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Wednesday, June 15, 2011

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Wii are the world: Nintendo Co.'s president, Satoru Iwata, unveils the company's first high-definition video-game console, the Wii U at E3 last Tuesday. AP PHOTO

TECHNOLOGY

Nintendo et al roll out the big guns at E3


Special to The Japan Times

The annual Electronic Entertainment Expo is gaming's main event. It's when the industry's heavyweights face off with new games and new hardware. Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo (which doesn't traditionally participate in the Tokyo Game Show) all go head to head. This year's E3, in Los Angeles, provided its fair share of fireworks. Duds, too.

Microsoft was the first of the big three to kick off its announcements at E3 last week. The Xbox 360's controller-free motion control, Kinect, got a major push. Microsoft added new Kinect features, like the ability to scan your whole body, capture objects, and the addition of finger tracking. Kinect is viewed as a peripheral for casual players, something Microsoft attempted to change this E3. New games, like the bloody Ancient Rome combat title "Ryse," should appeal to hardcore gamers, and more titles, such as the popular "Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon" with have Kinect support. For example, in "Ghost Recon," players will be able to customize in-game weapons through voice and gesture commands. "Star Wars Kinect," a "Stars Wars" game with Kinect controllers, however, looked absolutely horrible: laggy, dull, and ugly.

The Kinect-heavy focus turned off players who either don't own Kinect or are more interested in traditional, controller-based gaming experiences. To appeal to the core audience, Microsoft said that indie PC gaming hit, "Minecraft," was an Xbox 360 exclusive (a major coup for Microsoft); it gave an October release date for racing game "Forza Motorsport 4"; and it showed off a high-definition remake of the first "Halo" title, 2001's "Halo: Combat Evolved." Dubbed "Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary Edition," the game is "Halo: Combat" with a fresh coat of HD paint. Increasingly, game companies are releasing HD remakes of their titles, something that is starting to feel like an HD cash-in; it's a way to release a game, but at much lower cost than developing an entirely new product from the ground up.

Microsoft also unveiled "Halo 4," the latest entry in the sci-fi shooter game series. It's been an open secret that Microsoft was working on a new "Halo," and the "Halo 4" announcement was hardly a surprise. The trailer was short, but it didn't incite the same overwhelming awe and excitement that the "Halo 3" reveal caused at the 2006 E3. Bungie, the studio that created "Halo," is no longer developing "Halo" games, which is why some fans are maybe even somewhat apprehensive about the title. But as the game's 2012 release date approaches and the Microsoft publicity machine kicks into full gear, excitement for "Halo 4" will mount.

With the awful year Sony's having, thanks to the PlayStation Network hack, things could only go up at E3 for the Tokyo-based electronics giant. Its PlayStation Portable successor, previously known as the NGP or "Next Generation Portable", finally got an official moniker — PS Vita. The name had been rumored during the weeks leading up to E3. "Vita," Sony Computer Entertainment head honcho Kazuo Hirai said, means "life" in Latin, adding that the handheld will be the first to blur the lines between "reality and interactive entertainment." Sony revealed two models: a Wi-Fi version and a 3G/Wi-Fi version. The Wi-Fi version is priced at $249 (¥24,980 in Japan), and the 3G/Wi-Fi version is priced at $299 (¥29,980 in Japan).

Both prices are lower than many predicted, with the Wi-Fi version thought to be around $300, and the high-end model over $350. Moreover, the Wi-Fi version, with its stunning graphics and beautiful OLED screen, is the same price as the Nintendo 3DS, meaning Nintendo has serious handheld competition. Nintendo hopes that new 3DS games like "Luigi's Mansion 2" and "Mario Kart 3DS" will lure players. Sony is out for blood, selling the Vita at a loss, hoping that it can edge out Nintendo early on and turn a profit once it becomes cheaper to manufacture the Vita as processors become cheaper and faster. In the United States, however, Sony is partnering with AT&T as the exclusive mobile carrier for the Vita — an announcement that drew audible groans from the E3 audience.

What didn't draw groans were all the titles shown for PS Vita, such as the adventure game "Uncharted: Golden Abyss," the racing game "Modnation Racers," the fighting game "Street Fighter X Tekken" and the do-it-yourself platform game "LittleBigPlanet."

"BioShock," an atmospheric first-person title, is also headed to the Vita, but a trailer wasn't shown. Home console titles such as "Dust 514," a sci-fi massively multiplayer online shooter; exclusive sequels like "Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time," and "Uncharted 3" gameplay footage were also highlights. This wasn't Sony's best E3 showing — but it also wasn't its worst.

