Fusion Tour impressions from the mid-South [update1]

Last week, we forayed into an as yet undiscovered country for a chance with the Wii. What country? Well, it's more of a town, really ... a smallish town ... known as Jonesboro, Arkansas.

Arkansas State University in Jonesboro is a strange stop for the Fusion Tour. Sure, it's a college town, but there are far more obvious locales nearby. Little Rock is a mere two hour drive away. It's a big, grown-up city, home of a President and all. And Memphis, that sultry city of the blues, is less than an hour away for those with particularly heavy accelerator feet. But Nintendo chose Jonesboro. Sigh. In service to you, dear reader (maybe not all of it), it was Jonesboro-ho.

And it nearly was like another country, simply because no one seemed to care about the Wii. Unlike most of the impressions we've read from the Fusion Tour, in Jonesboro, people were actually there for the music. In fact, a Hawthorne Heights shirt was spotted in the wild at a local Hastings.Travesty! And though your intrepid blogger had previously obtained a press pass, a valuable lesson was learned on this day: if your hair is the color of a blue M&M, no one takes you seriously. No one. At least, not in Arkansas. Rather than being allowed in with the rest of the advance people, I was banished to the line ... which snaked through the parking lot even forty minutes before the show. Fabulous.


See that bus? Yeah, the end is back there somewhere.

Despite early trials, the line experience itself wasn't so terribly bad. There was very definitely a concert atmosphere; here, the Wii was an afterthought. It was something to do while they waited for the bands to begin. A local radio station was in attendance, and except for a mention that they were at the Nintendo Fusion Tour, neither the DS or the Wii got any other love. And no one around seemed to be talking about it, either. The crowd was mostly younger, pre- and early teens, with some that looked like they might actually attend the college, but not most. Most were young, bored, waiting ... waiting for music. Oh well.

Overheard during the line:

"Nintendo Fusion? Is it going to be a kid-fest?"

"Oh my god, is it sold out?"

"Is this the Trace Adkins concert?" (That's "country," right? The girl asking was a week early, apparently.)

"I like Hawthorne Heights!"
"Oh yeah? Name one of their songs."
"There's that one on the radio ...."

At last, we were herded into the building and I split away from the roving packs of emo kids, caught by the siren call of the Wii. There was a good mix of people in the Nintendo area -- women and men ranging in age from pre- to early teens and on into their thirties. The only difference was the line for Zelda -- that was almost exclusively male, exclusively gamer-types (talking about games, etc., while in line). I spoke with one of the staffers handling the demos and he said that was typical. Very few people who were new to gaming seemed willing to tackle Twilight Princess. Perhaps it was the confusion and hesitant way the gamers handled the Wiimote over there. We'll get to that in a minute.

A major disappointment dawned after a few minutes of checking everything out. There were only three playable Wii titles up: Wii Sports, Twilight Princess, and Excite Truck. Whither Wario Ware or Metroid Prime 3? Bummer. Two lonely DS stations (each with a few rigs) flanked the Wii areas. Most of the traffic in this area wasn't Nintendo-centric, however. The Wii was just an obstacle in the way of the t-shirts; the retail booth had the longest lines of anything inside that building. This was nothing like the Fusion Tour stops we've been hearing about.

There is, however, a bonus to being one of the few: really long demos. It was not unusual to see people hanging out for 10-15 minute sessions with the Wiimote, and that's just a sight to warm the heart. Also, to those of you with non-gaming significant others, just a warning: they are going to kick your ass at a few Wii games here and there. I stood back a lot and really watched people tackling the Wii and my observations were both unexpected and somewhat delightful. It looks like Nintendo really hit it here. Non-gamers had the easiest time picking it up, especially in watching them try out Wii Sports bowling. I watched several girls go from giggle-piles to throwing strikes like it was nothing. The Wiimote really is intuitive, and in our years of clutching controllers, a lot of us have forgotten what that is. Hitting buttons isn't necessarily intuitive. Some games have smooth control schemes because they follow a format that we're used to -- right side buttons control actions, left side buttons are for moving, triggers are for shooting. That's just the way of it. Games that deviate -- moving the jump button, for instance, into a really strange place, those are the games that we say aren't intuitive.

