How the Wii Works

A boy using a Wii controller.
The Nintendo Wii has a unique look. Philippe Lissac / Getty Images

Imagine that you're one of the major video game console manufacturers in the world. Everyone in the industry is selling approximately the same thing -- a console containing the processor along with a two-handed game controller. If you're months behind the release of your two main competitors and your previous-generation console is in last place, what are you going to do to stand out?

One way to create a splash would be to totally blow out the amount of processor and graphics firepower. The problem is that both the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3 have already staked out the high ground here. They have bleeding-edge multicore chips that take a lot of money and time to develop.


So Nintendo took a different and far riskier path. Initially, it chose the codename "Revolution" for its new game console. Then, the "Revolution" gave way to a full-scale world war. At least that's what we thought when we saw the new name, "Wii," which sort of triggers a mental image of WWII. But that's not what the name is meant to represent at all. In fact, according to the folks at Nintendo, the code name "Revolution" indicated the direction of where Nintendo was headed with the new console. The company chose to call its new console the "Wii." Nintendo has also expressed that the pronunciation of Wii, which is like the English word "we," tells you who this console is for -- all of us, everyone! There are other implied or attached meanings in the new name -- one important one goes with related WiFi releases to be used with Nintendo's wireless gaming service, "Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection."

­Naming aside, the company set a big goal -- to dramatically improve the interface for video games. With this strategy, Nintendo built an amazing amount of hype around its innovative controller for the Wii.

In this article, we'll take a close look at Nintendo's new console and interface. We'll also learn what makes the Wii so incredibly different from other next-generation consoles.


The Wii's Interface and Specs

If you look at the controllers for the Xbox 360, the Playstation 3 and the GameCube, you'll notice that they're nearly identical. You hold them in two hands and use your thumbs to control the in-game action with buttons, D-pads and joysticks. Your index fingers pull triggers that shoot guns and perform other functions.

There are two ways to look at the similarity between these controllers. Are they identical because the design has been honed to perfection and there is no room for improvement? That's what happened, for example, with the car steering wheel. All cars have steering wheels, and they've all had steering wheels for nearly a century.


The other approach is to think about controllers in a completely different way -- a way that can revolutionize gameplay.

Nintendo took the latter approach: Its designers  went outside of the box and innovated. If you've only used traditional two-handed controllers, the Wii controller may appear a little strange. It looks like the remote control for a TV and it has no joystick. But the initial reviews have been good, and it actually makes sense once you understand the design principles.

The key to Nintendo's new game interface lies inside the controller. Instead of using a joystick to control the game, the primary control is the controller itself. The controller contains solid-state accelerometers that let it sense:

  • Tilting and rotation up and down
  • Tilting and rotation left and right
  • Rotation along the main axis (as with a screwdriver)
  • Acceleration up and down
  • Acceleration left and right
  • Acceleration toward the screen and away

The surprising thing is that you can create an accurate and natural user interface this way. See the next page for more information about the controller.


Wii Controller

The controller from all angles
Photo courtesy Nintendo of America, Inc.

Prior to its release, Nintendo had several demos that let people experience the new controller. One demo let players shoot at an object on the screen -- they simply pointed the controller at the target and fired. In another demo players flew an airplane. All they had to do was move the controller in the way theywanted the plane to move, and the plane on the screen moved. The motion-sensitive controller made it easy to do sharp turns, barrel rolls and loops.

In other demos the controller acted like a stick. The controller manipulated an on-screen fishing pole, drumstick or flyswatter.


There are several advantages to this approach:

  1. Controller use seems to be completely intuitive, meaning that anyone can use it almost immediately -- there's no learning curve or fumbling as with joysticks.
  2. The controller is very fast. You can move from one side of the screen to the other with a quick flick of the wrist.
  3. The controller is very accurate: Things respond exactly as you expect.
  4. The controller lends itself naturally to new game-playing paradigms. Playing a sword-fighting or fishing game with a joystick is clunky. Playing it with a controller that can be swung like a sword or a fishing pole is completely natural.
  5. Playing an active game like tennis, boxing or baseball with the Wii can even give you a cardio workout -- a bonus for those who'd rather play video games than hit the gym [source: Berkrot].

In the next section we'll discuss some variations on this controller and see how the console is powered.


Wii Controller Variations

Here, a Nunchuk analog unit is attached to the controller. Thanks to an on-board accelerometer, the Nunchuk is also motion sensitive.
Photo courtesy Nintendo of America, Inc.

