Nintendo Co.'s entry into the game console wars, the Wii, went on sale Sunday, and quickly sold out in many stores despite stocks that far surpassed those of the rival PlayStation 3, which went on sale two days earlier.
"There were enough people in line to snap up almost all the units of the Nintendo Wii that we had in stock, so it was an instant sellout," said Circuit City spokesman Jim Babb. There were a few overnight campers, but most had lined up in the early morning.
Spot checks at New York stores turned up only one, the Toys R Us in Times Square, with Wiis in stock. The store hosted a midnight launch event that drew a crowd of more than a thousand people for the sale of the very first Wii.
The first buyer, Isaiah Triforce Johnson, had been waiting in line outside the store for more than a week. He wore a Nintendo Power Glove, a wearable controller that came out in 1989, while shaking hands with Nintendo of America president Reggie Fils-Aime after buying the first Wii. Johnson said he had legally changed his middle name to a reference in Nintendo's "Zelda" series of games.
Launching right after the much-vaunted and technically sophisticated PlayStation 3 is a brave move for Nintendo, which is playing catch-up after losing dominance of the home console market to Sony in the mid-90s.
The Wii itself is a daring design: It eschews the high-definition graphics that are the main selling points of the PlayStation 3 and Microsoft Corp.'s Xbox 360, which came out a year ago. Instead, Nintendo hopes to attract a new generation of fans by changing the way games are played. The console comes with a motion-sensitive controller that acts as a tennis racket, baseball bat, steering wheel, gun or sword depending on the game.
Fils-Aime said the company made "some very tough choices" in designing the Wii.
"Tough choices about not including a DVD player at the start, tough choices about not including high-definition capability at the start. That's because we wanted a mass-market price, and we believe the market will validate those decisions come launch day on this Sunday," he said.
The Wii costs $250 and includes one game. The two PlayStation 3 models cost $500 and $600, with no included game. The two Xbox 360 models cost $300 and $400, with no game. Online, the prices are steeper: PlayStation 3s were selling for around $2,500 on eBay Saturday, while Wiis (listed by sellers who had pre-ordered from retailers and expected to get the units Sunday) were listed at around $500.
Sony had about 400,000 PlayStation 3s in North American stores on Friday. Nintendo has said it would have "five to ten" times as many Wiis available at launch, and will have shipped 4 million units by the end of the year. It still expects consoles to sell out in stores.
The relative abundance of units, and a smaller fan base, should make Sunday a calmer shopping day than Friday. On Saturday evening, people were lining up at stores more to show their devotion to Nintendo and celebrate the occasion than because they were afraid of not getting a Wii.
At the Nintendo World store in Manhattan's Rockefeller Center, 86 people were lined up for the morning opening. Anthony Eaton, dressed in green as the character Link from the "Zelda" series, looked chagrined when passing girls called him "Peter Pan."
Eaton, 18, didn't really need to be in line, since his friend had pre-ordered a Wii for him that would be available for pickup the next morning.
"It's all in the spirit of gaming. Wiis only get launched once, and we gotta do this right," said Eaton, who had traveled from Washington to go to the only U.S. store bearing the Nintendo name.
A few blocks away, there was no one in line at a Best Buy store that would start selling the console Sunday morning.
In the Los Angeles area, more than 500 people waited in line at the Game Stop at Universal City Walk. The store handed out numbered wristbands to avoid the crushes that were common at the PlayStation 3 openings.
The first to buy the system at midnight was Jonathan Mann, 24, who was dressed in red overalls and a cap like the Mario character from "Super Mario Bros."
"I'm a little delirious. I've been up for about 40 hours straight. But I've got it in my hands now and it feels good," said Mann, adding that he has written more than 40 songs about the console for his gaming Web site, gamejew.com. His song titles include "Wii Means You and Me" and "The Wind Whispers Wii."
In a somewhat unusual move for a Japanese company, the Wii was scheduled to go on sale in Japan two weeks after the U.S. launch, the opposite of Sony's launch order. Nintendo said it made the decision to get in on U.S. holiday shopping, which starts earlier than shopping in Japan.
Analyst John Broady at gaming Web site GameSpot.com sees the timing as David taunting Goliath.
"They obviously are confident that they can go head-to-head with Sony," Broady said. "It was a very, very gutsy move."
Broady said that judging by the gaming enthusiasts who visit GameSpot, the Wii has as much buzz behind it as the PlayStation 3. It's been well reviewed, and it's helped by interest in a new installment in the Zelda series, "Twilight Princess."
"The big question is, when you get past this set of people who are really into games, how deep does this buzz go in the general population?" Broady asked. "I think everybody in America yesterday knew that the PlayStation 3 was launching and knew what it was. In most homes around the country, I think most people wouldn't know what a Nintendo Wii was at this particular moment."
Nintendo's stated goal is to hook people with the lure of the wireless controllers, low price and a small, cute main unit that will fit easily in most entertainment centers.
Explaining to a mass audience the appeal of the controllers and what makes the console different is a challenge for the company, but one that will get easier, Broady predicted.
"I think as the Wii gets out in the marketplace, and people start seeing it, I think it will make a huge difference," he said.