Nintendo World 2006

By Alex Kierkegaard / November 26, 2006

It feels strange, doesn't it, that these days most consoles launch in the US first, and then in Japan. Even if we are talking just a week's difference that's still a world away from the old days, when Americans had to wait half a year or more to get their hands on a new Japanese console, and Europeans even longer.

It's a good sign any way you look at it. What it tells us is that decisions at Nintendo and Microsoft are now being made by business school graduates following their textbooks, and not according to tradition or the nationalistic whims of Methuselahan company chairmen and CEOs (Sony seems to have learned this lesson from its rivals, but is still having trouble implementing it). The biggest, most important market gets served first, and then the rest follow as closely as logistics and manufacturing capacity allow, until that day in the far off future when more efficient supply chains and improved world economic conditions make true worldwide launches a possibility.

So the Wii has been out in the US for about a week now, while the Japanese public has yet to get a proper taste of it. Nintendo hasn't been spending too much on advertising so far (at least judging by street and subway ads -- I don't watch TV), probably because after the dazzling success of the DS they figure the Wii is the kind of console that doesn't need it. But this has meant that the average Japanese person -- the target demographic! -- still has little idea of how the console works, or what it feels like to play games on it. So since Nintendo skipped TGS, and in anticipation of the imminent Japanese launch of the Wii, a new show was announced back in early October called Nintendo World, recalling both the Nintendo World Touch DS! event held across Japan prior to the DS launch in 2004, and the old Space World shows the last of which took place way back in 2001.

The new event was held first in Nagoya on the 3rd of this month, then in Osaka on the 12th, and then it finished up this weekend at Chiba's Makuhari Messe convention complex, a half-hour's train ride outside of Tokyo. Subtitled "Wii Convention", it was clear from the beginning what the focus would be, with demo stations for the new console occupying most of the floorspace, whereas DS titles were confined to a small corner (see the Makuhari Messe floorplan).

So I dropped by earlier today to check it out, and see if I could get some more hands-on time with Nintendo's fancy new console. Due to my aversion for queueing this ended up not happening (lines for Twilight Princess stretched for three hours at some points, and most interesting Wii games involved at least 45-minute-long waits), but I still enjoyed myself during the couple of hours I spent there, and had the opportunity to see up-close a good number of cool new titles (seeing other people play the games right in front of you is the next best thing to trying them out yourself).

Outside Entrance Makuhari Messe Information desk

One thing that made an impression on me even before I got in was the fact that admission was free. Usually in trade shows the first one or two days are open only to industry and the press -- free of charge -- and then on subsequent days the public has to pay a fee of anywhere between 1,000 to 1,500 yen. This however was not a trade show, but an event meant to introduce the Wii to prospective buyers ahead of its launch, so both days were open to the public, with no admission charge.

You see in the big three gaming shows -- TGS, AOU and the AM Show -- there is always an organizer who has to somehow recoup their expenses, and turn a profit on top of that, and so they go ahead and charge exhibitors and visitors alike. But Nintendo was not trying to make any money from the show itself; their goal was to advertise their new products, whereas revenue would follow later from sales of the consoles and games themselves. The show was an effort to try and make up for the fact that, presumably because of the unique nature of the new controller, so far there haven't been any in-store demo stations, which would have given people a chance to get a taste of what the Wii's brand of motion-sensing gaming feels like.

Another thing I (subconsciously) noted on the way in was the ridiculously high ratio of families with kids to hardcore gamers. In the whole rush to get in this fact didn't even register, but once inside there was no avoiding it. I found myself surrounded by kids, kids, kids in all directions, and their middle-aged parents -- who obviously didn't know the first thing about gaming and had never been to a game show before -- and even a few grandparents and disabled people (wheelchairs, etc.) Nintendo World could very well have been a universe away from the masses of diehard game fans and otaku of the Tokyo Game Show or the Amusement Machine Show back in September. I never in a million years expected I'd say this, but today I felt like an outsider... at a goddamn game show!

I mean just look at the close-up pictures, and try to see if you can spot anyone who looks like they've been living and breathing videogames for the last twenty years. In other game shows kids are normally rounded up and confined to some lame playground corner, but here they owned the place (there was, indeed, a kids corner, but it was mostly empty). I think I saw this one gamer dude play Red Steel, a group of white guys (and girls) lining up to try Twilight Princess, and a few others here and there, but, seriously, the kind of people me and you would call gamers were making a big statement at the show today by their absence. And to be honest, if I didn't have this website to run I would certainly have preferred to spend my Sunday afternoon in an arcade kicking ass and taking names in the latest Guilty Gear, instead of taking pictures of nine-year-olds trying to (literally) come to grips with Wii Sports.


But in any case, it's understandable why all these people find the new console intriguing; my only question concerning all this is how exactly did they find out about the show? How did Nintendo manage to get them to flood the Messe in the first place? I guess they must have been placing ads in newspapers and/or lifestyle magazines and such. That's about the only logical explanation I've managed to come up with.

Once I got over the culture shock I started walking around to take in the rather unusual decoration. Now I've been to the Messe on many occasions, but I've never before seen it looking anywhere near this... orderly. And quiet (despite all the kids). And clean, in a kind of sterilized futuristic utopian sense. Most everything was a color the Japanese like to call "pure white" (pyua howaito), whereas items like signs, carpets, etc. were of various shades of soft blue, matching those on the Wii's packaging. The effect was quite pleasing to the eye, and relaxing -- if a bit bland -- and the overall look of the place was not that far away from that of Apple's worldwide specialty stores. And then within that spotless white space there were two sections clearly designed to stand out and demand your attention: the Zelda corner with it's massive black banner, and the wildly colorful Pokemon corner.

