News from the virtual world:
-GAME LAB: Nintendo's WiiWare service is up and running, finally giving Internet-connected Wii owners the chance to download original games. It's a laboratory of sorts for low-budget games, allowing smaller developers to sell their games while larger publishers can experiment with new ideas.
"WiiWare is to the video game industry what independent films are to Hollywood," said Nintendo vice president Cammie Dunaway.
Nintendo is playing catch-up, especially with Microsoft's Xbox Live Arcade, which hosts dozens of original games. Until now, Nintendo's online focus has been on its Virtual Console, which now offers more than 200 emulations of classic games from older systems. WiiWare's six-game launch lineup features a nice variety of genres, promising the same kind of diversity that has made the Virtual Console successful.
The biggest (and, at $15, most expensive) offering is Square Enix's "Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: My Life as a King," a kingdom-building simulation. Other titles, which cost between $5 and $10 apiece, are the arcade games "Lost Winds" and "Pop"; the strategy game "Defend Your Castle"; a trivia game called "TV Show King"; and the self-explanatory "VIP Casino: Blackjack."
Nintendo has said that about 100 WiiWare projects are under development. Some, like Telltale's "Strong Bad's Cool Game for Attractive People," are pretty exciting; others - say, "Major League Eating" - not so much.
-THROWING A FIT: The 18-month-old Wii console still isn't easy to find, and it looks like the newest piece of hardware from Nintendo is going to be just as elusive. "Wii Fit," which comes with the Balance Board accessory, is supposed to arrive in stores next week, but some retailers have already stopped taking orders.
Amazon, for example, is telling would-be buyers, "As you may know, the Nintendo 'Wii Fit' is in great demand, and there are shortages of this product across the U.S." GameStop's "Wii Fit" page says it's "temporarily out of stock," and most other retailers aren't taking pre-orders at all.
Nintendo's Dunaway told The Wall Street Journal, "We definitely want everybody who wants a Wii or a 'Wii Fit' to be able to have access to it." But the new product's target audience - namely, women - is different from the hardcore gaming crowd. Most shoppers aren't used to the hassles that usually accompany video-game hardware launches, and they may move on to something else if Nintendo can't meet the demand.
-BIG SCORE: There were plenty of copies of "Grand Theft Auto IV" out there during its first week in stores. Rockstar Games sold 6 million units of its long-awaited, well-reviewed crime saga, raking in more than $500 million. Opening day sales of "GTA IV" hit $310 million, beating the previous record holder - Microsoft's "Halo 3," from last year - by $10 million.
Rockstar's parent company, Take-Two Interactive, is already looking forward to its next potential blockbuster. The company has signed a deal with Universal Pictures to make a movie out of its 2K Games subsidiary's "BioShock," our 2007 game of the year. Gore Verbinski, the man responsible for the "Pirates of the Caribbean" trilogy, will produce and direct, and "BioShock" creator Ken Levine has been involved in the development of the film.
-BEAT IT, PUNK: Any kids who tried to buy the Mature-rated "Grand Theft Auto IV" were probably out of luck. According to the Federal Trade Commission, it's easier for an underage shopper to buy an R-rated movie ticket, an R-rated DVD or a CD labeled "explicit content" than it is to buy an M-rated game.
The commission sent 13- to 16-year-old undercover shoppers into various establishments to see what they could get away with. Only 20 percent were able to buy unrated games, a big drop from 42 percent in a 2006 survey. By contrast, 35 percent of the shoppers were able to sneak into R-rated movies.
GameStop and EB Games had the best record overall, rejecting 94 percent of underage video-game buyers. That kind of effort could quiet calls for legislation, recently introduced in the House, that calls for fines for retailers who don't check buyers' identification.
-NEW IN STORES: There are some other options for your Wii workout - Konami's "Deca Sports" and Namco Bandai's "We Ski." ... Giant robots invade the tiny DS in Atlus' "Drone Tactics." ... Disney's "The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian" (most systems) arrives just in time for the movie.
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