Version tested: Wii
Launching the Wii with just one big first party title is something of a calculated gamble for Nintendo. It knows that enough hardcore early adopters will be more than content to plough through Zelda over Christmas - but at the same time it has to try and gently educate the casual audience about how to use a Wii remote without being too patronising about it.
The first step, of course, is to bundle Wii Sports with the console and give everyone a suite of pick-up-and-play multiplayer games. Admittedly, for all its charms, it's not really got the depth to justify its release as a standalone product. But, even so, it's something you'll be more than happy to stick on to amuse friends and normally reluctant family members - just as everyone did with EyeToy.
But the inevitable problem with any new console is the bothersome need to buy extra controllers - and the Wii is no exception to the rule. Fortunately Nintendo has sweetened the prospect of buying a second Wii remote slightly by making Wii Play available as part of a bundle pack for £34.99 - only £5 more than a controller costs on its own.
Again, Wii Play is a product that you'd arguably give a wide berth to on its own, somewhat limited, merits, but for the price it's a fun, social means of being shown the ropes for a new type of control device that new Wii owners will be hungry for. So, in the process of including Wii Sports in the main package and Wii Play for an extra £5 with the Wii remotes, Nintendo has managed to come up with a way of not only seamlessly demonstrating the console's accessibility, but showing them off in a social context. Cunning stunts.
The premise for each of the nine mini-games in the Wii Play package couldn't be much simpler, but almost all of them provide a few minutes of instant fun when played - as intended - in simultaneous two-player versus mode. Each of the games are designed as straightforward score-based versus games, so if you don't have any mates on hand (sob) then bear that in mind before you contemplate shelling out for it.
Also advisable before you play is to take some time out to design your 'Mii' character (and your opponent's) in the Wii dash, as you'll be able to use it throughout Wii Play. It makes no difference to the gameplay (apart from storing high scores and so on), but it certainly improves the amusement factor considerably.
Unlockable in sequence, the game kicks off with Shooting Range - a lightgun-style shooting test that doffs its cap firmly in the direction of Duck Hunt, one of Nintendo's oldest NES hits. The idea, needless to say, is to try and shoot targets as they appear on the screen before your opponent, with bonus points being awarded for managing to shoot consecutive targets, or special targets like ducks and disks which zoom across the screen, or targets with your opponent's face on. Each of the short levels gets progressively harder, and the player with the highest score wins the round. Simple, easy to control, and one of many of the games which literally anyone with any semblance of co-ordination could play - the sensitivity and accuracy of the Wii remote is shown off immediately.
Another game to coach you in the basic art of pointing the Wii remote is the 'Find Mii' stage. Similar to the recognition tests in Brain Academy, you have to, for example, point and click on the two identical faces in a crowd of other Miis before your opponent. To begin with, the Miis are stationary and pretty easy to identify, but as you progress they start moving around and descending down escalators and so on - making the seemingly simple task rather tricky in no time. A bit of a throwaway one this, but serves its purpose in getting players used to the fine movements required in pointing at the screen.
Stage 3 - Table Tennis - could have easily have found its way into Wii Sports, and is an instantly engaging but slightly limited means of showing off the fast-paced racket sport. The idea is to reach 11 points first, but getting there is as dependent on your opponent's inability to grasp the control system as your own skill. Once you've served with the A button, the only thing to worry about is moving the paddle left and right and attempting to meet the trajectory of the ball - as long as you can anticipate that, you automatically return the ball - meaning some pretty lengthy rallies ensue if you both grasp the concept well. You can put more pace on the return shot, but it's a risky business.
Strike a pose
Pose Mii, the fourth of the nine stages tests your ability to twist the Wii remote accurately and also tasks players with matching one of three poses before their opponent. To begin with it's just a case of selecting the right pose and pointing it at the appropriate silhouette before it falls to the bottom of the screen. Soon enough, though, you have to also make sure you've twisted the correct Mii pose to the desired angle as well - not easy when there are several silhouettes all falling down at the same time. If either player misses three of their silhouettes, it's Game Over for them, and the player with the highest score wins.