Get unused to it, because the Wii is a totally different experience. You can't approach this like any other console, because it isn't. That's why so many guys were looking so lost while trying out Zelda. It's just not the same as picking up any other game. The Wii is taking us beyond A-is-action gaming and it's going to take us some time to adjust. But that's okay, because we'll have fun learning. It does also mean that those games that are less motion and more button-dependant will probably be more difficult (simply due to placement and design). There will be a trade-off, and I don't think it's all sunshine and roses, but it really looks like the journey is going to be worth it.

But off the soapbox and back to the show. The Wii Sports kiosk was smack in the middle of everything, so that's where I went first. I'd been viewing this title with some disdain, I must admit. Yeah, sure, it would be fun, but I'd bought into the "expanded demo" hype. Not so, fansters. Not only does Wii Sports serve as a fun little introduction to the system, but I'm really believing that there is some depth there and a lot of replay potential. Plus there are always Wii Sports drinking games. Those will, of course, be spectacular.


The Wii Sports demo station.


Go Cardinals! Er ... look, it's baseball.


Tennis!


Up close with bowling. I studied the graphics on everything, because that's one of the biggest complaints. Yeah, there are some jaggies, but it's nothing offensive, and the reflected pins here are nice. Zelda looks fantastic, at least. Fan-omg-tastic.


More bowling. This chick was destroying her boyfriend -- strikes and spares to his gutter balls. She was rubbing it in, too.

This was my first chance to get my hands on a Wiimote. As an aside, I have small hands and there's always a question with a new system: will it be comfortable for me? I have trouble with the DS Phat. Dreamcast and the early Xbox controllers were out of the question. So of course, with a totally new shape, I was concerned that it might not be comfortable. But once I touched the Wiimote, my concerns evaporated. It was so light and smooth and it felt completely comfortable in my hand. I hope that isn't a liability for those of you with larger hands, however.

As for playing, it seemed tennis was a safe first bet. Safe is a good word, as it seems difficult to do too badly here. Still, tennis and bowling offer really nice introductions to the controller, since the motions are familiar and simple. And for those of you who slaver for anything competitive, these are going to be a great way to smash the faces of those near and dear.

The highlight of Wii Sports in Jonesboro was definitely boxing. Oh, the boxing. What a great way to vent frustrations. The controls were smooth and the inclusion of the nunchuk as a second "fist" is just great. More people got violently into this than any other game that I saw, and everyone looked like they were having a blast. It was hard not to have a good time with the boxing, though. Though video cameras were a no-no for everyone at this venue, my regular camera has a short video feature and I managed to grab some footage of a couple of guys duking it out. No sound, though.



Unfortunately, the lines for Zelda were way too long for me to get a moment with Link's latest, but I did get to watch a lot of guys tackle the game, and that's where the difference between the ease of Wii Sports and the depth of Twilight Princess became apparent. I haven't seen that many guys standing around slack-jawed and staring at their shaky noob-hands since freshman year. It took everyone observed a few minutes to find their way in Zelda so that Link wasn't stumbling around like he'd been down at the fairy spring for a looong vacation. Zelda was difficult to capture on camera, because of how very busy it was, with enemies moving around, and Link himself. Suffice to say it was beautiful, and will be one of those games you'll enjoy watching someone else play almost as much as you'll enjoy playing it yourself. Once you get the controls down, at least.

With Excite Truck, there isn't much to be said that hasn't already been said. It's fun and seemed easy on the eyes. While this may seem like a random observation, the color scheme was remarkably pleasing. Much brighter than a lot of games without seeming overly cartoonish. The controls are almost deceptively easy; one minute you think you're into it and the next, bam! You've plowed into some sand and the chances of winning are diminishing before your very eyes. The game is sneaky like that and another illustration of how it will take us some time to adjust. Not that the game is brain-achingly difficult here, but it's a step sideways into something else.

Overall, the experience was fun, but not enough. Not nearly enough. I want a chance to really dig into these games, because it's going to take a little to get the hang of anything that isn't a mini-game or meant to be light fun. With less a month to go, there isn't long to wait, but this teaser time with the Wii simply wasn't enough to get into things. It was like eating 1/8 of an appetizer -- it cranks the stomach into full-on grumble mode. And oh, I'm grumbling. November 19th can't get here fast enough.

[Update 1: Typo patrol!]

This article was originally published on Joystiq.