Friday, August 21, 2009

Hey, I'm Tiger Woods! Wiiiiii

When I was 11 my parents relented and purchased the hottest game in America at the time. This was a huge step for them as they had never been big believers in following the masses, so to speak. While other kids sported the coolest jeans, I was wearing Sears Tuff Skins. When it came time to buy me a bike, the 10-speed models were off limits, for reasons never explained to me. Instead I pedaled furiously on a turquoise-colored Schwinn with a seat shaped like an enormous banana. My new mode of transportation had a single speed, one that Schwinn engineers deemed suitable for going up AND down hills. If Lance Armstrong ever rode that bike, he would probably dismount after five minutes and say, “I’ve had chemotherapy and I’ve ridden Greg’s bike. Chemo is slightly worse.”

Which is why it was a great surprise when, under our Christmas tree in 1973, was a box labeled “Pong.”

Pong represented America’s foray into the world of video gaming once it was determined that kids would go absolutely bonkers watching two white dots on a TV screen with a smaller white dot bouncing between them. The sticks were supposed to be rackets and the smaller dot was, if you used every inch of your imagination, a ball. Using knobs on a control panel, the players moved the large dots up and down, hoping they would collide with the smaller dot and send it ricocheting to the other side. When the “ball” got past one of the “rackets,” the player scored a point. An annoying “pong” sound accompanied each collision of dot on dot.

My sister and I played pong until our vision was so blurred that everything resembled a white dot. I once spent three hours playing and then walked away from the game, only to feel as if an army of snowballs was headed my way even though it was August. Yes, Pong was truly a hit.

Realizing that American kids were very content to sit inside staring at television screens all day, game developers got to work creating numerous and more addictive games. Pong was followed by Space Invaders, which gave way to Pac Man and Donkey Kong. These games were cute and served their purpose of giving kids carpal tunnel syndrome by the time they hit puberty.

But the gaming industry wanted more. Yes, it was time to actually experience the game rather than simply play it.

Enter the Nintendo Wii.

Launched in 2006, the Wii is to the current generation of kids what Pong was to ‘70s children. The only real difference is that Pong was played for hours while today’s kids play Wii for weeks, sometimes without stopping to use the bathroom or eat.

Because Wii was the hottest, most popular, most HAVE TO HAVE IT OR I’LL DIE game, it naturally was item number one on both kids’ Christmas lists. Santa delivered it the morning of December 25, 2007 and I didn’t see my kids again until New Year’s Eve. Privately I wanted them to continue playing until the ball actually dropped in Times Square just so I could say, “Hey you two, I haven’t seen you in a YEAR!”

Ha ha, that dad guy. He is hilarious!

Video game experts (there’s a job I would love to have) feel Wii promotes hand eye coordination and even passes for exercise among today’s young couch potato set, simply because you can stand up to play it. Hey, getting kids to stand today is a major accomplishment!

Not only did my kids stand but they quickly improved their elbow muscles by swinging the Wii remotes around like maniacs. In no time they were experts at every game on the “Wii Play” disc that Santa also dropped off. I watched in amazement, silently vowing to never pick up a remote and join them in the Wii versions of pool, skeet shooting and ping-pong although Wii ping-pong looked a lot cooler than ‘70s pong.

Of course they never asked me to join them.

Eventually the kids began stockpiling Wii games with the same speed they collect hair scrunchees. I can’t walk five feet in my house without seeing a colored, twisted, discarded ponytail holder on the floor, the steps, or in unexplained places like the front porch. I interpret that to mean they were so disgusted with their hairstyles that they abandoned them before even entering the house.

Wii Play gave way to games with more outrageous instructions and goals. Their current favorite is MarioKart which, as far as I can tell, is something that every parent should destroy once their child begins Driver’s Ed. Players race through different tracks, employing tactics such as “Mega Mushroom,” which allows them to flatten opponents; and POW BLOCK, causing opponents to spin wildly out of control.

Compared to MarioKart, NASCAR is like idling in neutral.

