Nintendo Press Conference: Shake It Up

Buy This Item Electronic Entertainment ExpoNintendo really knows how to play to the fans, as evidenced by the press conference held to promote its upcoming line of Nintendo DS and Wii games. When creative director Shigeru Miyamoto walked onto the stage to begin the conference, he was introduced by the mellow sounds of a symphony orchestra, which blossomed into a bombastic rendition of the Legend of Zelda theme. Shiggy pulled a Wii controller from his pocket and waved the magic wand like a conductor's staff in time with the music. It was a performance that would leave the average gamer cracking up, but to the few who've remained fiercely loyal to Nintendo for the past twenty years, it may as well have been Mozart himself on that stage.

After the pomp and circumstance, Miyamoto left the stage to make room for Nintendo mouthpiece Reginald Fil-Aimes. The tough-talking, straight-shooting Dick York stunt double wasted no time telling the audience Nintendo's vision for the next five years. He stressed the importance of bringing something new to the table, rather than breaking out the paper towel and the lemon-scented Pledge to make that table a little more shiny than before. He also made the case that the feel of a game is more important than its look. Cynics would argue that this was an desperate attempt to divert attention away from the modest hardware in the Nintendo Wii, but again, the Nintendo fans would be quick to defend the company they love, responding that the level of immersion in today's video games is lagging far behind their already startlingly realistic audiovisuals.

Reggie continued, hitting the audience with a variety of catchphrases restating Nintendo's mission in as few words as possible. "The Wii is not for a lucky few, but for everybody." "What you see isn't always what you get." "Playing is believing." Fortunately, the cliches were cut short with footage of the game that will be available for the Wii at the end of the year, including some eye-bugging surprises. Nintendo's portly plumber will make his first Wii appearance in the game Super Mario Galaxy... the game thankfully abandons the clumsy waterpack in Super Mario Sunshine and replaces it with clusters of rotating planets. Take the spherical stages in the later Ratchet and Clank games, then add an entire solar system of densely packed celestial bodies to explore, and you've got a pretty good idea of what Super Mario Galaxy will be like.

The latest Wario Ware and Metroid games were also shown in the brief film clip. Wario Ware looks like, well, Wario Ware. New mini-games are included in the package, and they all take advantage of the motion-sensitive Wii controller, but there's very little here to distinguish it from the other titles in the Wario Ware series. The same applies to Metroid Prime 3: Corruption, which is likely to keep the fans happy with more fast-paced, futuristic first-person action but looks no different from the first two games in the series. It's a good thing the first two Metroid Prime games have aged gracefully... if they had been anything but cutting edge when they were first released, the footage of Corruption would have been that much more disappointing.

After the film came to a close, Reggie hit the stage once again, ready to tackle complaints about Nintendo's new "disruptive" business strategy. He admitted with a touch of humor that not everyone (well, almost nobody) liked the name "Wii," and that the DS initially left players bewildered. However, he was also quick to point out that the Wii was hardly the first product with an oddball name, and that the Nintendo DS has sold sixteen million units since its launch at the end of 2004. Every one of these units wound up in the hands of a gamer, not gathering dust on a store shelf or in a warehouse. It was a clear shot at Sony's own claim of "selling" seventeen million PSP units, and the Nintendo fans ate it up.

The one thing even THEY couldn't swallow was Reggie's refusal to spill the beans on the Wii's final price tag or official release date. Even after the Electronic Entertainment Expo comes to a close, we still may not know. It looks (or should I say feels?) like Nintendo will be sitting on the information until they need a counter an important announcement from either Sony or Microsoft. Whatever's the case, it's safe to assume that the Wii will be no more than $249.99. The recent revelation that the Nintendo DS Lite would only cost $130 is a strong indication that the Wii will just barely slide under the $200 limbo bar.

More footage is shown, in the hopes of distracting the audience from Nintendo's sudden secrecy. Clips from the Wii versions of Dragonball Z, Dragon Quest (the artist formerly known as Dragon Warrior), Tony Hawk's Downhill Jam, Rayman, Final Fantasy: Crystal Bearers, and Sonic Wild Fire are shown. The Dragonball Z game wasn't anything special, and doesn't push even the humble limitations of the Wii hardware. Dragon Quest, on the other hand, was a lot more promising, with a gigantic stone golem pummeling the Earth with his fists. The mystical monster looked like a rook from a chessboard, after growing limbs and taking steroids. Sonic Wild Fire (hey, the first game title with 'Wi' cleverly hidden in it!) sent the lanky blue hedgehog through a checkered path filled with loops and gold rings, while Tony Hawk's Downhill Jam was nearly as fast as Sega's mascot, and a welcome departure for the Tony Hawk series.

