Monday, May 15, 2006

A Visit To E3 (or, Wii the People)

That Coachella blog's still coming, hold your horses, people!

This past Friday, I was one of the few, the proud, etc., to attend the 2006 Electronics Entertainment Expo at the Convention Center in Los Angeles. I've been going for a number of years now, via a number of ways (usually through work, other times through super secret means that I cannot mention lest some innocents be slaughtered), and this was a year that I was especially excited about. Two new systems unveiled! Dozens of next-gen games to be played! Hot chicks in skimpy viking outfits hawking merchandise they know nothing about! What more could one want?

This year, one could want a LOT more.

For one, the booth babes were forced to wear more clothing while pretending they were there for more than a paycheck. But that's a miniscule issue.

What truly bugged me was just how little innovation I saw in the next generation of games, namely in the XBox 360 and PS3 categories (I'll hold off on the Wii for a bit). After all, look at the promises Microsoft and Sony were making:

"Immersive game environments, smarter A.I.!"

"Exciting new controllers!"

"HD graphics leagues beyond anything the current-gen games can offer!"

Here's what I saw:

Immersion and A.I.? Eh, about the same. Maybe bad guys ducked bullets a little quicker. And I'll admit, it was kind of cool how many of the objects lying around levels were interactive (random boxes and chairs easily blown up or picked up, etc.). But besides that, there wasn't much to make me truly notice a huge difference.

New controllers? Admittedly, this was a Sony claim only (again, I'll talk about the Wii in a bit). But in their press conference they made it seem like a rather big deal. In practice though, it's just the PS2 controller with some built-in gyros that make it act like a handheld version of the steering yoke on the old Star Wars arcade game. Decent concept, but a little wonky in practice.

HD graphics? Okay, I'll admit, the graphics on a lot of these games were quite beautiful, definitely much cleaner and crisper, much more detailed than what any current-gen console can offer. But now here's my issue with that:

Quick disclaimer: I'm about to get technical with screen resolutions and shit like that. If you don't know anything about the subject, you might want to read up on it before proceeding (here's a good place to start).

I, like most of America, currently own an NTSC television set that runs at 480i. While these next-gen graphics looked beautiful on the 1080i HD monitors they were previewed on at E3, they're gonna fall quite short on my TV at home, even through component inputs. And since these graphics are being tailored for that HD screen, they could very well look like a bloody mess on my set (skinny lettering looks beautiful in HD... on NTSC, it's almost illegible).

Now, as I mentioned earlier, the differences in gameplay between current-gen and next-gen games are pretty negligible. So unless I shell out the cash for an HDTV when I buy one of these new systems, there's really no worth in me upgrading right now. Especially when you figure that the systems themselves cost between $400-$600 (top-end price gets you a fully packed PS3 with a built in Blu-Ray DVD player... but again, without an HDTV, Blu-Ray is useless), add onto that the cost of an HDTV, and suddenly the only people that can buy all this shit are those still getting taxcuts from the Bush administration.

Oh, and did I mention the HDMI interface cable to connect the TV and game system, which is the only way to enjoy the full 1080i resolution, costs $100 alone? And that's a cheapie at Radio Shack.

So ultimately, a full investment into this next generation is going to cost around $2000. And that's before buying any actual games. Games that don't have much to offer in the way of innovation aside from better graphics.

Yeah, I think I'll wait a bit before making that investment. And somehow, I think a lot of people are going to feel the same way come Christmas.

And this is why I think Nintendo has the best chance this year with their new system, the Wii.

Yes, it's a ridiculous name. But it kinda sticks with you, doesn't it? Plus, it's fun to say. Just mouth it to yourself, right now. You don't even have to make a noise, just mouth it.


Hard not to smile, isn't it? Say it again. "Wii." Bet you smiled again, too. Unless you're a Nazi baby rapist or something. Bet you laughed when E.T. died also, you sick fuck.

Anyway, the Wii pales in comparison with Microsoft and Sony's systems. The graphics aren't HD, it has no built-in movie player (or add-on possibility), and it's got a weird new-fangled controller that senses movement.

On the other hand, who gives a fuck? The fact is, it's fresh, it's innovative, and it'll most likely be a couple hundred dollars cheaper than the other systems.

Admittedly, I probably shouldn't have a fully formed opinion just yet... I didn't even get the chance to LOOK at the thing during E3, much less play it.

However, the reason for this was that the line to get in the Nintendo booth to play the Wii was about three hours long, and never let up. People were lining up in droves to get to this thing. And when they'd emerge from Nintendo's booth, they were smiling, laughing, the lucky recipients of a good time.

I'd talk to a few people about their experience with the Wii here and there, and each time, I'd get the same reaction, an excited rambling of how cool it was using that weird motion-sensing controller as a bow and arrow, or how much fun it was trying to balance the thing in their hand like a broomstick to score points, or how well it worked when used as a gun in a first-person shooter. Someone remarked to me how well it worked when used as a steering wheel; someone else laughed about having to put it on their head so that the squats they were doing would register.

All over the showfloor this year, I got a sense of "been there, done that" from every booth, from every exhibitor and retailer I saw (except in Kentia Hall, where Engrish spawns from the dark orifices of Manga-nized kung-fu warriors selling wares from the deepest depths of Southeast Asia... in that area, I got more of a sense of "BIG NUMBER ONE IS FRUITY GOOD TIME! QUIZ GAME PLUNGES HERO YOU IN CHUNKY LOVE JUICE!"). But at Nintendo's booth was a real sense of awe and innovation. People were curious, they were intrigued, and most importantly, they weren't disappointed. If anything, I saw people who'd been laughing about the Wii when it was first announced last year suddenly changing their minds and saying, "Hey, Nintendo's got something here."

Ultimately, we'll see what happens. But it's my bet that come Christmas time, people all over the country are going to go to their friendly neighborhood Toys 'R' Us or Gamestop or EB or wherever they buy games, and see the PS3, XBox 360, and Wii sitting next to each other on the shelves. And I think most of them will be picking up the Wii. Sure, it'll probably be because of the INSANE price difference, but I think they'll also be intrigued by this brand new, yet incredibly simple concept Nintendo's brought to the world of gaming. I think they'll see that not only can hardcore gamers enjoy these games, but so can everyone in the family, so can the friends at the party, so can the kids in the cancer ward years after the fact when dad's cheap ass donates the old game system to them instead of making a real cash donation.

Fact is, the innovations offered by the XBox 360 and the PS3 are technical bells and whistles, most of them pretty useless to the general public at this time. What the Wii offers is something everyone can get into, namely, pure & simple entertainment.

Sony and Microsoft spent so much time trying to bring the future to us, they forgot to notice that most of us are still living in the present, and have a bit of difficulty connecting to that future with immediacy. Nintendo, on the other hand, went the other route, and decided to make the present as much fun as possible.



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