Wii Game Corner (again)

Some quick reviews for Wii games I've played recently:
  • Mario Kart Wii: One of the games I used to play all the time in college was the original Mario Kart for SNES (along with NHL 94/95 and GoldenEye). It was great fun, and with this latest installment, I find that Nintendo has more or less duplicated the simple and fun formula of the original installments (the last MK game I played was the one for N64) and made a few tweaks that make it feel fresh. The simple motion controls work well and it's a nice change of pace, but at the same time, it's not like the series' old controls were all that tough. As with the original, this game is a blast to play with friends, especially with 4 players. Single player gets a bit repetitive after a while, but it's quite fun as well - it's nice to be able to pop in a bite-sized gaming experience. I'm glad I own this game becaues I've never owned a Mario Kart game before and I do find it to be a genuinely fun game to play (especially multiplayer), but at the same time, I can't help but think that it's just the same game I started playing 15 years ago. Indeed, it looks like the grand majority of the tracks are repurposed here from previous editions (of course, they picked the best tracks, so it's not necessarily a bad thing...) But hey, it's Mario Kart - it was pretty much exactly what I expected and I can't fault it for that!
  • Wii Fit: For what it is, it's quite good. Unfortunately, it doesn't really break any of the boundries I was hoping it would. The concept of a video game centered around a goal of fitness is an intriguing one, but while Wii fit is an interesting first attempt, I was hoping for more. The thing that really interested me was the concept of combining the just-one-more-level addictiveness of video games with the healthy side-effects of exercise... alas, Wii Fit doesn't really manage that. The software seems more aimed at providing guidance on traditional exercises, along with a few balance games thrown in for good measure. When I first got the software, I played it for about a week straight, and then pretty much lost interest. I'm starting my annual summer exercise kick though, and I think Wii Fit may find a place in my regular exercise schedule, but more as a warmup and a way to keep track of my progress than my primary exercise tool (which will probably be the elliptical machine in my basement, along with some free weights).

    The software comes with a plethora of exercises and simple mini-games, many of which you have to unlock as you go. It can be a bit annoying at first, because a lot of the playing time gets tied up in listening to the Wii Balance Board or your virtual trainer explain stuff to you. The software keeps track of the time you spent exercising, but when you first start off, most of the exercises take only 1 minute or so to complete. So to complete a 30 minute workout, it took about an hour (with the other 30 minutes being explainations and loading time, etc...). As you unlock more and more exercises and get more experience, longer exercises become available. The step exercise gets pretty good after a while, as does the boxing exercise. Yoga poses can be cool, but they still eat up a lot of time. The balance games are a lot of fun, but they're very simple and they also don't seem to be the most vigorous of exercises.

    The software anthropomorphizes the Wii Fit Balance Board into a character in the game, and I'm pretty sure it hates me, though it doesn't say so outright (it usually relies on passive-aggressive techniques to accomplish this). Seriously, sometimes the way the board talks to you is a little odd (my friend Roy thinks there might be some translation issues that cause the game to sound more caustic...). I'm not looking forward to returning after a few months absence... Ultimately, it's not everything I hoped it would be, but it's pretty good.
  • Ōkami: Traditional gamers have long complained that the Wii has left them out in the cold and not released any "Hardcore" games. One of the frequent counter-arguments to that is Ōkami. Originally released on the PS2, this game was ported to the Wii, presumably because one of the core mechanics of the game seems ideal for motion controls. The game's setting is right out of Japanese folklore, and you play a sun goddess named Amaterasu, taking the form of a white wolf. The story centers on how Amaterasu saves the land from a terrible darkness, which sounds like a common trope, but since the setting of traditional Japanese folklore is one I am not that familiar with, it still feels fresh. One of the key abilities of Amaterasu is something called the Celestial Brush. When you're playing, you can bring the game to a pause, which converts the screen into a canvas that you can paint on. Various brush strokes and patterns can be used for a variety of results: drawing a swirl can summon the wind, drawing a line through an enemy can cut them, drawing a circle in the sky can restore sunlight to the land, etc...

