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With Wii, Nintendo has winner
Seattle Times staff columnist
I've been watching the container ships in Elliott Bay lately.
I'm wondering which ones are bringing Nintendo's new Wii game console to America. Millions of Wiis are coming, all through Seattle, in advance of its Nov. 19 launch. After playing with the Wii last week at Nintendo's Redmond office, I may swim out and see if any spares are floating around.
I try to be skeptical during product demonstrations, but this one left me convinced the Wii (pronounced "we") will be a huge hit and the hottest toy this holiday season.
Yes, it was a grueling day at work. I golfed, fished, bowled, played some tennis and baseball, and did a little off-road driving in a monster truck with rocket boosters, all on the Wii.
I worked up a sweat, hopping around like a monkey swatting flies.
The Wii uses motion-sensitive controllers, mainly one that looks like a small TV remote. To hit a baseball, you swing the control like a bat. You'll throw gutter balls if you twist your wrist too much while bowling, and you won't go far in the golf game unless you get up off the couch and assume the stance when you swing.
I can justify all that gaming to my boss, because the Seattle area has a lot riding on the Wii.
This area is a nexus in a huge three-way competition in the video-game industry that's unfolding this fall. The Wii arrives just as Microsoft's Xbox 360 hits full stride and Sony introduces its bleeding edge PlayStation 3 console Nov. 17.
Microsoft and Nintendo's North American headquarters are next door to each other in Redmond, and a group of former Microsofties is developing new Sony online games in Bellevue.
Nintendo is a storied Japanese company, but it's had a presence here since Microsoft was a pipsqueak. In the mid-1980s it located its Nintendo of America subsidiary here because of the port access and because the boss wanted a climate similar to Japan's.
Now the company employs about 1,000 in the area and it's mulling a big expansion in Redmond, a project that's on hold until the Wii gets rolling. The Redmond office does marketing and localizes games for different markets and has a game-development studio.
Nintendo has a distribution center in North Bend that receives those shipping containers and ships games and hardware across the continent. It's also the majority owner of the Seattle Mariners, which could use a bit of the Wii's mojo.
Nintendo has been on a roll lately, after hitting a rough patch a few years ago when the focus was on Microsoft's first Xbox and Sony's PS2. Last week Nintendo raised its profit forecast 20 percent and its dividend 27 percent, largely on optimism about the Wii.
I can see why. Mostly, the Wii is just plain fun. It's approachable and has a kind of charm, like a Volkswagen Bug or an iPod.
The controllers sound complicated, but it's easier to jump in and play the Wii than an Xbox or PlayStation and their button-laden controllers.
But the biggest selling point may be the price. It costs $250, with the sports game included, and free online services. That's about half the cost of an equivalent Xbox 360 or PS3 setup.
It's also going to be widely available. Nintendo plans to ship 4 million Wiis this holiday season. That's more than double the number of Xbox 360s that sold after its launch last holiday season. Sony, meanwhile, is planning to ship 2 million PS3s this year, but only 400,000 are expected to be available in the U.S. at launch.
I'm not the only one fired up about the Wii. Game developers are also enthusiastic about the things they can do with motion-sensitive controllers, both on the Wii and the PS3.
"It's definitely taking the world in a new direction, allowing people to play the game in a way they've never been able to interact with the game-play world," said Jeremy Luyties, lead designer for Treyarch's "Call of Duty 3," an upcoming version of a World War II action game that's been the top seller on the Xbox 360 platform.
Luyties said players will use the Wii controllers to toss grenades, drive jeeps and punch Nazis who leap onto their backs.
"Instead of simply having to hit a button, now you've got to take the controller and thrust it toward the screen to execute the movement — almost like you're stabbing toward the screen," he said.
In one battle sequence, players have to use the controller like an oar to cross a river in a rowboat. I may get some practice by rowing out to those freighters in the bay.
Brier Dudley's column appears Mondays. Reach him at 206-515-5687 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company