Members of Nintendo's huge, vocal fan base have been salivating in anticipation of the Wii for some time. But the curious and appreciative onlookers that I've noticed during my recent testing of a retail unit suggest that the Wii's appeal may well extend beyond the Nintendo faithful. The Wii seems poised to make console gaming more social, immersive, and – most importantly – fun than it has ever been.

At the US launch, Nintendo announced the availability of more than one million units of the $250 (about £132) Wii, so gamers are finding it easier to get their hands on a Wii than a PS3. Cryogenically freezing yourself to avoid the wait, as one of the characters in South Park did recently, won't be necessary.

Out of the box

The Wii is the most compact of the next-generation consoles. It weighs just 2.7 pounds (about 1.2kg) and measures 8.5in long by 6in wide by less than 2in thick. It has clean, sharp lines and an Apple-like glossy white finish, though we'll undoubtedly see units in black and possibly other colours at some point.

Like the PlayStation 3 and the Xbox 360, The Wii can be oriented horizontally or vertically, thanks to its angled plastic stand. Once you've positioned it, your next step is to plug in the power supply (which is about the size a laptop brick), and connect the bundled composite audio/video cables to your television. To output content at the Wii's maximum 480p resolution in 16:9 wide-screen format, you'll have to purchase the optional component cable separately.

Next you must set up the included controllers: a Wii Remote and a Nunchuk – a joystick-style controller that connects to the remote for additional game control. I first hooked up the supplied sensor bar to the console and placed it just under the display of my TV. The sensor bar allows the console to communicate wirelessly (via Bluetooth) with up to four Wii Remotes at a time. The Wii Remote works for games within a radius of about 30 feet and functions as a cursor-type pointing device within about 15 feet. In my testing, the on-screen pointer jittered slightly when I tried to use it from farther away.

The final setup steps are to place two AA batteries into the Wii Remote, rearrange your furniture as necessary to clear plenty of space in front of the TV (to avoid any 'Wiinjury'), and fire up the console.

The Wii Menu and online features

The first time I powered up the Wii, I had to create a gamer ID, which the system uses to save your games and to identify you online. After creating my login and entering the date and time, I was presented with the Wii Menu. This interface, which uses a television/channel metaphor, is where you access the Wii's mostly free online features.

The first thing I wanted to do was jump online. I was particularly interested in the 'sleepless' WiiConnect24 service that lets the console automatically download information, even when it's on standby.

The Wii includes a built-in 802.11b/g wireless network adapter, but you can also go online by using extra-cost options such as a LAN adapter or a Wi-Fi USB adapter that shares a PC's internet connection. I tested the integrated Wi-Fi, and setup was a snap. The Wii scanned for and found my wireless ADSL router, and it let me type in the network's WEP key via an onscreen keyboard. I found that I could select letters and move around the Wii Menu using the Wii remote in the same way that I'd use a computer mouse. The remote even vibrated subtly in my hand as I hovered over menu options. Tactile feedback: great!

The Wii links to a lot of online elements:

Wii Shop Channel (and Virtual Game Console): Nintendo's online store will eventually offer various extras to download, but the most notable one at launch is the Virtual Console, which will allow gamers to download and play games from past consoles, such as the Nintendo 64, NES, Super NES, Sega Genesis and TurboGrafx16. Nintendo will offer 12 classic console games at launch, including Donkey Kong (NES) and SimCity (SNES). Some 30 virtual console games should be available for download by the end of the year, according to Nintendo.

The online shop will operate on a payment system called Wii Points. You'll be able to purchase Wii Points at retail outlets or with a credit card online. They'll be available in blocks of 2000 for $20 a block. The retro NES games will start at 500 Wii points, TurboGrafx16 titles at 600 Wii Points, SNES and Sega Genesis games at 800 Wii Points, and N64 classics at about 1000 Wii Points.

Internet Channel: Nintendo has announced a customised version of the Opera Web browser (with Flash support) for the Wii.