A year went by and I stuck to my goal of avoiding Wii. It’s not that I thought the game was stupid; I shunned Wii for the same reason I passed on cocaine in college.

I was afraid I might actually like it.

When Pac-man and its daughter, Ms. Pac-Man, hit the arcades in the early ‘80s, I pumped a year’s worth of tuition into the coin slot. I just couldn’t get enough of a large yellow-mouthed dot racing through a maze eating smaller yellow dots and, occasionally, moving fruit. Pac-man was my addiction and I only stopped upon graduating and going to work at a newspaper, which fortunately did not have Pac-Man anywhere on premises. That would have made for some interesting conversations with my editor.

Hey Schwem, the cops just found a body in a forest preserve. Get moving.
Hang on, I’m on level nine!

Now I work from home, my office being exactly one level above the Wii console. Often as I attempt to mine humor from a blank PC screen, I hear the Wii from beneath the floor, making mind-numbing “Wii sounds.” Yet my annoyance usually gives way to a smile as I hear my daughters shrieking with delight and playing happily together, without the arguments that invariably accompany sibling activities.

I decided to investigate the Wii phenomenon further, productivity and potential addiction be damned!

One evening, while accompanying my daughters to rent a movie at a local video store – an event that ALWAYS results in an argument – I passed a lengthy row of Wii games that could be rented for the steep price of $8.99. On the lower shelf, smiling up at me with a club in his hands, was none other than Tiger Woods.

I bent down to examine Tiger Woods PGA Tour 09 All Play, a game that promised the feeling of playing golf like Tiger Woods. After glancing around the store to make sure none of my neighbors had entered, I snatched the game and made my way to the checkout counter, determined to improve my game with the help of Tiger.

Now I have never been a huge fan of Tiger Woods. Maybe it’s because he makes a frustrating game look so easy; maybe it’s because he has a hot wife or maybe it’s just because he’s named “Tiger.” Woods’ dad Earl definitely knew what he was doing when he nicknamed his son. No other ferocious jungle animal sounds as cool when applied to a human. “Lion” Mickelson and “Jaguar” Els just don’t have the same ring as “Tiger” Woods.

On a muggy summer morning, while alone in my basement I entered the Wii revolution, hoping to play 18 holes at Pebble Beach, courtesy of the Wii.

I was fortunate to play the real Pebble Beach in 2005, presenting a round to my dad as a Father’s Day gift. Getting a tee time meant making numerous phone calls and finally securing a slot four months in advance. It also meant forking over $850 for five hours of enjoyment (and pain, considering I decided to play some of my worst golf that day).

Five seconds after launching Tiger Woods PGA Tour 09 All Play, I realized this was going to be more difficult, more time consuming and quite possibly more expensive than playing the actual course. I say more expensive because I figured I would have to rent the game at least 80 times before mastering its intricacies.

First I was required to stare at the screen and learn WHAT’S NEW in this game. In other words, what did the ‘09 version have that the ‘08 version didn’t have other than probably a higher price. Of the many features, the most intriguing to me was the addition of Hank Haney, Tiger’s real life coach. The on-screen graphics promised that Haney “will help improve your skills with the new Club Tuner features which will allow you to fine tune your swing with each type of club.”

Keep in mind that this is Wii golf I was about to play as opposed to actual golf.

Nevertheless, a free lesson from Haney seemed like a bargain for $8.99. I had just played an actual round of golf the day before. Although I hit the ball decently, my putting was horrible and my short irons weren’t that accurate. Perhaps Haney could correct these flaws.

Upon entering “tutorial mode,” Haney told me I needed to “master the control.” By that, he meant I needed to learn how to take a full swing. This seemed impossible considering I was “swinging” the Wii remote, a skinny piece of white plastic slightly larger than a candy bar.

I was told I would only complete the lesson if I hit the ball 280 yards into the fairway – with a three wood.

I have never done this in my life, even when playing high-altitude courses and landing tee shots on cart paths heading downhill.

