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The State of Play with WiiWare

Seven months since launch. Over 80 games available. Where does WiiWare go from here?

Seven months is a long time in videogaming. Franchises can fold, consoles can collapse and a raft of titles that we were gibbering madly about in anticipation have been played, completed and subsequently forgotten about.

But it was seven months ago Nintendo launched the Wii's service for bespoke downloadable games - WiiWare. In conjunction with the Virtual Console's catalogue of retro titles, this plucky download service was designed to compete with Xbox 360's towering Live Arcade catalogue and PS3's anaemic PlayStation Network.

And since its Japanese launch in March and European debut in May, WiiWare has done pretty well for itself, building up a respectable wealth of titles and giving gamers something more to spend their Wii points on than another copy of the Ocarina Of Time.

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Indie nation
Because it's divorced from Virtual Console, WiiWare is a markedly more experimental entity than its rivals, designed specifically to bring smaller budget games to the market. The only problem? Developers have to work hard to keep their games under a Nintendo-set limit of 43 megabytes. Despite that, the service has been successful in fostering new talent - around 80% of the titles are from people who've never made a game for Nintendo before. As Ray Liotta told Kevin Costner in Field Of Dreams, "If you build it, they will come".

This raft of indies flocking to develop for WiiWare has had at least one unforeseen consequence: for once, Western gamers are getting a better deal than their Japanese cousins. Yup, with Japan only seeing around two thirds of the WiiWare titles released, it's fair to say that the land of the rising sun is finally getting a taste of the release schedule disappointment we're all too used to over here. Hey, we happen to like our revenge petty and served several years cold.

In the months before the WiiWare launch, Ninty promised us that "remarkable motion controls will give birth to fresh takes on established genres, as well as original ideas that currently exist only in developers' minds". But has that happened? Well, yes and no. The service's top sellers are a mix of traditional franchise fare and the occasional indie gem. By way of example, the top three best sellers in the PAL region are Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: My Life As A King, LostWinds and My Pokémon Ranch - and it's the latter two that best exemplify the highs and lows that the service has to offer.

For us, LostWinds is the embodiment of what the WiiWare service is all about - a daring independent game sold for peanuts that makes full and dramatic use of the remote's capabilities. The game's production values are startling when you consider the teeny file size devs Frontier had to work with. But it's their attention to the Wii's motion-sensing capabilities that's truly remarkable.

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They do some things that put many a standard multi-million pound Wii title to shame, letting you control the wind and guide young Toku through this lush platformer with the miracle white rectangle. It's enough to make you believe in the power of independent games development. Alas, the game is rather on the short side, but that's a price we're willing to pay for innovative development, particularly since they've already promised a longer sequel.

On the flip side is My Pokémon Ranch - an utter catastrophe in terms of selling WiiWare to the public. Effectively a glorified screen saver, Ranch allows you to upload up to 1,000 of your Pokémon from your Diamond and Pearl DS games and, well, look at them in 3D - occasionally harassing them with your Mii avatar. At 1,000 Wii points (the same price as LostWinds), it's an extreme disservice to WiiWare that this was ever green-lit by Nintendo as a launch title.

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