The system isn't quite as pure as the previous description would lead you to believe. First of all, the accelerometers alone do not provide the accuracy needed to play certain games. A Sensor Bar, or "control strip" must be placed above or below the user's television to monitor the position of the controller. Secondly, in many games you need the ability to aim and control more than one thing at a time. For example, in any first-person-shooter game, you will want to shoot while running. This means that you must be able to aim the gun and simultaneously move your character. The Nintendo Wii system has two ways to handle this problem.

The preferred way is to attach a separate joystick pod, or Nunchuk, to the controller. You hold the controller in one hand and the joystick in the other. In a first-person shooter game, the controller controls the gun and the joystick controls the running. The second possibility is to add a standard game controller. Speaking of standards, to get the most enjoyment from playing classic games using the Wii's virtual console, Nintendo offers the "Wii Classic Controller" and will soon be adding the "Wii Classic Controller Pro," controllers that feel similar to the old Super Nintendo Entertainment System game controller. These add-ons attach to the controller using a special socket built into the butt of the controller.If you have a spare GameCube controller laying around, you can use that, too.


Thanks to Bluetooth technology, the Wii can handle up to four remotes at once. And don't worry that it will get cramped with four folks hovering near the console. That's not necessary. Thanks to the Sensor Bar, as long as a remote is within a 30-foot (9.1-meter) range of the Wii console, there should be no problem with the wireless signal.

To power the Wii, Nintendo has taken an interesting approach. Nintendo has focused on building a console that is "more power-efficient, quieter and faster to start" [source: IGN].

According to an article on the IGN Web site, Wii runs "on an extension of the Gekko and Flipper architectures that powered GameCube." The "Broadway," Wii's CPU, which is made by IBM, packs 729MHz of power. Wii has 24MB of "main" 1T-SRAM on board and an additional 64MB of "external" 1T-SRAM -- for a grand total of 88MB of RAM [source: IGN].


Wii Motion Plus

At the core of the Wii's appeal is its motion-control interface. It gives the gamer a feeling of immersion in the game while inviting casual gamers who may not have the patience to learn an advanced controller a reason to pick it up and give it a try. In fact, Nintendo sold more than 3 million consoles in the United States alone in 2009. Worldwide, customers bought more Wiis (9,594,000) than both Xbox 360 (4,770,700) and PlayStation 3 consoles (4,334,600) combined. [source: NPD].

Knowing this, Nintendo released an updated version of its motion controller. Actually, it's more of an add-on. Nintendo's Wii MotionPlus accessory snaps into the same socket as the Nunchuk and, according to the company, it translates game players' actions into game movements in a 1:1 ratio [source: Nintendo]. Wii MotionPlus formally released with Nintendo's "Wii Sports Resort" in July 2009. While older games can't take advantage of the improved control offered by the add-on, some titles released afterward require the functionality the device offers [source: Bakalar].


"Wii Sports Resort" is the popular follow-up to Nintendo's most popular game "Wii Sports." Game play and graphics are similar, but Nintendo created new games that are designed to take advantage of the Wii MotionPlus attachment. The bundle costs $49 or you can buy the MotionPlus attachment separately for $19.

Wii and the News

The Wii remote can be used to access Associated Press news from around the world.
Photo courtesy Nintendo of America, Inc.

The Wii has had no shortage of publicity since its release -- some good, some bad. First there was the competition with Sony's PlayStation 3, which was released at about the same time, to see which console would dominate the 2006 holiday season (winner: the Wii) [source:Reuters]. Then, Nintendo issued a recall of the original Wii controller straps after several reported incidents in which gamers lost control of the remote and sent it flying across the room, sometimes causing damage to TVs or windows. As a result, Wii consoles that were shipped starting in December 2006 have a sturdier version of the strap and the company offers users a silicone rubber sleeve intended to soften the impact of a flying remote. Nintendo also lists safety recommendations for Wii users on its official site.

Not content simply to make news headlines, the Wii also brings the news directly to you. On Jan. 27, 2007, Nintendo launched the Wii's News Channel. A free feature for Wii owners, the News Channel brings stories from the Associated Press wire services to your TV screen via the Wii remote. According to a Yahoo! press release, you simply point the remote at a virtual globe and select the location and type of news (business, sports, science and other topics) you're interested in to see frequently updated news stories from around the world.


And Nintendo keeps adding more channels. On Jan. 13, 2010, Nintendo of North America and Netflix announced a partnership that will allow Netflix customers to watch movies through the Wii console.

