On 10th and 11th April, Nintendo of America invited a select group of journalists to a media event to experience the company's upcoming Wii, DS and WiiWare titles firsthand. While standing in a hallway before the event began, we caught a glimpse of NOA president and COO Reggie Fils-Aime as he was ushered through a back door and out of sight. Alas, Reggie never made a public appearance at the show. Like those who track the elusive Bigfoot, we were only able to capture a fuzzy cell phone photograph as evidence of his presence. But who is going to believe us? [Or care. -Ed]
Instead, Cammie Dunaway, the company's new VP of sales and marketing, opened the event with a personal testimonial - noting that the Wii featured the only controller that can be used after wrist surgery (she had apparently broken hers while snowboarding). She said that Nintendo's goal for its 2008 line-up was to "excite the core" while at the same time growing the total market. With WiiWare specifically, Dunaway said that Nintendo is moving the Wii into the model it has already established on the DS - namely, a library of games that feature something for everyone.
But nobody cares about that, so we ignored her and played WiiWare games all day. WiiWare is the service known to European gamers as Wii Software. Or rather, still known as WiiWare because it's a better name. It's due to launch in the US on 12th May, and these are some of its early releases.
Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: My Life as a King
SquareEnix' launch title is probably the best-known and most anticipated of the WiiWare games - but other than the beautiful graphics and high production values, it doesn't share much in common with the Final Fantasy series. That's because the game isn't a traditional RPG, but more of a Sims-type construction game that reminded us of similar gameplay elements in the PS2 title Metropolismania.
The main character is a young King who, as an architect, is charged with using magic to rebuild a deserted town. Doesn't he have servants to do that for him? Using the Wiimote, players find empty green squares and start building with the help of an assistant. Once created, houses attract inhabitants who will then share their needs that must also be addressed. (Again, doesn't the King have people to do that?)
In order to finance your construction activities, you'll need to rely upon adventurers to gather gold and crystals for you from various dungeons - something which is outside of your control apart from choosing who to send to their death...I mean...on a glorious crusade for their King. It was hard to get a feel for the game from the limited time we had with it, but it should appeal to simulation fans as well as the hardcore FF fans, and it certainly has the cutesy graphics that the first part of its name demands, as you can see from the screenshots and trailer. (And finally, trailers in articles, eh? Hurrah for 2008. Next year we get email and everything.)
Frontier conceived of this title well before it had even heard of WiiWare, and the extra time ithad to create and polish the game is evident.
Using the Wiimote, players control a wind spirit who guides and protects the main character - a young boy who is trying to free the land from a curse. There is a storyline befitting a fantasy RPG, but the game is actually an action/platformer with puzzle elements. You'll need to use various wind powers to fan flames and direct them, to provide a breeze that the boy can glide upon, and so forth.
The graphics are colourful - reminiscent of Rayman's fantasy style, with gameplay that calls to mind Klonoa 2 and the recent PlayStation Eye game Operation Creature Feature - except with more precise controls. As an action/platform fan hungry for new games in light of a recent drought of titles, this one reminded your humble correspondent why the genre is worth keeping an eye on.
Like MLE: The Game, Pop is also deeper than it first appears. That's a good thing, as the game first appears to be a screensaver with multi-coloured bubbles floating around the screen.
Players use the Wiimote to aim at and pop the bubbles. The game is timed, however, and every "miss" causes the timer to count down faster. Every so often, power-ups appear in the bubbles to various effect. Torches - aka flashlights for us Yanks - darken the screen except for a small area around your cursor, making it difficult for competing players to see bubbles. Multipliers increase your score, Nukes destroy any bubbles in close proximity, and there are power-ups that increase or reduce the size of your cursor.
Popping bubbles of the same colour starts a combo chain that will be lost if you miss but that will be added to your score when you pop a bubble of a different colour. This adds a level of strategy to an otherwise straightforward game. In addition, rather than forcing multiple players into a specific mode, the developers let you decide whether you want to cooperate to reach higher levels or whether you want to compete...or a mixture of both.