Forecast Channel: On this channel you can browse a 3D globe to obtain weather forecasts that are automatically updated each day.

News Channel: This channel automatically displays the latest news from around the world. The Associated Press supplies the headlines.

Wii Message Board: Here you can post messages on a calendar for other Wii players in your house, exchange messages with Wii users around the world, and gather information about the latest game updates.

Photo Channel: The Wii's photo management and sharing options are far deeper than those of the PlayStation 3. You can use this channel to access digital photos via the Wii's SD card slot or a mobile phone. And besides just viewing the images, you'll be able to zoom in; create slideshows, a photo gallery or photo puzzles; draw on images; adjust colours in various artistic ways; and send your creations to other Wii users.

Mii Channel: This channel invites you to create customised caricature avatars for yourself; use them in a variety of Wii games; and save them to the Wii Remote for use later – even at a friend's house. You can store up to ten Mii characters on a single Wii Remote.

Disc Channel: Clicking here starts a Wii game disc that you've inserted.

Those controllers

Wii controllers are designed to be perfectly usable whether you're left- or right-handed.

For games, the Wii Remote has a plus pad (D-pad), a large A button, an underside B trigger, and buttons labeled 1 and 2. The main surface has other buttons as well: power-up, minus and plus (for escaping game menus and the like) and a home button (for switching back to the Wii Menu and checking controller battery life).

The Wii Remote also contains a control for adjusting force feedback, a built-in speaker, a wrist strap and four blue LED lights that indicate which player/controller number you've been assigned. An expansion port on the remote lets you connect the Nunchuk and other optional controllers. The supplied Nunchuk controller is used in conjunction with the Wii Remote and provides an analogue thumb stick, and two front trigger buttons labelled C and Z. A second Wii Remote costs $40 (about £21), and a second Nunchuk costs $20 (£11).

Another option is a classic-style controller (which Nintendo has priced at $20) for non-motion-sensing titles such as fast-paced fighting games. At E3 last spring, I took photos of the classic controller and Nintendo's concept 'Zapper', a gunlike shell for the Wii Remote.

As time goes by, you can expect independent vendors to offer a multitude of plastic shells to slide your Wii Remote into – all of them promising to improve your gaming experience. One product already on sale is UbiSoft's $20 Wii Steering Wheel. Web rumours suggest Electronic Arts may be working on a way to let you strap the Wii Remote to your foot in order to play its FIFA soccer game. Another rumour has it that the Nintendo DS handheld's touchscreen will be able to act as a controller for Wii games.

Nintendo has experimented with different controllers in the past. Anyone remember the Power Glove or Virtual Boy? This time, however, the company's efforts seem to have produced a winner.

Get Into the Game

Nintendo reports that at least 62 titles will be available for the Wii by year's end. Launch titles include the following:

  • Avatar: The Last Airbender
  • Cars and SpongeBob SquarePants: The Creature from the Krusty Krab
  • Dragon Ball Z: Budokai Tenkaich 2
  • Excite Truck
  • Happy Feet and The Grim Adventures of Billy & Mandy
  • Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess
  • Madden NFL 07
  • Marvel Ultimate Alliance from Activision
  • Monster 4X4 World Circuit
  • Rampage: Total Destruction
  • Rayman Raving Rabbids
  • Red Steel
  • Super Monkey Ball: Banana Blitz
  • Tony Hawk's Downhill Jam
  • Trauma Center: Second Opinion
  • Wii Sports

And these titles should be available within five weeks of launch:

  • The Ant Bully
  • Barnyard
  • Chicken Little: Ace in Action
  • Elebits
  • Far Cry: Vengeance
  • Ice Age 2: The Meltdown
  • Metal Slug Anthology
  • Need for Speed: Carbon
  • Open Season
  • Rapala Tournament Fishing
  • Super Swing Golf
  • Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell Double Agent
  • World Series of Poker: Tournament of Champions

Hotly anticipated games such as Super Mario Galaxy and Metroid Prime 3: Corruption are due to arrive during the first half of 2007. The Wii will support single- or double-layer standard (12cm) Wii discs and mini (8cm) GameCube game discs.

