The launch of WiiWare - small games that you can download from the Wii Shop - is the fulfilment of part of Nintendo's promise for the system. As the hype was building before the console's launch, Nintendo made much of the idea that the system would encourage creativity and lower the bar for developers - allowing people to experiment with innovation without taking huge financial risks. A year and a half after launch, here we are. WiiWare allows developers to create small games - with small teams and small budgets - and then make them available online, priced at 500 Wii points (GBP 3.50, or EUR 5.00) and upwards. Speaking with us in Frankfurt ahead of the launch, Nintendo's European marketing boss Laurent Fischer confirmed that there was no content approval process - developers can create whatever they want, provided it passes the technical approval process and gets a recognised age rating.
For developers, then, it's a platform that offers a remarkable level of freedom - much lower costs and logistical demands than either PlayStation Network or Xbox Live Arcade, most notably. But what about the rest of us? What does the WiiWare launch mean for those of us sitting at home, Wiimote in hand, looking for something to play? Fear not - we've gone forth and played all the WiiWare games currently confirmed for Europe. Six of them are out today, with two more set for release during the "launch window", which is secret industry code for "Next week? Next month? Who knows?", so look out for them soon.
The only one you won't be reading about here, in fact, is LostWinds, because we've already reviewed that, and Kristan really liked it. You can read his full review of it elsewhere on Eurogamer, so there's not much point discussing it again, except to emphasise that he really, really did like it. A lot. Look out for full reviews of the others soon, and in the meantime here are our first impressions.
Dr. Mario & Germ Buster
- Developer: Nintendo
- Wii Points: 1000
- In Real Money: GBP 7 / EUR 10 (approx)
Kicking off the line-up, here's one that everyone will be familiar with - well, most people reading this site, anyway. Dr Mario, for the uninitiated, is an old Nintendo puzzle game in which you need to rid a medicine bottle of a random selection of colourful viruses by lining up pills of the same colour vertically or horizontally next to them.
This version of the game is really two games in one - albeit two games that happen to be very, very similar. In Dr Mario, you get a classic version of the puzzle game, controlled using either the Wiimote on its side or the Classic controller. There are a couple of concessions to modernity, however - Mario and the rampaging viruses in the screen decor are 3D, for instance. More importantly, there's a Wi-Fi Connection mode that allows you to play against a friend online, which will probably be the primary appeal for fans of the original.
Meanwhile, the Germ Buster segment is broadly the same game again, but this time it utilises the Wiimote pointer as its control method. So you grab the pills as they enter the bottle and then guide them into place with the Wiimote, which feels a little odd at first but quickly becomes rather natural. That said, for getting high scores, we'll stick with the original, classic version of the game - although Germ Buster's side-column animation, depicting your Miis fighting back a rampaging horde of viruses, is quite cute.
We suspect that WiiWare will be the home to many puzzle games in the coming months, and Dr Mario may not be one of the best to be launched on the system. It's also certainly not a flag-bearer for the kind of innovation and risk-taking we'd like to see on WiiWare - but in the eyes of many gamers, it's an enduring classic, and this is the best version we can remember.
Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: My Life as a King
- Developer: Square Enix
- Wii Points: 1500
- In Real Money: GBP 10.50 / EUR 15 approx
Speaking of innovation and risk-taking, a Final Fantasy game? Seriously? Well, before you roll your eyes back into your head, consider this: My Life as a King is the single most dramatic departure for the Final Fantasy series since Final Fantasy Tactics launched on the PlayStation. In fact, although it carries the Final Fantasy name, there's nothing in that vast pantheon of games like this.
The basic concept is that you are the boy-king of a dispossessed tribe of nomads, who arrives at an empty city centred on a vast crystal. This, rather helpfully, is the "promised land" your father, the former king, told you to seek - and the crystal grants you the power of Architek, the ability to create buildings and repopulate the city with citizens.
In other words, this is a city building and management simulation, rather than a cut-scenes and angst RPG. Using Architek, you can walk around the empty city, placing various buildings on the empty plots of land. As you build homes, you can recruit adventurers to go off and explore the surrounding lands, fighting monsters, defeating bosses and returning with the spoils - and, crucially, with the material needed for more buildings. You don't actually see any of these adventures, or fight any monsters - you just see brief reports of their progress, and can watch their RPG-style stats grow. Your job is to keep the adventurers, and the general population, happy, loyal, well-equipped and well-paid.
