Nintendo's greatest gamble took a vital step out of fantasy and into reality today. No longer just a concept, a mocked-up plastic box and some great demos, the Wii now has dates, price points and even a launch line-up in both Japan and North America - and we'll have European details inside the next few hours, which will complete the picture and set in motion the count-down to launch.
The company has always promised that the Wii would come in at a cheaper price than its competitors, and its $249 price point certainly fulfills that promise to the letter - even if it's not quite as low as some observers had hoped. However, it's enough to ensure that it will come in significantly below the GBP 200 price point in the UK, making it rather cheaper than Microsoft's crippled Xbox 360 Core System pack. By way of comparison, Apple's new iPods launched this week in the USA with a $249 price point for two of the models, which translates into GBP 169 in the UK - a figure which provides a clear indication of what Nintendo is likely to announce later today.
One crucial factor in this announcement which has been glossed over by many reports is worthy of further discussion. In the United States at least - and perhaps also in Europe - the Wii will ship with the Wii Sports title bundled with the console. Although this compilation of various sports games is certainly simple in a graphical sense, it was a huge hit at E3 this year, and giving a copy to every customer who buys a Wii is a shrewd move on a number of levels.
For a start, it makes the console look even better value than its rivals; realistically, an Xbox 360 or PS3 is just a lump of plastic and silicon until you buy an expensive game to go with it, whereas Nintendo's offering has several really-quite-good games on it from the outset. This is always the argument for bundling software with consoles, a strategy Nintendo has employed with mixed results in the past - but on the Wii specifically, there's a secondary advantage to bundling Wii Sports with the console which may well prove to be a master-stroke for the company.
The majority of people who pre-order Wii consoles, after all, will almost certainly be Nintendo fans who will also pre-order one very specific game - namely The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. While this title certainly looks excellent, and the playtime we've spent with it at various shows does suggest that it will justify the hype and the long wait, it suffers from one crucial disadvantage from Nintendo's point of view. At heart, it is a GameCube title, not a Wii title; it is not designed from scratch for the Wii hardware, and while it does use various features at certain points, it would be quite fair to describe the Wii-specific functions of the game as being something of a gimmick.
That's an accusation Nintendo would undoubtedly prefer not to see leveled at the Wii as a whole - hence, it seems reasonable to assume, the decision to give everyone a copy of Wii Sports as well. Here is a title which, despite its simplicity, is a wonderful showcase for the capabilities of the console, with each game in the compilation offering a new and interesting way to use the Wii controller. It even utilises some of the other unique features of the Wii console, such as the ability to create a personalised avatar (called a Mii) which you then store on your own Wii controller, and which represents you in a range of games - including Wii Sports.
It is, frankly, an excellent piece of marketing and one which utilises the early adopters of the console as powerful ambassadors for the system. Even if those early adopters, many of whom are likely to be more hardcore gamers than Nintendo's eventual target audience, don't really like Wii Sports, they will still load it up when they are asked to show off the console's capabilities to friends and family - providing a perfect demonstration of exactly what the control system is capable of. Nintendo has said on many occasions that it believes the key to success for the Wii is to put it into people's hands, just as it was on the DS; this move, more so than any consumer sampling scheme we've ever seen, is a bold step towards doing exactly that.
As yet, we have no confirmation of whether Wii Sports is going to be bundled with the console in Europe, or whether Nintendo here will have decided to knock a few quid off the retail price and sell the game separately, as it is doing in Japan. We sincerely hope that it sticks to its guns and goes with the former plan; while some will complain about denying consumers of choice, the opportunity for Nintendo here is too good to miss out on. Wii will live or die by the ability of its software to provide gamers and non-gamers alike with compelling new experiences - and bundling Wii Sports with the console is both a telling statement of intent, and a vital step towards proving the worth of the console to a massive potential audience.