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Originally published Monday, November 20, 2006 at 12:00 AM

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Nintendo's new Wii isn't perfect, but it's clever, cheap, fun — and downright aerobic

I've only spent an hour getting to know the Wii, referred to from here on out as my New Best Friend, and already I'm tired. Not tired of my...

Special to the Seattle Times

I've only spent an hour getting to know the Wii, referred to from here on out as my New Best Friend, and already I'm tired. Not tired of my NBF, mind you, but physically tired. I've been pitching fast balls and lobbing serves across the tennis court. My right arm is limp, like an overcooked noodle.

What's going on here? Am I not a gamer? Shouldn't I instead, by rights, have a couple of grams' worth of Cheetos dust sprinkled down my front, the result of sitting for 10 hours at a stretch?

In a word, no. My NBF, the Wii, encourages me to move around. See the sights. Get a little air, if only in my living room.

Wii vs. Goliaths

Nintendo, which created the GameCube and GameBoy, began selling its newest system, the Wii, Sunday. Unlike its competitors, the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3, the Wii has a comparatively wee price: $250.

The trade-off — and there has to be one — is that the Wii has much less oomph than those giants. It's roughly twice as powerful as the previous GameCube, which is not impressive when compared to its more-tech-is-better Microsoft and Sony compatriots. In the included game, "Wii Sports," the main characters look more like Playskool Weebles than characters created for a 2006 gaming system.

But everyone loves an underdog, especially with behemoths Sony and Microsoft dueling it out to the death. And speaking of dueling, what does all this have to do with my sore right arm, anyway?

Wii knows your moves

The answer lies in the Wii's completely original and inventive controller, a two-part gizmo called the "Wii Remote" (which looks like, duh, a remote), and the "Nunchuk." These goofy names hide a cool purpose. Both of these wireless controllers register a player's motion (the Remote also includes a rumbler and a mini-speaker).

Lift the controller so that it's perpendicular to you as you're standing, and the baseball bat gets raised on the screen. Hold it wide and flat and scoop your arm along your side, and you're throwing a bowling ball down the alley. Connect the Nunchuk to the Remote, and you can administer a sharp left-hand jab to the jaw followed by a right-hand kidney punch.

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The Wii, pronounced wee, isn't like those cheesy mid-'90s virtual-reality controllers. Instead, it's a complex device, taking sensitive readings that spin a bowling ball into the gutter if you cross your hand in front of your body (replicating the same problem I have in real life). It reads yaw (how you pivot from left to right), pitch (whether an end of the controller is up or down) and roll (how you bank it side to side).

The potential combinations aren't endless, and the inevitable slew of games with swords, golf clubs, fishing poles and similar concepts may get old pretty quickly. But for anyone who's ever wanted to be a Jedi, the idea of having your own motion-sensitive lightsaber is enough to cause drooling.

Did I mention that the Wii is backward-compatible? (Unlike the Xbox 360 and now, reportedly, the PS3.) All those GameCube disks you already have won't need to gather dust. The Wii plays well with others.

What you get with Wii

Should you buy a Wii? Not if you want a combination videogame/DVD player, since that's not possible with this machine. The Wii — which does include Wi-Fi capability — is only for playing games, online or off. Gamers can go online with their units to download classic games from Sega Genesis and other prior platforms.

If you want to geek out on a new system's tech specs and enjoy breathtaking, photo-like image quality in your games, look to Sony and Microsoft. But if you can relax a little bit and just enjoy what the Wii has to offer — especially at half the price of the PS3 — there's a lot to make it worth your while. Of the three systems, the Wii is the best value for your gaming dollar, since it requires the smallest initial investment.

The standard Wii package comes with these items in the box: the Wii console itself (a pleasing, compact, iPod-like white unit measuring 8.5 x 6 x 2 inches), a bar that goes across the TV to read a gamer's motions, one Remote with batteries, one Nunchuk, a stand to prop the Wii up vertically, the requisite electrical and audio/video cables and a copy of "Wii Sports." Nintendo has promised 62 new and classic games launched before the end of the year, including the most anticipated release, "The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess," available now.

Fans of the long-running "Zelda" series should pick up a Wii without delay — and have probably already preordered them. If not, get in line now. Drop this paper, pack up your rain gear and make the rounds of the stores most likely to have one in stock: GameCrazy (particularly in Redmond, Nintendo's home base), EB Games, GameStop and even the big box stores — Best Buy, Toys "R" Us or Target (call to confirm stock levels).

With 4 million Wii units promised globally during the system's first six weeks, there shouldn't be the need to resort to eBay to find one. Nintendo, unlike Sony, is actually attempting to fulfill demand. You probably won't find one on the shelves today or tomorrow, but as the units are replenished midweek and beyond, you may get lucky.

Wii pros and wee cons

For gamers — and parents of little gamers-in-training — the Wii takes the sting out of videogame culture's most abiding cliches: the couch-potato curse. I tried to do some of these games sitting down, and it is possible, especially for story-driven games like "The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess."

But the best option for some games is to clear a space in the living room and get off your butt and into the game. Nintendo even has a warning screen that roughly translates to, "Make sure you have enough room to move without potentially injuring nearby breakable objects, glass paneling or the cat."

I called some other friends to meet my NBF. They responded like a Warner Brothers character in an old cartoon, when Daffy Duck arrives at the new destination even before the phone drops.

Having met the Wii, they agreed that it wasn't without its flaws. The graphics are anything but state-of-the-art, but then again, there was no load time between levels (at least, on the simple sports game) and no stutter in the images themselves. Using the controller for actions like typing in a name was incredibly awkward, and we kept getting stuck in the add-new-players screen.

But all of this mattered very little in the end, because the Wii was just so much fun.

We laughed, gasping for breath when one of us tried an otherwise-mediocre driving game ("Excite Truck"), flailing across the living room like an ice skater gone horribly, terribly wrong. "Do you think the novelty of the controller will wear off over time?" I asked. "I don't know," a friend replied, "But can I come over tomorrow night to find out?"

"Hmm, let me get back to you on that," I answered, suddenly possessive of the Wii. "We'll have to see." It may take a little time. So soon after we met, I'm not sure I'm ready to share my new best friend just yet.

Jennifer Buckendorff: jenb@elvis.com

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