    You would think that these Celestial Brush techniques would make the game an ideal candidate for the Wii, but I am constantly struggling with them. There seems to be a certain precision that is required that is beyond what the Wiimote can provide by default. Perhaps I'm just doing something wrong (if I am, it's not particularly obvious what it is), but I often find myself struggling to duplicate whatever exact movement they want me to make. In particular, drawing a straight line can be rough (and early on in the game, that is a very important technique). Human beings have elbows, which are essentially pivots. The very physical nature of our arms means that moving our hand horizontally typically describes an arc, rather than a straight line. This is a basic tenet of human factors design, and I believe it's why I have so much trouble drawing a straight line in this game. So to be honest, I'm not even sure how well these motion controls would work, even if this game was ported to Wii Motion Plus, unless they also allowed some sort of corresponding tolerance to the system.

    The current generation of console video games seems to have massively improved a couple of the really annoying traits of the past. One of the most important of these is how you save your game. On most of my PS3 games, progress is mostly saved automatically whenever you accomplish something. Even games that do not have auto-save (such as Dead Space), make sure to provide frequent save points so that you don't have to constantly repeat large areas of the game (and even then, I hate the arbitrary nature of save points in those games). Unfortunately, like most Nintendo games where progress into a story matters (i.e. not games like Wii Fit or Wii Sports, where there isn't much in the way of "progress"), Ōkami suffers from save points that are spaced relatively far apart. This caused me to get stuck around 2 hours into the game at a point where I would have to play for about an hour, make a ton of progress, and then lose everything because I died in some random fight on my way back to the save point. I've now spent 3 hours trying to get past this point, and have pretty much given up on the game. Given the simplicity of the combat system, it's clear that fighting is not the point of this game. Fighing basically consists of random Wiimote waggling combined with the occasional Celestial Brush stroke, and it's not very fun. It would be one thing if the system was well balanced and fun to play - I'd want to master such a game and wouldn't mind the save system so much. But seriously, it's 2009. There are no more excuses for failing to provide an easy way to save games.

    The game also seems to be very heavy on text and dialog cutscenes (not sure if they technically qualify as cut scenes, but that's basically what they are), often forcing you to read through several screens of text (each screen is relatively short on text, but still, reading through 5 screens at once starts to get tedious). Fortunately, most of this text is skippable... but skipping such text causes the game to pause itself and transition to after the cutscene (in some cases, you're probably better off just pressing through the dialog as fas as it will let you). It doesn't seem like it would be that difficult to provide a more seamless transition from cutscene back to gameplay. Also, the interface is rather difficult to understand. It took me a while, for instance, to figure out how the health meter worked, which is kinda ridiculous.

    I know the game is somewhat old and that it was originally developed for the previous generation of consoles, but these flaws are intensely annoying, especially when I play a game like this side by side with PS3 games that get these usability details exactly right. This is a game I very much want to like a lot - the visual art style is actually quite good. This sort of stylish presentation is common on the Wii, but it truly does look great here and it fits the mood of the story well. I also like the way the game gradually nudges you to solve puzzles, allowing you the freedom to explore and figure out what to do, but also giving you some help if you really get stuck. The story itself seems pretty straightforward and conceptually the puzzles and general gameplay sound great. In practice though, they tend to be frustrating.

    This game gets generally great reviews from critics, but in all its incarnations, it has apparently sold very poorly. I can see why the critics like this game so much - again, it has all the right conceptual elements - but I can also see why it is shunned by players as well... it's not a very fun game. Again, I wanted to like this game - it's got a lot of elements I find intriguing (i.e. visual style, uncommon mythological setting, story, etc...), but in practice, the game just grates on me... I know I'm picky about usability stuff like the motion controls, save points, and dialog cutscenes, but I don't think those things are excusable anymore (at least, the combination of all three should be avoided). Ultimately, I was very disappointed in this game and to be honest, I'm not sure if I'm up to giving it another try. To be honest, the games theme of restoring life to a darkened world only wants to make me play another motion controlled game - Flower, for the PS3.
That's all for now (you could also check out the previous installment of Wii Game Corner). For all my gushing about the PS3 and for my general distaste for single-player Wii games of late, I still have several games I want to play or am otherwise looking forward to. Madworld, House of the Dead: Overkill, and The Conduit all sound like a lot of fun. The new Punch Out seems similar to Mario Kart in that it doesn't look to add too much to the original experience, and I have to admit that sort of thing isn't that exciting... but I wouldn't mind trying out the game. I'm not all that interested in purchasing Wii Sports Resort or Wii Motion Plus, but I would definitely like to play the games, just to see how well Motion Plus works... Who knows, maybe it will restore my flagging faith in motion controls.