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Originally published Wednesday, May 18, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Nintendo takes on gaming big boys

With a series of announcements yesterday, Nintendo attempted to put itself squarely back into what had been shaping up to be a two-horse...

Seattle Times technology reporter

LOS ANGELES — With a series of announcements yesterday, Nintendo attempted to put itself squarely back into what had been shaping up to be a two-horse race in the video-game industry.

The day after Sony and Microsoft showed off sophisticated new game systems and online services for players, Nintendo responded with a powerful console of its own and a new philosophy toward online gaming.

"For two decades, our mission has been not to just play the game, but to change the game," said Reggie Fils-Aime, executive vice president of sales and marketing at Redmond-based Nintendo of America. "More extraordinary change is on the way."

The company said the next-generation console, code-named Revolution, would debut next year and be able to play downloaded versions of popular games Nintendo has released over the past 20 years. It also will sell a smaller version of its Game Boy handheld, called the Game Boy Micro, beginning this fall. The unit will be slightly larger but lighter than Apple's iPod Mini music player.

A third announcement involved the launch of a wireless service enabling Nintendo DS handheld users to play others online. The service will be free, at least for the games that Nintendo makes in-house, the company said.

The announcements came at a briefing at the Electronic Entertainment Expo, or E3. They capped months of speculation of how the company would respond to the Sony-Microsoft rivalry that has captured so much attention of late.

Not everyone came away impressed. Dan "Shoe" Hsu, editor-in-chief of Electronic Gaming Monthly, said Nintendo didn't announce much when compared with Sony and Microsoft over the past few days.

"This conference has really reinforced that Sony and Microsoft are the industry leaders and Nintendo is more comfortable with its niche," he said.

The Game Boy Micro is decidedly in a niche Nintendo dominates: handheld game consoles.

The Micro measures about 4 inches by 2 inches and will play all Game Boy Advance games, said Fils-Aime. It will have the brightest screen of any Nintendo handheld device, he said.

Nintendo made clear the Micro does not represent new technology, nor is it supposed to be a successor to existing Game Boy systems. The company didn't disclose the price.

One analyst didn't think the Micro would make a huge impact.

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"It's a nice little feature, but who's the market?" asked Michael Pachter with Wedbush Morgan Securities. "I don't think it's going to do a lot. It'll be OK."

In an interview after Nintendo's briefing, George Harrison, a senior vice president at the company, said he expects the Micro to appeal to image-conscious consumers, particularly preteens and younger teens.

"Because of its size, it could have fashion cachet," he said.

Nintendo President Satoru Iwata showed off a prototype of the Revolution about the size of a hard-cover novel. It will be smaller in its final form, about the size of three DVD cases stacked together, Iwata said.

"Revolution is by far the smallest console we've ever manufactured," he said.

The console will have wireless controllers and two USB ports, and will be able to play games made for Nintendo's GameCube. In years past, Nintendo stubbornly refused to acknowledge online gaming as a viable model. The company has changed its opinion since then, and said yesterday that Revolution will have wireless connectivity.

"It's no secret that we didn't invent the concept of online gaming," Fils-Aime said. "But we do intend to reinvent it."

Nintendo is looking to Revolution's online capabilities for revenue. The company said it will sell new levels and characters for games made specifically for the Revolution. In addition, it plans to sell downloadable access to games from its 20-year catalog of titles.

Harrison said Nintendo's new online services could make the company money if they persuade people to buy more consoles and games. But just breaking even seems to be acceptable.

"Our starting point is not trying to figure out how we could take more money out of the players' pockets," he said. "Our starting point is trying to figure out how we can make the online part of the game fun enough that more people want to get involved."

The new wireless service for the DS handheld will debut later this year, Nintendo said, and will not require a subscription fee. DS users can connect to the service through any Wi-Fi hub. A fraction of game-console owners, Harrison said, currently participate in online gaming services, deterred by subscription fees or the psychological barrier to going online. Nintendo said its new service would be so easy to use that it could get online participation rates as high as 90 percent of DS owners.

Plans are for 25 DS games to have Wi-Fi connectivity, including versions of "Animal Crossing" and "Tony Hawk."

The company also previewed some upcoming GameCube games, including Mario versions of baseball, soccer and "Dance Dance Revolution." And, in one of the more anticipated announcements of the day, it said that the next title in the popular Zelda series would be "The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess."

Kim Peterson: 206-464-2360 or kpeterson@seattletimes.com

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