t actually use the controllers in any interesting way. These developers will be sad, because no one in the entire world is going to buy their games. If you release a game for the Wii that doesn’t use the controller in some interesting way, legions of twentysomethings around the world are going to stop referring to your company by its trademarked name, and will instead just use the shorthand “those retards.”

Of course, many of these games will fail, because often users hate innovation too. But at least when you fail you will have failed in an interesting way, rather than boring us with yet another clone of BladeHunt: DeathSpank 2: The Revenge (motto: “Now with Bump Mapping!“)

So, in summary: Microsoft’s innovation in this cycle centers around online play. Sony’s innovation centers around making their game machine stupidly expensive so that it can play movies. Nintendo’s innovation centers around their wireless motion-sensing controller. No one can promise us that future Wii games will be any good.

But for now, I have an Xbox 360, and I have a Wii, and I have no intention of buying a PS3 any time in the next year.

And I bet I’m not the only one.