The colours and sounds, and casual gameplay, will help this one appeal to the wider Wii demographic, but even hardcore gamers will probably find it compelling - in the same way that we're often compelled to pop bubble wrap while waiting for 360 and PS3 games to install. There's even an option to shape the bubbles to help the colourblind among us differentiate them from each other, and that's the sort of attention to detail we like, if not the sort most would attribute to us.
Major League Eating: The Game
Of all the WiiWare titles on display, this one surprised us the most. Inevitably we had low expectations. How could anyone make an interesting game out of eating? [Choo choo! - Ed]
It's not just the belching and farting, or the power-ups you can use to attack or defend against an opponent. It's not the real-life MLE "athletes" or the wide assortment of food you can choose from. What captured our interest was the dexterity required to accomplish various motions - the digital equivalent of patting your head and rubbing your stomach simultaneously.
You have to flick the Wiimote to grab food - a slow flick transfers the food to your mouth efficiently; a fast flick results in a time-wasting toss into the air. Once in your mouth, a graphic depiction of the food appears in the top corner of the screen in between a teeth-shaped cursor that moves back and forth. Pressing the button at the appropriate time starts the mastication process, but pressing it early or late causes you to bite your lip and lose time. Meanwhile, a rising bile indicator lets you know when you are close to throwing up (does the ESRB have a content descriptor for vomit? Thanks to this we'll probably find out). To avoid the embarrassment, you've got to hold another button and shake the Wiimote vigorously to settle your stomach.
MLE: The Game probably won't attract any more of the core Wii demographic to gaming, but its humorous depiction of bodily functions should appeal to the adolescent boy in the rest of us.
World of Goo
It's hard to describe this game, which recently won two awards at the 2008 Independent Games Festival - for design innovation and technical excellence. Officially, it is a "physics based puzzle/construction game". Unofficially, it is Lemmings meets Archer Maclean's Mercury with a dash of LocoRoco as imagined by Tim Burton.
The concept is a simple one: manoeuvre animated balls of goo to help them reach a vacuum pipe somewhere in the level. As you grab one of the balls with the Wiimote, you'll need to position it close enough to other goo balls to create a node linking them. Soon, you'll find yourself creating all manner of polygonal shapes out of the goo balls, like some sort of oily erector set. The challenge is in using as few of the goo balls as possible to create nodes, allowing the remainder to enter the pipe, even as your constructs bend and sway to the laws of physics.
The charm comes in the form of the original music and a whimsical artistic style - not to mention the realisation that the game is the brainchild of just three people whose creation plays better than many titles done by teams that are ten times as large. As puzzle fans, this is probably going to be our first WiiWare purchase. Sorry, blag.
Strong Bad's Cool Game For Attractive People
Your correspondent is going to come clean here and admit he'd never heard of Strong Bad, the wrestling-mask wearing lead character of an episodic online cartoon. The Web is so big that the days when the entire world noticed whenever something new was put online are gone - like that dancing CG baby. So, pardon me for missing this one.
I - and, to resume royal duties, we - have, however, certainly heard of Telltale Games and know their track record when it comes to point-and-click adventures. The episodic nature of Strong Bad - not to mention its irreverent humour - certainly appear well-suited to the developer, which recently concluded the final episode of Sam & Max Season 2.
Here, the Wiimote directs Strong Bad around the environments and allows him to interact with various characters and items. Although there is a main story arc, there are also numerous small activities that can be performed such as using a computer to check email, making phone calls, collecting items, and so on. Strong Bad is also a fan of retro videogames, which gamers can play within the game, and that's good enough for us.
No pricing details were announced, for Strong Bad or the other WiiWare games, and neither did Nintendo officially announce which specific games would be available at the launch of the service next month. However, all of the games shown were clearly completed and ready to go.
These were just a smattering of the WiiWare titles Nintendo has in store, but if the initial titles are any indication, they are definitely on track to meet their goal of providing something for everyone. And if it isn't an indication, then we'll have to reconsider our belief structures.