Video: Playtesters weigh in

By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 11/17/2006 8:00:16 AM ET 2006-11-17T13:00:16

Is power more important…or innovation? Do beautiful graphics win the day…or ease of use and unique playing experiences?

And just how much cash are you willing to drop just to play the latest and greatest video games, anyway?

These are the questions game enthusiasts will begin answering Friday as the first of two brand new and much-anticipated game consoles begin arriving on store shelves.

Sony’s PlayStation 3 — launching Friday— is a muscular machine boasting heaps of cutting-edge technology, beefy processing power, the ability to produce stunning graphics…and a hefty price tag to boot.

Meanwhile, Nintendo’s Wii — launching Nov. 19 — places less emphasis on power and more emphasis on innovative and accessible game play. A slim, sleek piece of hardware, it comes packaged with groundbreaking motion-sensitive controllers and a lightweight price tag.

Nintendo believes that this little white machine will be a big hit with budget-conscious shoppers. Meanwhile Sony is betting that its big black box packed with its unsurpassed power and a multitude of features will convince consumers that the PS3 is money well spent rather than money down the hole.

Of course, both of these machines will have to take on the Xbox 360, a gaming console from Microsoft that’s been on the market for a year and offers a large library of games, plenty of power and a moderate price tag.

Which machine wins the battle for consumer bucks and gamer thumbs will be determined this holiday season and in the months after.

But for a sneak peak at how the console wars may unfold, we invited a group of six gamers — hardcore and casual players, adults and children — to spend some time with us, the Wii and the PS3.

After plowing through several hours of gaming and many boxes of pizza, the resounding favorite of our playtest was …drumroll please…the Wii.

The way of the Wii
The name given to Nintendo’s new gaming machine sounds like someone in the throes of an ecstatic moment…like someone gleefully shouting out the word, “Wheee!”

And that seems only appropriate. After all, Nintendo created the Wii with one thing in mind: having fun.

The Wii is a wee little thing, a gleaming white box that tips the scales at a mere 2.6 pounds and wears an equally slim price tag. For $250, it comes packaged with one Wii Remote and one attachable Nunchuk controller, both of which are motion sensitive. Additional controllers cost $40 for the Remote and $20 for the Nunchuk. The machine can take up to four remotes connected wirelessly via Bluetooth.

The Wii also comes packaged with “Wii Sports,” a collection of five sports games (tennis, baseball, boxing, bowling and golf) each of which makes excellent use of the new controllers’ functionality. Play the tennis game and you’ll swing the controller like you would a racket. Play the boxing game and you’ll hold each remote in your hands and throw real-live punches at your onscreen opponent.

Meanwhile, the Wii has 512 megabytes of internal flash memory, two USB 2.0 ports, a bay for an SD memory card and built-in Wi-Fi capability. It plays Wii games as well as GameCube games — a big plus — and has two slots for GameCube memory cards as well as four ports for classic GameCube controllers.

The Wii can also connect to Nintendo’s incredibly popular handheld DS and can access a free online service for surfing the internet and downloading games.

What we liked
“It’s so much fun,” Jackie Schultz, 30, declared while test-driving the boxing game on the Wii (and while in the midst of pummeling fellow guest gamer Stefan Schachtell, 33, straight into the mat.)

Unlike the PS3, the Wii doesn’t want to be the focus of your home entertainment system. It doesn’t want to be your DVD player or your digital media storage device. It wants to be your game machine. Period. And it wants the games it plays to be fun for everyone.

And that’s why Schultz declared the Wii the must-have machine for her.

A lifelong gamer, she said she gave up playing video games as the games got increasingly complex and difficult to engage in.

“It became too much of a time commitment,” she said, pointing to the Wii and adding, “I like this type of gaming where you can just hop on and go.”

The Wii’s innovative new controls — the Wii Remote and attachable Nunchuk — were a large part of what seemed to put the fun factor into the gaming experience for our guest players.

The Wii Remote looks and feels like a small TV remote. The attachable Nunchuk is shaped like small hand grip. Both have three-axis motion sensitivity which means that when you play a game like “Excite Truck,” you hold the controller like a steering wheel and turn it as if you were actually driving the truck on screen.

“I like that it hums in your hand,” said Steve Eisner, 35, of the Wii Remote, which offers a rumble feature and a speaker for sound feedback.

'It's kind of like a magic wand'
His daughter, Sophia Waters, 7, seemed to find the controller intuitive for even her small hands to use. She jumped right into the “Wii Sports” bowling game, swinging the controller like she would swing her arm if she had a real bowling ball in her hand.

“It’s kind of like a magic wand,” she said.

But it isn’t just kids and casual gamers who were impressed.

“I’m definitely more excited about picking up a Wii,” said Eisner, a serious gamer. He liked the fact that he could not only play the Wii with his daughter but that, as our play test proved, the Wii quickly turned game time into party time.

With the PS3 and the Wii each hooked up in neighboring rooms, we found the PS3 sitting all alone at several points during the evening  (hooked up to a giant high definition TV no less) while all the gamers gathered around the Wii and played together.

Schachtell, a longtime hardcore gamer, envisioned having people over to his house for a party and watching them jump onto the Wii as part of the social experience.

“It looks so different, right off the bat people are going to want to play it,” he said after running through several rounds of “Wii Sports” tennis with three of his fellow guest gamers. “This is active. And there’s more of a conversation around these games.”

Indeed, as the four players lobbed the ball back and forth to each other – Wii controllers swinging every direction – the room turned into a rollicking, smack-talking playground.

Sleek and small
Beyond the Wii controllers and the unique tweak they bring to the gaming experience, guest gamer Evan Boyle, 16, said he also liked the machine’s svelte shape and size. (We’ve seen novels thicker than this little baby.)

“The PS3 is huge,” Boyle said. “With the Wii, it’s easy if you want to bring it somewhere.”

Meanwhile, the old school gamer in us found the Wii’s Virtual Console a big bonus. We like the fact that by using the Wii’s online capabilities we’ll be able to download classic video games (for a fee) that were originally played on some of the early Nintendo machines (the Nintendo 64, NES and Super NES consoles as well as the Sega Genesis and TurboGrafx16).

Among the 30 downloadable titles that will available by Christmas time are classics like “Mario Bros.,” “Donkey Kong,” and “Sonic the Hedgehog.”


What we didn’t like
Compared to the PS3 and the Xbox 360, the Wii is, simply put, not a particularly powerful machine. And where this becomes most noticeable to the average gamer is in the graphics.

The Wii just can’t compete with the visual splendor that pours forth from the PS3. In fact, games played on the Wii look like they're being played on nothing more than a slightly souped-up GameCube.

Most of our guest players didn’t seem to mind so much. Still though, for us game reviewers it was something of a disappointment. The PS3 and the Xbox 360 set the standard high, and once you get used to living in that kind of luxurious visual world, it’s hard to go back.

And speaking of technological oomph (or the lack thereof), it’s worth pointing out that — unlike the PS3 and Xbox 360 — the Wii doesn’t play movie DVDs, high definition or otherwise.

It’s also important to note that the Wii’s motion sensitive controllers are not perfect. While playing the game “Super Monkey Ball: Banana Blitz,” for instance, there were times when both the adults and the kid gamers struggled to get the controller to work correctly.

And though the boxing game got high marks for fun, here too it seemed the controllers didn’t very accurately detect the motion of the player’s movement.

Though the initial offerings look good, only time will tell how successfully game makers will be able to integrate the new controller’s capabilities into the playing experience.

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