About the games

Here are my thoughts on the titles that I've tried out so far:

Wii Sports: Included free with the console, this simple but fun collection of micro sports games (tennis, golf, baseball, bowling, and boxing) will have you using the Wii controllers in various intuitive ways. The graphics, which are based on Mii characters, aren't crash hot – but like PlayStation Eye Toy games, they'll have you jumping about and generally having a blast miming the arm movements that each sport involves in real life.

People watching me play a colleague had almost as much fun spectating as we had playing and were eager to try it themselves. Boxing, the only mini-game that used both the Wii Remote and Nunchuk controllers for both left- and right-handed punches, was my favourite, and provided a decent workout! A sequel, of sorts, to the Wii Sports collection, called Wii Play, should be available by the end of the year. It will probably include table tennis, fishing, shooting and snooker, among other challenges.

Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess: This is clearly the most intently awaited Wii title – and from what I've seen so far, the wait was worth it. As in the GameCube version, the characters here speak in text only (which may or may not be a positive feature). It offers multiple environments, various styles of game play, and excellent graphics. You'll either love or hate the Wii controller enhancements; I found them easy to pick up and quite immersive. Swinging the sword was envigorating; and when I shot an arrow, I could first hear its sound in the Wii Remote's speaker, and then on the TV's speakers, enhancing the impression that the arrow was moving away from me.

Excite Truck: In this racing title from Nintendo, you use the Wii Remote horizontally to mimic a steering wheel. The game does a superb job of conveying a sense of speed, and it looks pretty sharp. The thing I liked best about the game, though, was the absurdly massive amounts of air the trucks get, allowing me to jump and bump my way to victory.

Madden NFL 07: This Electronic Arts staple looks stunning on the Wii and is comparable to the version on rival consoles. Unique to the Wii's version, however, is the control scheme, owing to the Wii's implementation of motion-sensing control. You throw passes with the Wii remote (with subtle movements akin to a real ball toss) and control your receiver with the Nunchuk's joystick. I'm having a blast refining my technique just by playing a two-player game against friends, but if you want to upgrade your skills more quickly, Wii control tutorials are available.

More Wii specs

I've already discussed the Wii's design, but let's take a closer look at its specs. The console uses a PowerPC processor jointly developed by Nintendo and IBM and manufactured by IBM. The Wii also has an ATI graphics chip, dubbed 'Hollywood'.

The console comes with 512MB of built-in flash memory for storage, plus an SD card reader. GameCube fans will appreciate that the unit also has four ports for GameCube controllers and two GameCube memory card ports. Two USB 2.0 ports are available for optional accessories such as the Wii LAN (ethernet) adapter.

The Wii's built-in DVD slot drive emits a blue light when you turn the console on or insert a disc, but the Wii currently can't play back music CDs or DVD movies. Nintendo and Sonic Solutions are working on introducing DVD playback functionality, which they hope to make available via a future software download.

Living in a Wii world

Impressively, the responsive Wii controller remains satisfying to use even after the gimmick factor wears off. Your movements can become more subtle (and less energy-consuming) as you learn how various games work. There's also the classic controller option, and the promise of myriad forthcoming controller shells.

The Wii's ridiculously enjoyable titles and innovative, motion-sensitive controllers help make it feel more like a toy you'll want to share with a group of players than a console you'd use strictly on your own for hours on end.

At $250, the affordable Wii is half or less of the price of the $500 and $600 (£264 and £316) versions of the PlayStation 3. True, the PS3 has superior graphics and a SixAxis motion-sensitive controller, but for casual gamers these features may be overkill – and for many more, the PS3 package may be too expensive. If you have $250 and a group of friends at the ready, or if you're looking to buy an affordable, fun console for yourself or your kids, get a Wii.