Wending through way of the Wii a pleasure

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      If good things come in small packages, two million gamers worldwide are quite pleased with the new Nintendo Wii video ­-game console. For the most part, they have good reason to be.

      It’s a small and compact unit, the Wii. When lying flat, it’s about the size of three DVDs stacked up. Getting it connected is simple, as the system ships with the standard composite/RCA audio-video cables (which are all you need, given that the Wii isn’t high definition).

      The only unusual part of the setup of the new video-game system from Nintendo is the motion-sensor bar that you place on top or at the base of your television. This is how the much-ballyhooed Wii Remote is able to translate your movements in three-dimensional space into on-screen action.

      The Wii’s operating system is user-friendly, guiding you smoothly through the setup of the game player. The only thing that delayed my getting connected to the wireless network in my apartment was having to search for the MAC address of the Wii, which I expected to find on the bottom of the console but which can only be found by navigating through the system settings.

      Once you’ve connected and the Wii has gone through the software updates, you’ll see 12 squares arranged in three rows, which are the main interface to the different Wii offerings: video-game discs, weather and news (services which are being launched this month), photos, game downloads, and the Wii Shop Channel.

      The controller, about which there has been much discussion, has two parts: the Wii Remote and the Nunchuk, which has a traditional thumbstick. They are each wireless, although when playing a game that requires both parts, the two must be connected using a small cable. The remote also has a safety strap in case you flail around too vigorously and lose your grip. The safety strap on the first remotes was not strong enough, however, and following complaints of broken televisions, Nintendo is offering replacement straps.

      The controller takes a bit of getting used to. It’s not quite as intuitive as you’d think, and movements sometimes don’t have the results you expect (using the remote to throw a football on-screen, for example, is not like throwing a real football in your back yard). But after a bit of practice, the controls become comfortable and responsive.

      Game discs fit into a slick slot-loading drive, which is clever enough to accept both Wii discs (which are the size of standard DVDs) and the smaller GameCube-sized discs.

      The system comes with Wii Sports, a collection of five sports-related mini games that can be played by up to four people at a time. Of the five—baseball, bowling, boxing, golf, and tennis—in my opinion, the best are bowling and golf, but note that none of these are intended to simulate their corresponding real-world activity. Swinging a baseball bat is as easily accomplished with a flick of the wrist, for example, and controlling your golf swing is actually easier if you make your movements less forceful.

      Wii Sports also includes a fitness test, which sends you through some basic activities like hitting a series of tennis balls and then rates your “fitness” based on how well you perform. More fun is the training section, where you can learn to put enough spin on a bowling ball to get around obstacles placed in the lane and see just how many pins you can knock down when nearly 100 are arranged in front of you.

      One of the most anticipated features of the Wii is the Virtual Console, which Nintendo promised would provide access to all Nintendo games from previous consoles (the NES, Super NES, and Nintendo 64) and even games from the Sega Genesis and TurboGrafx-16 consoles.

      Games are accessed through the Wii Shop Channel and cost anywhere from 500 to 1,000 Wii Points (a card carrying 2,000 Wii Points will set you back $25). The entire Nintendo back catalogue isn’t available yet, but Donkey Kong, the arcade classic that was ported to the NES in 1986, certainly is.

      After you’ve downloaded a game, it shows up in one of the 12 squares in the Wii menu, so that playing those old classics is as simple as pointing your remote at the screen and pushing a button.

      Donkey Kong is a simple game by today’s standards: all you do is run to the left and right, avoiding fireballs and falling barrels and trying to rescue the princess from the big ape. It’s just as much fun on the Wii as it ever was in the seedy arcades of Granville Street, but playing it revealed to me that the classic remote, which is available from Nintendo for $25, is terrible. It’s flimsy and unresponsive, and there’s not enough tension on the thumb sticks or the buttons. You’re better off just using the Wii Remote.

      The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess was the big launch title for the Wii, and playing the original Legend of Zelda on the Wii Virtual Console was a hoot. I had forgotten how challenging that first adventure was. And how frustrating. And how addictive.

      But the devil is in the details, and the major drawback to the Wii is its design, which feels like it should have been incubated for another couple of months. The main console may be sleek, but the connectivity cables are too long and unwieldy, and the power supply is nearly as large as the console itself. For a next-generation wireless system, there are far too many cables to connect up.

      The problems Nintendo has acknowledged with regards to the safety strap on the Wii Remote only reinforce the point that had a little more attention been paid to design, a much better product would have been the result. Comparing a DS handheld to the DS Lite shows what Nintendo can do with enough time to refine their hardware.

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