My first shot traveled 215 yards into a ravine, proving that Wii was nothing if not realistic. The Wii said, “Good try but you can do better.” Undaunted, I split the fairway with my next shot, which traveled exactly 280 yards. I was done with lesson one.

Lesson two from Haney covered (are you ready?) actually aiming the ball. I would have thought this might have been covered in lesson one but obviously Haney gets paid by the hour. The pop-up text on the screen instructed me to “zoom, press the A button. Tap the A button twice to jump directly to the target circle. Move the target circle by holding the B button and dragging it to the desired location. You may also aim by pressing the Control pad up, down, left or right.”

Up until now, my only golf instruction had been, “head down, knees bent.”

As I were reading the on-screen tome, a silhouetted figure of Woods himself hovered behind the text. I saw Wood address the ball and then step away as if he were about to scream profanities at a photographer or overzealous fan. Again, Nintendo succeeded at making Wii Tiger as life-like as real Tiger, who has been known to emit “F” bombs after poor shots and berate fans that dare to photograph the world’s most famous athlete as he works.

The text continued: “Press the A button to zoom to the target circle. Move the target circle to the green and aim for the flag.”

I swung and hit the ball straight but over the flag, over the green and probably over the parking lot behind the green. “Try again,” the Wii said.

My next dozen shots were carbon copies. And here is where I realized how annoying this Haney guy was. I was not going to be allowed to move on until I had mastered a straight, accurate lob wedge shot to the green. In vain I looked for the “skip this section,” “move on” “advance” or “forward” buttons but to no avail. I pushed A. I pushed B. I pushed A and B together. Nothing. My only options were to keep trying or rip the Wii wires out of the wall.

I concentrated with intensity that would have made Woods and Haney proud. I also pressed the B button and somehow dragged the target circle. This proved to be excellent strategy as my 13th shot hit the green.

“Great shot,” said Haney

Lesson three involved hitting a manual draw/fade. In golfer’s terms, a draw makes the ball go slightly left while a fade sends it slightly right. Notice the term slightly. Unfortunately, your average golfer doesn’t do anything slightly; he hits the ball far left – a hook – or sends it careening wildly right, also known as a slice. But Haney seemed to think I could make my ball dance with the grace of a Michael Jackson moonwalk if I just followed the simple instructions:

“Press the A button to zoom to the target circle. Point to a colored Draw or Fade handle and hold the B button. Move the target circle left or right for desired draw or fade.”

My target to complete the lesson was the fairway beyond the trees. In other words, I was supposed to draw (hook) the ball around the trees and land it in the fairway.

I swung the Wii candy bar and watched in horror as my ball passed through one, then two, then three patches of trees. An all-too-familiar rustling sound accompanied each collision.

“Try again,” Wii stated.

I dunked two balls in the Wii creek before landing in the elusive fairway. Only then was I told that I could avoid the entire “press A, hold B, drag circle” approach and draw and fade the ball simply by twisting the Wii remote to the right or left after I swung.

I glanced at my watch. I had been under Haney’s expert tutelage for slightly more than an hour. The lesson was far from over.

In the next few minutes I learned to put spin on the ball for more distance. I learned how to hit a shot with partial power, which meant not swinging the Wii with all my might.

Finally I moved to the final lesson…putting. I knew this was going to be the most complex Wii movement because there were six tutorial screens. My TV showed a putting green. A grid draped the green and green, blue, yellow and red dots danced across it, moving at different speeds and rolling in different directions. It felt like I was about to launch a missile onto enemy soil in Afghanistan.

Alas, I was just learning to putt.

Haney translated the grid: Green meant the putting surface was flat. Blue meant a downhill slope. Yellow an uphill slope and red an EXTREMELY uphill slope.

I could “preview” the putt by pressing the “minus” button on the remote or simply clicking the on-screen “Putt Preview” button but was sternly informed that I’d get only one preview per putt. If I requested another preview, I assumed Tiger would appear and swear at me.

