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Unexpected Results

Game On


Published December 27, 2006 at 5:00 p.m.

Some things surprise you.

A year ago, who would have thought that the best video game of the year would be an electronic version of bowling?

Then again, who could have predicted that a gaming console sporting past-generation graphics and a goofy name would capture the mass market's imagination?

Looking back at the past year, the Nintendo Wii stands out as the most exciting development by far, and a simple game of bowling packaged with the system has turned into the most compelling and interesting piece of interactive entertainment released in the past 12 months.

What? No "Gears of War," with its perfect blend of visual detail and brutal narrative? No "The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion," featuring an expansive fantasy landscape packed with trials and treasure? Not something for the PlayStation 3? What about other Wii games? The new "Zelda" game lives up to the series' grand reputation. And "Rayman Raving Rabbids" is as fun as it is odd.

While each of these games still provides a worthy distraction from the pressures of the real world, none of them really changes the art or science of video games the way "Wii Bowling" does.

In commercials for the system, Nintendo likes to show a wide range of people playing with the machine. From kids too hip to ever be seen actually enjoying a game to old folks surely too feeble to wield a controller, the commercials press the idea that gaming really is for the rest of us.

But the trouble with this idea is that most people can't manage an M1 Garand rifle in "Call of Duty" or a chainsaw in "Dead Rising." Even guitar slinging like a rock star in "Guitar Hero II" sits just beyond the vast majority of potential game players' interest or ability.

Everyone, however, can bowl.

Set up a Wii in the living room and show Grandpa how swinging a controller that looks like a TV remote sends a ball down the lane, and he'll give it a try. Set out a pitcher of beer, invite some friends over, and soon enough you'll be enjoying all the camaraderie of the local alley without the nasty smell of shoe disinfectant.

Despite its simplicity, bowling remains a popular pastime. It feels slightly athletic without taxing your muscles. It's social without requiring much cooperation. You can put a lot of thought into a roll, calculating foot position on the boards and tweaking your release angle. But at its heart, the game is about the mindless joy of knocking stuff down.

With a Wii controller in hand, virtual bowling captures all the charm of the real thing.

Say what you will about bowling, but it's been around in some form for 5000 years, and if the Wii can tap into even a little of this sport's timeless fun, the future of video games remains bright.

Who's It For: If you can hold a television remote, you can play "Wii Bowling." If you've ever felt the thrill of a perfect shot into the pocket and the clatter of a thundering strike, this game gives you a reason to dig out those old bowling shirts.

If You Like This, Try That: "Wii Bowling" comes on a disk that also includes tennis, boxing, baseball and golf. These simple versions provide a perfect introduction to the Wii controllers.

Best Part: The Wii allows players to create cartoon avatars called "Miis." Take your Mii bowling, and it keeps track of your performance as you strive for pro standing and earn a special pro ball.