"Wii Fit" and the Balance Board

Two men in Taiwan test out the Wii in March 2007.
Patrick Lin/AFP/Getty Images

According to a federal report funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, one-third of American children are either obese or at risk of becoming obese [source: Robert Wood Johnson Foundation]. Many people blame television and video games for the increase in childhood obesity, claiming that kids today just don't get enough exercise. Nintendo's Shigeru Miyamoto found a way to get kids exercising while enjoying one of their favorite activities -- playing video games. In 2006, Nintendo revealed an exercise game known as "Wii Health Pack," which has since been renamed "Wii Fit." "Wii Fit" includes more than 40 different activities that are designed to keep players active and healthy while entertaining them at the same time. The activities focus on four different aspects of exercising: aerobics, muscle conditioning, yoga and balance. 

"Wii Fit" comes with the Wii Balance Board, which is a wireless board that senses small shifts in posture and weight placement so that your Mii, or onscreen character, mimics your movements. The Balance Board, which resembles a bathroom scale, has gyroscopic technology and multiple sensors built into it. The gyroscopic technology measures shifts in weight based on the conservation of angular momentum. Angular momentum measures the extent to which an object rotating around a reference point will continue to do so until acted upon by some outside force. The onboard sensors measure a user's body mass index and center of gravity. The Wii Balance Board goes beyond simply calculating your body mass index; it also tracks your overall progress in terms of your fitness age. A person's Wii fitness age is calculated by factoring his or her body mass index, performance during balance tests and overall center of gravity. Many players find that tracking their progress makes "Wii Fit" more fun to play. Users want to be as fit as possible in the eyes of the game so that, like in any other video game, they can claim to be the best. The game is also designed to inspire players into setting personal goals, which help them stick to their "Wii Fit" exercise routines.  


"Wii Fit" combines traditional exercises such as press-ups (push-ups), yoga, stretching and step aerobics with exercises designed to entertain, such as hula hooping, ski jumping and heading soccer balls. On Oct. 4, 2009, Nintendo released the follow-up version to the original, "Wii Fit Plus." The bundle is $10 more than the original ($89) when packaged with the balance board. A $19 stand-alone version of the game is available for those who already own a Balance Board.

"Wii Fit Plus" features the same interface as the original and allows users to download data from the previous game but adds 15 new balance games, three new yoga and strength training exercises and several extra playing modes. "Wii Fit Plus" can even be used as a scale.

The Balance Board has turned out to be a great peripheral for other games, too. Snowboarding games such as "Shaun White's Snowboarding," for instance, takes advantage of the board's unique sensing ability. Players stand on the board and lean to control the rider in the game.

The Balance Board is also used in popular games like the "Jillian Michaels Fitness Ultimatum" series. Similar to the "Wii Fit" games, the Jillian Michaels games are fitness programs. The difference is the intensity. For instance, while doing push-ups in the game, you must touch your chest to the Balance Board. If you fail to do this, the game recognizes this and criticizes you for your lack of effort.


Wii Internet Channel

People wait in front of a store in Paris for the Wii to go on sale in December 2006.
Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images

Online gaming is a market that no video game company wants to miss, and Nintendo is no exception. With that in mind, Nintendo not only designed the Wii to let players compete against each other online, but it also added an entirely different aspect of the Internet to its newest system -- browsing. Once the Wii has been hooked up to the Internet, either wirelessly or with an Ethernet cable, you can download the Wii Internet Channel for free. As of 2010, all Wii consoles come with the channel already installed.

The full version of the Internet Channel, which is a version of the Opera Web browser. Launched in April of 2007, this version of Opera allows Wii owners to surf the Web in a unique fashion. The font is much larger than it is on a computer, so it's a lot easier to see from the comfort of your couch. You can also zoom in and out and scroll up, down and sideways using the Wii remote.


The Wii Internet Channel takes only a few seconds to launch, mostly because the machine stays connected to the Internet even when its main power is switched off. The software is saved on the 512 MB Wii internal flash memory. The software can also be transferred to an SD card after you download it, although temporary Internet files will remain on the internal memory. The Opera-based browser can support a host of Web 2.0 technologies and applications including: 

  • CSS
  • JavaScript
  • Ajax
  • RSS
  • Adobe Flash 8
  • Widgets  

The biggest gripe about the Wii Internet Channel is that the browser doesn't support Adobe Flash 9. According to Opera, the reason that the browser does not support the later versions of Flash is that a software development kit isn't yet available for either version. Because Opera utilizes an older version of Flash, problems may arise while you're trying to view certain Flash videos. Aside from the problems on the user's side, Nintendo is also having a bit of trouble with the Wii Internet Channel. Apparently, hackers have found a loophole in the system that allows them to run their own code on the Wii console. The loophole is in the Flash Player embedded within the browser and could allow hackers to create video game emulators. That sounds like a great loophole, right? Not if you're Nintendo. One of their potential moneymakers is the Virtual Console, which charges gamers between $5 and $10 for unlimited access for each title. 