Laser hockey, meanwhile, is reminiscent of those air hockey games in the arcade where you have to try and whack the puck into your opponent's goal while doing your best to defend your own goal. Once again, this game's designed to not only improve pointing skills, but also give players practice in twisting the Wii remote. With an added bit of angle applied to your paddle, you can ricochet shots in off the sides of the court and bamboozle your hapless opponent - or end up getting yourself in a horrible muddle and score some embarrassing own goals by trying to be too clever. Like a logical progression of the kind of bat and ball Pong variants that many of us played in the late '70s and early '80s, Laser Hockey is definitely one we'll be returning to repeatedly.
Even better is Billiards - a fantastic demonstration of the Wii remote's potential. Displayed in familiar 3D view (or overhead view with the A button), you first have to line up the direction of your shot by holding down the B (trigger) button and pointing it left or right of the ball (or using the d-pad). Once you're happy with the direction, you then have to tentatively position the precise spot where you want to hit the cue ball, allowing you to apply the necessary backspin or topspin as required. And once that's applied, you use the Wii remote like a proper cue, pulling back on it with a cue motion (with B held down), slamming it forward to connect the cue with the ball and releasing B at the same time. If you mess up you'll be deducted points from your eventual total and the other player gets to place the cue ball anywhere on the table. As a quick demonstration of what the Wii remote is capable of, this is hugely satisfying, although Pool would have been even better.
A nice hook
Fishing, meanwhile, is one of the mini-games which has much in the way of potential, but seems rather too fiddly for its own good. The premise and execution is easy enough - simply dunk your rod in a small-ish pool and try and coax your hook near the mouths of the (rather large) fish that swim around obligingly. Once you get a bite, the Wii remote vibrates slightly, giving you a small window of opportunity to swing the controller upwards as if you were hooking it out of the water. Often, though, the fish will get away unless you're quick, leaving you to try and reposition your rod at the same time as your player. Sometimes you'll find yourself going for the same fish (especially the larger, more valuable, bonus fish), so just make sure you're wearing headgear - as there's a tendency for the Wii remote to be used as a weapon when you win.
The eighth stage, Charge, is a pretty simplistic racing game where you're basically tasked with riding a cow and score points by knocking down as many scarecrows as you can along the way. Utilising a mixture of tilting and upward swinging, you first have to use the Wii remote in the unfamiliar horizontal orientation - rather like a handlebar. Effectively all you have to do to win is push forward to speed up and steer left and right to guide your cow towards the many scarecrows that litter the course, with optional upward swings to jump over the hurdles, or tilt downwards towards you to slow down. With a simple 'most points wins' premise and an easy control system, it's a good demonstration of how it will be used in racing games, but ultimately too shallow to offer much entertainment for more than a few attempts.
The last of the nine stages, Tanks, is the only one to make use of the Nunchuck directional control - and it's optional at that. The action is displayed in old-school bird's eye view, and the general idea is to use shells and mines to destroy all the enemies on the screen. Doing so requires not only being able to aim and shoot at your target successfully, but steering your tank as well - either via the d-pad on the Wii remote or the easier method of hooking up the Nunchuck analogue stick. Once you've cleared the screen, you move onto a slightly more difficult stage - often with walls obscuring your target, thus requiring a little more effort in terms of steering properly. Again, it's one of those stages which is simple and mildly amusing for a few goes, but spectacularly lacking in long-term depth. It certainly serves its purpose in preparing Wii owners for similar games that require dual aiming and movement co-ordination, but beyond that, its inclusion is questionable.
Wii Play is definitely a good means of making sure players from less experienced backgrounds get to get used to various game types and control system before they're unleashed into the wider world. The likes of Billiards, Shooting Gallery and Laser Hockey have the sort of Everyman appeal that Nintendo is right to place front and centre in an introductory budget release like this. On the other hand, the very fact that Wii Play is so deliberately basic by design means that it's a compilation that only scratches the surface of the types of games we're likely to see designed to exploit the Wii remote. Wii Play has a few timeless gems that should prove to be party favourites this Christmas, but regular gamer, in particular, shouldn't expect the novelty value to endure much beyond that. Think of this as commercial tutorial.
6 / 10