Reggie cut the footage short to tell the conference attendees about the latest Zelda title. Ah, here's where things got really interesting! Seems that the game will be released for the GameCube as promised, but also for the Wii in a seperate package. As predicted by tech blogs the world over, Twilight Princess will indeed take advantage of the Wii remote and sidecar controller (commonly known as the "nunchuck"). When playing the Wii version of Link's upcoming adventure, you can use the remote to point at distant targets and fire arrows at them. Firing the arrow results in the twang of a bowstring... not from the television set, but from the remote itself. The majority of the fighting will be done with the D-pad and buttons on the remote, but special attacks like spins and downward stabs can only be performed with thrusts and turns of the nunchuck.

After the Zelda demonstration was finished, more footage was shown of upcoming Wii games. Excite Truck is the 21st century update to Nintendo's dirt bike racer Excitebike, replacing the tiny motorcycles with off-road trucks that tear up the gorgeously rendered tracks at speeds fast enough to make the average radar gun catch fire. You won't have a wheel to steer these dirt-splattered road hogs, but you've got the next best thing... the Wii remote! You'll hold the remote sideways like a handlebar, then twist it left or right to make turns. Other games included the generic beat 'em up Project H.A.M.M.E.R. (wasn't this called Genji 2 at the Sony conference?), Disaster (a survival horror game that challenges you to survive a citywide earthquake), and the latest Rayman, Limbless in Seattle. No wait, I think it was something about evil rabbits. Whatever.

Speaking of French games, representatives from Ubi Soft took some time to show off their star attraction for the Wii, Red Steel. Ah, there's nothing like listening to French guys try to pronounce the name "Wii" without making it sound like their own word for "yes." "Oui, Inspector. I mean, Wii." Er, sorry, I'll get back on track now. Red Steel looked pretty good by Wii standards, although the textures seem a bit blocky in spots and there were a couple of frame rate drops when the gunman shattered an aquarium. The most interesting innovation aside from the use of the Wii controller was that all your enemies are subject to "Clan AI." Take out the leader of a gang of thugs, and his army of goons scatter like roaches!

Eventually, the French surrendered the stage to marketing director George Harrison (the rumors of his death are greatly exaggerated). He spent his part of the presentation talking about the Nintendo DS... how well it's selling, the creation of the Touch Generation series that aims for gamers outside the 18-34 age demographic, and the number of players who have tried Nintendo's Wi-Fi service. That's 1.3 million, in case you wondered. More importantly, he showed clips of games that will soon be available for the Nintendo DS, including some very exciting exclusives.

Players clamoring for the wacky music game Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan! will finally get it in a new, Americanized form. The buff male cheerleaders of Ouendan will be replaced with the Elite Beat Agents, a trio of mysterious musicians who offer encouragement and catchy pop songs to anyone who's on the verge of a stress-induced nervous breakdown. Tony Hawk's Downhill Jam once again demonstrates the love that Vicarious Visions has for the Nintendo DS, being just as stunning and five times faster than Tony Hawk's American Sk8teland.

Then came the heavy hitters. You've all heard about Zelda: The Phantom Hourglass, but did you know that the DS will also be home to a true Yoshi's Island sequel? The situation is definitely not touch 'n go here... this will be a more complete experience, with enormous stages that you can explore at your own pace and three different toddler teammates for Yoshi. Other promising first-party games included Mario vs. Donkey Kong 2 (just the thing to pit against Sony's own Lemmings), Starfox 64, and a new Diddy Kong Racing. There's plenty of work left to do on Starfox 64... it looks pretty underwhelming, even if you can use the touchscreen to command your normally uncooperative wingmen.

Finally, fabled VIC-20 game designer (and oh yeah, current Nintendo president) Satoru Iwata introduced himself, describing more of the Wii's features. Hey, the Wii has a sleep mode that conserves power while it's not in use! Er... what game system doesn't? After making a vague promise of a Wii Tetris game, Iwata and fellow Nintendo cornerstone Shigeru Miyamoto challenged Reginald Fil-Aimes and contest winner Scott Dier to a quick tennis match. The onscreen action wasn't the least bit impressive, with Lego men running around a flat green court, but what was happening on the stage was a lot more entertaining. All four men used their Wii controllers to dive for virtual balls, often tripping over each other in the process! After a particularly humiliating loss, Reggie moaned, "I want a Wii-match!"

After picking himself off the floor and regaining his composure, Reggie closed out the conference by restating the mantras he'd first uttered at the beginning of the presentation. Industry disruption is hot. The feel of a game is hot. Inclusion and immersion? Sizzling. The only thing that isn't hot is the "icy chill of technology," an unflattering reference to the more powerful consoles that the Wii will be competing against this Christmas. If you're not a fan of Nintendo, you'll have a hard time following the logic that better hardware doesn't always result in a better system. However, if you were around in the 1980's to watch the NES crush more powerful competitors like the Sega Master System, you won't need an explanation... it'll all make perfect sense.
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