Haney’s instruction continued: “Point the Wii remote down and follow the natural putting motion. (Haney has obviously never seen me putt). Using the recommended percentage on the HUD, try to match that to the percentage on the Putt Power Meter.”

I searched the screen in vain for the meaning of “HUD” but never found it. I assumed it was the thermometer-shaped thing that hovered on the left side of the screen. A bar rose and fell depending on how far back I drew the remote. Haney instructed me to “make the putt and begin your golfing career.” I was overjoyed knowing that my lesson with this golf tyrant was about to come to an end.

And it did end, but not before I hit a five-foot put 3.2, 2.9, 1.4 and 4.7 feet before holing it on the next try. At long last I was ready to play Pebble Beach.

I selected “one golfer” mode seeing that there was nobody else in the basement. I also chose “stroke play” since I had no idea what “Rings” or “Stableford” meant. I just know I have never turned to my golf buddies on the first tee and said, “Guys, let’s shake it up and play Stableford today.”

I also could choose from a litany of pro golfers with names I recognized: DiMarco, Furyk, Goosen, Parnevik or the great Woods himself.

I opted for the world’s most entertaining golfer, John Daly, he of the massive drives, numerous divorces, multiple addictions and skyrocketing weight. I couldn’t wait to see how life-like Nintendo made him.

Nintendo, it turned out, was very kind. A slimmer-than-I-have-ever-seen Daly strolled to the first tee. As he did, the Wii announcers made their audio debuts.

“Good afternoon. Kelly Tilman here for EA Sports,” came the voice of a woman I assumed was Kelly Tilman. Moments later she was joined by a British chap named Sam Torrance.

I would soon grow to despise these two more than Haney.

My loathing of them did not start immediately as I (or should I say Daly?) addressed my first tee shot and swung mightily. Even Torrance was impressed.

“This should work out good. Down the right side of the fairway.”

The Wii crowd roared. Actually roared! Haney’s lessons were paying off.

I had 110 yards to the pin. While I pondered my options, a “caddy tip” popped onscreen:

Use your spin to help the ball towards the target on the green. While your ball is in flight, choose a direction on the control panel and shake the Wii Remote to generate spin.

I swung. I shook. I hit the ball 120 yards; just on the green’s back edge. Daly looked dejected but chose not to show it by chugging a beer or firing up a cigarette.

Now it was time to chip. The bizarre looking series of balls slithered across the green, moving at alternate speeds and direction. I studied them intently, for reasons I could not explain.

“Please just swing,” said Sam.

No kidding. Apparently I was irritating Mr. Torrance. Flustered, I swung, rolling to about six feet. Time to putt.

I gauged the putt, checked the still unknown HUD thingy and stroked.

“That’s going nowhere,” said Tilman. “This is for bogey.”

I putted again, moving the ball approximately eight inches.

“I’ve seen many poor putts in my day and this ranks right up there.” Tilman droned.

I vowed then and there to someday track down Kelly Tilman and ask why, if she was such an expert, wasn’t she on tour as opposed to whoring herself by doing stupid Wii commentary?

Torrance will also become a stalking target, a decision I made once he said, “He’s just trying to get out of here with a double.”

I putted three more times, never moving the ball more than one foot. Even Tilman appeared to turn sympathetic.

“This to finally end a terrible hole,” she whispered as I stood over my eighth putt. That one failed as well and I was told my shot limit had been exceeded. The Wii scorecard showed 11 as Daly trudged to the second hole although I expected him to make a detour to the nearest Hooters.

I decided to end my round there. I’m not sure if it was because of the 11, the barrage of insults from Tilman and Torrance or the fact that I had spent just under two hours playing one hole.

I did know that I now possessed the knowledge to submit my own game idea to Nintendo. Once it’s approved and available at the video store, I will invite my kids to join me but I doubt they will have any interest in playing…WEEKEND HACKER GOLF 2009.

Instead, I will invite three friends over to give them the experience of playing real golf. We will meet in my basement some time in February, when actual courses in my town are buried under mountains of snow and changing a furnace filter counts as a recreational activity.