It's an intriguing game, with graphics reminiscent of The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, combined with the lovely character designs we've come to expect of Crystal Chronicles titles. The freedom and the non-linear nature of the whole thing are totally unlike Final Fantasy games of the past. We'd compare this more closely to the likes of Harvest Moon, but with adventurers rather than cows.
Moreover, it's huge - and incredibly detailed - with an entire city to build, and each citizen within it having their own life and routine, which you can follow throughout the day if you like. Compared to every other title on WiiWare, this is an epic, which might easily have justified a release on disc. It sets the bar high for WiiWare and is a good indication of what developers will be able to do on the system down the line.
Star Soldier R
- Developer: Hudson
- Wii Points: 800 Wii Points
- In Real Money: GBP 7 / EUR 10 approx
The latest instalment in Hudson's classic Star Soldier series of vertically scrolling shoot-'em-ups appears to be a WiiWare game for one very simple reason: because it's tiny. It retains many of the gameplay features of previous Star Soldier games, most notably the ability to switch between three different speeds for your ship on the fly, but we suspect that it's the key difference that will attract the most comments.
Rather than progressing through various levels in a linear fashion, Star Soldier R makes you choose between two- and five-minute time-attack modes when you begin, and then challenges you to rack up as many points as possible before the timer runs out. As such, the game only has two short levels, and even a fairly unaccomplished shoot-'em-up player (such as your humble, and twitch reaction-challenged correspondent) will have seen everything the game has to offer within about ten minutes.
Now, you could argue that the real challenge and entertainment of a game like this lies with attempting to continually improve your high score, and to that end the game does boast online scoreboards and so on. However, given the tiny amount of content on offer here, that repetition isn't going to appeal to very many gamers. Even at the lowest price for a WiiWare games, it's hard to see Star Soldier R being good value.
That's a bit of a shame, because the production values aren't bad - the controls are sensitive and accurate, and the graphics, although not much beyond PS2 level, are crisp and clean. If only they'd taken the time to build another dozen levels, this would be a great little game. But they didn't. So it isn't.
- Developer: Two Tribes
- Wii Points: 900
- In Real Money: GBP 6.30 / EUR 9 approx
Toki Tori is a fat little chicken who's lost an absolute sackload of eggs. Oops. Thankfully, he's a fat little chicken who happens to be rather adept at overcoming platform and puzzle challenges, thanks to an arsenal of gadgets including a teleporter, a freeze gun and a bubble generator for moving around underwater. Perhaps his eggs aren't scrambled after all.
Actually, it's a bit of a stretch to describe Toki Tori as a platform game, since there's no actual platforming involved. Although the levels are laid out in 2D platforms, you move Toki Tori around by pointing the Wiimote at where you want him to go and pressing a button - he'll automatically make any simple jumps or drop down the requisite spaces. It's only in getting to places Tori can't get to automatically that you'll need to interact, by using one of the limited sets of items at your disposal.
This is really a puzzle game, then - and it's actually rather good in that regard. Although it starts out very simple, later puzzles require several attempts for most players, as your early actions - building bridges, dropping malicious ghosts through holes in the floor, or sucking slugs into a Ghostbusters-style backpack - will influence what you can and can't do later in the level. Despite the childish graphics, this feels like it would be quite frustrating for anyone younger than their mid-teens - although if parents fancy playing it with younger children, it does allow you to draw on the screen with the second Wiimote so you can offer hints and suggestions.
The game has over 70 levels, so there's plenty of potential play time here for anyone who enjoys this kind of puzzle. On the downside, it's yet another game that fills your Wii message board with spam from in-game characters - and even though Tori's postcards are fairly charming, we can see them resulting in astonishing barrages of swear words when they make our Wii's disc slot pulse insistently at us and get us all excited about non-existent messages from the friends we like to pretend we have.
TV Show King
- Developer: Gameloft
- Wii Points: 1000
- In Real Money: GBP 7 / EUR 10 approx
TV Show King is WiiWare's answer to Sony's hugely successful Buzz! games, and is likely to be the most divisive of the launch titles. The idea is that you're presented with multiple-choice questions and points are scored by those fastest to click on the correct answers. The developers claim over 3,000 questions in a number of categories, which should last a fair few rounds, although it's less extensive than any of the Buzz! games.
