Column “Dork Talk” published on Saturday 30th August 2008 in The Guardian “Dork Talk – A kind of magic” – The Guardian headline
Stephen Fry is wowed by Nintendo’s magical Wii
Last week I looked at the remarkable rebirth in the fortunes of Nintendo, a renaissance engendered by two products – the DS, a pocket gaming device, and the Wii, a larger living-room machine.
The Wii arrived in Europe last year and demand has been allowed massively to outstrip supply, causing howls of anguish from those who, like Veruca Salt and me, always want it now. You can buy a basic Wii from any old Woolworths, but the Wii-Fit add-on is still made, as the saying has it, from purest unobtainium.
Photograph: Itsuo Inouye
Wii is white and dinky. It connects to your TV by ancient Scart connectors, for heaven’s sake, eschewing 21st-century HDMI. Its graphics, power and storage capabilities are nothing like as impressive as those on a PlayStation or Xbox, it can’t even play back basic DVDs – but it has a USP that makes up for all that.
The Wii Remote is the magic wand that transforms the Wii into the most exciting mass-market device for years. Filled with accelerometer, sensor and motion feedback technology, this pointing device (about the size of a late-80s mobile phone) is strapped to your wrist like an épée (sometimes with its companion piece, the fearsome-sounding nunchuk) and within minutes it is an extension of your body. You play tennis with it, you pick things up, put them down, putt, swat, bowl, swipe, climb, jump, run and fly, all with waves of the wrist. It seems like magic at first. This is a gaming system that can make you sweat with effort and have your heart pound with honest exertion, rather than dampen you with the usual hot, sick sheen of fear that attends conventional video-game experiences with their unrelenting panic and din.
Nintendo has supplemented this exercise element by launching the Wii Fit, which features a “balanceboard” on which you can do yoga, step aerobics and ski slaloms, and have your BMI calculated, achievements logged and stamina challenged. At the moment this item is rarer than hen’s teeth and I have yet to try it. But no matter, the basic version can give you a daily workout regimen. I started with a physical age of 63 (according to their calculations) and have managed in a week to bring it down to 58. I expect to be a rorty 17-year-old with accompanying acne and attitude in time for Christmas.
For me and millions of others, anything approaching walking, running or lifting for fitness has always been out of the question on account of the way time slows down so mercilessly. But if our health-giving routines can be made part of some witty, graphically impressive, compelling game, think what this could do for the health of the nation.
The Wii allows Wi-Fi connections to the internet and the inevitable proprietary Market Place whence software can be downloaded. Users can also design an avatar called a Mii for themselves and their online or flesh-and-blood playing partners. The Wii only truly comes into its own when you play with someone else. The first thing you have to do when you buy a Wii, therefore, is purchase at least one more remote. Don’t be fooled into buying the add-ons that turn the remotes into simulacra of baseball bats, steering wheels and tennis rackets – these are a pointless waste of money.
If your wife, mother or lover has a china ornament you have always hated, make sure it is within a 10-yard radius of the TV and you can be sure it will be smashed within a fortnight. Another Wii service for which we can all be truly thankful.
Nintendo’s recrudescence is yet further proof that the market (ie the population) wants machines that don’t frighten, but befriend. The snarling roars of the feral Xbox and the brutal PlayStation are impressive, but Nintendo understands that while play does involve competition, territoriality and rehearsal for war, it also involves silliness, laughter and fun.
Acronyms of the week
Scart That 21-pin connector we Europeans used for connecting videos and DVDs to TVs before HDMI (explained last week) and Component Video took over. Stands for Syndicat des Constructeurs d’Appareils Radiorécepteurs et Téléviseurs.
USP Unique Selling Point, but you knew that.
BMI Body Mass Index. Something horrid made up by doctors to make me feel ashamed.