The latest big announcement from Nintendo has the Nintendo community all a twitter, a condition that most missives from the House of Mario tend to cause. We now know the date and price, but the topic of online functionality has some Nintendo loyalists questioning their judgment. Spurred by these revelations, zealous Xbox Live proponents and Playstation Network hopefuls once again denounced the Wii as a gimmick. Why? Well, it turns out that Wii will not have any online-enabled third party titles until 2007. First party Wifi titles are still unconfirmed as well. For gamers of last generation, these announcements stir up a plethora of bad feelings and cynicism. Already suspicions are mounting that the Wii will be the solitary experience that its predecessor was. The GameCube barely supported online play, and suffered because of it. Are things that bad for Wii? To be honest, I don’t think so, and we might be jumping the gun just a little bit. While I’ll discuss the repercussions of the launch details at a later date, today I’ll take a look at Wii’s online strategy and what it means for Nintendo gamers.
To begin, the Wii shouldn’t be compared to the GameCube in this respect, even though a great deal of the Cube’s hardware led to the development of Wii, its graphics chip and its processor. The Wii, for all intents and purposes, contains a GameCube for backwards compatibility. But in terms of online structure, Wii is far more similar to its handheld cousin, the DS. I love this comparison, because it is so appropriate; DS was an experiment to see if the gaming populace was ready for a different way to play games, and Wii is the logical progressions of that experiment. So, let’s examine the DS’s online strategy.
At launch, DS had the Wifi hardware, but not the software. Gamers got a taste of what Nintendo internet play might be like with the wireless LAN on the Metroid Hunters demo, Mario 64 DS and even puzzlers like Meteos. The fact remained, however, that right out of the gate Nintendo just wasn’t prepared to offer a satisfactory online service. Nintendo released quality software to satisfy the DS early adopters until they had a sound service in line. It wasn’t until nearly a year later that the Nintendo Wifi Connection (NWC) went online with Mario Kart DS and Tony Hawk’s American Sk8land. Since then a steady supply of Wifi compatible games have been released, with varying amounts of complexity.
For the DS, the NWC has become a great success, despite its limitations when compared to more robust services. DS is a portable after all, and the NWC works surprisingly well for it. This sequence of events lets us predict how Wii will use the NWC, and the future looks bright.
Even though Nintendo’s Wifi service is already established, tailoring it to the Wii is another story. A more complicated match-making structure has to be created, more servers have to be set up, and the NWC has to be modified to work with the Wii’s technology. All very feasible, but it takes time. While I’m sure most of the structural work has already been done, cramming online support into launch titles is another matter entirely. The games themselves are more complex, from both a programming and graphical standpoint. Implementing Wifi functionality into launch titles could easily delay them several more months. Yes, it would be very nice if Red Steel or Downhill Jam or Call of Duty 3 had online multiplayer, but the real question is: would you rather be playing them at launch or months later?
The GameCube was crippled by its weak launch lineup, and Nintendo isn’t making that mistake again—they have the best opening library in years, and they know pushing back the release for these titles would be launch day suicide. The first run of Wii software will be used as proof of concept for the Wii hardware, and once the console has made a name for itself (and I have no doubt that it will), then Nintendo will shift focus toward Wifi. Again, this is exactly what they did with DS.
Despite the Wifi-less launch, it’s clear that Nintendo is taking online play seriously with Wii, something they had dismissed with GameCube. For starters, they have the virtual console, an ingenious idea that will keep players busy with their favorite classic titles while Nintendo puts the finishing touches on second generation of Wifi enabled software. As a supplement, the intriguing WiiConnect24 service will act as an enticing bonus for some of the first generation software. It’s not as good as full-blown internet play, but I’m certainly happy to hear that Metroid Prime 3 will allow me to download extra content while I’m sleeping. Direct to download services are getting more popular, and I’m impressed that Nintendo is showing initiative in that area.
So what we have initially is a list of stellar launch titles, some updated ports, licensed properties and a few kid games thrown in for good measure. We may not be building clans and having epic frag-fests the same night we bring home our new Wii consoles, but the launch list more than makes up for it. Heck, Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess more than makes up for it. Nintendo has never had the Zelda at launch before, and this is a major event in the company’s history. It also helps that Twilight Princess will probably be the best game in what is already an iconic, groundbreaking series. It’s infinitely more appealing than the Cube’s paltry launch list, which had none of the big franchises present.
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