The Wii can use an Internet connection in more ways than just browsing. There are also free applications such as Wii's News and Forecast Channels. The News Channel provides you with a view of the globe, which allows you to view news by region if you wish. The Forecast Channel also gives you a view of the globe, but this view also shows current weather systems around the world. If you zoom out far enough, you can see an accurate star map in the background. Since you register your Wii's location, it also knows what you're looking for in the way of a local forecast.


Wii Accessories

Carsten Koall/Getty Images The Wii was featured at Games Convention 24 in Leipzig, Gemany, in August 2007.

The Nintendo Wii, like every other video game console, has some controller variations and other accessories available for serious gamers. Some of the accessories are very useful, while others merely add to the controller's aesthetic value. Some examples of Wii accessories that fall into the "looks good, but not very useful" category are the plastic attachments for the Wii remote that make it look like a tennis racket, golf club or baseball bat. Nothing about the Wii or the game you're playing changes -- the attachments just transform your Wii remote into a prop. There are also boxing gloves that can house the Wii remote and Nunchuk. Just like the plastic attachments, these gloves don't change anything about the game, except for the fact that you don't actually have to hold onto the controllers.

The Wii Zapper is a plastic device resembling a tommy gun that houses both the Wii remote and Nunchuk. It's designed to be used with first-person shooter games, and its two-handed design allows for more stability and better aiming. The Nunchuk fits into the back handle of the gun, and you use the joystick on the Nunchuk to move your character. There's a spring-loaded trigger on the Zapper that is connected to the B button on the back of the Wii Remote. You simply point the gun where you want to aim and fire when ready. The only downside of the design is that it limits players to the use of three buttons: the trigger and the C and V buttons on the Nunchuk.


The Wii Wheel is another useful accessory that is being shipped with "Mario Kart Wii." It's a small plastic steering wheel that houses the Wii Remote in the center. According to Nintendo, the Wii Wheel will even the playing field so that novice gamers can race bumper-to-bumper with seasoned "Mario Kart" veterans. Ubisoft, the video-game developer and publisher, also came out with its own steering wheel accessory to ship with "GT Pro Series" and "Monster 4x4 World Circuit." Ubisoft's version is similar to Nintendo's in the sense that they are both simply steering wheel shells that house the Wii remote.

Aside from the useful accessories that are designed to improve the quality of gaming, there are also some accessories that improve the overall performance of the Wii. You can buy a component video adapter, which will improve the graphic quality on your television from 480i (interlaced) to 480p (progressive scan). The component video standard utilizes three connectors called Y, Pb and Pr. The Y-connector transmits the video information, which is the black-and-white image, and the Pb and Pr connectors transmit the color information. In order for the component video adapter to work properly, you must go into the Wii System menu and set it to 480p. Once you've set your Wii to 480p, also known as progressive scan, it will recognize when games are progressive scan-compatible and automatically default to that setting.

The most recent addition to the Wii's dynamic playability is the Wii Vitality Sensor. Similar to a machine that checks your pulse, gamers insert an index finger into a small sleeve and wear the sensor while playing Vitality Sensor-compatible games. The Vitality Sensor aims to measure your pulse to reveal anxiety. A players' nervousness can then be recorded and connected with the game-playing experience, possibly adding an element of focus or lack thereof to the actions of the character in the game.

Another accessory that improves the performance of the Wii is the Wii remote charging dock. The Wii remote burns through standard alkaline batteries very quickly, and once it begins to get low on power, the remote is less responsive. For example, a Wii remote that's low on batteries is less likely to register a thunderous right hook that you throw at your boxing opponent -- so the game just isn't as much fun. These charging docks, which contain rechargeable lithium battery packs, are produced by several different companies. Some docks can accommodate four Wii remotes, others just one. Some docks have places to set your Nunchuks, others don't. It's difficult to guarantee the quality of any of the charging docks since they're not manufactured by Nintendo, but they will make your Wii life a lot simpler.

For more information about the Nintendo Wii and related topics, take a look at the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles
More Great Links

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