From the moment I fire up Weekend Hacker, players will see obvious differences. For starters, there is no tutorial from Haney or any golf professional for that matter. The reason? Weekend hackers don’t take lessons, have never taken lessons and will never take a lesson until the day they die. Lessons cost money and that means less bucks to spend on beer.

Instead, we will move right to choosing a course. In fact, we can choose from a litany of public golf courses. We scroll through the list, eventually agreeing on “Broken Eagle.” The on-screen graphics gives us a tour of the first hole, a 380-yard par four featuring burned out fairways the color of straw, a creek with no water and a green littered with ball marks and several randomly placed cigarette butts.

We choose our players: I opt for “Sal”, a 20-year plumbing veteran whose golf wardrobe consists of a yellow tank top, frayed jean shorts and golf spikes worn without socks. My next-door neighbor chooses “Frank”, a retired police officer who has played every day since leaving the force yet still can’t break 100. Perhaps it’s the cigarette dangling from his mouth that is interfering with his swing.

My golfing buddy from across town selects “Shanks.” His bag consists of two drivers, 13 irons, four putters and a hybrid 6 wood that he recently purchased from eBay. Shanks also plays exclusively with outrageously expensive balls designed to “fly longer, truer and straighter” than other balls. Unfortunately they still sink in water.

Finally, my neighbor down the block prefers “Wes the Press.” His pockets contain tees, coins, ball marks and a roll of hundred dollar bills. Game on!

Our foursome ambles to the first tee. Before anybody takes a swing, the “gambling assistant” window pops onscreen. “Do you want to play a five dollar Nassau with a press? Click A for yes.”

Wes clicks A. Another screen appears.

“Do you want to play sandies, barkies, greenies and Arnies?”

Shanks clicks A. Game officially on!

Sal steps to the first tee, addressing the ball with utmost concentration. As he takes the club back, Frank’s cell phone erupts. Sal’s shot is a towering slice that hits three trees and comes to rest near the refinery that borders Broken Eagle’s first fairway.

Frank is next. Cigarette firmly in mouth he stares at the ball on the tee for what seems like an eternity.

“Today,” Wes yells.

Frank swings. The Weekend Hacker distance meter measures his shot at 45 yards with a tailwind.

Shanks chooses his new Taylor Made R9 driver and unleashes a blast that appears straight yet takes a hard left 90 yards in flight and ends up in a church parking lot where Mass is just letting out.

Luckily one new feature of Weekend Hacker 2009 is the MOT, short for “Mulligan Off Tee.” Each player can use it once. Shanks chooses a mulligan and uncorks precisely the same shot.

Finally it is Wes’ turn. His drive is pure and straight yet bounces off an exposed sprinkler head and caroms into the trees. We don’t hear Tilman or Torrance providing commentary. Instead, we hear a lone word coming from the television.


As our foursome scatters to play our second (or in Shanks’ case, his third) shot, another new feature appears. It’s JESSICA THE CART BABE! Appearing out of nowhere in a golf cart, and wearing short shorts and a white halter top sans bra, she dispenses Budweisers, Bloody Marys, sunflower seeds and cigars for our group and promises to return by the third hole.

Eventually we make our way to the green. As Frank stands over a 12-foot putt, the gambling assistant appears again. “Would anybody like to press?”

Wes clicks A.

Frank puts down his cigarette, and slightly rearranges his line, aiming for the spike mark six inches outside the hole. He strokes the putt and nails it! His triple bogey seven wins the hole. Sal and Wes had snowmans and Shanks “picked up” on the advice of the “slow play wizard,” another new feature.

The second hole is the number one handicap hole, due in part to the construction crane from the soon-to-be-completed condominium development that runs along the fairway on the right. The crane comes into play on a slice.

The foursome has plenty of time to ponder their options. For the slow play wizard pops onscreen again:

“There is a 45-minute backup on the second tee. Please be patient.”

Where the heck is Jessica?

1 comment:

Judy Thee said...

This was fun to read; even more fun to picture iin my head.

Judy Thee