Each week Adam Frucci takes a closer look at the latest gadget buzz in his column, Shift.
The Nintendo Wii has surprised a lot of people, generating loads of buzz from its strange name, unique controller, and low price point. But are those things enough to topple the monster consoles from Microsoft and Sony? An admittedly underpowered machine, Nintendo has taken a very risky path, ignoring gamers' cries for cranked specs and flashy graphics, instead going after casual gamers and focusing on what made people gamers in the first place: fun. Will this risky strategy pay off, and will the Wii succeed in the face of super-charged, high-priced competition? For a number of reasons I think the answer is a definite yes.
Every generation of consoles has given gamers a vast improvement in graphical power, justifying a new investment in hardware and games. The jump in graphics from the NES to the Super Nintendo to the Nintendo 64 was drastic, making the older systems obsolete immediately. However, systems have reached a point where the graphics can't look much better on a standard-definition TV. That's the reason for the jump to high-definition for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, which gives HDTV owners a lot more to play with, but for a huge jump in price. The fully-loaded PS3 will run gamers a gasp-inducing $600 ($500 for a lesser version), a price that cost Sony a boatload of gamer goodwill when announced. After all, the PS2 cost $300 when it was first released — people aren't used to spending that much on a game console. The Wii, on the other hand, is not HD-capable and barely upgraded the graphics from the GameCube, the previous console to come from Nintendo. Instead, the revolutionary changes come in the form of the Wii's controller, which looks more like a remote control than a video game controller and is motion-sensing. The cost, while not yet announced, is expected to be either $200 or $250, less than half that of the PS3.
Will casual gamers balk at lesser graphics, instead choosing to continue the pattern of upgrading the consoles purely for graphical enhancements? I don't think so. If a hardcore gamer really wants the hottest graphics and latest technology, they have a choice. They could invest $2,000 in a new HDTV, $600 in a PS3, and another $300 in a few games, or they could buy a high-end gaming PC for the same price. A gaming PC has the benefit of being upgradeable and never becoming obsolete, unlike the PS3, which will only become more outdated every day it sits hooked up to that flat-panel TV. While high-end gaming PCs have always been a niche market for gamers with a lot of cash to throw around, the Xbox 360 and PS3 demand a similar investment of money in order to get their full potential. They've thrown themselves into a much higher-end market, pitting themselves against products they just can't compete with. It's entirely possible that the relative success of the Xbox 360 so far (it was released last November) can be attributed to hardcore gamers who buy every console regardless of the price. Once they have all picked theirs up, the market for high-end consoles may shrink much faster than Microsoft and Sony expect.
The Wii, meanwhile, remains affordable and is meant to work on a regular old TV. It remains at the same price level people are used to paying for consoles, and a price that casual gamers will be willing to spend on something they use for fun on the weekends. After all, it's a video game console, not something you should be forced to consider as a serious investment. And that's the main reason I'm certain the Wii will do so well: it's aimed at casual gamers, a large group of people that Microsoft and Sony have pretty much ignored, instead greedily going after the smaller, more moneyed, hardcore-gamer market.
Combine these things with the unique, you-just-gotta-try-it controller and the new Virtual Console, which will allow people to play older games from the NES, SNES, N64, Sega Genesis, and TurboGraphix 16, and you've got a console people will be dying to get their hands on. Nintendo read the market, saw how the big guys were shunning a huge number of people, and created a product designed to give them everything they wanted and more. Mix that with a product unveiling by Sony so badly blundered Nintendo couldn't have written it better themselves and you have a recipe for underdog success. Mark my words: the Wii's gonna win.