November 19, 2006 7:02 AM PST

Next-gen console war off and running

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LOS ANGELES--And then there were none. Next-generation video game consoles still to be launched, that is.

At just after midnight on Sunday morning, Jonathan Mann, a 24-year-old songwriter from Hollywood who had staked out the pole position in the Wii line at 10 a.m. Friday, walked up to the counter of the EB Games store at Universal CityWalk here and was handed the first Nintendo Wii to be sold on the West Coast.

And with the Wii launch now out of the way, along with Sony's PlayStation 3 launch events earlier this week and Microsoft's release of the Xbox 360 last year, all three players in the next-generation video game console wars now have their chips on the table.

For me, this was my second big launch event in three days, and the third in a year. I was at the PS3 event in San Francisco on Thursday night and at the Xbox 360 launch in Palmdale, Calif., last year.

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Video: Wii takes over Times Square
Long lines, but wait worth it for fans purchasing the first Wii units after midnight in New York City.

Each event was very different. Microsoft chose a 30-hour, invite- only party in the Mojave desert; The PS3 launch was held on a city street in the cold and was marked by hundreds of buyers planning to turn around and sell their new consoles for--they hoped--big profits. And this weekend, the Wii launch was an urban testament to the loyalty of legions of Nintendo fans.

"I'm a big fan of Nintendo from the get-go and Mario specifically," said Mann, who was dressed as the famous character known from so many Nintendo games, including Mario Bros. and Super Mario Bros. "(I was here so early) because the Wii is so exciting to me. I'm probably more excited about the Wii than any console since the Nintendo 64. I knew I wanted to be first in line."

Much had been made in the last few days about how much lucky PS3 buyers--who beat dismal odds given well-publicized shortages of Sony's highly-regarded console--were trying to and in many cases succeeding at selling their new consoles on eBay. Many of those in the PS3 lines were frank about their quest for big profits.

But that sentiment didn't seem to be in evidence here Saturday night. In fact, I didn't talk to anyone who seemed inclined to sell their Wii.

In fairness, the supply of Wiis nationally seemed likely to satisfy most of the demand, whereas instant shortages of the PS3 drove the price up well into four figures, in some circles. By comparison, Wiis that people had preordered were selling for around $500 on eBay Saturday and that number seemed sure to drop now that the machines, which retail for $250, are on the shelves.

"I'm going to buy a PS3, but I'm not going to die for it," said Rebecca Livengood, a 21-year-old from Norwalk, Calif., who was in line for a Wii Saturday and who was referring to stories about violence at various PS3 midnight madness events around the country.

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"I love everything Nintendo does and I have since 1986 when I got the (Nintendo Entertainment System)," said Chad Cart, 26, from Burbank, Calif. "It's crazy (here in line) and it's (like) nothing I've ever done before."

Cart said he and the friends he had come with were all definitely keeping their Wiis instead of selling them.

The Wii launch party here scored high on the interactivity meter. That's because Nintendo had set up several banks of Wiis for gamers to play with during the course of the evening. Unfortunately for those waiting in line, the machines were out of their reach, as was a nearby stage and dance floor with scheduled entertainment the whole night long.

"It would be (a bummer to not be able to see the stage) if I knew I wasn't getting a Wii," said Cart. "But I am getting a Wii, and I just like to be here on opening night."

But for Cart and others in line, there were also two people rolling around Universal CityWalk on Segways tricked out with flat-screen TVs and Wiis. They would glide up to groups in line and offer the gamers a chance to play various games and try out the innovative, motion-sensitive Wii controller from the comfort--or lack thereof, the truth be told--of their place in line.

And to me, the crowd gathered for the Wii launch trumped the PlayStation 3 launch crowd, at least when it came to pure brand loyalty.

For example, at the PS3 launch, there were plenty of people playing PlayStation Portables in line, and sporting PlayStation apparel, but there were also plenty of people playing games on a Nintendo DS.

By comparison, for the Wii launch, there was no shortage of people toting Mario dolls or other Nintendo character toys, and the ratio of DS to PSP must have been 25 to 1.

And did I mention that the Wii buyers seemed largely inclined to actually keep their machines and run home to play them?

"That's the difference between what's happening with PS3 and the Wii," said first-in-line Mann. "No one is here to sell their Wiis. They're here to play it."

Mann, by the way, is no average Nintendo fan. He said he had written some 40 songs about the Wii and had even penned an entire rock opera about Nintendo.

Meanwhile, even as Mann and many of the first group of people in line were already happily carting away their new Wiis, those at the far end of the line were facing many hours of waiting before they would--or would not, as the case may be--be able to leave with one of the consoles.

Nintendo gave wrist-bands guaranteeing a Wii to most of the people on hand--a total of around 1,000, including about 400 people who had preordered the consoles. But there were clearly more people than that in line.

And at the very end of the line--or at least it was when I stopped by at about 1 a.m. Sunday--were two people who said they had originally been near the front but had somehow found themselves without wristbands.

Eric Levi, a 20-year-old from Los Angeles, said he and his friend had arrived at Universal CityWalk around 9 a.m. Saturday, but, absent wristbands, had had to move to the back of the line. Now they weren't sure if they were going to be able to get Wiis tonight.

Still, Levi was optimistic.

"I'll probably just go (home and) play, if we can get one," he said, acknowledging that that could be close to five in the morning.

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