Essentially, the fact that Nintendo had an exhibition hall to iself (in contrast to the big game shows, where dozens of companies often have to share the same hall) allowed them to shape and decorate it exactly the way they wanted to, without having to worry about coming up with the loudest and most eye-catching booth in the neighborhood, in order to attact a larger share of the visitors. I mean, you were already there, and they already had your attention, so they could afford to focus all their efforts on making your visit as pleasant and informative as possible. It's worth pointing out that while game shows usually drain me, I left this one feeling just as relaxed as I had arrived.

But here's one thing that really disappointed me, though I was more or less expecting it. Nintendo seems to have made up its mind to use improper displays with the Wii demo stations, at least for the forseeable future. I will explain this in detail at some later date for those who don't understand it, but basically the Wii outputs a 480p signal, so if you hook it up to a digital display (LCD or Plasma direct-view sets, and LCD or DLP projectors) with a native resolution higher than 480p, then your image quality will suck -- and it will suck more the higher the native res of your display is.

Now since digital displays with a native res of 480p have been obsolete for more than five-six years now, the only way to get perfect image quality from the Wii is to use a CRT display (or a CRT projector -- but those can cost upwards of $20,000). And since large CRTs are (I guess) impractical for demo stations because of size and weight reasons, Nintendo is using regular WXGA LCDs. And of course the games look somewhat smeared and blurry on these displays, and that's why -- to mask that effect -- Nintendo's tech people had the brightness turned up much too high. It was quite an unpleasant effect, at least for those who knew what to look for. But it's not like the Wii's target demographic could notice the difference! So who cares!

Banners Zelda corner Wii demo stations DS demo stations

But apart from the display fiasco every other aspect of the show was impeccable. For example, one thing worth mentioning was the unusually high ratio of staff to attendees; you simply couldn't go five steps without coming across at least a couple of extremely polite, well-informed and helpful staff members. There were literally hundreds of them milling about, men and women, most of them dressed in smart white outfits, others in blue or grey, and without a single ho bag in sight (this was Nintendo, after all, and there were families with kids around).

Most of the staff were there to show you how to use the Wii of course, as they couldn't simply hand you a controller and assume you'd figure it out in a reasonable amount of time. So this was, as far as I know, the first show with a perfect one-to-one ratio of staff members to demo consoles (in regards to the Wii at least, the ratio was rather lower for the now-familiar DS).

Another thing that made the experience more pleasant than usual was the generous spacing between demo stations, and the large distance kept between the lines and the actual playing areas. You felt more as if you were hanging out at some friend's living room, instead of being at a game show, where you are usually playing while a never-ending stream of people are bumping on you and shouldering their way past each other all around you.

The Zelda corner was notable in this respect, because every demo station was placed inside a faux-wood booth, separate from the others, so that you could enjoy Twilight Princess in almost total privacy. The whole thing felt very personal and inviting, to the point where I was even tempted to line up on a couple of occasions -- though of course I never did. Check the Wing Island video I made to get an idea of the atmosphere (by the way I kinda liked that game -- it seems to have a charming Pilotwings vibe to it).

Zelda booth.jpg

But I somehow managed to get here without really mentioning much about the games themselves. So yes, the games. There were over fourty titles for the Wii on display, most of them playable, while several screens dotted around the giant hall kept playing reels of the rest (see the second video for a set of commercials, most of which I suspect must currently be airing on TV).

Among the stand-outs were Super Mario Galaxy, playable and looking absolutely wonderful (though the demo was the same one as that shown in E3), the new Fire Emblem and Smash Bros. titles (the first playable either with the remote or with the classic controller, the latter limited to a ten-second slot on a video reel ), and of course the beautiful Twilight Princess. The third-party titles on the other hand were mediocre across the board: Red Steel, Densha De GO! Shinkansen '06, Hudson's Dog Island (a crappy Nintendogs rip-off), and the dull-looking Bomberman Land plainly demonstrated that, for the time being, only Nintendo can handle its new system. Natsume's Harvest Moon Heroes was, surprisingly, very nice-looking, though the demo itself seemed rather limited.

The Virtual Console was also quite heavily promoted at the show, with a dozen demo units showing off emulated versions of Super Mario Bros., Super Mario 64, and other classic titles. Too bad the games looked like ass because they were running on LCDs.

And then there were the DS titles. The ever-popular Touch! Generations range was prominently on display (Cooking Navi and a bunch of mental training titles), but really now who gives a shit. The most interesting DS games shown (that have yet to be released) were the new Wario platformer Kaitou Wario the Seven, and a new version of the GameCube sleeper hit Chibi Robo. A version of Sim City with an anime artstyle was also worth a look, as was Jump Ultimate Stars, the sequel to last year's comic book brawler Jump Superstars. Noothing to get too excited over on the DS front then, but it's not like the system doesn't have a bunch of classics already.

And that was more or less it from the last significant game show of 2006. I went there not expecting much, to be honest, but I was certainly surprised. In contrast to Sony's flailing TGS efforts Nintendo came off with an unmistakable air of confidence, leaving little doubt that those making decisions have, you know, an actual plan, and know exactly what they are doing. The fact that this was the most pleasant, meticulously designed experience I've yet had at a game show only served to underscore that point. And even though it's true that most of the titles were geared towards kids and non-gamers, and if I wanted to be harsh I'd say that I only saw four or five must-buy games, if not fewer, what was there seemed like a promising start.

The Wii is set to take over Japan on the 2nd of December. Bring it on I say.