There are some nice touches - like the fact that it uses your Mii characters - but there are also some aspects that just don't work that well. At points in the game it makes you use the Wiimote as a scratching device to scrape away at the answers, for instance, which is just annoying and doesn't contribute anything to the quiz experience. Buzz! also had a number of rounds which rewarded players either randomly, or for things other than their quiz knowledge, but these were the weakest points in Buzz!, and copying them here feels like a mistake.
The biggest problem with TV Show King, however, is the complete lack of any online functions. We'd love to have seen additional question packs up for download, but the game doesn't acknowledge the existence of the Internet. Of course, being a quiz game, it's also very much a party experience - you won't get much out of it if you're on your own.
On the plus side, it's a perfectly adequate little quiz game, with generally decent presentation and what seem, based on our short play time, to be a reasonably varied line-up of questions. We're not sure, however, whether the questions have been changed for the UK English version - we hope we don't end up answering questions about US soap operas. It'll likely be blown away by the PS3 version of Buzz! when that appears, but then again, it's also much cheaper (and runs on a much cheaper console) - so it's certainly not a bad filler for that quiz-shaped gap in your life.
Pirates: The Key of Dreams
- Developer: Oxygen Interactive
- Release Date: TBC
- Wii Points: TBC
Oxygen's nautical shoot-'em-up ties in with their Pirates title on the DS, but it's a totally standalone game in its own right. It's also very, very simple. You control a ship which "sails" through a variety of maze-like levels, defeating enemy ships, picking up treasure and secret weapons, upgrading your powers and, well, defeating more enemy ships.
We put "sails" in inverted commas, because this makes no pretence of being a simulation. There are a few control schemes you can use, but the one we liked best had us holding the Wiimote horizontally, turning left and right with the d-pad, and moving forward by pulling the trigger. You could also push down on the d-pad to reverse, which was obviously common on old pirate ships.
The result is something that plays a bit like the Atari classic Tanks. You move around and shoot at enemies that are moving around you. The difference is that here your standard weapon fires sideways (when you fire, it works out which sides enemies are on, and shoots your left or right cannons appropriately - or both), while weapon power-ups, which include a flamethrower, chain-linked shot, rockets and a devastating buzz-saw flinger, fire forwards.
The multiplayer mode confirms our suspicion that this is really a slightly damper Tanks update. Up to four players (padded out with CPU adversaries) battle it out on a single-screen, non-scrolling arena, full of respawning power-ups. You can choose from one of three ships (fast and lightly armed through to slow and heavily armed), but aside from a simple upgrade system, that's about the height of the complexity.
So the biggest problem with Pirates is that it's incredibly simple. There's nothing actively wrong with it, but it's likely to be a few minutes' occasional entertainment at best. In its defence, however, it's definitely fun in short bursts - and if its priced at a cheap enough level, it might be worth a fling for any old Atari fans craving a shot of old-school action.
- Developer: Nnooo
- Release Date: TBC
- Wii Points: TBC
Of all the launch window games, this is probably the toughest sell. The screen is full of bubbles, and you have to pop the bigger ones to keep your time meter filled up, while smaller ones score points. That, essentially, is the whole thing. It sounds simple, and possibly a bit rubbish.
It's not. In fact, it's strangely satisfying in single-player, with an almost flOw-style relaxing, gentle play style, assisted ably by soothing visuals. Where the game comes into its own, however, is in multiplayer. Up to four players can compete, and the strategy of keeping your timer full while racking up the best score possible becomes a major factor.
Other nice little touches also become apparent in multiplayer. Again inviting comparisons with flOw, you quickly notice that your pointer gains an increasingly long tail as you hit more bubbles in quick succession, which gives nice feedback on how well you're doing. More importantly, power-ups in multiplayer allow you to do things like nuking all the bubbles of a specific colour, thus upsetting a rival's attempt to build a combo.
Perhaps the nicest aspect is that the whole game is a "jump-in, jump-out" experience. You start it simply by picking up a Wiimote and popping a few bubbles - then friends can join in at any point by doing likewise. We can see this being a popular party game (no pun intended), in a strange way, and out of all the games on WiiWare thus far, it's the best example of a simple and original idea being implemented well.
WiiWare games are available from the Wii Shop. In case you weren't paying attention, see elsewhere on Eurogamer for a handy list of which are available today.