If Microsoft's press conference was this year's most underwhelming event, then Nintendo's was the most confusing. Going into this E3, Nintendo's conference was to be the highlight. New hardware always garners the most attention, and next year, Nintendo is releasing a new home console before rivals Sony and Microsoft. Called the Wii U, the console is, as Nintendo described it, "Wii plus you." The machine can play current Wii games and can use the Wii Remote — but there are key differences.

The Wii U is Nintendo's first foray into HD gaming; it features hi-def graphics and outputs at 1080p. Nintendo showed off a series of Wii U tech demos and games that looked as good as anything on the PS3 and the Xbox 360, closing the gap between its high-powered competition and its currently underpowered home console, the Wii. Nintendo has had difficulty getting multiplatform titles this generation, because graphics need to be dumbed down to run on the Wii. Traditionally, gamers buy Nintendo home consoles to play Nintendo games, which are unavailable on rival consoles. But Nintendo can only develop so many games, creating a time lag between Nintendo-developed Wii games — that gap should be filled by outside developers, but isn't. With the Wii, big titles by outside studios simply couldn't be released at the same level that they appear on the PS3 and Xbox 360. The most interesting games shown at E3, such as the new "Tomb Raider," "Battlefield 3" and "BioShock: Infinite," will be released on the Xbox 360 and the PS3, but not the current Wii console.

It's likely that won't be the case with the Wii U, as it will have the grunt to support those kind of graphics-heavy games. Nintendo showed a demo of their game "Legend of Zelda" for the Wii U that was eyepopping. It also said that their fighting game "Smash Bros." would be out on the Wii U. But it isn't only in-house Nintendo games that are Wii U bound: "Darksiders II," "Dirt," "Assassin's Creed," "Ninja Gaiden III," and more are coming to the new home console. The lack of support from non-Nintendo game developers has ultimately translated into a lack of games for the current Wii console. The vast majority of good games on the Wii are Nintendo games. The Wii U, however, should have good Nintendo games and third-party games, such as those developed by Ubisoft or EA.

But the Wii U isn't simply a Wii with beefed-up graphics. It also has a new controller that features a 15.75 cm touchscreen, gyro controllers, and a front-facing camera. With the touchscreen, the Wii U Controller offers a different play experience from the Wii Remotes. The added touchscreen gives players more information and an entirely new interface. Nintendo said there will only be one Wii U Controller per Wii U console, but four more players can play using Wii Remotes, meaning that five players can play at once.

Moreover, the Wii U will stream games to the Wii U Controller, meaning that even if someone changes the TV channel, Wii U owners can keep playing their game on the Wii U Controller's touchscreen. This technology isn't new. With 2007's PS3 title "Lair," Sony offered players the ability to stream the game onto their PSP. Likewise, the PS Vita and the PS3 can be used together, so that players can enjoy titles across the PS3 and PS Vita.

The original Wii, with its simple motion controls, was easy to understand. An HD Wii is easy to understand. The Wii U is more complex. At E3, Nintendo admitted it could have done better in explaining the Wii U. By focusing so much on the Wii U Controller, the Wii U console got rather overlooked. The focus was the Wii U Controller, making it feel like Nintendo's latest gimmick, as opposed to a clever feature of a new console.

Nintendo won't be able to price the Wii U for the $199.99 (¥20,000 in Japan) that the Wii is currently going for, and unless the ¥25,000 3DS gets a price cut, which it very well may, Nintendo will have to price the Wii U at around ¥30,000 to ¥35,000 or even higher because it will not charge the same for the Wii U as it does for the Nintendo 3DS. Doing so will make one of them either seem over- or under-priced. The machine is as high-powered as its competitors, and the addition of a controller with a screen could make the machine pricier. However, the prototype of the Wii U Controller that NIntendo showed at E3 didn't have specs as high as the PS Vita — the screen only registers one touch point at a time and isn't OLED like Sony's new handheld.

Nintendo is a welcome addition to HD gaming: For too long, gamers have had to shell out for a high-powered Sony or Microsoft console and a Wii to get their "Mario" or "Zelda" fix. The Wii U will end that — but only for the time being. Neither Sony nor Microsoft has yet shown off their new home consoles, which will probably hit after the Wii U. Next-generation game engines, which will power the games of the future, are able to render more realistic graphics than either the Xbox 360 or PS3, meaning that a new Sony or a new Microsoft console will have more horsepower than their current models. Nintendo didn't provide technical specs for the Wii U, but if the machine isn't far more powerful than the PS3 or the Xbox 360, it will mean that once releases of the next generation of game machines gets under way, Nintendo will again have the console with the weakest power. Graphics aren't everything, but in HD gaming, they may as well be.



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