The Dating Game
I don't like it. You've got this obnoxious, wrong-headed media hoopla over the new video game systems, the PlayStation 3 and the Nintendo Wii. The general broadcast media, even NPR, chooses to focus on the wild drama in lines and the exorbitant prices garnered on eBay for the third PlayStation. They're missing the point. Then, there are the bloggers, like Ritalin-juiced teenage celebrity gossips with their first attack of hormones, gabbing with emotion and immediacy regarding every rumor about PS3 and Wii technology (and even TV ads) whether it's true or not in the end. They're closer to the point, but still missing it. Getting the new systems isn't about being an early adopter of new technology. It's like finding the person you want to meet, date, and shack up with . . . for five to seven years.
If the two machines were your dates, they'd have two utterly distinct personalities. The Nintendo Wii is bubbly with a hippie name, easy-going, and not that deep. What you see is what you get. It's sporty too, so much so, it'll make you sweat and give you a workout with its little gyroscopic controller. The PlayStation 3 is like a model, beautiful and distant. It's like your multifarious East Village friend. It's always complex and at times dysfunctional, sometimes promising more than it delivers. It will take you about a year of wooing until it trusts you and until you get what you want out of it. But you will get what you want, you swear.
The Wii, like its predecessor, the GameCube, looks cute right out of the box. Looking at the instructions just once, I was able hook it up and get it working in about 20 minutes. With its AMD 'Hollywood' processor, it doesn't have the high quality graphics of the PS3's newly invented cell processor. In fact, the Wii graphics are just incrementally better than those on the GameCube. Yet the Wii has unexpected extras. Not only does it have a SD card to read your photos, it surprises you when it chops up any photo into a little puzzle game with up to 48 pieces.
The Wii: Cute right out of the box
image: Courtesy of Nintendo
When the Wii Web service went online last weekend, I had no problem linking to it wirelessly. The Wii is simple and intuitive: it wants to help you out and anticipates your problems. Online in the Nintendo store, there wasn't much there the first few days, no promised news or weather channel, no online play, either. What you do get is the first two dozen of what eventually will be a thousand old school games that you can download for five or ten dollars each. Games like the classic Super Mario 64 are there, for instance. There should be more.
The Wii is all about pioneering gameplay. When you play Wii Sports, included in the $249 package, you move the wireless controller as though you're swinging a bat (in the baseball game) or miming throwing a bowling ball. Sure the graphics on this game are Nintendo 64-era. But it doesn't matter. These are fun, little games you can play in about 10 minutes or less. For instance, the baseball game lasts just three innings. And if you happen to blow out your opponent in the run department, the game will end in a show of tender mercy on the Wii's part. This console is your nice date, the one who's kind to the server at the local diner. The one huge caveat here, the possible deal breaker, is the potential for carpal tunnel syndrome, especially in a game like Madden 07 where you're constantly jerking the gyroscopic controller this way and that, throwing passes, blocking, spinning. After an hour of playing the intriguing Madden on the Wii, my wrist hurt like a 300-pound linebacker sat on it.
The PlayStation 3 is the more complicated date, sometimes in a lift-you-off-your-feet elating way, sometimes in a completely confounding and depressing way. It looks drop-dead amazing, sleek, shiny black, a wonder of design and technology. It plays Blu-ray movies. And if you have any doubt about the wonders of Blu-ray DVDs, they even look great on an old-school cathode ray TV like mine. (Of course, movies look even better on widescreen LCD or plasma TVs.) On the surface, the PS3's the belle of the ball with three slots to read you photos and videos. Inside, it runs a 60-gigabyte hard drive. It's Bluetooth, it's wireless, it's 1080p for superior graphics, it lets you stream photos and movie trailers to your PlayStation Portable handheld gaming device. You almost expect it to drive you to the GameStop and help you pick out games.
PlayStation 3: A wonder of design and technology
image: Courtesy of Sony
But when I got deep into the PS3, I found some disconcerting flaws. The first thing I did was to put my SD card full of videos and photos into the SD slot. The PS3 recognized some of the photos, but not all. And it found none of the MPEG-4 videos. The manual asked me to put all the items on my computer, then to reformat the card using the PS3, then place all the stuff back onto the card, then try to play it again. No way was I going to go through that trouble. The thing should have worked without any such hassle.
And this complexity was, in microcosm, like much of the functionality of the PS3 in general. It's gorgeous on the outside. But inside, its heart and soul needs time to blossom. Sure, some of it's very user-friendly. Put a game or a movie in, and, boom, the graphics are better than your Xbox 360 or your standard DVD player. If you're excited about old school gaming with your original PlayStation games, the device may or may not work with them, depending on the game. If you try to go online to buy old school games or try to play online with a pal, the service daunts you. See, before you go online, you have to register. If you don't have a USB keyboard to plug into the PS3 to help you add your personal information, you're in for some pain. I didn't and I had to use the wireless controller to 'type' on a virtual keyboard that works like texting does on my cell phone. It wasn't intuitive, and it took a lot of time. Then, after I spent a half hour keying in my information, the online server knocked me off, and I lost all of the info I had so painstakingly keyed in. I wanted to play online and see what Sony had to offer in its store. Yet I was beyond daunted.
When it wants to, the PS3 can play nice. Playing Resistance: Fall Of Man, one of the three Sony launch titles, is a terrific experience, after you play for about five hours. This graphically-alluring first person shooter eventually coaxes you into its world with wild environments and super-smart A.I., artificial intelligence that may be better than Microsoft's hot fall offering for the Xbox 360, Gears Of War. That's saying a lot.
You won't be able to get the currently sold-out PS3 before next year, and maybe that's a good thing. If you wait to buy one, Sony will undoubtedly have worked out the online and offline kinks. And the games, a year into the PS3 generation, will be a look and play better, too. Already, Capcom's upcoming hack-and-slasher Devil May Cry 4 looks otherworldly, with game play in the air and background graphics that look like something out of a high budget Hollywood action flick. Why will it take so long for the good games to arrive? With any new console, it takes six months to a year into launch for developers and programmers to really understand the machinations of such a complex machine. My hope is that trying to date the PS3 will be worth it in the end, and I'll have five or six years of bliss before the next generation of hardware befalls me once again.
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