Friday, February 23, 2007

That's tennis?! Oh! Then what's the one where the chicks wail on each other?

With the Nintendo Wii's hardware out of the way, it's time to get cracking on some of the software (the small amount that I have). I guess the logical starting place is Wii Sports, the game that is packed in for free with the system. However, an overarching entry on the entire game would be far too easy. While Sports is essentially a collection of five mini-games (each of which is a showcase to different aspects of the Wii's capabilities), the mini-games are more like mega-games in the sense that each is deep enough to be discussed in full.

So here's where I start: Wii Sports: Tennis. It's the first item mentioned on the menu, and as such it was the first game I played. And what a way to get a player hooked.

The controls are the best place to start, I suppose, when talking about a game on the Wii. There's not a whole lot to it. To serve the ball, you gesture like you're throwing the ball in the air, and then bring your Wiimote back down as if you were hitting said ball. You can swing your racquet forehand if the ball is heading towards the right side of the court. You can swing your racquet backhand if it's on the left. Or, if you're left handed, you can either change your settings or screw yerself. That's all there is to it as far as simple volleying.

After that, it's all about timing. Hit the thing early and the ball will skew to one side of the court (or outside of the court if you're too early). Likewise with swinging late. This is how you control your aim, and eventually how you'll earn points against the other team. After mastering this, it's time to learn how to put spin on the ball. If you twist your wrist just right as you're hitting the ball, you can put all kinds of crazy directionality on that thing. That's how intuitive the control is.

Do the controls work? For the most part, like a dream. It's a simple game to play, and anybody in your family should be able to pick up on it within minutes. However, I'm still not certain how to put spin on the ball. It's not mentioned anywhere in the Training segment of the game, nor in the manual. I've tried hitting the ball in any number of ways, and I continuously fall flat. It's not a big deal for the beginner, but the difficulty ramps up more and more as you become more experienced, and I've hit a brick wall.

The game (and all of the segments of Wii Sports) allows you to use Miis (avatars) of your own creation. Do you want to play tennis as yourself? As Martina Navratilova? As Chewbacca? You can do it. Everybody controlled by the player is represented by the same avatar. When you're playing single-player (you sad, lonely sack), you control both players on your doubles team. It's not a huge problem, but it seems sort of graphically silly to see both identical players make all the same swings simultaneously.

There are some gameplay elements that are sacrificed in order to make this game playable by anyone. The character runs to the ball every time (unless you can't make it). You're only responsible for swinging the racquet. It would have been fairly easy to allow some basic level of control (either with the directional pad on the Wiimote or with the control stick on the Nunchuck attachment). It would have increased the difficulty, but made for a more intuitive game in the end and probably a better showcase for the Wii's abilities.

Still, in spite of its shortcomings, Tennis is the mini-game I come back to the most. It's difficult--but not because of the game design, which, for what it is, is nearly flawless. It's a hell of a lot of fun. I've been unable to procure an extra Wiimote, so I've been flying solo. With two (or four) players, this could make for a hell of a good time.

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